A Pensionable Age

It was my birthday last week and I am now, officially, a pensioner.  I can’t wait to get my bus pass and try it out!

I had an absolutely wonderful birthday week and, for the first time in what might be decades, I spent my actual birthday with both my Dad and my sister who has her birthday just the day before mine.  She is staying with my Dad and so I popped up to Nottingham to see them both on the way to see Forest Green Rovers’ last, critical game of the season in Mansfield, and then on to Edinburgh.

The weather in Nottingham was kind enough to enable some pleasant local walks but the highlight of my stay – apart perhaps from our joint birthday meal out at a local restaurant – was an evening playing Mahjong

The Family Mahjong Set

My Dad (and now my sister) has inherited a fine and thankfully complete bone and hand painted Mahjong set which my Grandad brought from India when he returned to England.  The game is a delicate balance of luck and skill but the pleasure really comes from the handling of the bone bricks and counters.  Playing again as a family was such fun although we all missed the fourth hand in the game – Mum.

Three-Player Mahjong; My Winning Hand (Hehe!)

Of course the next highlight was Forest Green Rovers’ game at Mansfield.  We needed to achieve a better result on the day than Exeter City (who were playing at home in Exeter) to win the English Football League Division 2 Championship.  We came from behind twice against Mansfield with two fine goals right in front of us to gain a draw.  Then, a minute after our result, we heard that Exeter had lost; we are Champions!  Joy was unconfined on and off the pitch!

Champions!

I had to leave those celebrations early and quickly to get my train north to Edinburgh.  I arrived just before midnight in the midst of First Grandchild’s (FG’s) sleep training.  I was quiet and careful not to disrupt the discipline of feeding him at fixed times and of forcing him to settle himself when waking during the night.  FG’s progress during my few days in Edinburgh was transformational but not entirely linear – nor will it be continuous going forward.  But the direction of travel is extremely positive and, for Eldest Son and, especially, his partner, the huge reduction in FG’s demands during evenings and the night is already life changing for them (and FG).

Big Beach And Big Sky: Portobello, Edinburgh

Seeing FG again was a real treat and I had such a great time in Edinburgh again.  I visited the Royal Botanic Gardens once more (with a sleeping FG).  I am now familiar with the gardens but, of course, it is now Spring so everything looks different – and even more interesting – than it did during my last visit.  The last of the tulips are out and the rhododendrons are looking gorgeous.  The trees are freshly in leaf and the birds are super-active.  Fortunately, FG slumbered throughout.

Royal Botanical Gardens: Tulips In The Demonstration Garden

It is at this time of the year that one can see that, indeed, the Botanical Garden in Edinburgh has the largest collection of rhododendrons in the world.  There is such a variety on show and now is peak flowering time.  A small but interesting exhibition in Inverleith House set out the characteristics of rhododendrons, their world distribution, their history in gardening, and the challenges to indigenous plant-life some varieties have caused as they have escaped into the wilds of the northern hemisphere, including Scotland. 

Edinburgh Royal Botanical Gardens: Fresh Leafed Trees And Flowering Rhododendrons

I also went to a superb exhibition of Barbara Hepworth’s work at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.  It was a straightforward retrospective but, I thought, the pieces on show were not only excellent illustrations of the progression her art took through her life but were, in several cases, just astonishingly good.  I loved the exhibition.

Barbara Hepworth At The Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art

In part, as I have noted during previous visits to Edinburgh galleries, my pleasure was heightened by the fact that there were no crowds vying for views of the work on show.  Exhibitions in London may be more high profile but they can also attract crowds that can detract from the show.  Being another capital and highly cultural city, Edinburgh can attract big names and marvellous works but without the huge audiences – at least, outside of Edinburgh Festival timings. 

Barbara Hepworth Bronzes And More
More Hepworth At The Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art

My final cultural exploit in Edinburgh was to see the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  The big ‘wow!’ here is the Great Hall of the building itself.  As one walks into the building for the first time, it is a jaw-droppingly beautiful space.

The Great Hall At The Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The art on show is, predictably, almost exclusively portraiture.  I can only take so much of that and I may have overdone it as the chronologically organised galleries became a bit of a blur after a while. 

The Library At The Scottish National Portrait Gallery

There was however, a mixed but, overall, interesting exhibition on the Scottish census.  This included a piece of a project by Kieron Dodds to photograph ginger-haired people.  These tend to be in distinct geographic pockets around the world – apparently, for example, 13% of people in Scotland are have ginger coloured hair and there are distinct preponderances of ginger colouring in parts of the Caribbean and Russia.  The project felt relevant given that FG’s current hair colour is also a little ginger.

‘Gingers’ By Kieron Dodds

Then it was back to London to carry out a chore or two in the Barbican flat prior to sale (we hope).  I saw The Northman in a cinema – my first cinema visit for a long while.  It was worth seeing on the big screen if only for the amazing Icelandic scenery but, apart from one twist exquisitely delivered by Nicole Kidman, it was, for me, no more than a bit of moderately entertaining, macho-violent, Nordic swashbuckling. 

