Nice And Nasty Birthday Surprises

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I have made two trips to London in the last week. The first was to celebrate LSW’s birthday.  That was very enjoyable.  We stayed in the Barbican flat and the surrounding gardens and the window-boxes of many of the flats look lovely at this time of year.

View Of The Barbican Complex In The Sun

View Of The Barbican Complex In The Sun

The second was much more traumatic surprise.

This was a rapid and urgent scoot up to Royal London Hospital to be with Middle Son (MS).  He had been knocked down by a car in a hit-and-run accident during a police car chase.

MS is recovering but has some seriously broken bones and a lot of bruises, so he will probably spend his own upcoming birthday in hospital and has a few frustrating months of rehabilitation ahead of him.  At least now I am retired I can lend full physical as well as moral support.  MS also has great support from his partner, brothers and friends.  He’s a tough cookie too, he’s in a good hospital and he will bounce back.

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London has great museums, art galleries and restaurants.  We experienced while celebrating LSW’s birthday by visiting the Natalia Goncharova exhibition at Tate Modern, the Lee Krasner exhibition at the Barbican and eating out with Youngest Son (YS) at the buzzy and lovely Morito restaurant.

We also visited Walthamstow to get a feel for one of the areas MS and his partner have been looking to buy a house in – a project I suspect will be on hold for a bit now.  Plus I visited the Foundling Museum.

Sitting here in a hospital waiting room I can’t compose much about those visits; my head is too distracted with recent events.  However here is a quick view of the high points with some pictures added since I got back home.

The Foundling Museum was interesting but while there are some fascinating items and facts on show, the topic based layout didn’t work for me.  I struggled to build up the chronology of the way the Foundling Hospital developed from 1741 through to the modern day from the exhibits although, half way round, I did find a clear timeline in the free paper guide pamphlet so my issue was mostly my fault.

A Selection Of Tokens On Show At The Foundling Museum

A Selection Of 18th Century Tokens Used To Identify Orphaned Babies Left With The Foundling Museum

The museum’s temporary exhibit of Hogarth and his depiction of noise in his pictures and cartoons is set out more engagingly.  Different elements of a single painting by him are picked out to illustrate six different aspects of 18th century street life from street music to drinking, disease and prostitution.  There is also an exhibition of some of George Handel’s work (both Hogarth and Handel were early sponsors of the Foundling Hospital) which provided welcome comfortable chairs in which to listen to some snatches of his lovely music amid information about him and his muses.

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Hogarth’s The March Of The Guards To Finchley

I had not heard of Lee Krasner before visiting the exhibition at the Barbican.  LSW was much more in the know than I and she was very keen to go.  She was spot on; it was a fascinating exhibition and full of very impressive art.  She was married to Jackson Pollock but embraced many more styles than I associate with him.  The narrative of her life, picked out by the different sections of the art on show, was compelling, the colours were terrific.  I think I will use my Barbican membership to visit again later this year.

Detail From Two Early Krasner Paintings

The Natalia Goncharova art exhibition at The Tate Modern was also worth seeing. Again there was a clear progression to her style through the early years of her life.  She was incredibly prolific during this period and it was noticeable that there was little on show from her later years except for examples of her work in designing theatre sets and costumes.  Interesting as that aspect is, I was more impressed by her earlier work.

Harvest By Natalia Goncharova

Harvest By Natalia Goncharova

So, back to thinking about MS and his recovery…. We will be back in London soon to see his progress first hand and to slip in a few more cultural treats.

 

TV Mini-Series And Music In The Rain

View From The Garden - Sun And Impending Hailstorm

View From The Garden – Sun And Impending Hailstorm

June has been a very wet month so far but I suppose the garden and allotment needed the rain after such a dry Spring.  Few vegetables are growing quickly yet but the garden flowers are thriving.  Encouragingly, the bees flitting among them, between the bouts of rain, seem more numerous than last year.

Partly due to the weather, Long-Suffering Wife and I have been watching more box-set TV recently.  Much of what we have watched has been excellent and I’m pleased ‘Killing Eve’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ have started up again.  Of recent TV treats, I particularly recommend:

  • The Virtues’ (Channel 4) which has an astonishing performance by Steven Graham and a climax that had me holding my breath tensely for ages and mentally urging his character to do the right thing
  • The Looming Tower’ (BBC) starring the brilliant Jeff Daniels, which is showing how infighting between the FBI and the CIA contributed to the terrorist success of 9/11
  • Chernobyl’ (Sky Atlantic) which reproduced compellingly and with amazing special effects and crowd scenes, the (western understanding of the) nuclear disaster there.

We were able to see the last of these thanks to Youngest Son (YS) having access, in ways I’m not sure I want to know about, to channels and films that are not available to us through our normal facilities.  This has been just one of the upsides of having him around for a few weeks since he returned from Australia.  YS’s cheery demeanour has certainly brightened our days recently as the rain has set in.  However, he has now disappeared to undertake a video project in the US and left us with the rain continuing to pour down.

The Garden In A Hailstorm

The Garden In A Hailstorm

Another very good mini-series, still currently ongoing, is Years and Years.  This follows a fictitious family through a vision of the next 15 years of global and UK politics and social development.  It is not a cheery watch since it picks up some of the most modern-day contentious issues and shows how they may unfold in the near future with pretty depressing effects.  One of the issues, of course, is the climate emergency and the story postulates a future where 80 days of heavy rain with flooding is a norm.  I’m fed up with the rain after a week; I can barely imagine a future where it rains for months!

I hope that the future is brighter – and not just weather wise – than Years and Years predicts.  However, I confess that the management of immigration, the climate emergency, the future of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic and the apparent rise of shallow populism are growing concerns for me.  It is fortunate, then, that YS keeps LSW’s and my rants at the radio news over breakfast and lunch in check (to a degree).  They may get ridiculous while he is away.

