Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Of Wondering Who I Am

Who am I?  What do I do?  These questions seem to come up when I am required to "write a little" about myself, provide a bio for a promoter or, in the past when I engaged with such things, prepare a CV.  I always struggle with these questions, but I take the responsibility seriously so as not to deceive or to misrepresent.  At the foot of this blog is the self-description I wrote to put these essays in some kind of context.  I think it covers most useful information about me without going into the too boring or the sordid.

Being introduced to someone new by a third party is interesting and sometimes revealing.  Of course, if introduced by one's children, "this is my dad" is acceptable because everyone knows a father is more than a sperm donor.  I was brought up short last week though by one of my closest friends who introduced me to someone with, "this is Derek, he calls for ceilidhs".  That surprised me.  We were at a gig.  One of his bands were playing.  Yes I do call for ceilidhs not just with my own band, but also with several other smaller bands led by various members of the parent ensemble.  Everyone else around the table knew that already.  Three-quarters of tonight's band also play in my ceilidh band.  Calling for ceilidhs, though, accounts, most years for about eighteen hours.  So who am I for the remaining 8,742 hours?  

We are often defined, outside of our families, by the job we do.  For years that was easy.  I used to be a lorry driver and labourer.  Then for three years I was a student.  Then I became a teacher.  This became more difficult to describe when I moved away from the classroom and into advisory work.  Everyone has experienced teachers, but who knows what advisory teachers do?  When I was made redundant after fifteen years of this kind of work and became self-employed I didn't know how to describe myself.  I was doing far more than working as a peripatetic class music teacher and, as the years went on I did less of the teaching.  Presently one morning a week is the extent of my work in schools.  I took my cue around the turn of the millennium from the director of a music charity for whom I ran a series of workshops and some interesting projects for a few years.  "You're a musician now, mate," he said and I liked that.  I didn't feel like a bona fide musician though.  I hadn't been through a conservatoire education, I wasn't in a touring or full-time gigging band.  My income was acquired through doing lots of bits of different musical activities.  Most of what I did musically did not earn me money.  There are days when I don't spend a couple of hours practising.  I don't specialise in one musical discipline.  I am not a "guitarist", or a "percussionist", a "singer", a "composer", or a "songwriter" or even a "dancer" and yet I do all of these and more as part of my professional life.  I don't spend much time playing the instrument for which I have gained my "letters" so I cannot call myself a recorder player with any degree of authenticity.

I don't really know why it shook me to hear myself introduced as a ceilidh caller.  I'm trying to work out if there could be some kind of snobbery involved; perhaps a hierarchy of activities.  I guess I may even officially now be a musician.  When I renewed my van insurance recently they decided to change my occupation from "music teacher" to "musician".  I'm happy with that ... Specially since it actually brought up a quote that came out to cost less.  I was not expecting that.  I'm happy with it too because it fits more comfortably and means I don't have to try and rationalise that I am not being dishonest at such times.  Music teachers may not be the people who drive round the country at 3am with a van full of p.a. equipment and instruments.  They are, however, the people who manage to sustain, week after week, a dedication to improving the confidence and standards of their pupils.  I could not do that.  I've tried it and I'm not really good enough to know how to address problems that pupils encounter when playing instruments.  Unless we are talking about playing the recorder I can only take them so far, barely beyond the beginner stage.  As for ceilidh caller, there is no implication that I have to be musical at all.  I would be proud to be introduced as a composer. After all I do have more than a hundred compositions registered under my name with the PRS and playing them adds a small annual sum to my income.  Perhaps had I been introduced as an activist campaigner I would have questioned the description less.  

Today, though I am a traveller. Greetings to you all whatever you celebrate at this time of the year.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Of More Deliveries And Yet More Laundry

Dear Currys,

I am expecting the delivery of my new washing machine on Saturday.  I have been trying to find a way of giving you information so that your delivery driver does not end up in a shed, in a field, several miles away, on the wrong side of a river, which is where his satnav will probably try to lead him if he doesn’t know this address.  

When I placed the order I am afraid I did not see any option to give you a message with helpful instructions, but I was pleased to see a little chat box open and I was able to have a discussion with someone at a keyboard in your office which, unfortunately, proved in the end not to be so very edifying.  The typist in your online chat facility gave me a telephone number to ring.  I rang and ended up in a telephone-tree forest, punching in numbers and stars, before being referred back, eventually, to the website whereupon the automatic voice dismissed me with a rather overly familiar, “Goodbye”.  I looked (again) at your website and tried the order tracking information function, but neither of the two (two?) order numbers that appear on my confirmation e-mail seemed to be recognised … Yes, I tried both after typing in all the information again.  The system’s helpful message was,


Some of the options up your corporate singular sleeve include more telephone numbers for which the customer pays a rate over and above that on his or her telephone plan.  I’m not quite sure I feel sufficiently motivated to pay you more money simply to be helpful and save your driver time and frustration.  I’m not feeling the love yet, hence this slightly bemused and ever-so-slightly-aggrieved e-mail.  Trying to contact you with helpful information should not be so difficult or time-consuming.  One is inclined to lose confidence.  Given my professional hourly rate I have now, regrettably, more than used up last weekend’s trumpeted special discount on my washing machine.
I live on a boat moored on the river adjacent to the farm at the delivery address.  I’m afraid I shall need to request a more accurate time of delivery than the twelve-hour window I have been given, since my boat engine is being repaired and I shall need to disconnect my mains electric hookup and haul my fifty-foot steel narrowboat singlehandedly, into a position to make the delivery and installation easier, probably inconveniencing the owner of the neighbouring mooring.  I hope it isn’t too windy on Saturday, or your delivery driver may need a raft if I lose the mooring rope (just joking … I hope).  I shall make sure the boat is firmly staked and tied before the delivery arrives, if you could just tell me when that is likely to be.  I can probably drag the boat back into position while the machine is being installed, so I can plug the electricity back in for when the machine will be ready to be tested.  I suggest that for maximum safety the delivery arrives well within the 7am to 7pm margins in order to take best advantage of available daylight.  I screwed all the steps leading down the riverbank to the jetty firmly back into place last week, so they are now safe, but the descent is still best done in the light.

The information your driver will need is my telephone number ************* and he will need to use his satnav only to find the road, “****** ****”.  Simply entering the postcode, **** *** will probably lead him astray as described above - I have no idea why, it just does.  The ghosts of lost delivery drivers haunt the Fens.  Once on ******* ******, he needs to keep the river on his left all the way down and into the farmyard.  Forget following any other roads, just keep the river on the left and phone me as he approaches so I can meet him in the farmyard.  It really is the end of the road.  Please could you make sure the delivery company passes this information on to the driver.  It is quite inconvenient for all when delivery drivers become lost in the Fens, or worse still, give up and try to find their way home.
I assume that, once my washing machine has been loaded on to your vehicle, there will be a way of tracking my order and the driver’s progress?  Twelve hours is a long time to be waiting in ignorance and I am sure that a company that specialises in selling high-tech equipment, as Currys does, has an efficient way of working this out.  Perhaps you could advise if there are any special secret codes I need in order to be able to do this from the order tracking information page on your website so that I don’t get the website's rather irritating “tricky to find” message again.

I hope this provides you with helpful information and I am very much looking forward to the delivery of my new washing machine.  I spent many hours at a laundrette in a nearby town last weekend, because I had almost run out of clean clothes.  I’m not altogether clear how the “next-day-delivery” banner on your website order page became seven days, but the discrepancy did mar my planned laundry schedule.  I’m sure you appreciate that storage for clothes is at a premium in a restricted living space.  I did, however, meet some very interesting people at the laundrette and there was plenty of time to chat given the long queue for the machines.

My very best wishes to you and your fellow workers at Currys and, as the French would say, “I await my new washing machine with impatience”, which I feel has more of an emotional commitment than the English understatement I employed in the previous paragraph.

With kind regards,

etc etc

Friday, 6 November 2015

Of Having A Whole Evening

So the gig that was threatened with the post-cold laryngitis has been and gone. It was a good experience and there is a masochistic part of me that suggests I should simply do more of these to get used to playing in such situations.

