Thursday, April 8, 2021

Whippet life #1


How often do we make choices which for one reason or another turn out to be especially delightful? By definition, it can't be very often—and in my experience, there's precious little relationship to price, importance, or even the level of prior thought.  If you're anything like me, you'll have made as many well-planned and expensive mistakes, as you have snap decisions that turn out to change your life.

The best purchase I ever made was a tumbledown cottage, for which I paid what would now be the price of a hatchback car. It's not for any profit that I'm pleased (I doubt there's any after all the renovation cost), but for the family nexus it's become, the joy we've had, the memories and friendships it holds... And not least, for the chance encounter that led to my most recent and most constant of companions. 

I'd long wanted a whippet. For years I used to draw cartoons of them in my diaries, hiding a caricature version into humorous sketches of the places we'd visited. Finding the dog in the picture became a bit of a trademark, for all that our one at the time was a Jack Russell terrier.  

She left us more than ten years ago.  A farm-bred ratter she'd been fine with the older boys but when Dylan arrived her instincts reverted to type. After the third biting incident we moved her on to a family with teenagers, and to be honest, I was pleased to see her go.  The prospect of another dog had seldom been discussed.

Until last year—when we passed a couple on the coast path with the most beautiful brindled whippet. I couldn't but stop and admire him, and when we learned he'd just sired a litter, Jane quickly asked for their number... for the future, she claimed... we'll have a think, I said...  and be in touch, she added.

Sooner rather than later.

That evening, Jane nagged me to phone, the next day we viewed the pups, and less than 24 hours after that chance encounter, we'd reserved the smallest dog in the litter.  Oscar, born on St David's day, would be with us in five weeks time. Jane was made up; I had reservations. Later that evening, the UK announced its first nationwide lockdown ...

And for five weeks all we did was walk lanes, read books and research whippet facts to help us count the days.

As I look back now I wonder what on earth we thought we were doing?  It can't be sensible to buy a dog that quickly; even knowing the commitment I should surely have insisted we reflected for longer. The money's not the issue; it's the cost to your lifestyle, the responsibility, the getting up every morning... Stories of lockdown puppies are all over the internet—portents for all to read.

But logic isn't always our best pilot. And if you knew how hard I find it to declare that, you'd have some idea of the delight I've found in my little dog. You might have noticed the change from 'our' to 'my' in that last sentence. For almost a year he's barely left my side, growing up and growing closer—and quicker too. Which was why I'd wanted a whippet in the first place; the fastest dogs on the beach, I used to say.  

And now mine is.

Yesterday we were up at dawn with the sand to ourselves.  We walked three miles without much of a sound but for waves and the occasional whistle. Owners often talk of their dog's love and loyalty, as if they had human emotions; they chat to them too, though they can't understand. I do the same.  But really, the bond is one of 'co-presence': an unspoken companionship that's beyond any words—or for that matter, reason.

Oscar doesn't do logic either and in a way that's why we care for our dogs so much.

What he does do is run like the wind, return when I call and wag when I rise every morning.  Three miles on the beach, hundreds more every month; how many steps will we take together? Jane and Dylan love him too; he's the best family dog we've had by far. They both say they knew it would work; that they sussed it (and me) in seconds; that their hearts, not their heads were what told them. 

They're right of course, in that sometimes—just occasionally, mind you—it's fine to take a flier. 

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Details that make a picture

Yesterday we walked a section of the coast path near our house in Pembrokeshire. It was one of those crisp mornings, the horizon as sharp as the air was clear; skylarks out-competing the lapping of the tide. And all appropriate I thought for a Good Friday that feels like a harbinger of brighter days.

As we ambled through the quay I stopped to photograph some chains on the jetty walls. Why are you taking pictures of those, Jane asked?  I want them for the blog, I explained: they contrast the small with the large, industry with nature, the particular and the general... It's not a new observation; artist and writers have been doing this for centuries.

Among the thousands of photographs on my computer, there must be hundreds of shots of doors and latches, grills and benches, post boxes and signs. Often they're quirky or funny ( I have a selection of gates that go nowhere) and usually they're arresting or beautiful, though it can take a certain eye to see it. During the recent lockdown, I took to snapping items abandoned in our local canal.  