To help distract ourselves from precipitation and political current affairs, LSW and I have been to a couple of very good gigs over the last few days.  The first was very local at the refurbished Tetbury Goods Shed and featured a local band called Faeland who I didn’t know until a week ago but who are lovely.  They follow the folk music idiom but with bright, modern songs and an engaging presence. LSW loved them too – and very much enjoyed the provision of comfortable seating and a perfect view at the venue.

Faeland At The Tetbury Goods Shed

Faeland At The Tetbury Goods Shed

She was less enamoured by the shoulder to shoulder standing room only at The Exchange in Bristol.  Here we saw a singer-songwriter I have been following and enjoying hugely on Spotify and CD for a couple of years – Billie Marten.  I love her songs and, although she could have engaged a tight packed, eager and intimate audience a little more, I enjoyed the gig very much. LSW enjoyed it too but I was nervous about her comfort and we left just before the end.  That was fine since Billie Marten had already played for an hour and I may anyway get the chance to see her again in London.

Billie Marten At The Exchange, Bristol

Billie Marten At The Exchange, Bristol

As I complete this post, I see that the sun has come out.  I shall go out for a walk humming tunes from Faeland and Billie Marten and think cheery thoughts……

Allotment Wars!

Just over 10 years ago, I was made redundant from a large consulting firm I had worked for since leaving university.  I took a break from 33 years of work and, a year later, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) persuaded me to buy a derelict corrugated iron bungalow with the remaining redundancy money.  Then, as the kids left home, we sold our family house.  That enabled some downsizing and renovation of the ‘Tin House’.  We lived in the ‘Tin House’ for a year while we upgraded our current home.  Now we rent it out with the vague plan to move back into it when we downsize again.

Our 'Tin House' Post Re-Build in 2013

Our ‘Tin House’ Post Re-Build in 2013

When we bought the ‘Tin House’, it had only a small front garden.  We bought a small extra parcel of land at the back so that, after any future move back to the bungalow, I would be able to continue my enjoyment of vegetable growing in retirement.  I also put myself on what I understood to be a very long waiting list for an allotment in the beautiful Rose Barrow allotment gardens just a little further up the hill.

View From Behind Our 'Tin House'

View From Behind Our ‘Tin House’

In practice, the wait for an allotment was much shorter than expected and, for the last half dozen years, I have been tending a quarter of a full allotment.  This has not been all plain sailing however.

View From The Entrance To Rose Barrow Allotments

View From The Entrance To Rose Barrow Allotments

The first challenge has been that, having moved from the ‘Tin House’, we now live 2-3 miles away.  Unless I undertake a stiff walk there and back carrying tools and (at least potentially) harvests, I have to visit it by car.  The result is that my visits are more infrequent that they should be to undertake the war on weeds, to water in dry spells and to pick any crops.  That restricts me to low maintenance crops and means I constantly test the patience of the allotment management who police the quality of upkeep.

Examples Of Well Tended Allotments At Rose Barrow

Examples Of Well Tended Allotments At Rose Barrow

One such manager has been keen to take over my patch because it is in between a couple of allotments he already operates and his back garden.  I have resisted, for a couple of years, giving up my investment of digging and composting effort.  In doing so, I felt like one of those long-standing house owners holding out against the big developer wanting to demolish swathes of buildings in order to erect new, swish skyscrapers.  But, last year, I accepted that this was an extreme view, and took the practical and reasonable step of relinquishing my plot in exchange for another.

Overall I was content with the move despite the risk that I am now too near the allotment bonfire space to avoid scorched lettuces and leeks!  I started to dig the new plot over last winter, planted some Jerusalem artichokes and harvested some rhubarb.  All was settled and agreeable.

However, last week I arrived on my little plot to find someone else has commandeered it, had trampled my planting, had taken my compost bin and had erected netting over my inherited currant bushes.  Outrage!

Recognising that possession is ‘nine tenths of the law’ (and because I had nowhere else to put them), I dug over part of the patch again and planted a few rows of leeks and beetroot.  I was ready for war!

It seems that a couple had spoken with the previous incumbent of the whole allotment of which my slice is a part and had agreed to take it all on without confirming with allotment management.  They were unaware of my existing claim, my payment (all of £2!) and my effort to rehabilitate the plot.  It turns out that they are old acquaintances and we have been able to work out a way forward which leaves me with a plot that is a little smaller than the one I relinquished last year but which will be adequate.  My compost bin is restored.  Peace has broken out.

My New Quarter Allotment

My New Quarter Allotment. The War On The Couch Grass Begins!

The new plot is freer of bindweed than the previous one.  However, it is largely covered by very deep and well-established couch grass – another allotment devil to do war with but a manageable one if countered with thoroughness and determination.  Once I have dug out the worst of the couch grass a few times over the next couple of years, and grubbed up some old currant bushes to create some more space far enough from the bonfire, I will have a good little plot to augment my vegetable patches at home.

I may not visit my allotment often until we move back to the ‘Tin House’, but when I do I will love the relaxation from the repetition of the physical exercise of digging and weeding. I like too the mundane chats with allotment neighbours about the weather, the persistence of the perennial weeds and the poverty or fruitfulness of this year’s crops.  I love the singing of the birds and the peace and quiet of the enclosed allotments.  I love it that I have more time since retirement to soak up all of this.  The war is over and I’m happy again.

From Writing to Artificial Intelligence

A relatively quiet week or so has been punctuated by another trip to London and the return from Australia of Youngest Son (YS).  YS and his Northern Irish girlfriend have been working (and playing) successfully in Australia for almost three years.  It’s great to have YS back in closer proximity after so long but I’m sorry we no longer have such a good excuse to visit Australia!

