Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Of An Autumn Journey Part 1

P. came to England for his Toussaint break from school. Here we have a week for half-term. There they have a fortnight for remembering their dead. It was a perfect opportunity to risk taking the boat out for a few days. The paint had had a few weeks to harden further and I didn't have much work on, so we upped and went one Friday afternoon in October.  Our first stop was Three Holes.

Over the years this village on the extreme edge of Norfolk has lost many of its amenities. I looked at a house there thirty years ago when the daily had outgrown our tiny cottage. It had a huge garden, with a barn and a workshop, but the house itself didn't fit our needs. It also required far more work than I would have able to undertake. Although I would happily have taken it on as a project, my wife knew I would never complete it (and knew full well I would abandon hope shortly after starting it when it came to things I couldn't fix with gaffer tape and bailing twine). I could see "potential". She could see disaster and rural isolation. She had a point and we didn't buy, but it never stopped me fantasising about what might have been. The village once had a school, a pub and, until recently, a garage. Only a village hall and, possibly, a shop now show any signs of life. The village hall seems to be quite active and regularly has film nights. I would be tempted to try one, but I have allowed a dread of a re-enactment of the village hall scene from "Deliverance" to build in my head. Many years ago I played for a ceilidh here. It is one of two gigs in my memory where I have felt unsafe. Apart from having to run a long lead from the kitchen to the stage in order to locate a socket with an earth connection I had made an error of not putting details of the gig in writing. In those days I worked on the principle of keeping the admin simple and all agreements were made over the telephone or on a handshake. This event encouraged me to consider a more professional route. Towards the end of the ceilidh I announced the last dance, walked it through and we finished at 11.30 as agreed. When we stopped, there was none of the usual activity of people bustling around to collect belongings, clear their glasses and bottles, rearrange the furniture and take their leave of friends. They turned to stand and face the band - that Deliverance moment - and there were none of the smiles customary from a group of people who had enjoyed a night of great fun, excellent music and exhilarating dancing. On the contrary the atmosphere had taken on a sudden coolness loaded with potential aggression. It was a confrontation without any obvious cause and I was confused ... not to mention a little nervous; actually that is British understatement and I was becoming scared to the point of panic as the microseconds passed. The band I had at the time were as sensitive as usual and had swung into shutdown, pack up and get out mode. After a few seconds, which to me seemed more like minutes, my contact came up and our exchange went something like,
 "They are expecting you to play for longer, you need to do another half an hour."
 "We agreed an 11.30 finish."
 "You need to do another half-hour."
 "We agreed an 11.30 finish."
 "You don't understand. You NEED to do another half-hour."
 "I put midnight on the poster and that is what they have paid for and what they are expecting."

 I looked the band, still oblivious as they shut off amps, unplugged leads and started coiling cables, and I looked at the unmoving, unsmiling audience. The post-gig band banter rang out over an Arctic silence.
 "Er, gang, can you plug in and switch on again, please? We need to go on a bit longer ... "

 Since then I have written and sent out contracts for every gig.

 The village shop metamorphosed into a café recently. The strait and cluttered rows of beans, bread and booze were cleared away and, save for a token display unit of essentials to appease villagers and passing strangers, replaced by a miscellany of charity shop tables, chairs, comfortable sofas and coffee tables. The walls were stripped back, many to bare brick, some painted in aspirational colours and an interesting photographic gallery of vintage local scenes replaced life's essentials that had apparently returned insufficient profit for the disproportionate responsibility. I thought the place looked great and told the owner so between mouthfuls of home-made cake and sips of peppermint tea when I visited and discovered the changes a few months ago. She explained how the rebirth was due to have happened over a holiday closure. However, as with many building projects concerning older properties, each step of the process uncovered a hydra-headed monster list of tasks that should have been sorted before. A few weeks of work turned into several months. Five layers of wallpaper was just the beginning of the horror.

I wondered how this new venture would attract more customers than a village shop. It may have been transformed on the inside, but from the outside it still looks like the same old corner shop. Although the road is mildly busy it is not an overly busy through route. Neither is Three Holes at present a must-visit tourist destination unless you feel the need to visit places with weird names - and you could get a two-for-one bargain here with Lakes End being the next village along this shortest route from Wisbech to Littleport. Let's ignore the fact that the road can be closed for several weeks, or even months, each year during the rainy season when the Washes are up. The flooded road necessitates a thirty-mile detour if you get caught out. I have heard of children on the wrong side of the flood at Welney being taken to school in a rowing boat owned by one family from near the Suspension Bridge. An adventure for sure the first couple of times, but it's not a journey I would fancy on a regular basis, specially if I were on the oars. It's not exactly a short distance.

So, this adventurous café project has begun life at a disadvantage and, if it is to realise survival as a business, will undoubtedly be working out how to get the customers in. In another location the place would likely be packed out on a daily basis, specially if the food and service can be got right, but Three Holes ...? I have been back several times, a few times to meet a friend for a slice of cake, a drink and a mardle and this time with P. Unfortunately, every time I've been back since my first visit the café has been closed. How self-destructively English. I really hope they find a way to make a go of it. 