But this weekend has been far from melancholy. 

Rather, it's been a delight to see people returning to the beaches and paths. There have been smiles and greetings, a sense of hope and a generosity of spirit that was often missing last year.  It feels as though we've all come a long way from those first few fearful months— the desire for a new beginning is palpable, and I hope as irreversible as we've been assured.

Which leads me to ponder, if taking those canal photographs reflected my mood at the time? Was it anger and frustration that led me to capture those jettisoned toys?  Were the rusting boats a mirror of the gloom in my mind?  As the weeks went by, and hope returned, did I not begin to snap more cheerful subjects? 

I ought to check that hypothesis, if only by scanning my phone. For if it proves correct, then perhaps the more accurate answer to Jane's question would be that photographing the chains reflected my pleasure in returning to both the place and normality; a confirmation that the axiom 'this too will pass' still holds true.

Isn't it also true that our sense of the locations we love is founded as much on the details as any wider view? The memories from our childhoods are infused with specifics as are all significant times and places in our lives.  I may not be typical, but my recall of those particulars are often more reliable than that of the events and vistas. 

As if to prove the point, Jane and I were later talking of ways we might hang some sliding doors on the office I'm building.  What about the ones we saw in France, she suggested, on that converted barn with the window shutters... For a moment, I must have looked blank.  They were very beautiful she continued, with old iron rails and the original door latches still intact ...  

And suddenly, as the details came to mind, I knew exactly where we'd seen them. She was right as well; they'd be just the thing. What's more, I'm sure I've a photo of them somewhere...

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Berlingo boot jump

I can't quite believe I'm doing this, for normally my blog is the exclusive preserve of reflective writing.  But as I've had several comments and emails about my Berlingo boot jump I thought I'd post some pictures and information.  

I bought mine from Erigal campers and it cost about £1,000—it fits into any Citroen Berlingo, Renault Kangoo or Peugeot Partner van.  There are many other suppliers you can find on the web—in the UK the market leader is a company from Wales called Amdro which sells very high-quality units but they are more expensive.  The awning tent is an excellent addition and it cost about £250.  

The whole unit stows neatly into the boot space but there's still room for day to day shopping and the like. By folding the middle seats of the car flat the boot jump can then be opened out to create a mini camper—and at night it can be dropped further to make a bed. Some of the pictures below show it in use on a trip to France with my son—it's especially useful for an overnight stop on the motorway. 

When I bought a second Berlingo for the UK I decided to make my own version of a boot jump from plywood—using good quality fittings, it cost about £250, and if I say so myself, it's not a bad job.  Currently, my son has nabbed it and he's taken it camping a great deal in the north of England.

But enough - the pictures can tell the story from here.

PS. I have a nagging suspicion that this post is going to get loads of views while my writing languishes unread...  c'est la vie, as they say in France.

Best car ever...

My first Berlingo in France... I actually own two!

I love my car.  

If you'd told me three years ago that I'd ever write that I'd have laughed—politely perhaps, but with disbelief nonetheless. Because all my adult life I've regarded motors as mere tools—and expensive ones at that. For decades I was entitled to a fancy model from my employer and always opted for a budget alternative with the balance in cash. I took no pleasure in driving cars, regarded the putative status they bestow as shallow, and frankly thought most petrol heads were, well...

So it's probably no surprise that the one I'm delighted with is not exactly fashionable. Nor will you be astonished to learn that I don't polish the paintwork every Sunday—or that I know nothing of its performance other than the miles per gallon. The trim is basic, the electrics functional and the overall ambience more plastic wrap than walnut dash.

But then that's what you'd expect from a Citroen Berlingo, which is essentially a van converted into a family car with the look of a baguette wagon.  It's one of those go anywhere, do anything, but don't try to look cool type of vehicles. When I bought mine the extras I coveted were a roof rack, a tow bar and the optional box in the centre console which is big enough to hold a flask and picnic.