I capped off birthday week with breakfast with Middle Son – always a treat to get an update on his shifting plans.  Then home to get my bus pass application in……

Big Month and Bacon

April 2022 was a truly memorable month.  Eldest Son (ES) and his partner (plus First Grandchild) bought a flat – the first of our sons to become a home owner.  Also (and I’m afraid ES, at least as significantly) Forest Green Rovers were promoted to English Football League Division 1 (EFL1)! 

Joy Unconfined

I have supported Forest Green Rovers Football Club since the family moved to Gloucestershire almost 25 years ago.  I was finding it increasingly fraught and onerous to take our boys the 70 miles there and back to my boyhood club of Reading.  I wanted them to like football and have the opportunity to watch it live and so I turned to the ‘biggest’ local Club: Forest Green Rovers.

When my support started, the Club had just been promoted to the National Conference League (the fifth tier in England) and offered a poorly attended, but viscerally intimate, version of semi-professional and then fully professional football.  I watched the football while the boys messed about one the terraces with each other and with Lego.  

The Club were perennial underdogs at that time.  However, the Club was transformed progressively following investment from green energy industrialist Dale Vince in 2010.  Dale uses the Club to promote his green and vegan values – we are reportedly the ‘greenest’ football club in the world – but has also applied finance, ambition and vision to the Club.  Promotion to EFL2 followed via the playoffs and a truly remarkable day at Wembley.  Now, just 5 years later, we are promoted again to EFL1.  Next year will be very difficult but it has been a wonderful journey for me and all the other fans of the Club. 

After A Win Versus Oldham Athletic Which Virtually Guaranteed Promotion

Unfortunately we are likely to just miss out on finishing top of EFL2 following a relatively poor run of recent results.  But one chance remains if we can win our last game at Mansfield next weekend.   In a slightly crazy itinerary, I am going to that game via my Dad in Nottingham and then onwards to Edinburgh to see ES’s new flat.  The start of another memorable month perhaps…..

April was not solely dominated by football.  I also attended an alumni event in London with people who were exact or approximate contemporaries during my first 2-3 years of work way back in the 1970s.  It was a great to catch up and also an opportunity to tidy our Barbican flat ready for sale and to see a London exhibition.

I chose to visit the Francis Bacon, Man and Beast Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.  It’s hard to say I ‘like’ Bacon’s art since it is so menacing and challenging but I do enjoy seeing it and admire it hugely.  I had last seen an exhibition of his work almost three years ago at the Gagosian Gallery in London.  That had highlighted Bacon’s interest in animals and the new exhibition at The Royal Academy followed that wildlife and animal theme.

In practice, some of the work on show was only loosely linked to his fascination with wildlife and the parallels between wild animals and humans (much of which seems to have stemmed from his early life as a horse-breeders son).  There were a number of works that one almost expects to see at a Bacon exhibition and the links between these to apes, bulls, birds (but never horses) sometimes seemed tenuous.

Royal Academy Exhibition: Typical Images By Francis Bacon (Head VI, Figure Study II) And, More Unusual ‘Landscape Near Malabata’ (Bottom Right)

Nonetheless, it was an excellent exhibition that told a fascinating life story and that was well worth seeing.  I found the triptych’s at the end of the exhibition particularly daunting but impressive. 

Royal Academy Exhibition of Francis Bacon Triptychs

I was lucky too that I was able to attend as the exhibition opened when it wasn’t too crowded.  That enabled time and space to take in all the skewed wildness and menace in some of Bacon’s best work.

‘Two Studies From The Human Body’ By Francis Bacon – Probably My Favourite Painting In This Royal Academy Exhibition

Back home, we had a very family oriented Easter with Youngest Son, his partner and pretty much all of Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) close relatives.  The weather was kind enough to enable us to spill outside for a lot of welcome catch-ups with LSW’s nieces and nephews.  We hadn’t seen YS since Christmas so it was just great to see him and his partner over the long weekend too.  We must plan another trip to Belfast……

One Of The Signs That Spring Is Here: The Annual ‘Amberley Cow Hunt’ – ‘Mootallica’ and ‘Calf Awake’. Two Of Over 30 Displays

Spring hasn’t fully warmed up yet but gardening has started in earnest – I can tell from the muscle aches and the good nights’ sleep.  Preparing the ground for vegetables at this time of year by digging it over and clearing weeds is one of my favourite tasks; there is no pressure yet to protect stuff from deer, voles, mice and badgers or to actually produce any vegetables yet.  It’s just good old physical work and I don’t have so many vegetable beds that I need to overdo any exertions.