It is not often I have a whole evening to myself. I don’t mean that in the sense of being alone and of having nothing else to do, but a solo gig with no support.  I played in the bar of a local theatre where, each month, a friend - the keyboard player - organises performances, mostly by local performers or performers with local connections.  The standard is always high for something so in danger of feeling parochial - which it never does.  Consequently, it was a privilege to be accepted for a booking.  This was one of those gigs I chased.  I asked if I could play.  The keyboard player seemed unsure but after he had heard me he was more at ease with the idea.

Marshlander at The Angles 22 October 2015  3 by Martin Bright
Beret with singer and guitar.
I don’t know if I am a natural performer or not.  I suspect not.  I know my children think I am a show-off and love to be in the glare of the spotlight, but little could be further from the truth.  Despite often finding myself the front man in a ceilidh, an event with large numbers of children, the organiser of a folk night or, in recent years, a solo songwriter and aspiring singer of songs, I don’t like being in the limelight.  I do what has to be done, but always heave a huge sigh of relief when the gig is over.  In the time leading up to a booking I wonder why I put myself through such torture.  I have many times arrived at the point where I may have practised a song more than two hundred times and am still making mistakes. As Marshlander, my performances are like a carefully lined up set of dominoes.  Should my brain decide to take a holiday in the middle of a song the whole lot is in danger of falling over.  I used to tremble with nerves before a performance, but that doesn’t happen so much these days.  Maybe it’s time to take out the recorder again and do some serious work on that Bach flute sonata I come back to every few years.  Trembling nerves for a recorder player are very unrewarding.  Trembling affects breath control and fingers.  The slightest nuance of breathing changes the sound dramatically and the cross-fingerings can be quite tricky in allegro passages.  At the beginning of a gig these days, rather than trembling, it more often feels that my hands, my feet or my voice do not belong to me.  I try to find chords with someone else’s clumsier fingers.  I know the fingers belong to someone else because they don’t feel like my fingers.  My voice forgets all the useful things I have tried to get it to do through practice and to me sounds thin and feels strained.  The breathing goes and, frequently, my larynx feels tighter and will not allow me to sing in the lower keys in which I have practised.  During the middle of a song one foot or the other pings my brain with some unaccustomed nerve responses and I fall over the rhythm - even when I am certain I know what I am doing and should be able to do it on auto-pilot.  This is all very frustrating and can deliver embarrassing consequences.  The old adage that an amateur practises until he gets it right while a professional practises until he can’t get it wrong comes to mind every time.  the demons of doubt kick in - amateur, amateur, amateur, who do you think you are pretending to be a singer, a player, a songwriter?

There must be a reason why I put myself through this.  I’m not sure what it is, but firstly, I suspect the vanity I reference in “For Pete’s Sake" is involved.  Secondly, there is an element of challenging myself to see if I can do it - this time.  Thirdly, although I don’t want to feel like a man on a mission, I don’t know of any other people who tackle in song some of the subjects I try to explore.  There is a message that needs to be shared and if no one else will do it I suppose it has to be me - vanity again.  Conscience won't allow me just to let it go.  It intrigues me, but nearly every time I sing, for example, “Circumcision” at least one man will reveal his status to me.  I can think of few, if any other situations that might cause this subject to be raised.  Still fewer are the times a man might begin to explore how he feels about having been circumcised.  These can be people I have known for years or complete strangers.  If something I sing unlocks an idea for someone isn’t that what I set out to do?

Marshlander at The Angles 22 October 2015 by Martin Bright
Singer, guitar and foot drum kit.
I arrived at the venue, the charming Angles Theatre in Wisbech, in good time to unload my p.a. and go and park the van.  The Angles is not blessed with good get-in-ability.  There is an area in front of the building, which I am sure I recall once allowed sensible and safe access, which has now been blocked by concrete planters.  One is forced to park on a narrow road, which at night can be risky.  P. had cam he o’er frae France the day before to see the gig and to offer moral support so it was helpful to have someone to keep an eye on things at street level while I humped my heavy load into the building.  John the barman was as friendly and helpful as ever and indulged me in allowing P. and me to move the furniture around so I could set up the p.a along a wall where I wouldn’t have to peer round a structurally significant supporting pillar.

The “Angles Whatever” evenings, of which this was one, are interesting.  As mentioned, the performances are generally excellent quality fare which, for almost inexplicable reasons fail to attract audiences in any significant numbers.  Even for someone with as much of a cult following as Dan Donovan, last month’s event did not fill the bar. I have played there in the past with a five-piece band and we have outnumbered the audience by more than two to one.  It is not just the Whatever evenings that have audiences smaller than they should be, but for many years a local farmer (himself a serious rock music fan) has put on a weekly performance in Elme Hall Hotel at his Sunday Rock and Blues events.  Once again he somehow finds acts of excellent quality, often a band will be on their way back from a Saturday night gig somewhere in the area and a Sunday afternoon fits the itinerary perfectly.  The acoustics and ambience in the Elme Hall ballroom may not be your typical sweaty rock dungeon (I’m thinking of Stamford’s excellent Voodoo Lounge or any number of places in London), but really one might have hoped for greater audience interest.  As the Facebook page might have it - Wisbech, oh dear!  I was really hoping I would not outnumber the audience.  I was off to a good start, though - the presence of my boyfriend made the numbers start out even and if I counted John the barman ...

The keyboard player - the criminally underestimated Ivan Garford - arrived.  While he may organise the evenings, he usually has a gig of his own somewhere else and hasn’t been able to attend a Whatever for months.  Tonight he had sacrificed a school concert featuring his son - a sacrifice indeed.  Other friends began to drift in too including Neil Cousin - singer/songwriter, Dan Donovan - singer/songwriter/cult status musician/photographer/film-maker/renaissance man; three members of The John Preston Tribute Band (including John himself - songwriter/singer/visionary/activist; Mark Fawcett - singer/songwriter/guitarist of great talent/sound engineer; Les Chappell - songwriter/ lifelong musician having a cult following of his own and sound engineer); percussionist Martin Bright …  I knew everyone in the audience and have made music with them all except one.  I don’t know what it means that there was no one else there.  All men, no women - it was another boys' night out.  I suppose many people find it tougher to play to other musicians, but these were also people I count among my dearest friends and I was moved almost to tears to see them there.  It was very intimate and I just had to hope that I could deliver the goods.  Had P. arrived a few days earlier he would have supervised my rehearsal schedule and made sure I was ready.  Instead of P. I only had laryngitis for company.

So, the performance?  The biggest problem (apart from rehearsing efficiently) was in deciding which songs to leave out.  It may not sound much of an achievement, but I am pleased that in the five years I have been writing again I have composed a repertoire that is more than enough for a two-hour performance.  The audience was wonderful.  They clapped and vocalised with enthusiastic support and everyone listened intently.  I couldn't have asked for better.  It all felt very intimate.  Afterwards comments were positive and Les in particular with his decades of musical experience of performing on stages and televisions all over the world made some kind and helpful observations.  It is good to know I can manage a two-hour show on my own and now I know I want to get better at doing this performing thing.  This would be more possible if the opportunities were there more often.  I don't feel enthusiastic about organising them though, so I suppose I will have to rely on more open-mic events and bothering people for some playing time.  The intimacy of this gig reminded me of when, a few years ago, several of us got together to do a living-room tour to promote a cd we had recorded to raise funds for, and awareness of, a local environmental campaign.  Since then I have been of the opinion that living room gigs are my favourite milieu.  In order to make them anything like viable I think I need a cd to sell.  I guess I shall have to get round to recording something.  Recording is a subject for a whole different blog post.  I always put it off because I find the enormity of the task so daunting.  I think I recorded percussion parts for Neil Cousin's latest cd a couple of years ago and his cd is still not finished.  He has been recording that at the wonderful Grange Farm Studio with the assistance of talented and watchful engineer, Isi Clarke.  I know I could use the studio myself, but I think I would probably want to record on my boat - just to see if I can.  That means a lot of reorganisation.  Plenty of excuses for procrastination.  I have bought a new studio microphone though.  Maybe the cogs are grinding.