I was delighted to have found space on the public mooring for the first time in ages. Usually there has been at least one other boat there and mooring has usually entailed a precarious balancing act to cast a rope round a post several feet from any foothold.  Think of the balancing posture required for The Crane Kick from the Karate Kid films. Naturally, there being plenty of space to moor, we only needed to be there for half-an-hour before we set off again, because the café was closed. It would take us nearly a couple of hours to get to the next place of refreshment along the Sixteen Foot Drain at Stonea.

The Golden Lion is a friendly pub that has been under the present ownership for a few years now. The first time I went there they were serving exotic meats - kangaroo, zebra and ostrich come to mind, but my memory may be playing tricks. Nowadays they specialise in pies, far more attractive to a couple of vegetarians such as P'n'me. I found out about their sixteen varieties of pies (and choices of pastry crust) when a woman nearly drowned. 

Andy and Christina moved to the Fens from high-powered jobs in the prosperous south. The prospect of a family seemed unlikely through their custom of passing each other in trans-Atlantic aeroplanes heading in opposite directions. So they sold up and moved to the Fens. Six years ago they bought the pub. Six weeks ago they bought the boat. One day the boat broke down on the wrong side of the river near the farm. That day there was a knock at the door at the farmer's house and and his partner was rather taken aback to be confronted by a woman who was sodden from head to toe and dripping on her doorstep. Christina had taken decisive action and leapt into the river to swim across for help, leaving Andy on board with their three year-old daughter. Fen life is good for families. I wasn't around that day, but somehow they got the boat to the farm side of the river and have ended up with a place to moor their boat. Although many, many miles from the pub it was an improvement on their previous improvised mooring under the railway bridge over the Sixteen Foot, which is where P'n'me ended up mooring that night. It wasn't easy either.

Last time I moored up in Stonea there was another boat. I snagged a fishing line I hadn't seen and released an apparently very expensive float into the wild. The young angler hadn't seen me until it was too late and he hadn't heard me either with his earphones attached to whatever music he was playing on his phone. He was very apologetic and so was I. I staked the boat to the bank and we later shared a drink and conversation in the Golden Lion. The bank then was very steep and very slippery, but at least I could get close enough to extend the gangplank. This time, though, I couldn't get near the bank for the reeds that grew out into the river. I was forced to turn round (luckily I knew there was a culvert nearby - where I had found and retrieved that expensive float from where it was caught up in the reeds) and moor half under the railway bridge. Unfortunately the stern end still wouldn't pull in anywhere near the bank, so I was moored jutting out into the water where it narrowed under the bridge. Fortunately I could get just about close enough at the bow end for the gangplank to reach. It still took us well over forty-five minutes to moor up safely though and I was glad P was with me. It would have taken even longer by myself. I was also very glad Andy and I had spent a while talking one day when he had come to do some work on his boat. From that conversation I knew that, somewhere, there was a rope attached to a post which we could use to haul ourselves up the bank. P found it and, with our boat secure we headed in to a delicious pie supper. The accompanying vegetables were perfect.

I had a fitful night's sleep. With the cabin end under the bridge I discovered that goods trains run right through the night. Most goods trains are very long. As a child, living in London, I had a terror of railway bridges and arches. I remember having to run under them, holding my breath, fearing the rumbling train would bring the bridge down on me. I'm not a big fan of going under noisy railway bridges to this day. Sleeping under one was worse. Next morning the wind had picked up. My first manoeuvre was to get the boat off the undredged river bed and back into deeper water without falling in or losing any of the stakes, the club hammer, the gangplank or P. Then I had to reverse back to the culvert so I could turn round again and we could continue on our journey. Reversing boats do not have much directional control so it was a delicate manoeuvre requiring much shunting between reverse and forward gears. The wind did its very best to unravel what advantage I had gained through the bursts of forward gear necessary to correct our heading.

(I started writing this some time ago and haven't had time to finish it yet. It suddenly struck me I didn't have to do the account all in one essay, so I shall rename this part 1 and finish the rest later. Why didn't I think of that before!)

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Historical Diary 20/12/12 - Some Days Are Quite Full

Every so often I come across something that amounts to a diary entry from elsewhere that I've been thinking would work, with a little tweaking, as a short essay here.  Here's one from 20th December 2012.