‘Everest’ Crab Apple and Camassia In Our Garden
Local Bluebell Woods

It’s is lovely and lucky to be doing that gardening in such a pretty and relatively untroubled part of the World.

The Cotswold Countryside Appears To Be Supporting Ukraine

Overstepping The Mark To Normality?

Over the last couple of weeks I have done a number of things that have pushed my risk of catching Covid 19.  I haven’t caught it – presumably thanks to being double vaccinated – but have felt in jeopardy on a few occasions.  With the exception of our planned trips to Scotland (lockdown restrictions permitting) when Eldest Son and his fiancés’ baby arrives and then for Christmas, I plan to reduce my exposure to the pandemic a bit in the next few weeks.

For the first time since the pandemic struck, Long-suffering Wife (LSW) and I went to a large indoor event.  We attended two very interesting talks at the Cheltenham Literary Festival along with a few hundred others who were mostly masked and who were, by and large of the age that would have been double vaccinated.  Any feeling of risk of contagion was quickly overtaken by my interest in what was being said.

Feargal Cochrane And Patrick McGuire Discussing Northern Ireland At The Cheltenham Literary Festival

The first talk was about the Labour Party and whether it has any chance of winning an election any time soon.  The conclusion between three Labour party sympathisers seemed to be a resounding ‘no’ but the reasons and the possible deflections to that verdict were well set out in arguments that seemed to spill new thoughts and ideas every few seconds.

The second talk concerned the recent history of Northern Ireland.  This is of particular interest because Youngest Son (YS) and his Belfast-born partner are now making their careers and lives in Northern Ireland.  Having visited a couple of times, we love the country and want it to succeed.  The risks to that success are rooted in history there, recent disinterest in Westminster, and the touch-paper lit by Brexit.  It was a fascinating talk and increased my wish that the current difficulties around the new Northern Ireland Protocol agreement with the European Union can be resolved soon and relatively painlessly.

Then, last week, I travelled up to London.  I hunkered down in a corner on the train up and then walked across London to our flat.  On the way I visited the new Marble Arch Mound.  The Mound and the view from it was a lot less impressive than the scaffolding on which it is built but the light show inside was a nice bonus.

The main purpose of my London trip was to visit my dentist there for a check-up and hygienist appointment that had been postponed several times over the last year due to the pandemic.  The Covid protocols in the dental surgery made me feel very safe and I got away with just a couple of bloodied gums and some new dental hygiene advice.

I felt less safe on the tube to and from a football match (it wasn’t quite coincidence that my football team – table topping Forest Green Rovers – were playing at Leyton Orient the day after my dental appointment!).  Despite guidance that masks should be worn, only a minority did so.  Fortunately I only needed to be on the tube for four stops each way. 

At the match itself, masks were completely absent but the excitement of the football always swamps any feelings I have of Covid risk during games.

Celebrating Shared Spoils After A Tight Game (Nice Orient Mascots!)

The visit to London was a lovely break.  I visited an unusual and stimulating exhibition by Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama at the White Cube gallery in Bermondsey.  His art there incorporated old maps (which I love), ideas about colonialism and the story of his renovation of a bat infested grain silo complex.  The White Cube is a wonderful space and it’s free to visit.

Variety Of Ibrahim Mahama’s Work At The White Cube Gallery, Bermondsey
Ibrahim Mahama’s ‘Capital Corpses’ – 100 Rusty Sewing Machines That Bash Away On Vintage Desks (Its Quite a Noise!)

I also got to see Middle Son (MS) and his partner at the football match but also for dinner and lunch.  It was great to catch up with what they are up to. Dinner at Bottega Prelibato was excellent and felt pretty safe. 

However, it was during that dinner that I decided that I would forgo another planned London trip the following week during which I was scheduled to see the band Tourist with MS.  The idea of being in a cavernous, enclosed space with several bouncing and singing, young and partially vaccinated people felt like an overstepping of the Covid risks.  MS and his partner were able to use the tickets and I’m left with regret but well-being.

Other safe events were a visit by YS and his mate on their way to a holiday in Wales and a simultaneous visit by a couple who have been decades-long friends from London.  All had gone beyond the call of duty by having recent lateral flow tests – something I need to get in the habit of doing – before visiting us.  It was an extremely convivial weekend full of chats, walks, good food and a local art exhibition by a West Country chap called Stuart Voaden.  His day was made too by the fact that our friends purchased some of his work.  We all had fun.

What felt less safe – although it was fun too – was a visit to the local pub last week.  For a few weeks now, since the weather got colder, I have been drinking inside rather than in the pub garden.  Even during the busy recent Quiz Night the environment felt relatively Covid-free.  However, the ‘Jam Night’ last week was a night of full blown sing songs and, as I left after a few noisy beers, I wondered if that had been my peak risk of infection during the last few weeks.  I’m going to go to the pub on quieter nights for a while.

