Resplendent Nature At Every Turn

Retirement has brought me closer to Nature and I seem to have had even more than my usual exposure to Nature in the last two weeks.  The local walks have been particularly good.  The rain in June and early July has made the pastures, hedgerows and trees a lush green and the recent sun has brought out the garden and wild flowers so they are now showing off their peak displays.

My Favourite Field

My Favourite Field – Filling With Maize This Year

One walk was especially spicy in underlining our closeness to Nature.  We were crossing a field with a neighbour during a walk that we hadn’t undertaken for a while, when we saw another figure crossing the field at right angles to us.  Thirty yards out, we could only see the man’s bare and bronze torso above the wheat.  As we crossed paths though, it became clear that we had met – and then briefly engaged in conversation with – the infamous ‘Naked Rambler’.  Our neighbour remarked that his naked rambling exploits are frequent since ‘he was brown all over with no tan lines’.  I could only mutter that I hoped he looked out for stinging nettles.  The encounter made our day.

The Naked Rambler

The Naked Rambler (Picture Courtesy The Evening Standard – I Didn’t Have The B*lls To Take My Own Picture Of Him)

We also completed a series of walks when my Best Man (BM) visited us last weekend. He has been working from home and in isolation throughout lockdown and needed a break.  Fortunately the weather was excellent and we were able to visit our now re-opened pub for our first sit down (outside) meal since lockdown started.

On A Local Walk: Strip Of Green Manure In Full Flower

On A Local Walk: Strip Of Green Manure In Full Flower

A highlight during his stay was a long walk during which we saw a field sown with green manure coming extravagantly into flower.  Another marvellous natural phenomenon was the sighting of a crazily large number of small white butterflies fluttering together in the sun and drinking from wet mud on our path.  Both were uplifting sights.

Flowers In The Strip of Green Manure - Antirhinums, Phacelia, Sainfoin And Many More

Flowers In The Strip of Green Manure – Antirrhinums, Phacelia, Sainfoin, Bladder Campion And Many More

BM works for a large oil company which is trying to shift away from fuelling (literally) carbon emissions.  His job is changing and intense.  Even while he was with us, he had to prepare a short presentation that he was due to give on the following Monday.  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I were sufficiently intrigued by this that we signed up for the public event he was a panel member for and run by the ‘World Business Council for Sustainable Development’ entitled ‘Nature Action for a Healthy and Resilient Future’; what a couple of mouthfuls!

As I listened in to the webinar, I was reminded of my own corporate work life by the business jargon being used by the numerous presenters including BM, and how it flows off the tongues of business professionals.  I was also left with a greater feeling of hope for Nature and the planet.

I suspect that the event was populated largely by the ‘green mouthpieces’ of the corporations that were represented.  However, several sounded convincing about their company ambitions and commitments and the scale of the opportunity to turn our destruction of the planet around while creating millions of worthwhile jobs in new green industries was clear.

Optimistic-Looking Daisies

Optimistic-Looking Daisies

I have just started reading Wilding by Isabella Tree.  She is so aptly named given that the book is the story of how a failing arable farm has been turned into a successful experiment for re-wilding a large tract of land in Sussex.  The timeline at the start of the book shows how allowing nature to reclaim intensively farmed land can bring back flora and fauna diversity very quickly.  Given the chance, Nature can recover surprisingly quickly and I’m enjoying Isabella’s account of her experience.

Butterflies Everywhere: Comma, Peacock, Small White, Ringlet And Skipper

Butterflies Everywhere: Comma, Peacock, Small White, Ringlet And Skipper

I have continued to busy myself with some local climate action activities – my small push towards alleviating the pressure on Nature.  There is also much to do in the garden and on the allotment given that we are in peak growth season for vegetables and weeds.  We are thinking up creative ways to use the inevitable courgette mountain, we are eating chard with almost every meal and the runner bean avalanche is about to hit us.  In the next week too, I will need to brush up on my blackcurrant jam making skills since I have a bumper blackcurrant crop this year.

Flowers Among The Veg On The Allotments

Flowers Among The Vegetables On The Allotments

Nature is amazing.  Just last week, we saw a recurrence of another incredible phenomenon we have been lucky enough to spot a few times before: the inundation of our home valley by seagulls predating on flying ants.  It is almost unbelievable that the gulls will fly over 25 miles from the nearest coast on just the right day to catch the flying yellow meadow ants that rise from their nests in our neighbouring fields on just a couple of days a year; but there they were again.