For the sake of completeness the set list for the Whatever gig was:

Feeling Disordered
Be Home Soon
For Pete’s Sake
The Ballad of Thomas Lewis
In Soho
Say I’m Sexy
Downham Market Monday Morning Blues
Pansy Potter

Blame It On Me
Fighting For Me
Never Say Never
Dear Mr Carter
In Your Place
Obstacle Race

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Of Pride Before A Fall

I have started a few posts since the last entry, but haven't got round to finishing anything.  I have been too busy being virtuous (see the previous post).  I have managed mostly to keep up with my personal rehearsal schedule.  My eight minute spot at Dan Donovan's cd pre-launch last month allowed me seven minutes and twenty seconds for "Circumcision" (the song, not the surgical procedure) and forty seconds for talking.  I think I overdid the talking.  Nonetheless, I was reasonably happy with my performance (given that there are always going to be opportunities for improvement) and going on first allowed me to enjoy the rest of the evening, which turned out to be excellent.  Sharing music with such a bunch of clever people is a real buzz and a privilege.  Dan, I am finding out, really is a cult figure and quite a legend. Let's face it, if he is still going strong with twelve CDs under his belt, he must have something going on.  If you are not familiar with his work as either a solo artist or with King Kool you might enjoy exploring his You Tube channel.  If you are interested in photography or the video arts Dan's work is also worth tracking down.  The latest rumour is that he is looking into some kind of reunion with his band from twenty-five years ago, Tribe of Dan.

My come-uppance, after obviously misplaced pride in being able to meet my self-defined rehearsal programme was to catch a cold.  I'm fairly robust.  At my age, I've probably encountered most of the cold viruses anyway, so a cold is pretty rare for me.  I also do my very best to avoid them where I can. For the past few years I have rarely had more than one bout of illness over each two-year period.  Even so, I have rarely had to cancel any work and I don't think I have ever had to pull out of a performance due to an illness (well, not an illness of mine anyway).  The cold was last week.  I thought it had disappeared after a couple of days.  It came back as a minor chest infection.  Neither of those prevented me practising.  Nor did they prevent me calling an evening of dances at a ceilidh club in Norwich. The reappearance of the cold's temperature during the evening was a little distracting and I attempted to call a dance (in hindsight, not such a brilliant move) that really wasn't "there".  As a consequence I, along with sixty or more dancers, came unstuck. Oh pride! Now, just as the chest infection seemed to have run its course a couple of days ago, I have been hit with laryngitis.  This has always been the aspect of a cold that worries me the most.  It doesn't always go this route, but this time it did.  Next week I have for the first time been booked to play solo for a whole evening with no safety net, no other performers and now, possibly, no voice.  I have been rehearsing my two fifty-minute sets and building up the stamina required for doing the gig.  My fingers and feet are working and the memory glitches that plague me are becoming fewer.  I was so going to be on top of this gig.  Laryngitis, though, is a nasty house guest.  For a start, one can never predict how long it will stay.  Try to ignore it and it will get worse.  Staying hydrated and keeping up with medicating the self with honey, lemon, ginger, thyme or whatever traditional remedies seem appropriate for whatever phase the illness seems to be in does nothing to get away from the fact that talking or singing makes things worse and prolongs the problem. This affects the personal practice regime and coming back into singing after an ailment that affects the voice means that any gains made until that point may have been lost.  It is definitely a case of "Return to "Go" and, whilst collecting £200 was never going to be on the cards, collecting anything at all for an under-rehearsed performance feels like an act of fraud.

I have to assume that I shall have a voice in seven days' time, but what sort of voice will it be?  I realise that a "sore throat" is not the same as the multiple heart attacks experienced by a fellow local performer.  He actually died on the operating table during his bypass operation, but was revived and is now singing and performing more confidently than I have seen him do for years. However, laryngitis is debilitating in that it interrupts the preparation, undermines the physical competence and leaves a stain on the confidence, something that, for many performers, is fragile enough at the best of times.

I was looking forward to spending the weekend at the Rainbow Film Festival in Shrewsbury, but I have cancelled all work and social engagements for the next few days and am keeping up with the medication.  My fingers ache with each lemon I squeeze and are scented with the ginger root I have peeled as I make yet another flask of the healing elixir. I'm off to make a tissane of thyme.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Of Practising And The Fear Principle

I'm feeling virtuous.  After about three and a half hours of practice today my fingers are sore, but everything else feels grand.  It is so easy to get out of the habit of regular practising and personal rehearsal.  All it takes is a change to whatever passes for routine, but today I had decided there was to be no excuse.  Even my broken e-mail didn't deter me.  I try to do at least an hour a day and I have achieved that for several days - necessary if I am going to be able to do any kind of extended practice.  An hour a day keeps me ticking over.  If I miss one day though, there appears, as if from nowhere, a list of tasks the following day to allow me no time at all.  Also a number of ideas for new songs or other compositions will strike and need to be committed to some format or other to be picked up when I have the time to work on them.  Before I know it a week has gone by and even, on occasion, two weeks.  This is very unprofessional.  Picking up the rehearsal and practice routine after a hiatus is really difficult and takes determination.  For a start, it takes no time at all for my sixty year-old joints to protest over the lack of use.  They need the exercise daily in order to function.  My fingers start to soften and this doesn't only have the effect of making my fingers stiff and sore once I start to play again, but it actually changes the sound of the guitar strings.  I need the use of large and small muscles in my legs to play my footdrums too.  Again a lay-off means picking it up again is tiring.  My feet won't do what they are supposed to do.  We all know that the voice also needs regular work.

I'm playing on Thursday, that's two days from now.  My set is going to be eight minutes long.  I have been invited to play a spot in Dan Donovan's pre-album-launch gig at The Angles Theatre bar in Wisbech.  I feel honoured and somewhat under pressure.  Dan is an excellent performer and his new acoustic arrangements for this, his twelfth, cd are rather good.  He has also invited some other local musicians to play too.  They are all accomplished singers/songwriters/performers.  I don't want to let Dan down.  So, I am really looking forward to playing in Dan's show alongside Tommy Loose, Neil Cousin and Road Hog (who has just returned from several days' gigging in Belgium and Germany - so he'll be ready for sure).

Next month I get to play the same venue ... but next time it will be my evening.  What a privilege to be asked to play for 90-120 minutes.  That will be my longest ever solo gig.  I am seriously looking forward to it.  I don't think I shall be singing either "Grey" or "Flying" this week, but maybe next month they will both be ready.

I'm told that amateurs practise until they get it right while professionals practise until they can't get it wrong.  It would be very cool to be able to get through a performance without experiencing a single blip in my memory.  Tomorrow I am running five workshops in schools during the day and have a drum workshop in the evening.  Not much time for practice tomorrow, but today I feel virtuous.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Of Living In Two Places

I've just got back from France.  To do that I had to get a bus into Switzerland.  Then a train from the city centre to l'Aéroport de Genève.  Then an aeroplane back to the UK, a bus to the rail station nearest the airport, a train a couple of stops along the line and then the walk to where I left my van so I could drive back to the boat.  The journey usually takes about ten hours.  Once or twice I have done it door-to-door in seven, but not often.  France is where P lives and works.  He was born there, works there and has always lived there apart from a few months in the USA when he was a child.  I have done this return journey at least once a month since about 2003.  That's how long we have been together.  This is not just a long-term relationship, but also a long-distance one of many hundreds of miles.

P 'n' Me in Geneva - August 2015
I have heard people say that LDRs don't last.  Ours has lasted until now and I don't see that changing any time soon.  There are challenges to overcome, but these are not life-threatening or frightening.  Any problems I perceive are of course merely relative to the general good fortune I experience in my life.  They do, however, take on more significance in the context of an ongoing relationship. For example, I have had to come to terms with often being in the wrong country at the wrong time.   When in France I have often missed events happening in England.  When in England I have missed things going on in France or Switzerland.  When P has a bad day at work I can't just give him a hug until he feels able to face the world again.  When I need a hug I often have to make do with internet relay chat or the occasional telephone call.  I noticed a couple of days ago that his new laptop computer has Skype.  I am waiting until he manages to sort out an account and we'll be able to speak and "see" each other more often.  That is still not a hug though, or being there to help when his back is playing up and making walking (or sitting or lying down) impossible.  We have to hope that our bodies are in good order when we plan to be together.  We don't have the luxury that regular couples have to be able to ride out times of illness or injury.  Two weeks ago when I was with him, so was my cold sore.  This week it was his back problem that has plagued him recently.  The only way he has been able to sleep has been to sit up with legs outstretched on the sofa.  As the week went by he got to a stage where he managed to share the bed for an hour or two.  Then he was forced to get up (very slowly and still painfully) to try to get comfortable on the sofa so he could get some sleep.  I missed reaching out to hold his hand or listen to his breathing in the night.  I can see why many long-distance relationships don't make it.  I don't know if ours is special, but P is special.  That's good enough for me.  He makes it all worthwhile.  As I said, small stuff.  We are at least free to pursue a relationship.