It has been an odd sort of day. I/we took P to Carrefour to stock up so he didn't have to go shopping for a few days. Then I set off back to England. The TAC web site gave the wrong train times and destinations causing me to panic, specially when the ticket machine didn't recognise my pre-paid travel cards as payment. I had to join the queue in the French ticket office with my train into Switzerland imminent. My queue led to the clerk who wouldn't accept cash. Start again. I barely made it to the train and somehow lost the travel cards anyway; got to the airport and eventually to the boarding gate where a young Swiss girl pushed in front after the queue had formed. The airline staff seemed to know her and told me to let her boyfriend in too. One day I'll understand European queues. I dozed off on the plane, but was woken up when a member of the cabin crew staff opened the locker overhead and someone's computer fell on me - bit of a surprise. We arrived at Gatwick ten minutes early, but had to stay on the plane because we'd stopped at a domestic stand and staff couldn't open the right doors to prevent us internationals getting muddled up with the domestics. Eventually, we disembarked, but the railway station was closed because someone had been hit by a train. Chaos ensued, rail staff useless and got to St Pancras to meet Toby three hours later. Walking through the station we passed Brian May walking in the opposite direction. I smiled and nodded a discreet greeting. He stared at me realising I was probably mad and, I assumed, fearful that I would want to talk to him or worse still have a photograph taken. I spent the evening with Toby at Cargo's in Shoreditch bouncing about to the rather splendid Treacherous Orchestra at their first London gig. Forgot my earplugs. Not sensible when this ten-piece band features two Highland pipers. Great set. See this band! Winding down for sleep now with both ears ringing. Found earplugs in trouser pocket. Anticipating being leapt on by grandsons in a few hours. Goodnight."

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Of Clockwise Days

You know the kind of thing. You get up perfectly early enough to do what you have to do before you leave your home for a few days. You've made the journey a dozen or more times a year for a dozen years or more and there is minimal packing - just computer, tablet, phone, a coat, some papers for work, notebooks of half-started song lyrics, a manuscript book for emergency tune writing, new flute, so you can try and get a better sound following a first lesson, clean underwear and the stuff you have been commissioned to purchase by your Anglophile partner who is unable to buy decent tea in France, or Bittermints, or Cheese Cheddars. He still has jars of Marmite from a previous visit.  Then as you prepare to leave, you do that final check - windows are closed, power is switched off and no gas is flowing, lock the back door and the front door. You can't do the front door till you leave the boat, but the back door now has a different locking arrangement owing to modifications carried out at the time of August's great repaint. The modifications have, however, greatly compromised the very simple, but effect security you had in place. Until now unwanted forced entry to the boat would have entailed the use of an angle grinder and made a hell of a racket. Now, though, anyone with a stout stick could get in. You kick yourself for not having noticed these differences before, but that doesn't help, so you see what can be done to cobble together a solution that will last the few days of your absence. Nothing you can think of seems to work. The holes that once lined up perfectly to do the padlock thing are now miles apart. Consequently you waste half an hour ending with exactly no progress, except that now you are half-an-hour late leaving. The perfect plan is ever-so-slightly scuppered. Rational thinking is considerably more than ever-so-slightly impaired, but you really have to leave. As you stow suitcase and carry-on laptop bag in the van, you have already constructed the first half-a-dozen consequences of your boat being broken into in your absence.  

You have arranged to leave your van at the house of a friend who lives in a nearby town where there happens to be that almost extinct Fenland phenomenon, a railway station, and from where you hope you will catch the first of three trains to get you to the airport. Naturally enough, his place is on the far side of the town, about half an hour's walk from the station. This would have been no problem had you left at the planned time. A leisurely stroll would have been fine. Perhaps your friend will be at home and kindly offer you a lift to the station. Such a kindness is not unknown in your relationship. Decisions are required first though ... like how to get there by the quickest route? Geographically, it is much less distance through the town than round the bypass, but the town is always busy, so generally slower. However, being a Sunday, there won't be any other traffic in the town centre, so there is no chance that today could see the kind of weekday queuing that brings everything to a dead stop. The bypass will add distance, and therefore time, to the journey so you weigh up the number of traffic lights you will have to pass and go for the town centre route. You will cut a huge corner off the journey. 

As you enter the town you approach the level crossing by the station you hope to return to very shortly. Red lights flash as the crossing barriers lower. You stop and turn off the engine. You have been kept here in the past for up to ten minutes as sometimes three trains clatter by: one going east, another west and a third hauling forty goods wagons in its wake to who-knows-where. You should have taken the bypass. Winding further into town, the traffic coagulates. It is as inexplicable and marvellous as the thickening of cornflour and milk when heating custard. The townsfolk here must be among the most religious in the kingdom. C. Of E., R.C., J.W., Spiritualist, Methodist and two kinds of Baptist churches are full to overflowing and the worshippers spill into the roads, blocking entrances to car parks and roadside parking spaces. Young men in suits, girls of all ages in bridesmaid dresses and adults with briefcases bring me an eerie reminder of my own adolescence. The roads are as busy as on any weekday. Crocodiles of pedestrians are waiting at every crossing for the lights to change which, of course, they do the moment you approach. You sit and watch a pious procession of briefcase and bible carriers at every pedestrian light controlled crossing. You didn't realise how blessed is the town with facilities for walkers.