Garden Views: Panorama From Our New Gate, Hollyhocks and First Use Of The New Fire Pit

Garden Views: Panorama From Our New Gate, Hollyhocks and First Use Of The New Fire Pit

Nature can also do us damage.  Badgers rip up crops, deer eat the roses and strawberries, earwigs are eating the dahlias, blackfly are tormenting my beans and hay fever can be really annoying.  The climate emergency and the creation of new human diseases when we encroach too much on the wild are macro problems far greater than my local problems with wildlife.  The solutions to these are going to be challenging to find but my immersion in Nature this week underlines the importance of doing so, and gave me some more hope.

So Much To Do, So Much Time?

CoroGorgeous Spring weather is here but the lockdown to prevent the rapid spread of Covid-19 continues.  So many in the UK and worldwide are horribly constrained by the lockdown and I am fortunate that I can continue to enjoy this wonderful Spring.

Longhorn Cow Enjoying The Same Views As Me

Longhorn Cow Enjoying The Same Views As Me

There are arguments raging as to whether the UK lockdown was aggressive or early enough, about how long it should last and how it should be relaxed over time.  Given the evident lack of testing and tracing capability, and the paucity of vital protective equipment available to health care workers, it seems to me that the lockdown should have been implemented much earlier.

I wonder why our Prime Minister was openly glad-handing others so long after the infectiousness of the virus was clear, and why did the Cheltenham race festival with its 100,000 racegoers take place in mid-March?  Given that a pandemic was an obvious risk, why did we not have more equipment in our stockpiles in anticipation?

Now we have ‘let the cat out of the bag’, as it were, it looks like getting it back under control is going to take an extended period of social and business restrictions.  That is already creating huge economic and social problems.  Loneliness, anxiety, depression are all bound to increase.  Worries about domestic violence, money, entertaining and educating kids, and many other unplanned problems are mounting for many.  It is hard to imagine what life in the UK might be like in a year or so if the lockdown cannot be relaxed significantly by then.

New Life, Blissfully Unaware of Covid-19

New Life, Blissfully Unaware of Covid-19

Meanwhile, I continue to be one of the lucky ones.  I haven’t contracted the virus and don’t know anyone personally who has suffered badly from it – yet.  I don’t have to work or travel any more.  I live in the country and so can still get out and about without needing to worry about social distancing while outdoors.  Indeed, the countryside is splendidly empty of people, vibrant with wildlife and looks lovely in the fullness of what has been terrifically consistent Spring sunshine.

Peak Blossom In The Field Next To Ours

Peak Blossom In The Field Next To Ours

I am maintaining my 15,000 steps a day average by finding ever more extravagant detours into the surrounding rural wilderness on my way to the newsagent in town.  This walking, in combination with a steady reduction in alcohol intake over the last three months (in line with my New Year resolutions) has got my weight down close to my target.  That, plus plenty of gardening, is improving my overall health and readiness to take on Covid-19 if and when it hits me.

Rural Wilderness On The Long Way to Town

Rural Wilderness On The Long Way to Town

My days are surprisingly full.  There is so much music to listen to and so many box-set series TV to watch (I’m loving Trigonometry and Devs on the BBC at the moment).  There are so many books on my ‘To Be Read’ shelf still (I’m half way through Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan and enjoying that).  I play games on my mobile; I am keeping my empire in Forge of Empires going and gradually improving my battle technique in Clash of Clans.

Yet these are all just fill-in activities around the main, constant structure of almost every locked down day (Sunday is still a slight exception).  Tea in bed is followed by leisurely breakfast.  Then there is the round-about walk into town for the newspaper followed by digestion of its main stories.  Then I make a salad lunch which is followed by the first game of Monopoly Deal of the day with Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and Youngest Son (YS).

Monopoly Deal; A Cut Down Monopoly Game With Just Cards

Monopoly Deal; A Cut Down Monopoly Game With Just Cards. More Fun Than It Sounds!

Most afternoons I work in the garden – there are simply more jobs in the garden than I can fit into the time and my reserves of energy – or I spend an hour or two writing this or moving forward the village Neighbourhood Plan and Climate Action Network group.

I stop to follow the daily government briefing on Covid-19 at 5pm.  It’s repetitive but worth listening to, I think, for the subtle attempts to re-write history and the almost obsessional denial of any mistakes.  Those denials are even with hindsight and in the knowledge that no-one could get the response to the pandemic entirely right.  Indeed, there may be no ‘right answers’ and certainly none we can discern yet.  YS still can’t get over how much I chunter on to the radio with my moaning about politicians.

If it is my turn to cook then I’ll spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for that.  I’m finding that while recipes are invariably right about cooking times, they underestimate preparation time (by me, anyway) by 300%.

Finally we will eat and then play another game of Monopoly Deal before retiring to the TV room.  The day is crowned with another railing against politicians on the television evening news and then its reading in bed and sleep.

Special events rarely disturb this pattern.  LSW and YS have deemed Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays as ‘drinking days’.  On these we often lap up the privilege we have of a garden to retreat to, by taking a bottle of wine up to the fading warmth of the setting sun at the top of our field.