Why don't we just move in together?  It is a question I think about a lot.  If I chose to do that, he would be delighted and would have me move in tomorrow.  Sometimes I wonder if I am averse to commitment. Perhaps I am, but I think my relationship record suggests otherwise.  I still struggle with the French language.  I know I would have to cope if I lived there all the time though I daresay it would only take me a few months to be able to hold conversations with people at a normal pace.  It probably doesn't help that clever P is so bilingual that friends and family in England who have met him only know he is French because that is what I have told them.  He is even cleverer than that.  When we invite friends for a meal he naturally falls into conversing with them in their native language as long as it happens to be French, English, Spanish, German, Dutch, Italian, Russian or Mandarin.  I suspect he would also make a reasonable go of speaking in Norwegian, Hungarian, Portuguese, Greek or Turkish.  Strangely he doesn't speak Breton or even our local dialect, Savoyard.  To be honest it is too easy for me to get by when he is around.  When I am there we talk in English and when he is out at work I don't go out.  I stay in and work on my writing, my compositions or, this week, updating my websites.

Les Cerises
I have been making the journey to what is in practical terms a French suburb of Geneva for so long that I have seen many changes.  Mostly it is the demolition of lovely old houses and green spaces to make way for more blocks of flats.  I don't know what they'll look like in ten, twenty, thirty years' time, but I suspect  they will not look any better than they do know, or specially how they looked before.  For the first few years I went there the area in this photograph was an orchard of cherry trees.  There was a public footpath through it that became extremely muddy when it rained.  It was our route through to the supermarket or to the station.  Walking through the orchard at night it was a place to stop under the trees to kiss and to confess our love to each other.  These days it is not a place for doing that at any time of day.  Despite changes in the law it is still too risky.  Our cherry orchard has become a street filled with apartment blocks known as Les Cerises - an acknowledgement to its past.  They've even put a bus route through it.  Ah, progress!  There is also a plan to extend and re-route the railway so that it runs from Thonon (the town next to Evian, from whence cometh the water - point of order, Thonon has its own brand of mineral water that tastes the same, coming from the same source, but is cheaper) through to Geneva Airport and provide a continuous shuttle service.  That will make the journey even easier than it has already become.  Work has been going on for a while on that infrastructure project and it will probably be up and running within the next five years.

Despite a perception of the UK becoming a more challenging and polarised place in which to live there is still much to like about it.  I love living on a narrowboat.  I love where I am presently moored.  I enjoy the work I do and the members of my various bands are in the area.  I also love being able to see family members.  I am lucky to have amazing friends.  I love being able to offer a refuge to P when he comes to England.  He also loves visiting and staying on the boat.  I love that he thinks it is cool.

Seriously, compare the views out of our respective kitchen windows.  Which would you rather have? Here?  Or there?

Of Making New Friends

Last week I went to find a field in the Peak District National Park.  Although I have passed through parts of the area many times in the past I had never actually gone specifically to the Peaks before and I had never met any of the people with whom I was anticipating spending a couple of days.  I suppose I take a similar chance when I go to a festival, concert, show, film, play, dance, meeting, conference or whatever on my own, but meeting people by chance at a specifically organised event is different from a very much smaller and more informal gathering.  At an event there are many distractions.  There is always a focus for being there.  For me a festival is mostly about the music, of course.  However a gathering with no organised entertainment or distraction is different.  What if I said something that caused me to be ostracised from the group?  What if I found someone in the group difficult to be with?  What if I had misread completely, what the group is about?

This gathering was a very twenty-first century phenomenon.  We were all subscribers to a particular website and that was pretty much all we had in common.  Many of the members live nomadically.  Some were even in the Beanfield in 1985.  I found the website when I was facing homelessness after my father died and when I was desperately looking for options.  One option was was to buy a van big enough to convert to be able to live in.  That was why I bought a Mercedes Sprinter.  Unfortunately this is the same vehicle I wrote off two years later.  By then, of course, I was very happily living on my boat.

Having just returned from visiting P in The Alps I hadn't had much time to do what needed to be done before I disappeared away from the boat again.  Naturally, the web-based tasks and sorting out e-mails for coming work projects took longer than I hoped.  Consequently I was much later leaving than I planned.  I had already decided that, following my recent camping experience when the boat was being re-blacked, I didn't want to find myself having to cook in the rain again, or even to be sitting without at least an option of shelter.  The option of being confined to my three-person tent or the van was a bit constricting so, since my favourite camping equipment warehouse was vaguely on the way I thought I would call in to see what my options might be.  I just hoped they were still open when I got there.  They were and I found what they seemed to call an "event shelter" (but which most people these days would call a "gazebo"), which seemed to be just the thing.  It was big enough to sit in, cook in and should I ever need to do it, hold a small workshop or outdoor performance in.  It also fitted into quite a small bag and its long side ran pretty much the length of my van.

Of course, by the time I made it to the far side of Ashbourne evening was drawing in.  This was the view that met me as I approached the field.

A view looking out from our gathering site

All is well, there is a river.

I pulled into the field and headed for the fire set in an old satellite dish suspended by heavy chains from an iron tripod.  There were fewer than a dozen vehicles set up around the edges of the camping field.  The field was bordered on one side by the road and on another by the river marking part of the  county boundary between Derbyshire and Staffordshire.  I was greeted very warmly by everyone.  We identified ourselves using our nicknames from the forum, which made life a little easier to begin with.    We shared real names soon afterwards.

After I had ambled round the field meeting everyone else I found a spot to park the van and set about putting up my new shelter.  I thought it would fit nicely next to one of the side doors allowing me to tumble out of the van in the morning into a dry spot whatever the weather was doing. Of course, having ignored the fundamental rule about never arriving at a campsite with a tent one has never before personally erected I became the entertainment until a couple of kind souls took pity on me and came over to help.  I hope, though, that the next time I erect my new shelter I shall do it in daylight and be able to manage by myself.  We'll see.

Our tribal gathering in August 2015 with my new shelter on the left

Even during the time I was there people came and people went.  We were all travellers passing in and out of each other's lives.  What also became increasingly interesting was a reaction of other people who drove by the site.  The road that passed the site wasn't busy, but nearly all passing vehicles slowed down as the occupants wanted to stare at the motley gathering of vehicles and people in our group.  To honest I think everyone was impressed by this lovely vehicle belonging to "MrsP".  It was as lovely on the inside as on the outside.  I didn't take this photograph (it comes from her own blog, to which I have linked on the right-hand column), nor even was this shot taken at our gathering, but this Mercedes van is a lovely piece of work.

Over the next couple of days I got to know a bit about people who until then had simply been nicknames on a web forum focussed on alternative ways of living - Wandering Gypsy, Firetree, Enigma Rising and Alice's Wonderland were some of the delightful people I met.  I have stumbled into a new group of friends that feels like a family.  Round the campfire I shared a few songs with them.  Strangely, "Circumcision" seems to be the song that people are remembering the most at the moment.  I didn't conceive it to be like that and it shows that we may not always be the best judges of our own work.  I was somewhat in awe also with the practical knowledge many of my new friends seem to have.  Many are able and experienced engineers, carpenters, plumbers - tradespeople possessing all sorts of useful practical skills.  Many had bought and completely fitted out their vehicles and adapted them for full-time living.  The group had booked the site for about ten days.  I was able to be there for three days only and when the time came that I had to leave I put off my departure by finding people with whom to have one last mardle.

Everyone was so friendly, so caring, had so much life experience and many had very sad tales of personal challenge to relate.  I am really looking forward to meeting them again and I am sure I shall see some of them before we get round, once more, to booking a field in the middle of nowhere.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Of Patience And Good Fortune

One of the joys of living afloat is that I am in the middle of a treasure haul of natural riches.  Sometimes it is simply a stunning red sunset.  Sometimes it is watching out of an open window as fish go about their business less than a metre away.  Often my joy is about the wildlife.  What a privilege it is to be able to watch swans turn their eggs as they await this year’s arrivals, or to watch them proudly parading the new hatchlings along the river as the young ride piggy back.