YS At Heathrow.  Big Hug Imminent!

YS At Heathrow. Big Hug Imminent!

It will be interesting to see how things work out for YS and his girlfriend in London during such a precarious time for the United Kingdom.  Fortunately, they very excited by the prospect and are far more optimistic about life in general than I.  They made a great life in Australia from a standing start and I’m sure they will employ their energy and contacts to do the same in London.

I continue to make the most of my opportunities to visit the excitement of London with overnight stays in my old flat.  I based my trip up to London this time around another reunion of old work colleagues – this time from a bank I worked at 15 years ago.  Once that get together was in the diary I could fit in other things around it.  I saw a film (High Life) with Eldest Son (ES) (which was more interesting than truly enjoyable) and, as has become my norm, went to The Lantern Society Folk Club and a couple of exhibitions.

The first of these exhibitions was a history of Writing at the British Library.  This shows how different types of writing emerged amongst early human communities roughly simultaneously in a several different places across the globe.  This accounts for the huge variation in language types and structures and also the variety of writing styles and media through modern history and today.

A Limestone Stela With Classical Heiroglyphs

A Limestone Stela With Classical Hieroglyphs (The Oldest Object Held By The British Library)

The exhibition then focuses on the development of our alphabet from images (e.g. an ox head shape for the letter ‘a’) used in Egypt.  These were refined progressively through simplification and transformation by the Phoenicians, the Greeks then the Italians and, especially, the Romans (who got us writing from left to right).  Further evolution of our western writing styles, fonts and media to develop readability, speed of writing and then mass production are explained clearly and interestingly with lots of tangible examples.  I became thoroughly absorbed in the exhibition.

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A Japanese ‘Four Treasures Of The Study’ – Ink (Made From Grinding An Ink Stone With Drops Of Water) And Brushes In A Beautiful Box

The British Library has such beautiful texts in its possession to illustrate every development in the art and science of writing.  In addition to the examples of writing, there were sections on writing materials spanning examples of use of clay, wax, metal, stone, skin, palm leaves and, of course, the early efforts to produce paper (by the Chinese).  Printing innovations, writing implements (including a comparison between mass produced BIC biros and Montblanc fountain pens) and much more is covered.  It is a multi-faceted and fascinating exhibition.

A 1977 Vintage Macintosh Apple II Computer

A 1977 Vintage Macintosh Apple II Computer (Part Of The Section Illustrating Progression of Typewriters to Computers And Word Processing)

Less successful is the exhibition of Artificial Intelligence (AI); More Than Human at the Barbican.  I am very interested in this topic and was looking forward to the exhibition.  It is large and I spent three hours viewing it.  However, I left vaguely unsatisfied; I’m not sure I have worked out all the reasons why yet.

I went on the first day of the exhibition and some of the interactive exhibits needed tweaking to be successful.  But a more fundamental weakness is the amount of space devoted to cultural roots relating to the human desire to animate the inanimate and to create non-human life (Frankenstein for example).  This meant that, for me, there was insufficient focus on current and future use of AI.

The history of AI is laid out in detail and was a little overwhelming.  I invested a lot of time in understanding the key developmental moments, the surges in optimism surrounding the AI technology (the ‘Golden Ages’) and the periodic ‘winters’ when that optimism seemed misplaced.  There is also good information that I recall from when I used to work in Information Technology on the differences between Expert Systems and Learning Systems, and between simulation, understanding and intelligence.

Exhibits In The AI: More Than Human Exhibition

Exhibits In The AI: More Than Human Exhibition (An Interactive Model For City Planning, Aibo The Robot Dog And A Robot Able To Mimic Human Movement)

That laid a good foundation for the latter sections of the exhibition which focus on current and, to a degree, future practical use of AI.  The examples on show, though, often seemed a little perfunctory and rather unconnected.  Some demonstrated what I would consider to be advanced computer power not, specifically, AI.

However, there were some good examples too.  These include those showing how AI is accelerating and improving areas as diverse as medical understanding and treatments, pedestrian and driver safety, city planning, customer problem solving, education and even dating.  There are also sections (too brief in my view) on the ethics of AI.  For instance, these include the dangers of AI in war, the risk of bias being built into the algorithms, and of AI being used to undermine our privacy, freedom and perception of the truth.  The exhibit showing AI helping lip-synching of Barack Obama was a rather chilling demonstration of the latter.

Since I’m a Barbican Member, I can go again for free and will plan to take ES who is also interested in the potential (and dangers) of AI.  Maybe with his insights alongside me, I will enjoy the exhibition more.

Back home, the focus is on catching up with YS (while he stays with us to gird himself for his move to London) and on gardening.  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) has got large parts of the garden looking very full and attractive.

Foxgloves, Erigeron, Geraniums And Flowering Weeds At The Back Of Our House

Foxgloves, Erysimum, Geraniums And Other Flowers At The Back Of Our House

My vegetable seedlings are planted and just await proper rain and, no doubt, a slug onslaught.  The meadow is looking lush and healthy. Just a few more degrees of heat and summer will be here…..

Our Favourite Irises In Our Garden

Our Favourite Irises In Our Garden

 

Going To Malvern Not Wembley

Some of the last week or so has been spent managing my disappointment that Forest Green Rovers (FGR), the football team I follow avidly and actively, just failed to make it through to the English Football League 2 (EFL2) Playoff Final at Wembley.  FGR have had a great season following the struggles experienced last year during our first season at this level.  However, we just fell short of entitlement to a third visit to Wembley in four years.  I’ve amended my diary to free up the play-off final weekend, responded to the commiserations from friends, and adjusted the focus of my hopes towards next season.