Everyone has a different feel for the balance of risk in relation to Covid.  I know that I’m lucky that I can choose how much risk I take.  The last few weeks have been interesting in helping me determine what is and what is not ok for me in advance of my booster jab and, one hopes, a final decline in Covid cases.

Postscript: Just one more shout out for our Café-au-Lait dahlias which have given me so much pleasure as cut blooms over the last few months.  They will continue for a little while yet until they are blasted by the first frost. 

Also, I am pleased that my limited range of vegetable harvest has been decent again this year.  I can’t grow a lot of things since I struggle to protect them from mammals both large (deer, badgers) and small (voles, mice).  However, some basic fencing and conservative plant choices have meant we have plenty of squash, chard, beetroot, onions and potatoes stored in the old stables as we enter winter.

Home Grown Veg! The Crown Prince Squash (Top Right And 1 of 5) Is A Whopping Stone In Weight

A Surprise Test Event

The undoubted highlight in what has been a further two weeks of Covid-19 quietude was a surprise test event held at Forest Green Rovers Football Club (FGR) – my team!  Test events to ‘test’ the efficacy of running sporting events that are open to the public during the pandemic have been scheduled across several sports for some weeks.  Because of the latest surge in infections many have been cancelled but apparently FGR were asked, at short notice, whether they wanted to hold one.  They obliged by inviting all their season ticket holders to take part.

Once I knew that my allocated, socially-distanced seat in the stand wouldn’t be in any potential driving rain, I jumped at the chance.  In the event, it was a sunny day.  The attractive, hilly walk to the ground felt like old times, and the whole occasion was a very exciting break from Covid-19 routines. 

There were socially distanced queues for temperature checks and then to get into the stadium.  The imposition of face masks muffled my cheers of team loyalty and those of the other 500 supporters.  But, not only did was event an emotional highlight, it felt safe.

The game itself was one FGR should have won.  However, following two players being sent off (the opposition), a missed penalty (us) and a scorching last-minute-of-injury-time equaliser (us), we had to be content with an eventful and dramatic draw. 

FGR vs Bradford City; The Only Professional Game I Will See Kick Off Live This Season?

Unfortunately, the increasing progress of the Covid-19 infection rate means that this event is likely to have been a one-off.  Further attendance of live FGR games feels a long way away again.  But I feel lucky that I had a brief reminder of the visceral pleasure of live football in a stadium.  (And we didn’t lose!)

As another highlight, Long Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) mother took us out for a very pleasant lunch (only our second restaurant lunch in 6 months) at The Potting Shed.  We also walked to the relatively new Wild Carrot Cafe on the very rural edge of the Parish and have made a few visits to our local and increasingly pandemic restriction-bound local pub.

The Wild Carrot Cafe, Chavenage

Otherwise, waking life has been a merry-go-round of walks, day-to-day shopping, meals and catch up television.  Outlander (just Series 1 so far) has been our latest TV box set plough-through.  That was very watchable except for the rape and torture scenes during which I tended to go off to make my warming evening drink!

There have been a few little frissons of excitement courtesy of nature.  I saw my first lizard (other than slow worms) in the garden.  We also had a huge dragonfly perch briefly on our garden table.  The friendly pheasant is back. 

Garden Visitors

Indeed, the garden continues to be a bountiful pleasure with masses of chard, huge but tasty beetroot, courgettes (of course) and masses of wonderful dahlias from two plants that have survived the cold of the last two winters. 

They Just Keep On Coming: ‘Cafe Au Lait’ Dahlias

The walled garden we had built three years ago is still laced with lots of white, purple and pink flowers among the tall grasses and shrubs.

Still Lots Of Colour In The Garden

Meanwhile, achingly slow progress is being made on a new garden behind and above the house.  LSW loves a project and, when the builders have finally completed the terracing and walling, there will be loads of work for us to do to clear unwanted plants (bind weed and hypericum is rife, is hard to eradicate and both LSW and I hate it) and renew the area with new ones.

Diggers In Our Garden Once Again

We are so lucky to have the space to be able to enjoy a garden and enough cash to be able to remodel it.  The garden has been such a boon during these weird, pandemic times.  It’s such a shame though, that this weirdness will continue, as most of us feared, into autumn, winter and beyond.   I look forward to my next sporting test event – whenever that may be – as a sign that these weird times may be ending.  Stay safe, all.

Colourful Hedgerows This Year (Black Bryony, Hawthorn and Rose Hips)

Football Coming Home?

Last weekend, I went to my first live football game for almost 6 months.  Granted, it was a relatively small local village affair but it stoked feelings of regret for the football I have missed due to the Coronavirus and some excitement for the delayed but impending advent of the new football season.

The match was played on our village playing field – an unassuming but picturesque venue – between our very own Horsley United and a guest team.