About a month ago a metre long grass snake wriggled across in front of me and down the steps leading to my mooring jetty and into the water.  I converse with the swans who always come to say hello and move away disdainfully as soon as they realise there is no advantage to them in continuing the conversation.  Perhaps if I can say I have a favourite species it is the kingfishers.  I love to watch the ones that nest in a hole in the bank across the river from me and as they hurtle along the length of the river inches from the surface.  They often sit on my bow or stern, the tiller arm or the roof as they watch for fish.  Two days ago I ducked as a kingfisher emerged from the water and flew straight towards the open galley window by the sink where I was standing.  At a final fraction of a second it banked sharply upwards and took its prey on to the roof.  Although I didn’t see it on the roof I heard it.  Then it flew across the river and back to the nest.  Amazing.  Since I have been here I have tried to take a photograph of a kingfisher.  The best I have managed until today are unidentifiable blue and red blobs.

KingfisherThis morning I decided to sit elsewhere with my laptop and, looking up, I saw one of the kingfishers sitting on the prow of the boat.  Had I been sitting at my desk I may not have noticed it.  So slowly I reached for my phone, the only means I have for taking photographs until I remember what I did with my camera.  I uncovered the lens and took one picture.  Not close enough.  I moved in painfully slow motion towards the front of the boat and took another.  I kept moving forward, but didn’t manage a third photograph before the bird flew off.  My foredeck is covered over with a wooden-framed cratch, where spiders weave and where there are two perspex windows I keep omitting to clean.  However, here is my photograph.  I am so pleased with it.  It is the shot I have been wanting to capture for the last three years or more.  I apologise for the dirty windows and the cobwebs that have managed to capture not just spidery supper, but feathers and dandelion clocks, but the object of my attention is as clear as can be.  Once again I know I love living afloat.  It is like all the best bits about camping.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Of Blacking One's Bottom

Last week I was not afloat, although I did feel somewhat adrift.  After three and a half years living on my boat I had to face facts that is was time to re-black.  Boaters know precisely what I mean, but any casual reader might be unaware that, every once in while (the “while” depends on who’s making or saving the money when I talk to them), a boat has to come out of the water and be cleaned and repainted with bitumen.  Bitumen is the black covering of choice unless one is a modernist and can afford one of the more esoteric coatings.  This time I didn't even examine that possibility.  I had put off any decision as well as the job itself for a year or so while I was thinking about how I would go about it.  I detected a bit of an expectation among other boaters that I would find a slipway, have the boat hauled out of the water and do the job myself.  I understood that scraping was involved and pressure washing and glooping lots of tar-like paint on to the hull.  I didn’t have the faintest idea how to go about doing even one of these tasks and so I did what I always do - I left it and did nothing - while I fretted that something awful might be developing below the water line.

In the end I dropped into the boatyard in March (the Fenland one, not the annual one) and enquired about having someone else do the job.  They quoted me not that much more than I thought the job would cost me to do by myself, or even with an army of friends, so the prospect was quite attractive.  They would certainly know what they are doing and I could watch some of the process happening.  So last April I booked it in for re-blacking last week.  Of course, being out of the water rendered the boat uninhabitable (I was quoted “Working Height Regulations”), no one would able to enter or leave once it was out of the water.  I would be homeless for a few days.  Fortunately there is a campsite fairly close by, so I booked a few days there.  Unfortunately, this sort of change to what passes for my routines throws me a lot more these days.  I had to make sure I removed from the boat anything I would need during the time I couldn’t live on it.  I would also need to finish up or take any perishable food and remember several days worth of clothing.  I don’t usually go anywhere for more than a day or two except for P’s place in The Alps, where I already have all the clothes and toiletries I need.  My panic about precious belongings meant that anything I didn’t want to leave on the boat would have to come with me or go to my lockup.  Of course this week just happens to be the week where I have a day-long rehearsal with a quintet with whom I am playing as part of a local arts festival this weekend.  I could not expect to set up a percussion rig on a campsite and bash through the music in preparation for the rehearsal.  Naturally I left it to the last minute to carry out any of these personal arrangements.  I don’t think I have had more than four hours’ sleep a night for weeks.  I also needed to work out how I was going to manage without my van.  I could take the boat to March or the van.  I needed help.  Luckily a friend was able to meet me in March where I left the van while he took me back to the boat so I could move that too.

If you’ve read any of the previous entries regarding my boat you may know that I have been battling leaks of various substances into the engine tray and the bilges.  For three and a half years I have made (mostly) half-hearted and often downhearted attempts to stops leaks in the domestic water system, the cooling system and the fuel system.  As far as I know I have not had any major oil leaks, but I’m not holding my breath.  This has involved the tightening and sometimes the replacement of clips, pipes, hoses, gaskets, washers (who knew some were made of copper, some of steel and some were fibre?) and parts like the thermostat and the complete refurbishment of the thirty year old fuel injection pump (which turned out to be shockingly expensive, but had amazing results).  Unfortunately, despite many attempts to stop diesel leaking from the pipe leading out of the fuel tank it is still dribbling where it goes into the diesel shut off valve that looks suspiciously like a washing machine tap, even with the help of The Engineer.  There are also inexplicable exhalations of coolant from somewhere … I just can’t see where (and I thought we’d done that cooling system).  Any pending trip has usually been abandoned before I start out.  I don't like taking the risk.  I wonder what happened to the young man who used to take his ancient Morris Traveller out on to roads that were clearly visible through the floor of the car (I used to call that my "Flintstone Car"), or when the brakes were nearly all right?  Maybe he just used up all his courage in those stupid days.  If only he'd used up all his stupidity too.

With all fears lived and relived I managed to get the boat to the boatyard without mishap.  I arrived after the office closed on the Sunday in preparation for Monday's big day when I would see for the first time the secrets the boat had been hiding below the water line.  On arrival I checked the bilges and, sure enough, the area that I had mopped out before embarking on the journey was now awash with fluids.  To the best of my knowledge this appeared to be a mixture of coolant, diesel, river water and grease.  Oh joy!  I was going to be able to stay on the boat for the night and that suited me well enough.  I drove to the campsite, checked in and erected my tent although I had decided I would not be sleeping there that night.  After another fitful night I rose at 6am on the Monday and set about getting the boat ready for the boatyard to do what it had to.  This included emptying the water tanks, switching off the gas, turning off the power to everything and emptying perishable food from the fridge as well as making sure I had everything I needed from the boat transferred to my van.  Anything and everything that could be damaged if it fell on the floor I put on the floor in anticipation of the worst.  Then I reported to the workshop just as 8am was approaching.  The engineer suggested I bring the boat round to line it up with the slipway where they would do the rest.

Bringing the boat round to the slipway dodging
round the hire boat I had cast adrift!
I had been told to moor up where the business moors its own hire fleet.  When I arrived at 4pm on the Sunday, no other boats were there, so I chose what seemed like a sensible place.  In the morning I found one of the hire boats had tied up to my stern end, so I had to cast it off to be able to free myself from the mooring.  Unfortunately there was no way I could work out to re-secure the stern of the boat, which meant that the hire boat would now only be tied to its own mooring by its bow mooring rope.  Perhaps it would stay put long enough for me to get back to it?  No such luck, of course.  The wind caught it and gently pushed it round so that by the time I reached the entrance to the slipway I had to perform evasive manoeuvres to avoid bumping into it.  What made it worse was that, after tramping up and down with a foot on each boat's abutting gunwales causing each boat to roll quite dramatically every time I made the trip I noticed, after casting the other boat off, someone moving past a window.  That must have been a surprise awakening for them.  I'd have been far more careful had I realised someone was actually on the other boat.  I felt slightly sick realising that the stern end was now looking as though it could swing round and hit the concrete path with quite a thump before I could get to it to head it off.  Thankfully, once it had swung round heading into the wind it stopped its momentum towards the bank.  This would not be the first time the wind would cause me problems in the marina.  Worse was to come.

I disembarked and left the yard staff to pole the boat on to the tractor-driven cradle.  As they started to haul the boat out I realised that I had left windows open in my rush to do things properly.  They stopped the extraction so I could climb back on and secure the boat properly.  How many more stupid things could I do in the time remaining?