Lining Up For The 1st Leg Playoff Semi-Final At Prenton Park (Tranmere Rovers)

Lining Up For The 1st Leg Playoff Semi-Final At Prenton Park (Tranmere Rovers)

We (and I do think of FGR as a ‘we’) nearly managed automatic promotion but we faltered near the end of this season with a 4-3 loss at Crewe Alexandra having be3-1 up.  Then, in the play-off semi-final against Tranmere Rovers, the fine margins between success and failure fell against us.  It didn’t help that we had a player sent off in both home and away legs but, in truth, we also didn’t quite play to our potential.  Now we have to wait for a team rebuild for next season and see if we can challenge for promotion again.  I’ve renewed my season ticket but am already missing the weekly routine of live football!

FGR Lining Up at Gresty Road, Crewe Alexandra

FGR Lining Up At Crewe Alexandra. We Are Getting Used To Playing At These (Relatively) Big Stadia

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) does long-suffer when it comes to my obsession with football.  But she and I did have a trip out that was rather different from the one I had been planning to Wembley.  We bought a fully electric car recently to replace one of our two existing and now aged cars – probably my rusting, but still remarkably effective, hulk of a Saab will go for scrap.  LSW had been using her new electric e-Golf for local trips to and from work but wanted to try out a longer run that would involve practicing charging at a service station.  We chose a visit to the Malvern Spring Festival and charged up successfully at the rather wonderful Gloucester Services, Farm Shop and Kitchen on the way back.

The Festival is a vast exhibition of plants, gardens, art and everything to do with gardening.  It is very popular and there were large crowds.  There is more of a focus on selling garden paraphernalia than I remember there being at the Chelsea Flower Show.  The amount of space available at the Malvern Festival is conducive to that and I enjoyed wandering around the multitude of outlets and tents even though the weather was damp and grey.

Riot of Colour In The Floral Tent At The Malvern Spring Show

Riot of Colour In The Floral Tent At The Malvern Spring Show

Both LSW and I love aspects of gardening.  I tend to focus on the vegetable patch and my allotment while LSW prefers mapping out and planting the flower beds.  However, we didn’t go to the show with any clear purchase plan and only came away with three small perennials and, for me, a £2 pot of recently germinated dill.  Given the vast quantity of stuff that was on sale, we weren’t great customers; just voyeurs!

Habit of Living Garden By Tatlow and Hathaway

Habit of Living Garden By Tatlow And Hathaway – Probably My Favourite Show Garden At Malvern

We had a very pleasant, relaxed morning despite the rather grim weather.  Some of the model gardens were very impressive and, because was the first day of the Festival, the rain hadn’t yet made the car park or walkways too muddy.

It was nice to get out of the drizzle to hear some of the speakers (including James Alexander-Sinclair, Jamie Butterworth and Jo Whiley) in the main marquee.  There, we were also treated to an eclectic fashion exhibition where the designs were based on different plant types and garden themes.  Most of the outfits were rather skimpy and I sympathised with the models and dancers who had to tolerate the cold as well as the weirdness of some of the things they were wearing.  They seemed to enjoy it as much as we did though.

Part Of The 'Floral Eccentricity' Show By Sarah Champier

Part Of The ‘Floral Eccentricity’ Show By Sarah Champier. Brrrr!

The What If Garden With More Underdressed Dancers

The What If Garden With More Underdressed Dancers

Fortunately the weather improved after the Malvern excursion.  That gave LSW and I the first opportunities since Easter to sit out in the garden, have a relaxing glass of wine or two, and to survey our past gardening efforts.  We have gradually got increasing control of the small meadow-cum-orchard that adjoins the main garden.  We moved a bench up to the top of it last year.  From there we have a sunny view and can see the gradually increasing diversity of the meadow.

View From The Bench Near The Top Of Our Meadow

View From The Bench Near The Top Of Our Meadow

Common Blue And Little Copper Butterflies

Common Blue And Little Copper Butterflies In Our Meadow. A Very Pleasing Addition to Fauna There

I think we will spend more time there in summer evenings this year while planning further garden evolution and pondering the possibility of Wembley next football season.

Walking, Drinking And Bending at 63

I had a birthday last week and I’ve made it to 63 years of age.  When I was in my twenties I didn’t believe I’d get so far and I’m sure some of the damage I did to my body around that time will catch up with me in due course.  But not yet, it seems!

I do a lot of walking to maintain a modicum of fitness.  My average number of steps per day has steadily increased in recent years and, especially since I retired nearly two years ago.  Many of those steps are up and down the steep valley slopes near where I now live.  They are therefore more testing than the pure statistics suggest.  However, I do wonder if increasing walking just makes me better at walking rather than fit and I do need to ensure that I walk at a heart-exciting pace so that I do get a true health benefit.

Of course, walking is not just for fitness.  I do need to get from A to B and, since we tend to shop daily for just what we need each day, this includes a daily walk into the local town (Nailsworth).  There is a real pleasure in this which I have mentioned in these posts before, not least because of the variety of routes and the lovely countryside to view on the way.

Bluebell Woods Near Nailsworth, Gloucestershire

Bluebell Woods Near Nailsworth, Gloucestershire (One Of The Few Places Not Yet Overrun By Wild Garlic)

I’m fortunate in that Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) has also developed a love of walking in recent years.  That means we can venture out on walks for walking’s sake together while discussing the issues of family, friends and the wider world.  We also encourage friends who visit to join us on some of the nicest walks near our home.  Indeed, that is how we celebrated my birthday when my Best Man visited us.  After a lovely, sunlit three hour traverse of several valleys we adjourned to the local pub (as you do).