 Arriving at the house of the friend who has consented to you parking in their driveway no one is home. Of course. Clearly there will be no offer this time of a lift back across town to the station so you set off on foot, hoping you can make the train in less than half-an-hour.  You might just make it into the town centre in fifteen minutes where, with luck, there should be taxis waiting to take you the rest of the way. Of course, with today's luck, there aren't any. You arrive at the station exhausted, breathless and sodden with the sweat of your brow (not to mention that of every other part of your body), and head for the booking office to pick up your pre-booked ticket. The door is locked, the office is closed and you have to go the long way round to find the ticket machine on the platform. Four minutes to get your ticket and make it over the footbridge to the other platform. There is a queue. There is also a message on the ticket machine screen. "Cannot make a connection. Please use the ticket office", which as you have already seen, is shut and the doors are locked. Two minutes before the train arrives you make a quick decision and lug the heavy suitcase up the stairs and over the line to the other platform, thanking your lucky stars that the footbridge is open again after recent repairs and you don't have to use the road to get to the other side of the track and miss your train because the level crossing barriers will be down by the time you get there ...  As your foot touches the platform the train pulls in. There are even plenty of spare seats.  This is not normal for the Birmingham to Stansted train, which usually only has two carriages. Perhaps you've seen the worst of the day now. Once aboard the ticket inspector magically appears by your side so you explain the situation. Fortunately you can show him the details of your online booking and he suggests picking up the ticket for the whole journey to the airport from Cambridge, where you are due to change trains. You will have eight minutes to perform this task.       

 At Cambridge you haul your contraband-laden suitcase to the exit barrier where you are required to engage the ticket collector in a lengthy conversation as to why you have no ticket and need access to ticket machine. You join the line which snakes among the webbing guide ropes in a queue to collect the tickets you bought yesterday. With two minutes to go you retrieve your tickets and, returning to the barrier, further engage the ticket collector in discussion as to why your ticket says one departure point and you are leaving from another. Your poor hearing in a crowded environment and his thick accent add to your frustrations. Finally you are allowed through the gate and with more scurrying along the platform to the waiting train you assemble with a crowd until the doors open enabling you to board the train and stow your suitcase.  The seats are filling quickly and each double seat has filled with its statutory single occupant.  You head for an aisle seat nearest the luggage rack at the rear of the carriage whereupon a young man places his laptop bag on the seat and leans over to rummage through it.   He disengages from the physical world and clearly has no intention of allowing anyone else to share his space.   You consider engaging him in earnest and meaningful discussion and decide that (specially today of all days) such engagement could only have bad consequences so you choose another seat and settle to type up the day's events so far to make this blog essay. Once in full creative flow the ticket collector arrives and with pride you wave the ticket you finally managed to buy in front of him.  As you flap your prize ostentatiously you glance at your senior railcard and stare in disbelief as you try to process the dawning realisation that the expiry date was six weeks ago. You have already paid £41 for the whole journey of three trains to the airport, but the ticket collector feels the urge to charge you a further £46 for this middle section of the journey. He is, he says, doing me a great favour and saving me money by not charging me for the whole journey at a non-senior-railcard fare, which he would be quite entitled to do considering how much out of date my card is.  With your tongue bleeding from the effort of avoiding the overwhelming temptation to discuss the irony of the difference with him and the details of your day so far you submit to his mercy and attempt a little quiet rejoicing. You had planned to buy your replacement railcard online when you would have had the option of buying a three-year card at a bulk-purchase discount, but now you contemplate buying a replacement annual railcard at full price when you get to London.  Next year then.

You finally get to your destination railway station and decide to take the lift, but the lift isn't working. You know you take your life in your hands using the escalator because highly visible warnings that there have been twelve luggage-related accidents during the last year have been posted at the head and the foot of each flight. Fortunately you survive to escalate another day. Outside the station the queue for the shuttle bus is longer than you have ever seen it in the thirteen years during which you have made this monthly journey. Something is definitely "up".  A uniformed railway employee appears and announces something to the front of the crowd, which is completely inaudible to you. People start walking away from the station and when you get close enough your requested clarification elicits that road traffic is heavy, following an earlier "incident", and the shuttle bus will take an hour to complete the six-minute journey to the airport. You try your luck and suggest a refund for that part of the journey (remembering the old days when the shuttle bus was, in fact, free). However, the road conditions are Not The Company's Fault and no refund will be forthcoming. You are welcome to take the (very slow and greatly delayed) bus or you could walk up the hill to the airport in half an hour. You decide to walk up the (now) massive hill to the terminal and ten minutes into your sweating, staggering, vertical promenade the shuttle bus sails past somewhat imperiously on the inside lane and comes to rest in the queue at the roundabout you can see in the distance. Despite promises, tantalising hopes and predictions you never actually catch it up and by the time you limp into the bus station at the airport end the bus has been at the stop for fifteen minutes smugly swallowing passengers for its return shuttle down the hill to the station.

Making your way to the bag drop at the departures desk you are informed, after an unusually short queue, that the flight is running half-an-hour late.  It has now been officially confirmed that you should have waited for the bus. Security, disarmingly, is a breeze. Maybe now your fortunes have turned.  