Easing the boat on to the tractor-operated cradle

The rest of the operation went without any further distractions and I saw my boat for the first time as I had never before seen it.  It was with some dismay that I realised that the extra layers of bitumen that had been applied by the previous owners had not really been the investment in time, materials or effort I had been assured.  I should have taken the boat out of the water a year or more ago.  Worryingly the sacrificial anodes (magnesium blocks fitted to the hull to deflect the effects galvanic erosion - here's a better explanation) had been completely sacrificed. I scanned the hull, the rudder and the propellor to see if I could spot any evidence of the substantive parts of the boat sending atoms flying off into the far reaches of the river, but I didn't really know what I was looking for.  Some slight scars on the propellor could have been where it had hit something as it was churning.

The starboard side with the yellow spongey growth
What I hadn't expected to see was that the port and starboard sides showed very different effects of water and weather.  On my mooring I generally turn the boat so that it faces into the prevailing wind.  This means I can look at the river as I stand by the galley window and watch the fish swarm to attack the porridge scraps from breakfast, chat to the swans as they sail by or stare out of the window across the river to the willow tree when I am supposed to be practising.  The port side facing the river showed more general wear while the starboard side (the bank side) had a thick spongey growth that would require much scraping.

Once out if the water, two engineers set about the task with incredible speed and efficiency.  It looked like back-breaking work, but I guess it was no more back-breaking than the contortions required to access most boat engines.  One told me later that it is far better to do the job while the hull is still wet and when it is more easily scraped and cleaned.  So while one scraped with a scraper that looked like an extended Dutch hoe, the other used the pressure washer.  Within an hour and a half the hull, including the bottom plate, was scraped, washed and new brackets had been welded on for the four new anodes that were to be fitted after blacking.  The boat was left to dry and the bitumen was going to be applied in the afternoon.  I wanted to see this part of the operation too, but I missed it.

Scraping off the sponge and other growth
Simultaneous pressure-washing and welding anode brackets

The scraped and washed hull drying in the sun

I went back to see the boat on Tuesday morning and this is the sight that greeted me.  One coat of bitumen all over the hull and the bottom plate and and a second coat around the water line.  Beautiful!

Since the boat was in a boatyard with experienced marine engineers on hand I decided that I had to ask for help in solving my leak problems.  It was stupid to carry on as I have been.  Nothing would be able to be done about the engine until the boat was back in the water on Thursday, the day of my rehearsal ... naturally.

Another 6am start to the day on the camp site ... shower, shave, breakfast, clean up the pitch and make sure the right things were in the van, including sustenance during the coming day of rehearsal.  I arrived at the boatyard at 8.15 by which time the boat was back in the water.  I unlocked it, giving access to the engine room (from where I had to clear out the tools and other stuff that tend to accumulate in unseen spaces) so that boards could be taken up to give access to the engine.

The diesel leak was apparently simple - special paste and PTFE tape.  They had also replaced a split plastic grease pipe with a copper one.  Hopefully now I shall spend less time and money packing grease into the screw for the prop shaft.  The major puzzle was the coolant leak.  Yay!  Maybe I am not quite as stupid as I thought.  Others are also confused.  They had traced part of the problem but not the reason.  The plumbing of the cooling pipes as designed when the refurbished engine was installed did nothing to encourage a flow of coolant through the expansion tank.  The arrangement seemed to be that water flowed into the tank and straight out again on one side only allowing fluid in the tank to heat until boiling where it forced its way under pressure through the filler cap.  It required a complete rethink about the routing and the acquisition of some new parts.  If they ordered the parts it would be the following week before they arrived.  I volunteered to go and fetch them myself, so we could have them for Friday.  This involved another 6am start and a 180-mile round trip to Braunston for a £40 rubber manifold.  The rain started while I was away and fell out of the sky for the next twenty-four hours of more.  I was back by 11am and the project began with the aid of oilskins and a golfing umbrella.  The boat was ready to try out by 4pm when I decided the best option was to take it home.  This would be an excellent opportunity to try out the waterproofs that P bought me for my birthday a few years ago.

The first task on casting off was to turn the boat round.  Normally I go into the residential compound where there is a large turning space in the middle of all the boats moored around the edges.  I've done this a few times and it is a relatively simple operation.  I had never, though, tried it in a wind such as blew on Friday.  I judged it to be manageable, but I misjudged the fact that it was gusting occasionally.  I entered the compound by passing under a low footbridge and thought about which way to turn.  I should have thought this through before I set out.  I was trying to take account of the wind and working out whether I should swing the boat clockwise or anticlockwise.  I knew that at one point the wind would hit the boat and push it towards the boats moored on the river side of the compound.  I needed to give myself enough space so as not to be pushed up against the boats.  I turned the wrong way.  This error of judgement got me into trouble as, on the turn I was hit by two substantial gusts of wind that sent me hurtling towards the boats I was trying not to hit.  Somehow I managed not to smack into any of them, but now I had no space for manoeuvring and the wind was still pushing me towards the boats. Whichever way I swung the tiller would result in the front or back of my boat hitting one of the moored boats.  Again, I'm not quite sure how, but I got away with only rubbing the front fender of one of the moored boats as I swung the stern out into into the wind.  By now I was being blown into a part of the compound which gets progressively narrower and where the boats are made of much more fragile fibreglass rather than steel.  At the moment when I was about to abandon all hope to the inevitable insurance claims a young man leapt to the rescue.  I was close enough for him to jump on to my boat and he crabbed his way along the gunwale to grab my pole.  With that he helped me by pushing the bow back out into open water, so I could straighten up and get out of the compound.  He very kindly stayed with me until I got through the marina.  I hope he likes Watergull and MileTree Brewery products, because I shall be heading back to the marina with a couple of thank-you bottles for him.  I wonder how many people were staring through their portholes in fear, amusement and horror as I was making a complete pig's ear of turning round in the onslaught of wind and rain.  I have mostly stopped from shouting at hire boaters who go by too fast and it was a lesson that I too lack experience.  I'm going to have to put that right.  Anyway, that young man had great presence of mind and I thank him for it.

En route I pulled over to fill with water at the water point near the Town Bridge in March.  The rest of the journey was relatively unremarkable save for three kingfishers and the rain which continued to pour out of the sky for the three plus hour journey back to my own mooring.  It continued to pour throughout the night into the next day.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Of Banks in Babylon

Some banks are lovely.  How about this one for instance?

Gratuitous waterscape picture

If, however, we are talking about financial institutions I can only confess that I hate banks.  I hate the smug expectation that everyone should have a bank account and that if we don't there is something wrong with us or we have to live with the unbelieving looks of others and the implication that we have committed some criminal or social misdemeanour.  I admit that my loathing of banks is nowadays firmly rooted in the mess they have made of their affairs in recent years and the way they have held us all to ransom as they expect us and governments (using our money) to dig them out of the holes in which they have buried themselves - but that is not what this rant is about.

I was one of those stupid loyal customers.  I banked with one of the major banks for about forty years.  I opened my account when I left school and took my first job.  I worked for a firm of cleaners and builders in London and we were paid weekly by cheque.  Most of the other employees took their cheques to the nearest bank and cashed them.  I thought a bank account would help me feel more grown up and I had plans to stop working in a year or two's time and go to college.  In those days we had "grants", so I would need a bank account for when that time came.  I didn't fancy the idea of a Barclays account like my parents (and my employer), because of the South African connections - we boycotted anything we thought might support apartheid in those days - so I walked into a National Westminster Bank in the dark streets between Soho and Marylebone and opened my account.

We had our ups and downs.  My downs mainly consisted of my below zero total once I started college and continued when I qualified to start work as a teacher.  The ups were mainly their charges for me going overdrawn.  Still, we worked it out.  Every few years I'd be asked to come in and discuss my account with a manager or some other designated lacky.  They'd come up with some incomprehensible plan to put all my debts in one basket, which would somehow save me money.  Occasionally I would have money in the account at the end of the month, but they didn't seem to mind too much because the next month's pay cheque would usually clear any overdraft and the credit card and we could start again.  They were making a small fortune from me in bank and interest charges too.  Many years later I began to hover mostly around the break even point and the pressure was off.