Pre-Match Line-ups For Horsley United And The Guest XI

Pre-Match Line-ups For Horsley United And The Guest XI

The match was a celebration of Horsley United’s promotion to Stroud District League 2 last season.  Somehow, the organisers had managed to attract three ex-Premier English League footballers to play for the opposition (Deon Burton, Lee Hendrie and Lee Carsley).  Each of these showed their class (and their age) and they added an unexpected gloss to a very pleasant occasion.

I have to say, too, that Horsley United look a much better team this season.  While Stuart Hendrie (Lee Hendrie’s younger brother and another professional footballer) was probably the best player on the pitch, two new young Horsley strikers caught the eye and ultimately won the game.  I look forward to seeing village football again soon.

My main team, Forest Green Rovers, have also started playing friendlies.  The building anticipation for Forest Green Rovers’ new season in English Football League 2 has been accelerated by the streaming over the Internet of some of the more important friendly games and the availability of season tickets.  I fear that social distancing in the main stand, which has reduced capacity by about 75%, will mean that my allocated season ticket seat will be near the front or sides of the main stand where the risk of getting very wet in westerly storms is high.  However, I may get lucky and, anyway, I have waterproofs and I can’t wait for the season proper to start.

Initially, games will be streamed since the stadium can’t be opened until infection and death rates are lower.  There is hope that this will be sometime in October but, given the experience of other countries in Europe, our confused approach to lock down in the UK, and currently rising infection rates, I’m not so optimistic.  My purchase of a season ticket within an hour of sales starting was an act of faith and of support for the football club I love; hopefully, it pays off.

Forest Green Rovers's Current Stadium

Forest Green Rovers’s Current Stadium

In the two weeks since our trip to Northern Ireland I have become aware of how much I needed that trip away from home for the first time in five months.  The lock-down days have now returned to their rather lustreless routine.  The walks through local nature continue to be very pleasant – I spotted some bats a couple of evenings ago which was an example of how uplifting little incidents on these walks can be.  The garden continues to be a pleasure even in the relative wetness of this year’s August.  The gentle rhythm of walking, shopping, reading, listening to music, cooking and eating, snoozing and watching catch-up television generates contentment if not outright excitement.

One Of The Local Walk Pleasures - A Glorious Sunset

One Of The Local Walk Pleasures – A Glorious Sunset

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) has found another outlet from this routine with another short trip – this time with a work colleague to (very) northern Scotland.

Her absence has accentuated the predictability of my own home routine.  I look forward to LSW’s return.  I look forward to the return to a football season.  I look forward to other signs of post lock down normality.

Another Bonus From Having Time In Retirement To Stroll Through The Local Countryside: One of 'My Five A Day'

Another Bonus From Having Time In Retirement To Stroll Through The Local Countryside: One Of ‘My Five A Day’

Actually, as I think back over the last couple of weeks, there have been more breaks from lock-down routine than it feels.  Eldest Son visited us on his way to a camping trip.  Middle Son is visiting us tomorrow following a meet up with friends in Bristol.  We also managed a very pleasant ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ lunch with friends last week at our local and excellent William’s Kitchen.  Another move toward normality is the restart of the monthly series of village pub quizzes from next month.

I helped keep some semblance of momentum around the village quiz going earlier this year.  Now, the local pub is setting up a quiz that will be adherent to the government guidelines for social distancing, for making too much noise and for having too much fun during the pandemic.  Despite my general hopelessness at answering the quiz questions, I am looking forward to participating in something that, like the start of the football season, suggests we have turned a corner in the pandemic.  Once again, my fingers are crossed.

Hunkering Down For Coronavirus? Not Quite Yet

The news is dominated by the progress of coronavirus and our response to it.  In line with one of my New Year resolutions, and to assuage Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) dislike of my chuntering on to myself in response to the radio news, I have reduced the amount of news I listen to, especially in the morning.  Nonetheless, the reports of infections, deaths, stock market collapses and empty toilet roll shelves, creates a compelling narrative and visceral sensation.

The prospects, not least for my pension, look gloomy but whether the current levels of fear of coronavirus are fully justified is not quite concrete.  As a result, and despite my natural pessimism on this sort of thing, my personal response, in terms of activities undertaken, has been uncertain and mixed.

For example, I did brave the snuffling crowds to travel up to London last week by train and tube to attend one of my regular evening sessions with old friends there.  We went to a busy pub and Russian restaurant in Soho (we are up to R in the alphabet of cuisines we are sampling).  The washing of my hands in the loo a little more self-consciously and for longer than usual, and the eschewing of handshakes, were the only concessions to the virus.  Unless, that is, we count the imbibing of a few flavoured vodkas and the antiseptic qualities of their alcohol content.