Birthday Walk West Of Horsley, Gloucestershire To Owlpen And Back

Birthday Walk West Of Horsley, Gloucestershire To Owlpen And Back (Wild Garlic, Owlpen Manor And Rape Fields)

Nonetheless, much of the walking I do is alone and that too is calming and enjoyable.  I don’t tend to think of matters of great import when walking alone.  I watch nature around me, make mental to do lists, envisage great wins for Forest Green Rovers Football Club, play Pokemon Go, think about my next blog post and let my mind go near blank.  The emptiness of mind as one simply puts one foot in front of the other amid beautiful countryside is what makes walking relaxing.

Sunlight Through Trees Near Owlpen

Sunlight Through Trees Near Owlpen, Gloucestershire

Reaching 63 has got me thinking about a couple of other aspects of health that I need to give more attention to.  For about 15 years I have tracked the number of no-alcohol days that I manage.  For the most part the trend has been steadily increasing – that is, improving.  My current, (for me) aggressive target is to be alcohol-free 140 days in the year.  I have only managed that once in the last 15 years and I’m not on track to meet it again but I am going to be more resolute, I promise.

I have also, for the last 6 months, been tracking my daily alcoholic unit intake using an application called Drinkaware.  This is scarier since I am way over the safe limits health researchers have determined.

Part of my problem here is that in measuring only non-alcohol days, I have been only measuring my performance in one dimension.  So, on a day when I might have one drink – to be sociable during a meeting with friends or to fill in time before a football match for example – I then think: ah, I’m not having a no-alcohol day, so why not have a few more drinks later.  Dumb huh?  I need to do better and will continue to track daily alcohol volume intake as well as no alcohol days.  Just the action of tracking should encourage improvement.

The other health aspect that I need to work on is balance and flexibility.  This is being underlined daily at the moment by a lower back pain I get after sitting down – something I do less of now I’m retired but which still occupies hours a day.

I’m also reminded of my failures in this area by the Instagram feeds that I see almost daily being posted by Youngest Son’s girlfriend.  She is an osteopath and yoga teacher and has a great Instagram feed and blog (becthomaswellness.com) showing how to maintain core strength and flexibility.  She recently posted a video specifically on how she keeps her spine supple and it was pretty inspiring.

Today I can’t physically do (at least not properly) 10% of the exercises she does but I need to do more than the 1% I currently do on some days.  Just writing this down here feels like it is strengthening my resolve.  But the important thing is action not words.

Let’s see how I am doing by the time I am 64.  Meanwhile, I’ll build consuming one of my birthday presents into my strengthened fitness and health regime……

Tasty Birthday Present From Middle Son

Tasty Birthday Present From Middle Son

Two London Visits

I continue to be able to ameliorate my yearning for the buzz of living in London with one or two visits each month.  These are often based around meetings with old friends or gigs of bands that I like but can’t see out in the country.  That was the case this month and, once again, my ability to camp in my old flat on the sofa bed has proved very convenient.

During the last week I saw a couple of gigs.  The first was The Antlers at Union Chapel with Middle Son (MS).  This was a celebration of the ten year anniversary one of my favourite albums: Hospice.  It’s a very sad album about domestic, emotional abuse (apparently) and (more clearly) terminal illness.  That may not sound appetising but it’s wonderfully powerful and the stripped back acoustic version The Antlers performed was moving and beautiful.  It drew on the hushed and respectful atmosphere the Union Chapel often generates and I love going there despite the unforgivingly hard pew seating.

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The Antlers At Union Chapel

The next day, following a planned lunch with one old friend and then an impromptu meeting and beer with another outside Rough Trade East, I saw Malena Zavala at The Moth Club in Hackney.  This is a compact venue that is an ex-military veterans club with sparkling ceilings and amusing customer signs I have mentioned in previous blog posts.  The support band (Wovoka Gentle) and Malena were both good.  Malena mixed the tuneful, dreamy songs I knew with warm Latin rockers that indicated her Argentinian heritage.  I, and the rest of her audience, had a great, foot-tapping evening.

Malena Zavala and Support (Wovoka Gentile) at The Moth Club

Malena Zavala and Support (Wovoka Gentile) at The Moth Club

Earlier in April I had visited London for another gathering of old friends.  On the back of that I visited two places I had not been to before: The British Library and The Wallace Collection in Hertford House.

The British Library is vast and I limited myself to just the art exhibitions and the Library Treasury Gallery.  The latter provided an insight into the types of document that is held in the enormous reserves of the library.  There were beautiful illuminated books, religious texts representing all the main religions, historical documents (such as the book of Welsh Laws), important scientific papers and literature (such as the 14th century Gawain and The Green Knight) and sections covering Shakespeare and The Beatles.  I was drawn particularly to the old maps and I will look out for future special exhibitions that showcase the library’s holding of these.

The British Library

The British Library

One especially interesting section was on ‘Friendship Before Social Networks’.  This displayed many Friendship and Student Albums dating from the mid-16th century to Victorian times that individuals used to record the friends they met and the things they saw and did.  They were a little like artists’ sketch-books and many were really intricately completed and beautiful.  Their aim was to record, or even show off, the social networks and activities of their owners in much the way Facebook and Instagram often do today; fascinating!

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) tells me that I saw at least part of the Wallace Collection at Somerset House many years ago.  I barely recall that and, in any case, the collection is now in Hertford House in Manchester Square.  Like the British Library, the permanent exhibition of art, armour and weapons collected in the 18th and 19th centuries (and bequeathed to the British nation by Lady Wallace in 1897) is free.  I love it that such attractions are open to all without mandatory charge – not least because I could visit on consecutive days rather than struggle to take it all in in one go.

The Back State Room, Hertford House (Wallace Collection)

The Back State Room, Hertford House (Wallace Collection)

The armoury is particularly impressive although I rather hankered for the more selective and minimalist displays LSW and I had seen in Kolumba in Cologne and in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.  The Wallace Collection of armour and weapons is certainly comprehensive but also a bit overwhelming.

