Friday, April 29, 2011

A bad case of the bug

Image via Wylio
The blogging bug, that is. J  When I first put my toe oh-so-tentatively into the ocean that is the blogospere, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. For some time I’d been standing on the shore following blogs (among them some extraordinarily good ones) but without commenting or getting involved in any way. Now it was time to get my feet wet and see for myself what all the fuss was about.

That was back in February, so what has the experience been like and what have I learned over the past couple of months?

The first thing I’ve learned - and all you more experienced bloggers could have told me this from the beginning, if I’d had the sense to ask – is that blogging is addictive. Very addictive. Blogging is so darned enjoyable that the addiction develops remarkably quickly. Once the first baby post has been launched into the ether, the urge soon comes to provide it with a companion and another and another….. 

After the initial short burst of beginner’s enthusiasm I haven’t tried to post every day and don’t intend to, but I still find that within a day or so of making a post, my mind starts to mull over possible ideas for the next one, sometimes at inconveniently awkward times like the middle of the night.

The second is that blogging can be very time-consuming. Mastering the ins-and-outs of Blogger itself and learning to apply what it offers takes time. Writing posts, especially the longer, more reflective posts I incline to, is extraordinarily enjoyable, but it takes even more time. Responding to comments, when people are kind enough to leave them, and reading others’ blogs and commenting on them in my turn, are just as enjoyable, but all this too takes time….

Luckily I’m retired, so time isn’t something I’m short of, but the ease with which you can find yourself discovering new and interesting blogs and clicking that deceptively innocuous Follow button means that unless you get a grip on yourself, your blog list can start to resemble a catalogue, rather than a manageable shopping list.

The third thing I’ve learned is how very varied the world of blogging is. In my exploration of the forest of blogs out there, I’m starting to learn which kinds appeal to me and why. I think what draws me most to follow a blog is when I discover a blogger who has found his or her own distinctive voice and whose blog says things that interest, entertain or challenge me. 

More practically, I’ve discovered that mostly I prefer longer posts to very short ones. I prefer posts which are the fruit of the author’s own thought and experience rather than a reworking of or even just a quote from another blog. I greatly appreciate serious, and often profound, posts, but humour is just as important to me, as is breadth of interest and a certain quirkiness.

I must confess to skipping over video clips, but that’s mainly because we have a rather slow and sometimes flaky broadband connection and video doesn’t play well for me. On the other hand I love photos and cartoons and other images, but prefer to have words with them. 

Our slow broadband connection also means that what I think of as fussy blogs, those with lots of permanent images and multiple widgets can be a bit of a nightmare to follow, as they are so slow to load and often unstable on the screen. Thank goodness for Google Reader or I’d probably have given up on some of them by now, which would have been my loss.

As I have fairly poor sight, legibility matters a lot and I much prefer black text on a white or pale-coloured background. Very small font size and very long paragraphs are really hard work, as is pale text on a dark background. Again I’d probably have given up on these if it weren’t for Posts Atom or Google Reader. However, these are minor quibbles when weighed against what I have already gained from the world of blogging.

Above everything else I value the sense of becoming part of a community of people who generously share their thoughts, interests and experience with me in their blogs. I value too the fact that this community is world-wide, spanning oceans and linking continents, so that what I write can be read not only by people close to home in the UK and Europe, but from the USA to New Zealand, from Turkey to Costa Rica and I can reciprocate by following their blogs in my turn.

In the last couple of months my life has been enriched and I’ve had a huge amount of fun and it’s all thanks to you.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A jolly good read

After the intensity of Holy Week and Easter and the fun of my birthday celebrations yesterday, today I’ve felt like doing nothing more strenuous than sitting in the sun with an entertaining book. As it happens, I have the perfect one close at hand – funny, intriguing and with an unexpectedly stinging twist to the tale.

It’s one of the Maxwell mysteries by M J Trow, an author I only recently discovered, though I’m making up for lost time as fast as I can (sadly the earlier ones are now out-of-print). The central character of the series is Peter “Mad Max” Maxwell, a middle-aged history teacher (as is his creator) with a talent for tripping over corpses and an insatiable thirst for justice that won’t let him ignore them.

In the constantly changing landscape that is modern education, Mad Max is a fixed point of politically-incorrect eccentricity, stubborn, not to say pig-headed, persistence, and a heavily camouflaged, but still tangible and deep humanity. He is also very, very funny.

The books aren’t great literature, but they are intelligent and strongly-plotted mysteries and extremely well-written, with a bitingly sardonic wit and a hero who both amuses and infuriates. In addition, for anyone interested in how teenagers have been educated over the past 15 years, they give an acutely-observed insider’s view of life at the chalk-face (oops, white-board). To me they are ideal holiday reading. What’s yours?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Early on the first day of the week



Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Image: Mary Magdalene at the tomb    Artist unknown

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Love unknown

My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
My Lord should take frail flesh and die?

He came from His blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But men made strange, and none
The longed-for Christ would know:
But O! my Friend, my Friend indeed,
Who at my need His life did spend.

Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry.

Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries! Yet they at these
Themselves displease, and ’gainst Him rise.

They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save,
The Prince of life they slay,
Yet cheerful He to suffering goes,
That He His foes from thence might free.

In life, no house, no home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heav’n was His home;
But mine the tomb wherein He lay.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.

Words    Samuel Crossman (1623-1683)
Image    Hans Memling  (c1430 -1494)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The last great wilderness

Given that I have lived practically all my life among the hills of England and Wales, you might be forgiven for thinking that when it came to spending part of each year in Scotland, we might just have gone for a change of scenery. What about the big skies and flatter landscape of eastern Scotland, or even a small, friendly market town, with all the activities that would afford us?

The trouble was that by the time this became a possibility for us with my retirement from parish ministry, we had already succumbed irrevocably to the lure of what is often called the last great wilderness in Britain – the north-west Highlands, and especially the county of Sutherland.

Ben Hope from Loch Eriboll
Until 2002, despite the fact that DH is a Scot by birth and ancestry, if not by upbringing, the furthest north either of us had ever been was the island of Mull, off the west coast. We spent a happy, if rather damp and midge-bitten, week there immediately after DH retired, and though we enjoyed it immensely, felt no strong pull to return.

Loch Naver

That year, in a desperate attempt to wean me away from the idea of a cottage in France, DH suggested we look for a small campervan, which would enable us to visit lots of places, rather than just one. After an interesting search, to say the least, we finally settled on the smallest van we could find (not a Transit, actually, but a Peugeot) and took the plunge.

Our first long trip took place that summer, on our return from my nephew’s wedding in Belfast. We arrived at Stranraer and as we disembarked from the ferry, simply turned left and headed north. Over the next ten days we circumnavigated a considerable proportion of Scotland’s coast, from Ullapool in the west to the Scottish Borders on the east.

Loch Torridon

Ardvreck Castle, Assynt

As we travelled north into the vast emptiness of Assynt and Durness, then turned east along the north coast, we found ourselves almost overwhelmed by the awe-inspiring grandeur of the area. Gradually we found ourselves falling in love with the extraordinary, rugged beauty of this ancient landscape, with its mountains and lochs, its cliffs and islands, its empty, golden beaches, its tiny, isolated settlements and its long, hard and often tragic history.

Sango Bay, Durness

Cape Wrath

Sandwood Bay

By the time we drove down the east coast and back into England, the damage was done. Despite its remoteness and the long, tiring drive there and back, we knew that this was our bit of Scotland and always would be. Its beauty, emptiness and sheer scale, and the constant interplay of mountains, sky and water, satisfy something deep within us.

Loch Eriboll

One day we will be too old to make the trip and will have to content ourselves with our photographs and our memories. Until then, twice a year, in spring and autumn, we load up the campervan and make what must be one of the most beautiful journeys in the world, up through the heart of the Highlands to the very northernmost edge of mainland Britain. Believe me, what we find there is worth every mile.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A milestone birthday

In just over a week I will be officially old J On Easter Day, that greatest of Christian festivals, I will qualify to draw my church pension and will celebrate a birthday I once wondered whether I would live to see. Before then, however, we have another important family birthday to celebrate: that of Grandson #1, which falls tomorrow.

Luckily, given our fading memories, all three grandsons’ birthdays are easy to remember. Grandson #3 was born on another of the great festivals of the church (and one of my favourites) – Epiphany, while Grandson #2’s arrival coincided with our wedding anniversary. How sensible of Prince William and his fiancĂ©e to choose such an auspicious date for their wedding.

However, I remember the birth of Grandson #1 for a very different reason.

Just before Christmas twelve years ago, when DD was 5 months pregnant, I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time. In the initial daze of shock and fear I briefly wondered whether I would even live to see the birth of our first grandchild and certainly whether I would be fortunate enough to watch him or her grow up. As it turned out, I was one of the lucky ones, whose cancer had been found early and was eminently treatable.

Early in the New Year I had surgery, and a few weeks after that started on a 5-week course of radiotherapy. This necessitated my making a daily round-trip of 88 miles on country roads to the nearest District General Hospital – three hours of driving for three minutes of treatment. I beguiled the tedium of the journeys with the wonders of audio-books and with daydreaming about my impending grandmotherhood, to which I was looking forward immensely.

The course of radiotherapy finished a fortnight before the baby was due. Ten days later I drove through a mid-April snowstorm to visit DD, who had been admitted early to hospital, and to stay with our son-in-law until the birth. We didn’t know whether it would be a boy or a girl, as DD and her husband hadn’t wanted to spoil the surprise. In the event we welcomed with joy and gratitude the safe arrival of the first of our three grandsons, and suddenly life took on a whole new dimension and meaning.

After my operation, the kindly consultant had given me a very good prognosis, but the radiotherapy and the driving had been hard work. Now the birth of this first grandchild brought me a new sense of optimism and hope for a future that had for a little while seemed doubtful. I could look forward again, not back, and could trust that, barring accidents, I would indeed live to see him grow up. Even a totally unexpected recurrence of the cancer when he was six didn’t destroy this hope, though it certainly dented it for a time, until tests showed that again I had been fortunate and the cancer had not spread.