Evening Wine In Our Field

Evening Wine In Our Field

The Thursday ‘Clap for Carers’ has become an increasingly important interlude and is now accompanied by a neighbour playing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ proficiently and commendably on saxophone.  Also a new virtual, monthly village quiz has kicked off; I’m scheduled to arrange the May occurrence so preparation for that will fill a rainy day or two.

There seems to be so much to do.  I do hope we find a way to end the lockdown soon but it has helped me fit all these local activities in.

New Year Resolutions: Making Them And Breaking Them

Happy New Year!

It’s that time for reviewing last year’s resolutions, checking progress and renewing the challenges for the coming year.  Looking forward with vigour to the next year offsets the feeling of anti-climax now our sons have returned to their homes, the holiday season parties are over, and the leftovers from big festive, family meals are almost gone.  So how did I do in my third retirement year and what should I be setting as targets for next year?

Christmas Lunch Set For 19!

Christmas Lunch Set For 19 At Ours!

Well, the past year – the last six months, anyway – have been coloured by Middle Son’s accident and my Mum’s increasing debilitation that has led to her taking up residence in a home.  It’s not been a great year and the time focused on these events has deflected me from some of the more challenging of my new year resolutions set this time last year.  Excuses, excuses!

On the positive side, I have again exceeded my target of average number of steps per day (15,000).  I have managed an average of 16,054 per day and exceeded a daily average of 15,000 steps almost every week during the year.

Views From Our New Year’s Day Walk

Unfortunately, this has become almost my only exercise as gardening has taken a back seat this year.  My overall fitness has probably declined and my weight target of getting down to 11 stone (70kg) has again just been missed.  I was on target to meet that weight target in November but Christmas excess put paid to achieving the objective.  That’s annoying since disappointment here was avoidable and I will retain the weight target for 2020 while trying to step up other core-strength exercises.

Ruskin Mill Lake On The Way To The Local Town - One Of My Favourite Local Places

Ruskin Mill Lake, On The Way To The Local Town – One Of My Favourite Local Places

My best achievement of the year was that I did exceed my target of no alcohol days.  I beat the target of 140 by 4 and that made it my best year since measurement began (and, frankly, since I was a teenager).  Also frankly, and a little embarrassingly, it felt like hard work achieving this.

14 Years Of Tracking No-Alcohol Days Per Year

14 Years Of Tracking No-Alcohol Days Per Year (With A Generous Trend Line in Red)

This year I have also been tracking the number of alcohol units I have each day using the Drinkaware app.  I now have a baseline against I can record what I hope will be future reduction but it has been a scary exercise.  I consume an average of 35 alcohol units per week.  That is more than double the recommended weekly average.  I must therefore look for a significant improvement next year – I’ll try an initial 10% – but know that also will be tough given habits that have built up over decades.

Tracking Of Alcoholic Units By Month In 2019

Tracking Of Alcoholic Units By Month In 2019

I did plan to create a plan for volunteering during this year.  I haven’t really done that but I have stepped up involvement in the construction of the local Neighbourhood Plan and that did consume a lot of time at various times of the year.  I am also a core member of the local Carbon Neutral Horsley group that is encouraging moves towards carbon neutrality by 2030 in the Parish.  Both these local initiatives are going to be a continuing focus in 2020.

I failed on all my other 2019 resolutions despite the freedom and flexibility retirement offers.  The compost bins near the vegetable patch are in reasonable shape but have not been redeveloped as planned.  I’m dropping that resolution since it is replaced by a wider plan to decide on what to do with our nearby and gradually crumbling stables.

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I also failed, after a bright start, to engineer significantly more trips out to see parts of the UK this year.  We’ll carry that resolution forward though because we have enjoyed the trips we did make, such trips will be more climate-friendly than air trips abroad now we have our electric car, and I still feel that my knowledge of the UK countryside needs renewal.

Christmas Morning From Our House

Christmas Morning From Our House

I will also carry forward the resolution I had to listen to less news and more music.  LSW and I both palpably failed on this.  We listened to the BBC on the radio morning, noon and night as the Brexit and other debates unfolded.  LSW and I both spent hours ranting at what we heard and my only comfort is that when I have stayed with my parents this year, I heard my Dad doing exactly the same; ranting at the radio must be a genetic trait!

One resolution I will add this year is to read more books.  In 2018, I read a number of what I thought were excellent books: The Milkman by Anna Burns, Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves, Before The Fall by Noah Hawley, The Dry by Jane Harper (very relevant with Australia on fire at the moment) and, most of all, A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles.