Part Of The Wallace Collection Armoury

Part Of The Wallace Collection Armoury

Not so, apparently, for Henry Moore the famous British sculptor.  He loved the armoury and visited it often during his time in London.  It inspired his development of the head and helmet as one of his iconic sculptural forms.  This was the subject of what I thought was a tremendous exhibition of his ‘Helmet Heads’ in the basement of Hertford House.  This wasn’t free but it was excellent in terms of the items on display and the information about how the helmets concept influenced his ideas throughout much of his life.  It’s on until 23 June 2019 and I recommend it.

One Of Henry Moore's Helmet Heads

One Of Henry Moore’s ‘Helmet Heads’

I’m back home now and the focus is on the last few games of Forest Green Rover’s unexpectedly successful and entertaining football season and on population of the vegetable patch and allotment.  Easter saw marvellous weather and it would be nice to see a return of that so gardening and football can be followed by wine in sun in LSW’s new garden.

Old Friends And Oxford

Christ Church College, Oxford

Christ Church College, Oxford

While Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I were in Australia, we met up with three of her long-standing friends: a school friend in Perth, a college friend in Hobart and a more recent friend in Sydney.  Each reunion was refreshing.

LSW has been continuing this sustenance of her friend network since our return.  Three friends who we knew when we lived in Kew near London have dropped in to see us.  She has also been with other friends from Kew to the People’s Vote March in London and to Bristol to see another long-term acquaintance from work.  It is time for me to match her relationship maintenance!  I have the time now I am retired, and the only issue is fitting in with the diaries of my old friends who are still working.

For many years, a small group of friends who I got to know shortly after I first moved to London over 40 years ago have been getting together on a regular basis.  For the last few years we have been meeting up every few months in a restaurant chosen alphabetically based on country of cuisine.  We are up to P for Portugal.  I travelled up to London last week for the latest instalment of catching up with personal developments, railing against the inequities of the world and solving (in theory) a few current newsworthy issues.  It was fun and informative as usual, and an excellent excuse to spend time in London.

Also, I have also managed to get together with two friends from my college days.  My goodness; now we are talking about 45 years ago!  We have stayed in touch intermittently since then.  Some years we have been completely out of contact with each other and then we have had periods when we have been close.  One of these friends was my Best Man (BM) at my wedding and, as those who have read earlier posts will know, I see him off and on at his house near Cambridge.  The other now lives with his wife in Oxford and that is where all three of us met.

I have only been to Oxford a few times in recent years.  Then, the visits have been mainly to the outskirts to see Forest Green Rovers Football Club play Oxford United or to drop off or pick up Youngest Son from Oxford Brookes University.  This latest visit allowed me an almost full day wandering the city alone and then further sightseeing with my mates the next day. It’s a lovely city.

Scenes In Oxford

Oxford Scenes (Ratcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library, Bridge Of Sighs)

Upon my arrival, the weather was cold and I decided to go for a brisk walk to warm up.  I ended up walking a few miles up and down the Oxford canal.  This is a much scruffier walk compared to that along the Thames which we did together the following day.  Along the canal are mainly dilapidated barges.  Some sustain human life but almost all are covered in detritus and the romanticism of living independently on water looked rather battered.  The wildlife was plentiful though and the oblique view of the city through small canal-side workshops and back gardens was interesting.

I went to an exhibition of Jeff Koons’ work at the Ashmolean Museum and continued to warm up.  I am not sure I like Koons’ work but it is certainly striking.  Regardless of whether the pastiche or banality is deliberate, his work isn’t the sort of thing I would want in my home.  However, the exhibition explanations of the pieces on show, and a short video interview with the artist, helped me understand at least some of what he is trying to achieve.

Pieces By Jeff Koons At The Ashmolean Museum

Pieces By Jeff Koons At The Ashmolean Museum (Balloon Venus, Ushering In Banality, Rabbit And Ballerinas)

Much of the rest of the Ashmolean Museum – apparently the world’s oldest museum – is rather like a stately home with sumptuous furniture, display cases and huge paintings.  I didn’t explore all of it but wandered a little aimlessly though impressive collections of porcelain, musical instruments, and modern art by a number of artists I admire such as Bacon, Kandinsky, Matisse and Hepworth.

I dwelt only in two galleries.  The first held a small but lovely, lush collection of 12th and 13th century Italian art which had some unusual pictures (one apparently depicting God himself and another showing a time lapse series of poses following the crucifixion).  The second covered the Pre-Raphaelites and included accounts of some of the salacious and scandalous relationships between the artists and their partners.  I saved the rest of the museum for another visit.

We ate well in Oxford but I walked many miles to work off the calories.  The sun came out for our walk around the north end of the city (including a brief stop at the remarkable and rather thrillingly cluttered Pitt Rivers Museum at adjoining the back of the Natural History Museum) and then along the Thames to a pub called The Perch.  It was great to get together with these university alumni, together for the first time in years, and to catch up with our ups and downs (in my case, thankfully, almost all ups).

Inside The Oxford Natural History Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum

Inside The Oxford Natural History Museum And Pitt Rivers Museum (Dinosaurs, Stuffed Dodos, Stuffed Human Heads And Other Marvellously Higgledy-Piggledy Collections)

Walking By The Thames At Oxford

Walking By The Thames At Oxford

Today LSW and I are off to Cheltenham to see some more old friends.  How personable I have become since retiring!

Marvellous MONA

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I have been back from our Australia trip for about two weeks.  Those weeks have been spent quietly slotting back into a daily routine.  I have been getting a fork into the vegetable patch, strolling around the neighbourhood to spot the small changes that took place while we were away, catching up on a couple of Forest Green Rovers FC games, and recovering from the jet lag.  Once again I feel so relieved that, having retired, I can do all this without the worry of having to catch up at work while negotiating jet lag muzziness.