A Selection Of Vodkas, Part Finished. Best Was The Horseradish Flavoured One

A Selection Of Vodkas, Part Finished. The Horseradish Flavoured Vodka was The Best And Has Already Been Quaffed

On the other hand, I chose not to go to a Forest Green Rovers (FGR) football match in nearby Swindon which normally I would have attended.  I rejected sitting on a stuffy train or bus for an hour next to old people like me and then being packed into the ‘away’ end.  Instead, I favoured a breezy walk to an airy view of a much smaller game at Shortwood, the even more local football ground just over the hill.  I felt rotten about the decision afterwards because it felt like conceding ground to the virus while missing out on what has recently become a rare win for FGR.

Since then, I have continued retired life as I did before the advent of the coronavirus outbreak.  I continue to walk into town daily. I have been to a pub to meet a village mate.  I have attended two optional meetings on local climate change response activity and have been to a local dinner party.  LSW and I plan to go to Bath for a concert and (assuming it is on) I plan to see FGR’s game at the weekend from the (fairly) packed stand.

I keep veering along a continuum from avoiding unnecessary contact with others through thinking that what ‘will be will be’ and doing normal things but in a restrained way, to full out participation in events because it might be the last chance I get to do so for a while.

Hopefully, now spring and some warmer weather is coming, the trepidation about the virus and the more scary statistics associated with it will reduce.  However, the news readers, politicians and experts on the radio that I have listened to tell me that things will get much worse before they get better.  I suspect several limitations on normal living are imminent.  Should that be the case I will absorb myself in splendid isolation in the garden, clearing the winter weeds and clutter and digging over the vegetable patch.  In any case, that’s a task I have postponed for long enough already.

While in London last week, I did fit in an exhibition.  This was the Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography exhibition at the Barbican.  This inadvertently continued my recent run of visiting photographic exhibitions – the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, the Don McCullin exhibition at Hauser & Wirth last month, and now this.

Overall, I enjoyed it – these large exhibitions at such prestigious venues are so well thought out and always worth seeing – but my level of enjoyment fluctuated as I progressed through it and I ‘tired’ towards the end.

Barbican Masculinities Exhibition: Photo By Rotimi Fani-Kayode

Barbican Masculinities Exhibition: Photo By Rotimi Fani-Kayode

The exhibition starts with a series of photos focusing on men as soldiers, athletes and cowboys in traditionally male roles.  However, the chosen photographs deliberately undermine the typical view of the male; the soldiers are out of combat and apparently defenceless, the athletes are barely beyond pubescence, the cowboys are of ambiguous sexuality.

Studio Photos Found Abandoned by Thomas Dworzak In Afghanistan: A Strange Mix Of Guns, Flowers and Kohl

The theme of subverting the masculine ideal here was quite interesting and the video by Jeremy Deller of cross-dressing wrestler Adrian Street was compelling enough to watch all the way through.  (It brought back memories of the routine of watching all-in wrestling on the BBC before the reading of the Saturday football results back in the 1960s and 70s.)

'Rusty' By Catherine Opie

‘Rusty’ By Catherine Opie

There was some more unexpected material on masculine spaces – fraternities in the US and Mens’ Clubs in London – and some more playful stuff on men and fatherhood on the ground floor of the exhibition.

Hans Eijkelboom's 'My Family': A Playful Set Of Photo's With Him Posing As Husband to Housewives Asked At Random To Pose With Him In Their Homes

Hans Eijkelboom’s ‘My Family’: A Playful Set Of Photo’s With Him Posing As Husband To Housewives Asked At Random To Pose With Him In Their Homes (Real Husbands Absent!)

Upstairs, as the examination into the ‘plurality of subversive masculinities’ continued, the more predictable focus was more on ‘Queer’ culture (that appears to be an ok word to use again), homosexuality and race.  I found this less interesting although I again enjoyed some of the more light-hearted pieces and there were a few impressive photos by Deana Lawson and Rotimi Fani-Kayode who’s work I have seen somewhere before.

Piotr Uklanski's 'The Nazi's': Montage Of Famous Actors Playing Nazi Leaders

Piotr Uklanski’s ‘The Nazi’s’: Montage Of Famous Actors Playing Nazi Leaders

I’m wondering if my plans to visit London again over the next month or so will remain intact during the coronavirus crisis; fingers crossed on that.  One thing for sure – I’m glad I have retired and have a choice (provided I don’t catch it!)

Squeezing In The Football

A couple of week-ends ago, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I went up to London to stay with a couple who have been friends of ours for a few decades.  They live in Chiswick and the territory is familiar to us since we lived for several years in the 1990’s in nearby Kew.  The stay with them was a chance to catch up on our respective lives and those of our offspring, to observe recent neighbourhood changes, to share views of current issues and re-discover a couple of walks that we haven’t done for years.  We had a great time.

We went up to London on the Friday morning and parked outside our old house in Kew.  There was then time for me to visit Tate Britain and see the William Blake exhibition there, and for LSW to head into central London to peruse the shops there.