You have a mission. The birthday camera that you bought your partner comes wth a range of optional, expensive and ostentatiously over-packaged accessories. You know that the airport shop has a three-for-two offer on the very same. Unfortunately, and obviously, it has run out of the items your partner requested.  At this point you almost become distracted as you begin to imagine what else could happen today. You hope that your air ticket still shows up on your phone when you need it.  You hope your boat is still at your mooring and that, when you finally get back home in a few days' time, it still has its engine and all your expensive batteries intact and connected. You spend stupid pounds on alternative over-packaged camera accessories in bloody-minded determination to save money on something.

With no time to indulge in your customary sandwich, your departure gate number lights up on the display screen, so you head off to join the queue. After some forty minutes, with only a single apology for the expected thirty-minute delay to your journey which, it is hoped, will not cause any inconvenience, you are sent back to the departure lounge, because the plane is now expected to be two-and-a-half hours late. You suddenly feel the promptings of hunger. You want your sandwich. Naturally enough everywhere seems to have sold out of sandwiches suitable for the vegetarian. You eventually locate one from a vendor who looks like she just wheeled her barrow off the street and into the departure lounge and eventually manage to tear her away from arranging social engagements on her phone for long enough to be able to purchase a rather apologetic cheese sandwich. Having bought it you discover there is nowhere to sit anyway in this hell of a place that will soon be full to bursting so you find the only available patch of partition wall with a bit of floor space where you can sit. As you finish the final unappetising mouthful you just happen to glance up at a nearby screen to see a "final boarding" instruction for your flight (not supposed to be due for another two hours remember), which will now be departing from different gate! There was no audible announcement over the system, which such a sudden and unexpected change might have warranted. The new gate is much further away and you arrive to join the queue much further back than you were originally. The board over the gate informs us we are queuing for a flight to Berlin. While waiting a woman with a buggy and two children push through the crowd and ahead of several people in the line. You suspect that she is returning from a nappy-changing trip and feels entitled to push back into place to join an abandoned, but accommodating, travelling companion. However, you are wrong. She simply feels entitled. Your phone battery has held out and you can show your boarding pass and passport at the gate and you pass through to be sent to queue somewhat perilously down a stairwell. You are told over the tannoy to double up. The irony is probably not appreciated by the announcer.

Finally on the plane you find the extra-legroom seats for which you pay a handsome annual premium. Bliss, you can finally unwind from this trying journey as you will be the only passenger in the row of three. You will not have to put up with anyone else and whatever annoying habits, sharp and persistent elbows and knees or fatal disease they might have.  You hear a tall man ask a flight attendant if he can move into the seat next to you. The flight attendant is quite happy for this exchange to go ahead. You have no idea whether he paid the extra fee. You know you won't be getting a refund to match his fare if he didn't. The captain welcomes you on board and announces he had been expecting to fly to Berlin and has just been instructed to go to Geneva instead. You hope he knows the way. 

You know ... that sort of thing.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Of Pointless Knowledge And Senseless Argument

"Music and dance are universal languages. Anyone can communicate and understand through music and dance," pontificated the guest.

 "Hmm," I began cautiously. I could feel a soapbox moment coming on. "I used to feel like that, but then I started learning to play gamelan, for example, and I was surprised that I could not find a way into the music. I needed to be taught, and to learn, how to listen to it. Music may touch our hearts or our minds, but I would have to dispute a claim that music is a universal language. A language is a means of communication and surely music cannot be said to communicate the same thing to everyone? Therefore music has limited use as a language." I also thought of many workshops I had run for people living with Asperger's Syndrome. For many of the people I had met under these circumstances music had no meaning. It left them completely cold and wondering why other people seem to hold music in such high regard. There was no point at which music communicated itself at all. That hardly makes it universal.

I wish I didn't feel the need to explain. I could have let it go. This was a friend's wedding party not a lecture theatre.  "I don't care what music it is. If I like it, I like it. That is what is important," declaimed the groom, despite his increasingly glazed expression, wobbly demeanor and microscopically (but definitely) slurred speech.

"I agree completely," the guest added. "I love all music ... although I can't stand Mozart, I hate all Baroque music."

 I bit my tongue very hard and thought of how much talking I would have to do to go into appropriate explanations about musical history, style, instrumentation and form in order to make the case that Mozart was not a baroque composer. The guest had a different understanding of the ages of Western European art music from me and who knows how deep into the rabbit hole I would have had to burrow in order to be able to say anything that made sense. This could all have been far less painful had she just used a more appropriate conjunction.

This wedding reception was taking place in the house in which the bride and groom had lived together for the past twenty-eight years. Before now they hadn't married, for whatever reasons, but intimations of mortality through recent deaths of close relatives and friends had caused them to reassess their situation. I get this. P and I are going through almost the same experience. As we age, it seems sensible to try and make the inevitable passing of one of us less complicated for the survivor. We have also experienced the confusion that can be left behind a departed loved one.