Though these two weeks, the memories of Australia have lived on pretty vividly.  They are reinforced by each retelling of our exploits down under to friends and relatives.  We’ve had some very good holidays in recent years but our Australia trip was one of the best.

One of the most exhilarating days that we had in Australia was that we spent in Hobart visiting the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA).  This was set up by and is run and financed by David Walsh, a millionaire Tasmanian who made his fortune through gambling.  He is passionate about art and giving something back to Tasmania.  Visiting the gallery is free for Tasmanians and it has become a huge tourist attraction.

MONA

Museum Of Old And New Art (MONA)

The visit started on a purpose-built jetty from which Youngest Son (YS) (who paid for the excursion), Long-Suffering Wife (LSW), and I boarded a strangely shaped and coloured ferry.  As we boarded we were invited to load up a MONA app on our phones and, as we started to look through the web site pages, we could see we would be in for a fun time.  This feeling was underlined by the presence of a full size cow sculpture on the boat and seats that looked like sheep.

The journey itself, up the Derwent River, gave us a new, interesting view of Hobart’s industry and huge river side mansions.  Then, as we approached MONA on its own island in the middle of the river, we could make out a series of balconies, walkways and low-slung, rather strange looking buildings.  As we left the ferry and entered one of these I was reminded of Thunderbirds and Tracy Island; it all felt slightly off kilter and unreal.

Inside it quickly became apparent that the bulk of the cavernous space for the art, the bars and the selection of restaurants is carved deep into the sandstone rock of the island.  There are spiral staircases, long corridors, small and huge rooms and, everywhere, fascinating sights.  I loved, for example, the slot machine beer dispenser which took one’s money and took its time to decide whether to dispense a lovely, expensive craft beer or a can of bog-standard Fosters lager.  I didn’t try it but was entertained by the relief or the frustration of others who did.

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Lucky Dip Beer Dispensary

As we moved around, so all the art was labelled, described and explained by the location sensitive app on our phones.  This provided various levels of detail – as much or as little as you wanted – on whatever was nearby.  I experienced something similar at the Opera exhibition at the Victoria and Albert just over a year ago but nothing as slick, comprehensive or amusing as this.

Screenshots From The MONA App

And so onto the art!  Incredible!

The first exhibit, Mummy and Coffin of Pausiris, required application for entry on the MONA app.  When my turn came I was let into a dark room, alone, and made my way around a platform with black water on either side.  In the middle of the room was, on one side of the platform, an Egyptian mummy in its shroud.  On the other side was a CAT scan of the same mummy that presented layers of the mummy progressively so that the mummified flesh was peeled back gradually to reveal organs then bones.  Some of these were damaged and indicated the cause of death and that, plus the irregular drips of water in the silent, dark room, made this lone experience really eerie and memorable.

Perhaps the best exhibit was Artifact by Gregory Barsamian.  I think it was YS’s favourite too.  It was a large bronze head on its side with several portals so you could see inside.  From each portal one got a different view of what resembled a rotating machine with birds, balls, hands, heads and wheels all moving around in sync in a quiet whirlwind of stroboscopic light.  It was riveting but I couldn’t grasp what I was seeing then and can’t hope to describe it adequately now.  It was astonishing and brilliant.

Inside Artifact by Gregory Barsamian

Inside Artifact by Gregory Barsamian (But I Just Couldn’t Capture Any Of The Movement or Impact Of It Here)

That was unsettling but even more so was the tattooed man, Tim.  The gallery has bought the tattoos on the back of this man and he is paid to sit all day, silently and still, to exhibit it.  It raised some deep ambiguity about ownership, slavery and art.

Tim, The Tattooed Man By Wim Delvoye

Tim, The Tattooed Man By Wim Delvoye Overlooking One Of The Restaurants Cut Deep Into The Sandstone

Other exhibits were also designed to keep one off balance.  Near Artifact was a bowl of water on a chair with a large sharp knife and two red and orange goldfish in it.  It was a simple piece (by Jannis Kounellis) but unnervingly reminiscent of blood in water.

Untitled, By Jannis Kounellis

Untitled, By Jannis Kounellis

Another exhibit (Kryptos by Brigita Ozolins) was a room set up as a small black maze with niches holding ancient vases.  When one got to the middle of the maze there was something unconscious that prompted one to look up.  Above was a mirror reflecting my upturned face; it scared the living daylights out of me.

I could go on.  There was the room half full of dense, black oil by Richard Wilson.  There was a grave stone at which we could throw glass bottles.  There was a huge room of tables with moving pellets, stroboscopic lighting, vast noise and hundreds of digital displays filled with alphanumeric characters (Supersymmetry by Ryoji Ikeda).  There lovely set of pieces by an Australian artist called Patrick Hall with opening drawers with recorded sounds, words and inscriptions.  There was a room with smelly hanging bowls linked by tubes and being fed food so that they reproduced the workings of the human digestive tract from start to finish (Cloaca Professional by Wim Delvoye).  There were skeletons making love, corridors with ever changing wall colours, a fat red car and hundreds of other works of art that surprised, enthralled and unsettled.

Fat Car By Erwin Wurm and Cloaca Professional In Action

It was simply the most engaging and enjoyable art exhibition I have ever seen.  It was huge but my attention didn’t drop once over about 4 hours. I’d love to go back and I recommend it to all.

One Of The MONA Rooms (Artifact In The Corner)

One Of The MONA Rooms (Artifact In The Corner)

Views Around MONA

 

Perth’s Diverse Hinterland

Our last week in Australia was spent exploring the south western corner of Western Australia.  What struck me as we travelled north, south, and east form Perth was that, even though the scale of the landscape is huge, there is considerable diversity in flora and landscape.