Over the years I had some unfortunate encounters.  Probably the most embarrassing was when I made an appointment to see my branch manager to ask about a mortgage.  At the appointment he looked at my income and laughed.  He thought I was joking.  It was embarrassing, but I was relieved.  For some inexplicable reason my old-Labour father-in-law was delighted when Thatcher's government made it possible for the working classes to buy their council houses.  He was very proud to take advantage of it.  I found his joy puzzling.  From the outset I wondered where the next generation would be housed if all the housing stock were sold off.  F-i-L was very insistent that I become part of the evil one's property-owning democracy.  Our Mormon sized family was housed in a five-bedroomed semi in Hertfordshire.  It was a nice house and I considered myself lucky to able to rent such a place.  I didn't want to buy a council house and see it made unavailable to anyone in the future who might be in circumstances similar to my own.  I was pleased when I could report back that I had been told there was no chance of a mortgage.

More decades rolled by and, following the banking crash, scandal followed scandal in the banking world.  My bank of choice was caught up in some of the uglier shenanigans, but I stuck with them admittedly mostly through customer inertia.  What eventually broke this camel's back, though, was the refusal of the bank manager (who knew my honourable and honest banking history through decades of experience) to be prepared to underwrite a very short term loan if part of my late father's bequest failed to become available in time.  I'll tell the whole story one day, but after living with my father for eight years I was being given two days' notice to quit the house he had bought and paid for and we had shared before he succumbed to the cancer through which I had been caring for him.  I didn't want to lose the substantial deposit I had paid on the thirty-year-old boat I was planning as my next home.  The bank manager seemed to be deliberately obtuse.  He would not see I needed a short-term assurance and insisted I take out a loan I didn't think I needed.  Then he looked again at my income and said he couldn't lend me the money anyway, despite my expectation of an amount coming my way which would cover the loan, clear all my other loans and leave me with a bit over.  I determined at that point to grit my teeth and change my account.  I was attracted to the "ethical" policies of another bank and opened personal and business accounts and after some months the changeover began to smooth over.  Don't believe anyone who claims to be able to help you change banks in a fortnight.  The new and ethical bank became a disappointment very, very quickly.  I could not believe that after forty years I had jumped out of the frying pan and into the proverbial fire.  Mismanagement, drugs scandals, the loss of vast sums of money and the enforced sale of other parts of the profitable aspects of their business began to fill the news soon after my accounts had settled into place.  How do I do it?

But that's not what I wanted to write about.  I just get sidetracked easily.

I am so frustrated with online banking with my "new" bank that I am tempted to reopen my old accounts with the unethical bank.  Rarely, if ever, did my old bank's website freeze on me.  The new one does it nearly every session - whichever browser I use.  My old bank showed a synopsis of the totals of all my accounts on a home page.  Looking at the detail involved a single click on the account name.  The new bank treats business and personal accounts as though they were different companies.   The log-on procedures for each are completely different and the details can only be seen in different windows.  One uses account details and passwords.  The other uses customer numbers and a code generated by tapping a PIN into a little piece of hardware that looks like a tiny calculator.  If the site times out while I'm trying to work out why something isn't clear I have to go through the whole tedious logging in process again.  The old account showed the results of shifting money between accounts immediately, so I could see easily what was left and who else I could afford to pay.  The new one takes, at best, a couple of hours (but usually the next day), to show up any money I have attempted to pay out.  That means that I have to write everything down in a notebook so I can keep track of what I am doing.  What's the point of an online account if I have to do that!  If I want to draw money from my business account into my personal account I have to wait until the next banking day for the money to show up so I can pay personal expenditure off my (ethical) credit card.  I cannot do it all in one session as before.  Sometimes I don't have the time (or the energy) to attempt to use this system on two consecutive days.  Sometimes transfers fail to go through at all.  I discovered today that a transfer I made on 26th June to my credit card did not go through and I had more money in my account than I expected, but also much more to pay off on the card.  Only after copying and pasting from the website into a spreadsheet and spending about an hour trying to work out what had happened could I work it out.  This has happened in the past and has meant I missed a payment deadline and incurred a late payment fee.  Keeping the books straight frequently involves having to go over statements again and again to work out what payments have actually been paid.  My old bank allowed me an unfeasibly high limit on my credit card, but that meant I had to go through the process only once a month since I would never spend that much.  The new bank allows me less than I spend, so I have to clear the card weekly rather than per statement which would be far more straightforward.

I have written to and telephoned the new bank many times about these frustrations.  Surprisingly, the personal account site has been updated and has incorporated many of the changes I said I wanted to see, including making the writing large enough to be legible.  They still have not implemented my request to show deductions from accounts immediately though.  I can't believe I am the only person to think this is a useful feature.  Sadly the business account website still looks like it was created in the 1990s and I sometimes have to peer at the screen with a magnifying glass in my hand.

The last straw may be loaded on were I to discover that my ethical credit card is not actually making any donations to Amnesty International as I expect them to.  I shall be most put out.

I need another picture of a soothing river bank before I have another attempt at online banking.

Another gratuitous waterscape picture

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Obstacle Race

We are approaching the season of school sports days.  I disliked them when I was a school pupil and did my duty when I was a teacher.  I hated the ridiculous nature of running in competition against anyone or anything other than a clock.  Teachers leave an indelible imprint on our lives.  Some of those marks are beautiful tattoos we wear with pride and fond memories, others are ugly brands we do our best to cover up, ignore and hope to forget.  Sadly some of those uglier memories just won't go away.  

Of course many memories of our teachers concern humorous events.  I have to wonder whether present generations of children will carry with them such a range of memories about their teachers into their own futures.  Successive government interference and reform has for decades aimed to turn teachers into functionaries "delivering" a prescribed curriculum.  A set number of subjects with a statutory list of elements that must be covered and squeezed into a week.  Each Secretary of State for Education after Kenneth Baker has felt the need to make a mark of their own on the nation's children by messing about with the curriculum (again), claiming they will reduce the burden on teachers.  All they do is move the deck chairs around on the deck of a ship that is sinking under the weight of its own  administration.  I shudder when I think of the shelf space that had to be built to house the government-sponsored folders of papers and instructions relating to my own subject of music, all of which was scrapped within very few years.  This was happening in every subject area in every school in the country.  Every teacher had a set of folders for every subject.  When the documents changed skips were filled.  It has been one of the most pointless wastes of educational resources and goodwill.

But back to teachers.  Thankfully I still see some extraordinary people who seem to have that magic something that makes the class zing with excitement, purpose and confidence.  I see some teachers who are struggling, but doing their best.  Most teachers fall somewhere between.  They nearly all end up frustrated and exhausted by being tasked with the impossible.  Recent pronouncements from the present Education Secretary do not bode well.  More blame to come, I fear.

I wonder what the present system would have made of my teachers?  From my infant school days I can only really remember Mrs Cherasse, whose name no one could spell and we all sat round our table discussing it and considering the options.  Inexplicably, Garry's contribution was to tell us to look under the table as he exposed himself.  It was funny to start with, but we got wise and he got bored.  I only give Mrs Sharrasse's name so the reader gets the idea of the challenge this conundrum presented.  Beth's mum used to address all letters to "Dear Madam".  Easy when you know.  

I can remember more from my junior school days.  In first year juniors (now called Year 3, of course) I had Miss H who was a lovely older lady I remember mostly for spellings and for introducing me to the recorder.  I didn't learn to read notation with her, but I enjoyed playing the instrument.  One day she called me and the other boy in the class with the same name to come to her desk to announce sotto voce that we had come "top of the class", he in arithmetic and me in English.  I didn't know what it meant, but it sounded good.  I never managed that trick again, but to be honest I really didn't aspire to it either.  Years later I had a part-time job selling local newspaper subscriptions door to door and one evening she opened a door.  It was lovely to see her again.  I reminded her of the "top of the class" incident and what could she say, but, "Oh, well done!"  It didn't help her overcome her bewilderment as she clearly didn't remember me at all.

The following year I had Miss K, a tall and very correct lady from Scotland whose accent I never managed to fathom.  I spent much of that year in confusion, especially one afternoon when I suffered a string burn at the hands of my best friend (the one I mention in my song, "Pansy Potter").  I was incredulous that she would suggest I put soup on it.  I checked several times.  
"No, soup." 
"You mean soup?"  
"No I said, 'soup'"
In an attempt to break the deadlock I tried a different tack, "Where do I get soup from, Miss?"
"From the toilet, of course!"

I sat down with my hand still stinging painfully and absolutely none the wiser.
"You twit," BF said helpfully, "she was telling you to put soap on it."
I didn't learn much that year, except that a change of best friend was in order.  I wasn't used to getting into the number of scrapes which his hyperactive exuberance inspired.  My new BF was a perfect match and we were inseparable for the rest of my time at that school (or would have been, had it not been for the dreaded Mrs W).  I lost him for a few decades but found him again a few years ago.  He's a professional golfer in Germany now.