I may have mentioned that I was an active campaigner for marriage equality, as it was passing through the various stages of legislative process. Now P. and I can marry I have not been in a rush to get spliced and in truth neither has P. Every so often we talk about it before the conversation drifts on to something else. We even went as far as going to see a registrar to find out what was involved. This was even before the law was changed; she was very keen to help. We've not been back since. I am not sure that it is entirely a case of once bitten, twice shy, although that may be part of it. I have, at least, experienced my own wedding; P. has not.

In many ways my own wedding was fun. For a start I couldn't believe that about three hundred people turned up to see two nineteen year-old kids get married. We had big families and a lot of friends, but it was still an amazing experience for two people, too young, too inexperienced and too poor. We were among the first of our friends to get married, which I suppose made a difference. We married in our local Mormon chapel and for several reasons we must have had a certain curiosity value. One friend wanted to make the cake, another wanted to make the bride's dress, several volunteered to help with the catering. One non-church friend took over the music duties. My fiancée and I had put a playlist together (which, in those days, meant lugging cases of vinyl albums and my hi-fi to the church hall venue) and I was looking forward to having our favourite tunes played in the same way as the bride and groom on Saturday (even if, this time, they were playing their wedding playlist via the computer and a Bose p.a. system). My enjoyment was curtailed when my bride's father stopped our music playing and demanded music that everyone could enjoy and dance to. That was when it stopped being our day. I was embarrassed for my dear friend who was enjoying his dj task immensely till that point. Music had always been one of the most important things in my life, but that day it was clear that it was not a universal language then either.

Earlier in the day of my friends' recent wedding, I had felt the same urge to question someone on an internet forum about his apparent assumption that blogging was only for those people who want to make money. His response was to be put out that anyone dare de-rail his train of thought. I was merely pointing out that others, including myself, have other motives for writing a blog. His response referred to my efforts as an exercise in vanity and the posting of Micky Mouse messages. I thought my reasons for writing were valid. I have crossed him off my Christmas card list - not that he was ever actually on one.

Questions can be powerful and sometimes stop people in their tracks. I have used questions, not just to try and clarify an unclear situation, but also as a means of proposing alternative places to the destination in which a discussion seems to be heading, specially if I feel I am being dragged there against my will. In the late 1980s I was part of a group of local education authority "advisory teachers" charged with helping schools improve their music provision in a large rural county. One exiled Londoner was in full flow about how we could move a proposed project forward. It felt as though she had thought the whole project through and had a plan. I'm sure it was worthy enough, but I hadn't agreed to any of it and simply wanted to clarify whether we were all of the opinion that this project was what we wanted. To go ahead with her proposal meant sacrificing some plans I was already hatching for the hundred or so schools in my care; not to mention all the modest funding I had at my disposal for that year. She roared disapprovingly, got up and stormed out of the room in a most unexpected tantrum. The four of us remaining sat looking at each other before the nervous laughter set in. Two of the others then thanked me for intervening. They, too, were uncomfortable with the proposals on the table, but had no idea how to derail the runaway train, before it smashed us all into the buffers.

I'd like to think this is what I aim at with many of my songs. I sometimes fancy I can create just a moment to reflect and raise a question that diverts from an acceptance of the seemingly inevitable. If I had to chose between being a questioner or an answerer, I would stick with being a questioner every time. Pretending to be the one with the answers makes me little better than any other despot. As with most of the big decisions in my life I would rather not make one unless a way forward becomes clear. Most of the time language is not a universally understood means of communication. I spend too much time in France to think otherwise.

Music may communicate something to the listener, but there is no guarantee that it is what the composer may have intended, assuming the composer had any such intention at all.  I rather veer towards Stravinsky who said that music of itself is "powerless to express anything at all", but I would temper that by suggesting that for those of us who have a facility to be touched by music it is one of mankind's most powerful achievements.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Of Launching And Relaunching, Paint Woes And Water

Home at last! I picked up the boat yesterday and with the help of another boat-dwelling friend juggled getting the van and then the boat back to the farm.

Deliriously happy on the inside and concentrating hard on the outside.

I have really enjoyed my month living in and out of the van. I don't know that I would have felt the same in winter, but despite the rain I have encountered (and plenty of rain has fallen over the month) I have had a great time and it has all been quite an experience.

The boat was relaunched on Monday. Once back in the water the work could be completed replacing the flue pipe. Every time recently when using the chimney-sweeping brush a new hole appeared in the flue and I had patched it in several places with fire cement. The original flue was apparently made of a quality of cast too thin to fulfil its required function and had long been ripe for replacement.