To the north are sparse coastlines backed by gigantic dunes.  The eucalyptus gives way to other tree species and then to heath-like scrub.  The towns on the coast such as Lancelin and Cervantes are quietly dedicated to small-scale tourism and crayfishing.

Sleepy Lancelin, Western Australia; Between Sea, Sky and White Dunes

Sleepy Lancelin, Western Australia; Between Sea, Sky and White Dunes

The famous Pinnacles Desert is inland from these fishing towns and was our main target.  This desert in the Nambung National Park is a marvel of calcified tree trunk stumps.  These were once in a forest that was submerged by dunes and now stand in their thousands across a baking desert.  It is possible to walk among them but fortunately, given the heat, there is also a rough car track through the park and we used that.  Once again we admired the way the Australians know how to present their prized landscape wonders.

Pinnacles Desert, Nambung National Park

Pinnacles Desert, Nambung National Park

We spent four days touring the region south of Perth.  We started with a 4 hour drive to Pemberton, broken by a pleasant stop at Bunbury.  As we drove south, the countryside was initially desiccated and there was a good deal of stressed-looking forest.  Later, as we approached Bunbury, the grassland and forest became lusher.  Where there were vast plantations of conifers, we were reminded of our drives around Vancouver a few years back – but now with the temperature gauge turned up!

Straight Roads And Huge Eucalyptus Forests

Straight Roads And Huge Eucalyptus Forests

Bunbury itself had some on-trend cafes (e.g. The Townhouse) that echoed Perth’s modern restaurant scene and a lovely rocky coastline was nearby.  There, I was so busy taking a photo of the waves on the basalt pillars that I was too late getting out of the way of an abnormally large wave and got a thorough soaking.  Good job the temperature was in the mid-thirties and I dried out quickly; lesson learnt though.

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Maidens Reserve, Bunbury. A Few Seconds Later, I Was Very Wet!

Pemberton is an unremarkable town surrounded by vast tracts of remarkable Karri eucalyptus forest.  I wanted to visit to recapture the magical feel we got from similar forest we saw 18 months ago west of Melbourne. We weren’t disappointed.

We walked through the forests both in the evening when we arrived and then the next morning and, both times, the slanting light through the trees was gorgeous and the sheer size of the trees was impressive.  My only regret was that I failed to pluck up the courage to climb one of the look-out trees that the fire marshals use to spot fires.  Had the enthusiasm of Youngest Son still been with us, I’m sure we would have all gone up for the tree-top view.

It was during our morning walk through gigantic eucalyptus groves of Beedelup Falls forest that we saw a snake.  Unlike when we were on the Great Ocean Road in 2017, this time, it was Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) who had the closest encounter and was within a couple of yards of its basking spot before it moved.  I think it was a moderately venomous short-tailed snake but it slid away quickly before we got an even closer look (which I really didn’t want!).

Beedelup National Park

Beedelup National Park

From Pemberton we went west and south to Margaret River and Augusta.  Here we chilled out among the wineries and breweries (Xanadu, Watershed and, the best of those we visited, Eagle Bay) and took in views of the surf and dolphins along the dramatic and largely empty coast.  Sugarloaf Rock, Prevelly Bay and Hamelin Bay provided particularly sweeping vistas and the latter had the added attraction of a large number of incredible metre wide sting rays patrolling the shallows.

One Of Many Sting Rays In The Shallows Of Hamblin Bay

One Of Many Sting Rays In The Shallows Of Hamblin Bay

Panoramic Shot Of Hamelin Bay

Panoramic Shot Of Hamelin Bay (Actually, It Makes It Look Smaller Than Reality…)

We also visited one of the large caves just inland.  Fortunately, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) overcame her fear of enclosed, dark spaces to see all of Lake Cave. This was smaller than the Cango Caves we had seen last year in South Africa, but almost as impressive.

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Lake Cave

As we travelled around so we passed through little settlements each showing off their specialisms with great pride – Donnybrook is famous for its fruit and had streets lines with lamp posts shaped as apples, Cowaranup has life size models of cows everywhere and another town had a squad of scarecrows on show.  Each community took great pride in their identity.

Unusual Floral Display In Nannup :)

Unusual Floral Display In Nannup 🙂

Further north we visited another of LSW’s old friends – a school friend this time – in Dawesville.  The stories she told of her life since migrating to an Australian farm in the 1970’s were fascinating.  Her very Australian husband was an impressively practical antithesis of my own ability with machines who also had some amazing tales of the sharp end of life and travelling in Australia.

We rounded off that stop over with a wander around Mandurah where a ‘Crabfest’ overlooking a bay bigger than Sydney Harbour, attracted more people than we had seen together in one place throughout our entire trip.  We also diverted to take a walk along Clifton Lake through Tuart eucalyptus woods.  This was interesting for the rare, calcified structures an ancient species of bacteria (thrombolites) produces on the lake floor and also for the chainsaw-like noise the clouds of (non-biting) midges made as we walked through them.  We’d seen a variety of marsupials, birds, reptiles, dolphins and other wildlife on our trip but I didn’t expect to be impressed by midges!

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Thrombolite Structures At Clifton Lake

Our final, and probably hottest day, was spent east of Perth.  Here, the trees species were different again.  A whole chook (chicken) lunch at The Feral Brewing Company was followed by a brief, hot trip to the massive and historic Mandaring Weir.  Then there was a final round of drinks at the historically interesting and now rather trendy Guildford Hotel in Guildford.

Mandaring Weir

From there we departed for the airport and left Australia having loved pretty much every minute of our stay there.  We’ll be back one day.