And yet, for the first time in my life I find myself driving along and saying to Jane (or frankly, just to myself), you know, I REALLY do like this car, or  I've absolutely no desire to own any other... or (and by this time Jane is doing that 'eyes to ceiling' look) isn't this just the best vehicle we've ever owned...  In my trance of self-satisfaction I've even acquired an album of photos and posted on the Berlingo Forum users group!

I suppose it's possible that this is all a sort of inverted snobbery, and certainly, I still regard expensive cars as a dubious character trait. But I got over all that angst years ago. So, no, my head has been turned and I genuinely like my car; love it even...  If proof were needed I've had it valeted twice in as many months! 

Of course, part of what I like so much is that it's practical: the seats come out for carrying loads, there's plenty of room for the dog; everyone has their own seat, the roof rack takes four kayaks with ease ...  And I haven't even mentioned the boot jump, which is a clever unit that converts the whole van into a mini camper, complete with seats, cooker, table and a double bed.  It folds into the boot space when not in use, and you're back to a normal car.

Except it's not normal at all: it's fantastic and so underrated, and definitely the best car I've ever owned... and you should get one; honesty, you really should...  At least, that's what I've said to my friends and my boys and colleagues and almost anyone who'll listen.  So much so that the other day I realised I've become one of those car bores who go on and on...

Which is probably a good point to end this post, because if I don't you'll fall asleep - or like two of my friends and one of my sons, end up buying one too!  Who'd have thought I'd be a motoring role model—life, as they say, is full of surprises.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Comma - and signs of spring

Photo by <a href="">Louise Smith</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>
Photo by Louise Smith on Unsplash

Is there a surer sign of spring than the sight of a Comma on a country lane? Some would make a case for snowdrops or daffodils perhaps; my grandfather would have pointed to Ursa Major in the sky. There are lambs in the fields near my house, and the turning forward of the clocks is a milestone in the year. But for all these cues to the lengthening days, I'll stick with my first choice and the scalloped wings of one of our most remarkable butterflies.

Yesterday, as I walked the loop near my house, one was flying ahead of me. Each time I got near it would flit to a new clump of dandelions further down the verge. Or at least that's how it appeared, for it's just as probable I saw a number of specimens rather than one. The males are highly territorial, returning to the same bush or twig where they bask in the sun and wait for a mate to pass by. I suppose it might have been a single female, but if so, she wasn't stopping to lay eggs on the nettles and currants that are now the most common plants on which to find its larvae.  

I say 'now' because in the past it was the Hop that was the Comma's favoured foodplant. By the early years of last century, with the decline of Hop farming, the butterfly was confined to but a handful of counties—including as it happens, Monmouthshire where I live. Even as recently as the Seventies its distribution was confined to the South and West, which explains why it wasn't until I moved from my native Northumberland that I first recorded a sighting in my little Observer's Book of Butterflies.  

Happily today, the Comma is one of our most successful species. Having made a spectacular comeback it can be found across all but the most northern counties of Great Britain, and it's thought this is due to the changing of its larval foodplant to the Common Nettle. Milder winters will have helped too for it's a species that hibernates as an adult—those I saw yesterday will have spent the winter camouflaged in the bushes and barns along my route.

But here I am getting all technical when you can read this in books or on websites. You can learn too about its fascinating ability to produce offspring variants; one which has an annual lifecycle, the other producing a second brood in summer. It's these which are so vibrant in the spring. My trusty Observer's book describes their colour as tawny or fulvous: I had to look it up—what a fabulous new word to have learned.

And that's appropriate, for I think it's the surprise of seeing the Comma that I like the most.  When I first moved south, I'd assume that glimpse of russet brown to be a Tortoiseshell or perhaps a Fritillary (though surely too early I'd say). Three decades later, there's still a delight in that first spring sighting—the signal that summer's on its way—and somehow more so than in spotting the obvious Orange Tip or pale yellow Brimstone, neither of which—come to think—have I seen this year.