During 2019, I didn’t read anything I considered as good as these.  Nonetheless I loved the reading process, the thinking involved and the relaxation (sometimes too much, as I often slipped into ‘siesta’).  Given my enjoyment of reading I really should find time for more.  I plan to read at least 20 books this year thereby beating my record of 17 in 2018 and 16 in 2019.  I hope to find some more great books among these.

So, onwards to 2020!  I am rather despondent about several aspects of the world and the current political situation in the UK.  However, I think that 2020 is going to be a far better year than 2019 and I’m going to aim to meet my resolutions for the new year with a spring in my step – all 192,648 of them!

Me Setting Off Into 2020!

Me Setting Off Into 2020!

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.

img_3582.jpg

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

 

Secret Santa Scores A Hit

Last Christmas, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW), our three sons and I, decided to replace the tradition of us each giving everyone else a present, with a Secret Santa arrangement.  In this, each person draws a lot to determine which single person they should buy a Secret Santa present for up to a (relatively small) price limit.  This allows more focus and so reduces considerably the stress of (useful) present buying and the chance of getting something unwanted.

The reason I recall this now is that last week I was able to act upon my Secret Santa present: a ticket to a gig by Yo La Tengo at Hackney Arts Centre.  Actually, the giver, Eldest Son (ES), was no secret and, indeed, I went with him.  But Secret Santa was, for me as a receiver, a great hit.

Yo La Tengo is a band I have loved since I started buying albums by them in 2000.  In fact, they have been together as a three piece since the mid 1980’s and, as ES said after the gig, they have become very proficient at what they do.  Their music varies from gentle muses to Velvet Underground-like wig outs.  Unfortunately they didn’t rock ES’s boat but I loved almost all of the two-and-a-half hour performance.  I’m still humming their tunes to myself every day.

The venue is a gutted old cinema with bare walls and the seats taken out (contrary to the picture of comfortable seating on their website!).  We had to sit on nicely preserved, but very hard, wooden steps.  My back and bum could only take hour of that but then I was able to stand at the front and the two halves of the gig from the two vantage points was nice variety.

Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo At Hackney Arts Centre

I made two separate trips to London last week.  During these I met with a fellow retiree ex-work colleague for lunch, caught up with Middle Son (MS) for breakfast and met up with ES and his girlfriend.  I also went once again to my favourite folk club – The Lantern Society – which was once again consistently good across 10 brief but high quality and varied acts.

Live At The Lantern Society

Live At The Lantern Society

I then travelled up to my parents in Nottingham and jumped on from there to Mansfield to see my football team (lose entertainingly again).

Forest Green Rovers At Mansfield Town

Forest Green Rovers At Mansfield Town (With 170 Fellow Travelling Supporters)

The most surprising element amid all this was a visit I made to the Guildhall Art Gallery.  Although it is only a 10 minute walk from where I lived for 20 years, I had never been before.  I went to see an exhibition of Victorian art portraying lives and perceptions of children.  However, I also walked around the rest of an impressive gallery and the very well exhibited remains of a Roman amphitheatre in the bowels of the building. London never ceases to surprise.

Guildhall Art Gallery

Guildhall Art Gallery (Pre-Raphaelite Section)

Roman Amphitheatre Under The Guildhall, London

Roman Amphitheatre Under The Guildhall, London

The main exhibition at the gallery, called Seen and Heard was interesting, informative and well presented.  It resonated well with a book I’m just finishing called A House Unlocked by Penelope Lively.  As it happens this was another Christmas present, this time from LSW’s Aunt. Lively uses her memory of artefacts and aspects of a rather grand childhood home in west Somerset to launch narratives on how various elements of social life have changed in the last 150 years or so.

The First Sermon and The Second Sermon By Millais

The First Sermon (Girl Sleeping) and The Second Sermon (Girl Not Sleeping) By Millais At The ‘Seen And Heard’ Exhibition

Lively covers childhood, gardening, hunting, immigration and marriage and much more.  The chapters covering childhood and parenting interlocked with some of what I saw at the Guildhall and it all rang true.  In particular, the section on her marriage got me nodding my head in agreement.  Here is an extract of one paragraph:

“Every marriage is a journey, a negotiation, an accommodation.  In a long marriage, both partners will mutate; the people who set out together are not the same two people after ten years, let alone thirty or more…… Our marriage was like most; it had its calm reaches, its sudden treacherous bends, its episodes of white water to be navigated with caution and a steady nerve…… We meshed entirely in tastes and inclinations, could always fire one another with new interest, and laid down over the years that rich sediment of shared references and mutual recognition familiar to all who have known long companionship. You are separate people, but there is a shadowy presence which is an entity, the fusion of you both.”

I’m expecting LSW and I to build another layer of sediment of shared memory over the next few weeks as we travel to Qatar and then tour Sydney, Tasmania and Perth in Australia.  Watch this space.