Jacob And The Angel By Sir Jacob Epstein

Jacob And The Angel By Sir Jacob Epstein At Tate Britain

It seems that William Blake was somewhat of a mystery during his life-time and remains so today.  I enjoyed the cleverly displayed books of illustrated poems and his apparent pre-occupation with the darker aspects of myth and religion.  I liked the combination of big works with grand gestures and delicate pieces with intricate engraving.  The narrative of his topsy-turvy life was interesting too but, for me, too much of his motivation was left unexplained – perhaps because there is no definitive view on what he was trying to achieve.

William Blake Engravings At Tate Britain

William Blake Engravings At Tate Britain: ‘Christian Drawn Out Of The Slough By Help’, ‘I Sought Pleasure And Found Pain’ and ‘House of Death’

As it happens, I also struggled with finding a real point to the popular and much publicised ‘Year 3’ exhibit by Steve McQueen in the main hall of the Tate.  This was a huge display of hundreds of traditional school class photos showing all Year 3 children in London schools.  I confess I didn’t ‘get it’ although I understand that many of the participating classes will now visit Tate Modern to see their photo and also, hopefully, kindle a love of art.

Steve McQueen's 'Year 3' Photographs At Tate Modern

Steve McQueen’s ‘Year 3’ Photographs At Tate Modern

On the Friday evening, our male football loving host and I eschewed the possibility of going to see his football team play an evening game.  Instead, we relaxed over excellent food and rather too much good wine and chatted.  However, I had forewarned the company that I was committed to seeing my team – Forest Green Rovers (FGR) – and two of our sons at Leyton (Orient) the following afternoon.

On the Saturday morning, following a satisfying carbohydrate and coffee breakfast, we went, fully fuelled up, to The Wallace Collection in Manchester Square.  I had visited this lovely, free museum earlier this year when seeing a Henry Moore exhibition there.  This time, I focused on the paintings on the first floor which I didn’t remember from my earlier visit.  What was especially interesting about this was that several were of Venice which LSW and I had visited only a week or so previously.  The paintings by Canaletto and his school of artists, brought home what we had felt during our Venice visit: that Venice has hardly changed in centuries.

Venice Cityscapes By Canaletto and School Of Canaletto In The Wallace Collection

I left the others at the Wallace Collection, with their plans for lunch and a visit to the Antony Gormley exhibition at the Royal Academy, and headed east to grimier terrain in Leyton.  It was great to meet up with Middle Son (MS), Youngest Son (YS) and one of his friends there.  The game itself was thrilling and FGR achieved a hard fought and rather fortunate 4-2 win.

Forest Green Players Celebrating Their Win At Leyton Orient

Forest Green Players Celebrating Their Win At Leyton Orient

We left the ground buzzing with football excitement and the sons started talking about seeing the late afternoon Premiership football game in a nearby pub somewhere.  Two of our party were sporting distinctive FGR shirts so prudence was forcing them to think of pubs away from Leyton where Orient fans wouldn’t be drowning their sorrows.  They settled on Bethnal Green a couple of tube stops away.  That was on my way back to the hospitality in Chiswick so I went with them.

I love football (you may have noticed!) and I wanted to both spend more time with YS and MS and see the Premiership game too.  So, almost without really consciously deciding anything I sleepwalked with them out of the tube, out of the station and into a grotty but TV-equipped pub to watch the game.

As the first half progressed I wondered about the second pint of (awful) beer and whether I could stay a bit longer without annoying LSW and our hosts back in Chiswick.  My decision making was forced by a text on our family group-chat from LSW who was wondering where I was.  While I was pondering a response MS, YS and his friend burst out laughing.  YS had already posted a picture of me, clearly in a pub and looking at the text on my phone.  I was rumbled!

I sloshed the second pint down and left the pub at half time.  I arrived back in Chiswick in time to have got away with squeezing in the football.  I settled back into our hosts’ wonderful hospitality, still excited by my team’s win and armed with news from MS and YS.

Next day was calmer.  We had a relaxed walk around Chiswick down by the Thames and topped up with alcohol at a local pub before indulging in Sunday lunch.  Good times indeed!

Chiswick Views

London Variety Part I

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I have made several trips to London recently.  We continue to provide some increasingly peripheral help to Middle Son’s (MS’s) recovery there but there are other excuses for visits to the capital too.

Last week Forest Green Rovers Football Club (FGR) were playing Charlton, a London team a couple of divisions higher than ‘my’ club.  I took advantage of my retirement flexibility to pop up to London to meet up with Youngest Son (YS) and a bunch of his friends from university and from Australia for a few drinks by the river, the cup game itself, and then rather more drinks than I needed afterwards.  FGR were surprisingly victorious in the game and the evening was a lot of fun.  The Australian contingent maintained their reputation for their loud love of sport.