On Saturday, I'm travelling to Pembrokeshire. That in itself is a sign of spring; of rebirth and renewal of a different sort. There should be Small Coppers on the Coast Path and I expect there'll be Peacocks, which overwinter like the Comma, in the lanes by our cottage. Butterflies have fascinated me for fifty years; the joy of seeing them never fades. Our neighbours have two boys who also take an interest; the youngest is the age I was when I first recorded what I'd seen. I hope he too will witness springs and seasons as abundant as mine have been. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Writing Life#2 - it's a number game

My desk this evening

Every week there's an email arrives in my inbox from Grammarly, the digital writing assistant which checks for spelling, word choice and grammatical errors. I have a premium subscription because the computer is as essential a tool for my work (and my life) as a saw is to a carpenter. Mostly, I consider these mails marketing junk, but today the headline caught my eye and I clicked to find out how it was that I'd used more unique words than 98% of users. 

According to the statistics I'm more productive than 95% of them too, writing over 21,000 words last week. My vocabulary amounted to almost 3,000 terms and my typing accuracy (more of which later) has improved to the level of 41% of users, up from a low of 15% when I last bothered to check. The figures, like Grammarly itself, are generated from an artificial intelligence programme that scans as I type. This post will add to next week's totals, and judging by the number of corrections I've made, my accuracy will be down from its current heady high.

I come from the generation of children who were not taught grammar at school. My sons all had a fuller and more formal understanding of verbs and conjunctions when they were in primary classes and I was home-studying for a writing degree. I have mild dyslexia too, finding spelling especially frustrating. That I graduated with First Class Honours perhaps proves the point that neither is necessary to writing well.  

But necessary is not the same thing as desirable. 

An understanding of grammar is clearly a virtue, as is having a foundational vocabulary and a natural 'ear' for the words and their rhythm. Spelling I still have little time for—there's a minimum threshold which helps, but it's largely rote and illogical—learning the orthography of words may please teachers but it won't make you a better writer in a way that matters very much.  The good news is that spellcheckers are now ubiquitous.

The writer Stephen King claims that an extensive vocabulary is not necessary either. In his book On Writing, he advises us to place what we have on the top shelf of our toolbox and make no attempt to improve it. Dressing up our writing, he says—and especially finding fancy words to replace plainer alternatives—is one of the worst mistakes to make. I agree, with the exception of avoiding repetitions in the same or adjoining sentences—which explains why the thesaurus is my most go-to book! 

I mentioned earlier that my accuracy is poor; in part that's a consequence of wretched keyboard skills, but it's also because I deliberately type faster than I ought, accepting there'll be dozens of mistakes. The phrase you've just read originally came out as 'beacuse i delibrately yype fst acceptng the will be doznes of mistkes.'  That's a particularly bad example, but not entirely untypical, so you might imagine I'd want to improve it.

Well, you'd be wrong. Because I use the mistakes as a way of slowing down; they require me to reread every sentence and consider again the words I've chosen.  Nothing I ever write—save for the briefest of notes—is not revisited and read-aloud for potential improvement. I think this is why I dislike writing greeting cards so much—there's no second chance; no scope to alter what we've said and how it sounds. 

Which is an interesting word to use in this context. To talk of the 'sound' of what we write is almost an oxymoron, and yet it's critical.  Of the three virtues I listed earlier I'd chose a natural ear over vocab or grammar any day.  Grammarly claims it can check our writing's tone and style, but for anything other than formal correctness it invariably fails—and that's because its putative intelligence can't hear the rhythm and impact of the words we use.  According to the weekly report, my style is a good balance of friendly, neutral, optimistic, confident, formal, joyful and informal—what bollocks! 

Ha—that should put its algorithms in a spin. 

It takes confidence to use a word like bollocks at the end of a sentence—and a well-tuned ear to know the aside which followed would soften its tone. Ultimately, practice is the foundation of most decent writing, and blogging is no exception.  A love of what we do and the care which comes with it is essential too—and that's authentic, not artificial intelligence.

According to Grammarly, I've written 919,814 words since last September, and am on a 64-week streak—my next achievement 'badge' comes at 75 ( I'm assuming that's weeks not years) by which time I'll be a wordsmith millionaire. None of which matters one iota, but it's prompted me to add to my account this evening—and made me think, that I'm more of a sucker for their marketing than I thought.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Objects of life #7 - Stick

Junior walking stick from Hawes

I grew up in the North East of England at a time when family holidays seldom amounted to more than one week a year. We spent ours at towns and resorts which today would seem little further away than a day trip destination.  One year we travelled to Whitby, another to Edinburgh, and once to Berwick on Tweed. There was a trip to Keswick too, which my father, in one of his bouts of depression, refused at the last minute to go on— my Mum took me and my brothers regardless, travelling by bus and train, then walking up hills every day to tire us out.