I collected the boat, paid the bill (surprisingly, it was less than I had feared ... still well within four figures) and brought it/her home (I'm still stinging from being told that I must always use a feminine pronoun when referring to my boat - it really does not come naturally to me). Sadly, en route, I put the first marks in the paintwork when I tied up to take on fresh water. I didn't crash or scrape the sides by hitting something. I was simply mooring. I had been warned by a friend who had had their boat repainted a couple of years ago, that the paint would stay soft for some weeks, possibly months, before "going off" properly. The paint rubbed off the edge of the roof as I was bringing it to a standstill with the centre rope, even though I was being very, very careful. I really don't want to be unable to use the boat on account of soft paint, so I guess I shall turn into one of those boat owners I so often see armed with a brush and a kettle of paint. I may even buy overalls (or is that going too far?). Perhaps it is time to get to grips with cleaning and polishing the boat occasionally. I have attempted neither of these activities with any degree of commitment before. There has never seemed much to be gained in the past from polishing rust. Meanwhile back at the watering point, the exercise itself also proved rather pointless as I didn't achieve the intended objective. The tap fitting on the municipal water tap requires a screw connector. I keep a box of spare attachments to enable me to connect my hose pipes in several configurations and I know I have the right adaptor in the box. I had stowed the box away somewhere for the repaint and, of course, I could not remember where. I tore open a few boxes to no avail. Consequently I not only left the water point with no more water than the amount with which I had arrived, but also with slightly less paint. During that brief stop I was also given a further reason to be grateful for the cork floats to which I attach to my keys when the key to the water and sanitation facilities jumped out of my pocket and into the river.  Apart from that, though, the journey home yesterday was uneventful. I glowed a little as I both overheard and received directly several compliments on my beautiful paintwork. I wonder how long that will last? The weight of responsibility is beginning to make my shoulders ache.

I arrived back at the mooring to find new neighbours. I was not thrilled. I like people. I like boats. I like people in boats, but mainly I like these at a distance. They looked familiar, but I could not place them into any particular memory. It turns out they run a pub I have occasionally visited and where I have eaten sometimes. Being a vegetarian, though, I have not found myself particularly tempted by the exotic meats on offer - things like ostrich, zebra and kangaroo. The pub is on a river, but they haven't built any kind of mooring. When I have been there I have pinned the boat to the bank, walked the plank and climbed up a steep bank where the grass is invariably too long. When wet that climb is fairly hazardous. Even more so when there is no moon and I forget to take a torch. Not realising who they were I didn't feel much like talking to them. Had I realised who they were I would have made a more neighbourly effort. As it was, though, I feared I might say something I would later wish I hadn't. That just goes to show that being a misery is poor form. They have gone now, so I need not have worried, but the farmer says they will be back. Apparently they arrived the day before yesterday. A woman in dripping wet clothes appeared at the farmhouse. Their boat had run out of petrol on the wrong side of the river and being a person of a decisive nature she had leapt overboard and had swum to our side. The husband and small child had the good sense to stay dry in the boat. When I arrived they were all fishing. They all had what looked like toy fishing rods. They continued fishing for hours. I still don't get fishing.

I have spent most of  today unpacking the boxes into which I had placed my semi-precious belongings - including the hose pipe connectors, which were actually in a box I had scrabbled through yesterday - and for which there had been insufficient cupboard space. I had rather hoped that I would find a reason to get rid of things I hadn't used over the years, but apart from a few magazines, pamphlets and a 240v lamp that plan didn't come to much. I found three shirts to donate to more deserving causes, but they don't count, because they already had an inch or two of wardrobe rail. Two  wash loads, one loaf of bread and this blog entry have been my remaining achievements. Many of the contents of the emptied boxes still need to be put away, but there are some essential food items to go out and buy. It's good to be home.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Of Boats And Folk Nights Reborn

I couldn't possibly leave the story there. The journey from The Peaks to The Fens took three or four hours. I couldn't help myself and, on arriving in Ashbourne, I phoned my friend who lives in the marina at the boatyard to ask if he could see my boat. Did it look okay? He was having his new canopy fitted on his own boat as we spoke, but he promised he would send me a message when he was clear to do so. I got underway and eventually a message arrived. It seemed to be good news. I relaxed and continued Fenwards with a less anxious heart. 

Bearing in mind my main purpose in leaving my nomad friends today was to get back for the inaugural songwriters and poets night in the new venue I could not afford to be too leisurely about it. I pulled into the boatyard's car park and walked to the slipway. There was my home standing on the trolley, clear of the water shining in the late afternoon sun showing off the new coat of bitumen applied earlier in the day. The solar panels had been reinstalled and the completed paintwork was looking absolutely stunning. I think I even got a little teary. Although not exactly what I had thought I had asked for I need not have worried about the signwriting. It was a very nice job and I could breathe again. 

On to the music and poetry. I arrived after a couple of the other members of our informal committee and we set about shifting tables and chairs to make the best of the space. It was a warm evening so we would have to leave the door open. We could hear the noise of other pub patrons in the yard, but it wasn't intrusive. As 8pm arrived we not only had more performers, but also a few members of an audience, including regulars from the previous incarnation, first-time visitors and some old friends who were visiting the area for the bank holiday weekend. 