View Of The Thames Barrier From The Anchor and Hope Pub Before The Big Game

View Of The Thames Barrier From The Anchor and Hope Pub Before The Big Game

Celebrating The Winning Goal At Charlton

Celebrating The Winning Goal At Charlton (Me At Top Of Picture Arms Aloft!)

Next day, LSW joined me in London to take advantage of Eldest Son (ES) being away at the Edinburgh Fringe festival with his Scottish girlfriend and therefore leaving the Barbican flat free for a few days.  The flat is always a comfortable and central base from which to explore cultural and culinary variety in London.  Despite not planning particularly well, we had a full and interesting time including a great ‘small plates’ dinner at one our favourite buzzy restaurants, Popolo.

We had breakfast and coffee in the excellent Today Bread in Walthamstow with MS.  Then LSW and I headed off to Tate Modern to see the Van Gogh exhibition.  We had attempted to visit this show a couple of weeks previously but had arrived to find it closing due to the dreadful incident of a teenager pushing a youngster over a balcony.  Now, on arrival, we discovered that the exhibition had finished earlier in the week; poor planning!

Not to worry though; we switched attention to the Olafur Elliason exhibition called ‘In Real Life’ and we were both impressed.  I recalled seeing his installation in the main Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern gallery over 15 years ago.  That was a strange ethereal work called ‘The Weather Project’ that filled the hall with a sickly, pervasive yellow light.  I wondered if the exhibition would be more of the same, especially as we emerged from the lift to the entrance into an unforgiving light display.  In practice, the exhibition contained some of the themes of the previous work I had seen but it was much more than a few tricks of the light.

Model Room By Olafur Eliasson (2003)

Model Room By Olafur Eliasson (2003)

The exhibition opens with a large, varied array of models, ideas and experiments in a huge ‘Model Room’.  This whets the appetite for what is to come and indicates some of the themes of his work around nature, sustainability, geometry and technology that are to follow in what is a varied and child-friendly show.

Children Enjoying Eliasson's Evolution Project (2001)

Children Enjoying Eliasson’s Evolution Project (2001) At Tate Modern

The closest exhibit to The Weather Project is a 39 metre-long corridor filled with fog of several different colours and ending with an impenetrable white glare, in which you see fellow visitors looming up alongside and in front of you.  It was very unsettling.

Your Blind Passenger By Olafur Eliasson (2010)

Your Blind Passenger By Olafur Eliasson (2010)

What I liked about the exhibition was the variety, the invitation to delve as deeply or not into the material as one wanted, and the engagement with current issues such as the climate emergency.  The exhibit relating to the melting glaciers in Iceland was particularly moving and the exhibits on Greenland tied in with recent articles I have read about ‘ecological grief’ – in this case, the sadness and stress Greenlanders feel for the disappearing ice on their land.

I also really enjoyed the exhibits proposing solutions and not just setting out the environmental and social challenges we face.  An example was that showing Eliasson’s ‘Little Sun’ project on provision of pretty, portable, solar-powered lights.  This is related to, or at least similar to, the devices that the charity Solar Aid provide to third-world families currently reliant on dangerous and polluting kerosene for night light.  It was art with a grounded and practical purpose.

Little Sun Project by Olafur Eliasson (2012)

Little Sun Project by Olafur Eliasson (2012)

LSW and I also went to the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition on Food: ‘FOOD: Bigger Than The Plate’.  This was another exhibition that could be viewed at a variety of levels of detail.  It was rather sprawling across a huge topic spanning composting and waste (probably the most interesting section of the exhibition), farming, trading and food miles, packaging, and eating.

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Ideas For Growing Food (Lettuces) Vertically In Returning, Otherwise Empty Containers, In The Trading In The Eating Section Of The FOOD: Bigger Than The Plate Exhibition

Each section set out the current challenges the world faces given its growing population and our growing expectations for food quality and range.  It then highlighted some sample projects showing how some are trying to meet these challenges.

On the side of the challenges, for example, there was a video showing the transport of a banana from Ecuador across 14 days and 8,800km to an Icelandic supermarket where it is sold for 20 (Euro) cents.  Another video, similar to those I have seen before, showed the horror of factory animal farming.  LSW and I hesitated before choosing to eat roast chicken as usual this weekend just gone!

On the positive side, there were waterless toilets, tableware made from coffee grounds, projects in South America preserving heritage maize species, and ideas of bringing farms (e.g. vertical farms) into cities to reduce transport demand.  There were exhibits underlining the importance of cooking and eating as a social activity and of eating local food that is in season rather than expecting everything all the time.  It was an interesting exhibition but I’m not sure it accelerated my progress – already gradually being made I’m glad to say – towards buying and eating food more sustainably.

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Spoons Designed To Broaden And Enhance The Eating Experience In The Eating Section Of The FOOD: Bigger Than The Plate Exhibition

LSW and I are now planning a further few days in London before the end of the month.  Part II of our various activities there coming up!

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.

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.