In some ways it's not surprising that my father didn't come, because mostly he hated holidays—only later in the Seventies when he could lie on a beach in the Spanish sun that he was ever happy to leave home.  Whether that was because of his depression or his inherent demeanour I don't know, but I do remember the rows just to get him to go for a picnic. When my mother learned to drive, she at last found the freedom that would convince her to leave for good.

But the exception to this rather gloomy beginning for a blog post were our visits to Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales. My father had been an evacuee there—arriving as a family unit with his brother and my grandmother; presumably, my grandfather was enlisted at the time. They lodged in a manor on the edge of the town and at some point moved to a farm across the fields from what later became the Wensleydale Creamery.

On our first visit my father took us to the 'large house', and I remember we were all peering over the wall into a bramble filled garden when a voice shrieked. 'Are you looking at my wilderness!' Leaning out of the upstairs window was what I took to be a witch with long ragged hair, tattered clothes and boney arms—very much the 'lady in the attic' look. Which turned out to be not so far off the mark...

After explanations and introductions, we were invited in for tea. The present owner was, to use a phrase of the time, completely barking! The house was a ramshackle ruin of peeling paper, broken china, and musty chairs. She claimed to keep her husband upstairs in a cupboard, which I was later told not to take too literally, but never quite shook the suspicion of its truth.  Whenever we passed by my father would tell stories of the times he'd spent there and in the area.

Looking back, there were few places that my father enthused over as much as the Yorkshire Dales. I sometimes wonder if the reason for this was that his own father was away for the time he was there?  My grandfather was a uniquely wonderful man, but I'm under no illusion that he wasn't always the best or most present of dads.  There was a bond between my father and his mother that I sense came from those years and was associated in his mind to the places they'd stayed.

He took us often to the nearby village of Gayle and a brook he called Belia Banks which I can't find on the map and may be spelling incorrectly, but it's where we went looking for—and caught—crayfish. We also went to Aysgarth Falls and the Buttertubs Pass and the cheese factory; in the town we visited a ropemaker and nearby a chap who made clogs, from whom my mother bought a miniature pair which sat for years on our hearth at home... 

And somewhere in all of this, I acquired a walking stick, of the size suitable for an eight-year-old boy.

That stick is the second oldest object I have from my childhood. Beating it by a few years is a French faience bowl, but as that has sat in the china cupboard and storage boxes for much of the last fifty years it doesn't carry the same store of memories.  In truth,  because it's so small I've not been able to use the stick for most of those years either— but always I treasured it, and my sons have played with it and somehow it's never not been 'around'. Currently it lives in an umbrella stand by the coat rack.

Before writing this post I took the time to look at it again, examining the knots and burrs, the careful bending of the wood to shape the handle. It's probably made from hazel or ash and has a brass ferrule that rattles because the shaft has shrunk—there's a tiny split near the base of the cane which I hope can be repaired. At one time it was varnished, but only remnants remain, the years of wear and rough play removing all but a few flecks here and there. 

But you know, there's only much you can say about a stick—or indeed, that needs to be said.  Because it's not so much the thing in and of itself that's important. It's the connection it holds to those holidays: to the times we stayed at the farm B&B and drank goat's milk, and chased the geese over the field each morning, me waving my stick to drive them.. and to the names and places that are with me still, and to the memory of my father for once not hating it quite so much.

It has just occurred to me now that when our first son was born, Jane and I took him with us to Hawes for a holiday that summer. We carried him in a backpack on our walks: to Gayle and the Buttertubs Pass, to Aysgarth Falls and the ropemaker in town...  I'm sure we must have been to a stick maker too... and certainly, we bought some cheese from the creamery,  and looked for the large house and saw the fields of geese... 

Oh, how life—and our lives—turn in circles...