Mrs W. was an inspirational teacher.  She inspired fear and despair in roughly equal measures.  She was like a Ring Wraith and in some manifestation of prescience was actually from New Zealand.  Her accent was also quite difficult to understand at times, but one only ever asked questions once.  It was a brave or foolhardy person who ever asked for repetition or clarification.  Had I read any Dante by the age of nine I might have easily visualised a sign over the door to our class-in-a-hut declaring, "ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE", in appropriately wiggly writing.  Our desks were in paired rows each pair populated by one boy and one girl.  I didn't want to sit next to a girl and certainly not Lynn.  I wanted to sit next to NBF.  Lynn was noisy, she always made strange vocalisations when she was concentrating and it was really off-putting, but she could do a good pigeon walk with a pecking head.  I practised the head thing myself, later combining it most effectively with crossed-eyes and fish-mouth.  Mrs W. ruled with a voice of thunder, a tongue of steel and a grasp of sarcasm that could strip the rust off an Austin A40.  I was scared of her and even Doug and Dinsdale Piranha would have been no match.  She was a deadly shot with a piece of chalk and rumour was that sometimes she would throw a blackboard rubber if she got really cross.  I developed nervous stomach aches and spent a lot of time away from school that year.  Towards the end of that year my family moved, so my father could be closer to London to his work, much to my delight.  I changed junior schools.  In my new school I was in Mrs. T's class for a term before moving up Mr. H. for my final year in primary school.  It was during this final year that the Obstacle Race occurred.  It was also the year when I was made to play football for the school team for the first and only time and where I was all but concussed by receiving the heavy, muddy, wet, leather football full in the face twice within minutes.  I saw something similar happen to a boy a few weeks ago.  He was escorted off the pitch and given magic ice-pack treatment and his parents told to keep an eye on him.  Maybe we really were tougher in those days.  That year was also the year I fell in love with the new member of staff, Mr P., who was the teacher of the class next door and taught music.  He quickly discovered my interest in music and nurtured it in a most generous way.  I shall doubtless mention him again sometime.

The Obstacle Race.  Well the song says it all really.  I was pretty agile, used to scrambling about in bushes and good at climbing trees and had a fairly good sense of balance, but I could never thread a needle.  I stood a chance of being placed somewhere in this school sports day, because the obstacle race was fun.  What I didn't know was how devious Mrs C. (I think she was on teaching practice) was going to be in designing a race that had needle threading as one of the obstacles.  I balanced, I climbed, I scrambled, I even kicked a football, but I came to a dead stop at the needle part.  All advantages gained through my agility were lost as the eye of the needle disappeared in a confusion of splayed cotton.  I had no scissors to cut the thread and start again.  I looked up each time one of my classmates threaded the needle and charged on to the finish line.  Sports day was held up for a full five minutes while I attempted my task, although by one of those quirks of time it seemed much longer.  Mrs C. tried to convince me that it was okay to leave it and run for the finish line, but I was determined.  In the end I gave up and headed for the finish with all the excitement of a face flannel, so the next event could start.  Oh the shame of it all.

However, none of those encounters with games and sports at primary school prepared me for the horror that was to come in secondary school.  At least I never had to play football again, but this was a rugby-playing grammar school which, as I soon discovered, was much, much worse.  The three members of the P.E. staff were sadists to a man.  The one-stop treatment for any insult or injury to the dignity of a member of the department was usually a whole-class slippering.  There is something deeply disturbing about a grown man being allowed to have thirty eleven year-olds lined neatly along the length of the gym, bending to touch their toes at his command as he proceeds down the line whacking each child with a gym shoe.  No, it's worse than that.  It is and was sick and unhealthy.  It was as though each member of the department tried to outdo the others in their crude displays of machismo that frequently turned into sadistic bullying.  Once I spent three months in hospital with rheumatic fever.  When I emerged blinking in the sunlight and eventually returned to school I was under instructions not to undertake anything too strenuous.  Mr N. probably thought a slippering too risky, so one day he gave me a detention for not sweating enough after a cross-country run!  I never knew how he quantified what would have been an appropriate amount of sweat to excrete.  Mr L. replaced Mr S.  I'm pretty sure he was probably much the nicest of them all, but the department had a reputation to maintain, so he took to name-calling, ridicule and shaming  as his weapons of choice.  I remember one of his favourite things was to insult those of us who grew our hair.  He called us the "fourth-form women".  At the time, this seemed an odd strategy coming from the man who was in the process of introducing hockey to the school.  He announced to everyone in the new swimming pool changing room that my toes were deformed.  How could I not take it personally?

However, the worst of them all was Mr. S. whom Mr L. eventually replaced.  Something terrible must have happened to him to turn him into the awful human being I experienced in school.  I seriously hope he was dismissed and never allowed near another school.  Routinely, his voice was set to stun, though he could still turn it up mid-phrase if he thought a boy looked at him the wrong way.  When I was twelve my mother was taken into hospital for one of her regular visits.  During her life she worked her way routinely through the medical dictionary.  Often these experiences required surgical intervention.  How one person could have the misfortune to suffer so much ill-health I don't know.  It certainly wasn't fair. Every time she was taken into hospital I fretted.  I was very close to my mother.  I know I was preoccupied with thoughts of her when I should have been listening to Mr S.'s discourse on the finer points of doing something or other in a rugby scrum.  The next thing I became aware of was a blast of vocal invective so loud it reached hitherto unattained sound pressure levels and was accompanied by a searing pain in my head as I was dragged out of the scrum by my hair.  Then in a feat of coordination that I suppose they taught at the P.E. teacher factory he bent to put his face into mine as he continued screaming at me whilst somehow maintaining a grip in my hair and shaking me so violently I could not even hear the words he used or what he was upset about.  I was being shaken so hard my teeth rattled, I bit my tongue and I was forced to dance in order to maintain any balance at all.  Later, in the changing room I combed handfuls of hair out of my head after the obligatory mud sharing ritual known as the communal bath.  I lost hair for days afterwards.  I never found out what crime I'd committed and it is only curiosity that makes me wonder now.  It is unlikely I shall ever find myself in another rugby scrum (although maybe it's okay if I control my own fantasies, right?) so I shall never need to exercise any benefit from that bastard's corrective discipline.  He was a bully who had no business working with children.  It's a good job I don't hold grudges; if I saw him on fire I would be prepared to piss on him.

I wrote "Obstacle Race" originally as a song for children.  The ones I tried it with found it difficult, so I wrote more verses and now sing it as Marshlander.  It is one of the few of my songs I can sing to children.  I quite like that singing and playing it also requires a certain agility.

They put me down for the obstacle race
I didn't know what to do.
There were balls to kick and ropes to walk 
and a hoop I had to jump through.
But near the end of the obstacle race
There’s the thing I dread.
It was when they gave me 
A needle to thread!

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!  
It was when they gave me a needle to thread.

The gun went bang!  I ran and ran.
It was going rather well.
I wasn’t the first, but I wasn’t the last 
But sad the truth to tell
Though I kept up the pace till the end of the race
The task that stopped me dead
Was when they gave me
A needle to thread!

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!
It was when they gave me a needle to thread.

I don’t like sports, but it takes all sorts 
And my teacher said it’s good
To put on a brave face and run in a race
And all the children should take part for the fun,
Fresh air and sun (and the hayfever, I said).
I can jump through a hoop, but I can’t see the loop in the 
Needle to thread.

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!  
I can jump through a hoop, but I can’t see the loop in the 
Needle to thread.

I’d like to think that this glaring chink in my athletic prowess
Was a lesson of sorts even though it was sports
And I normally couldn’t care less.
I was left on the track and stuck at the back
But what made me go red
Was the public humiliation of having a 
Needle to thread.

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!
The public humiliation of having a
Needle to thread.

A final thought on sports day 
Now that I’m fully grown
For some of us it’s torture
Teacher, leave those kids alone!
I still can’t see the point of running around to get ahead,
But first prize for the barmiest obstacle goes to a 
Needle to thread.

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!
First prize for the barmiest obstacle goes to a 
Needle to thread.

Obstacle Race ©Marshlander 2010