As planned we had none of the amplification that seems to give permission in other venues for audience members to chat. It is almost as though a p.a. sets off a response in the listener that the music is not real and, therefore, doesn't really matter. Between sets of songs and poems, which I introduced, I moved around the room to get an idea of the sound. Sight lines and the acoustics meant that each performer was both visible and audible from anywhere in the room. So far so good. The room felt good and was neat, tidy attractive and, even more importantly, clean and didn't smell of spilled beer or ageing dogs! This looks like it is going to work out fine. I am sorry that I didn't even think to take photographs. I shall endeavour to remember next time. During the evening a few locals who had obviously been enjoying our host's hospitality in the adjacent bar wandered in, causing a bit of disruption. One interrupted one of the performers demanding he sing something "upbeat". "Have you got any Phil Collins?" he asked. Seriously? Phil Collins (or maybe that should be "... But Seriously")?What on earth do they teach young people these days? More seriously still, though, I think we shall have to think about how we create an environment where we can head off this kind of behaviour. Perhaps a few fliers on the tables, a notice board at the entrance stating the nature of the event within. I also wonder whether charging a nominal entrance fee would help. If the local lads had to part with a pound or two, they might take the event more seriously before coming in just long enough to disrupt proceedings and walk out in the middle of songs. It was also interesting to see other audience members walking in and out to the toilet or to the bar in the middle of a song. Personally, I couldn't do that. I would have to wait until a song or a set had finished before walking through the room. The dynamics of all these behaviours are fascinating. 

For the record I sang "Grey", "In Soho", "Flying", "Blame It On Me" and read my poem, "Thora's House". 

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Of Dovedale 5

Friday was my seventh and final day. I should have left on Thursday since I had something to attend back in the Fens, but I put it off. I couldn't get out of leaving on Friday though, because we had the launch of the re-branded Songwriters and Poets Night and I needed to be back for that. It was too important to miss. That didn't stop me putting off leaving for as long as possible. Fortunately, despite torrential rain that continued through the night the day started off beautifully with bright sun, blue sky and no sign of a cloud.

I had very little sleep on Thursday night. During the evening we gathered round the fire under umbrellas, ponchos and other attempted shields against the deluge, so it wasn't that I stayed out late. The battery on my phone drained during the week and Shorny had kindly charged it up for me from his solar resources. Somehow, despite no phone signal and no internet access it was recording five missed calls. Naturally I spent the night musing and fretting over what they might be. I suspected it may have been the signwriter or the boatyard. It could have been a member of the family. Then my mind turned to wilder fancies. What if it had been a member of P's family trying to let me know that he had been taken ill or someone in my family had had an accident. I don't receive a single call most weeks and now I had missed five of them. I tried to convince myself that they were more nuisance calls about my "recent accident" or PPI (tell me again what that stands for), but that didn't really help. It was about 7am by the time I think I fell asleep for an hour. I had resolved I was going to walk as far as necessary to get a signal and sort out whatever needed sorting as soon as it was decent to disturb someone. 

I donned my boots and set off upwards. Anywhere else from the camping site is upwards and I was heading towards a guest house at the top of a hill. I guessed correctly that a phone signal would be available there. Hello again, outside world! Checking the voice mail service, four of the calls were indeed about the boat and they had started arriving last Monday - four days ago. Friday (i.e. today) had apparently been designated as the day the boat was due to come out of the water for re-blacking.  Before then the signwriter needed to ply his trade while the boat was still in the paint shed and he needed to discuss details. In the end, not being able to get hold of me they had made an executive decision and gone ahead. Now I was really worried. What if I didn't like what he'd done? Had I made the call and the decision, I had only myself to blame if I didn't like the result. I would have to live with that, but I do hate the feeling of having an opportunity to blame someone else. I do not like how that makes me feel. There was no other option, though. The journey back for Songwriters and Poets Night would now definitely have to be via the boatyard. 

I didn't want to pack the pavilion away wet, so I pottered about finding places for all the other paraphernalia. By mid-day the pavilion was mostly dry so I packed that down too. I'm getting good at this.

I wandered the field saying my goodbyes. What lovely friends I have on UKH. I shall miss them all, but I expect I shall be back next year. Who knows, we may be able to meet somewhere else during the months ahead. So to OldKeith, Marion, Alice's Wonderland, Enigma Rising and the children, Fire Tree, Uncle Jhad, Rainbowmama, Real Nutter, Yaz, Zendaze, Trap, Man From Manchester, Wandering Gypsy, Parrotandcrow and her amazing menagerie, Moon Cheese, Rachel, AndyVW, Enigma's Mum, Mad Pete, Two Wheels Good and specially to Shorny (the keeper of the trivet who kept the fires burning) thank you for love and friendship. I have had a great week. Inevitably, by naming names, I have missed someone out. Please accept this is a function of age and not a deliberate slight. Likewise if I missed saying farewell before I left I apologise. 

May your travels take you all to fair places.