Now, as the magic age of 65 looms, I am so glad still to be here and watching all three grandsons growing up into loveable, talented and unique individuals. Each birthday is celebrated as the significant milestone it is, but still, for me, the birthday of Grandson #1 has a special meaning, as I remember what might have been and give renewed thanks for what is and what may yet be to come. Having had cancer twice, I know that the future can never be taken for granted, but at present life is good and I am content, and always, always grateful. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Knit your own social network

About three hours ago I got back from my first visit this trip to the local Knit and Natter group.  We meet a couple of miles away from where I’m staying, in the home of the founder in another tiny, north Scottish village, looking out onto glorious views of coast and hills.

Usually there are between six and ten of us there, spending every Wednesday morning over coffee and cake, surrounded by yarn, needles and patterns, and setting the world to rights as we knit or crochet. It sounds dreadfully cosy, perhaps even a bit twee, when put down in black and white like that, but I think it’s actually something much more positive.

Of course there’s some gentle gossip over the coffee-cups, but it’s kind gossip, rooted in a genuine concern for the well-being of the inhabitants of these tiny, scattered, remote communities. We learn who is ill or in hospital and might need a friendly visit or a bit of help. We share news of the local schools and other organisations, find out when this or that social activity is planned and what help may be needed to put it on.

We also share our skills, with the more experienced happily imparting their knowledge to the beginners or the returners to the craft. We decide what we’re going to make to raise money for the local church and other good causes, and also where members might be able to sell their other beautifully-made items to raise money for more yarn.

The trouble with being a truly addicted knitter - and we all are (or soon will be) - is that you have to find a home for what you make and there are only so many sweaters, scarves and hats our families and friends can use. You also have to buy yarn for further knitting and good quality yarn doesn’t come cheap nowadays. That’s why, as I've written about here, I love making socks. They are small, cheap to make, and everyone needs socks. J

It’s a pleasant, sociable way to spend a Wednesday morning and I really enjoy going there. But I also think we make more than just our knitted items as we knit and natter our way through our three hours together. In our own small way I think we make our communities a little stronger with our exchange of information, our interest and our concern. In addition, we find that working together, even if only once a week, is better than always working apart, better for ourselves and also better for the causes for which we work.

So whether I’m knitting socks, or tiny sweaters for premature babies, or just admiring the amazing skill of those busy creating a lacy scarf or gossamer-fine shawl, I find knitting and nattering is as good and productive a way of spending some of my life as I can think of. That’s my craft addiction, do please tell me yours.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The wheel turns full circle

The recent appearance of this item of technological news on the BBC website has been the cause of much quiet hilarity in the Transit household. Quiet, because DH and I are still suffering the after-effects of the horrendous cold so kindly passed on to us by Grandson #1 during our visit, which means that laughing out loud soon becomes coughing out loud and for much longer. Hilarity, nonetheless, because until relatively recently our loft contained the remains of at least one of the original Commodore 64 models, bought by DH at the dawn of the personal computer era.

It was back in the late 1970s that DH, then working in education, was asked by an old college friend to look critically at some educational software which his firm was going to launch in the UK. On his return DH said something about having seen the future and was then immediately reabsorbed into his frantically busy working life.

But it wasn’t long before he decided that this new development was too important to ignore and became the proud possessor of one of the first Commodore PET machines to be imported into the UK, complete with integral cassette data storage and a massive 8KB of RAM.

That first purchase set the pattern for the future. In 1982 the PET was superseded by the Commodore 64, which of course DH bought, and it was on these two very basic machines that DS and DD learned first to use computers and then to program them. 

This photo isn’t of the highest quality to say the least (a scan of an original which started to fade years ago) and I can assure you that DS, at the tender age of 12 or so, (no dated photos back then) was NOT working underwater. But he was acquiring a skill which has stood him in very good stead ever since, and already knew more about computer programming than i will ever learn.

My only regret about those far-off pioneer days of home computing is that we had no spare cash to invest in the very small, new software company that DH spotted at the first computer exhibition he ever went to, and thought might go places. Its name was Microsoft.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The sound of music

It’s been a while since I had the chance to set finger to keyboard, as we’ve been in transit. The end of March normally signals the first of our regular migrations, this time north to Scotland, and en route we spent the weekend of Mothering Sunday with DD and her family.

It’s always lovely to see them and to catch up with what our two older grandsons have been doing, but there was a special reason for choosing this particular weekend to do so. The secret is that DD and her two sons are all musical. Between them they play four instruments, each playing the piano and also their own particular speciality.

Almost 4 years ago, when he was 8, Grandson #1 decided to learn the trumpet. He came home from school one day, saying that his class had all been given the chance to try various wind and brass instruments, and as he was the only one who had managed to get a note out of the trumpet, he wanted to learn to play it. And learn to play it he has, with great enjoyment and considerable success, not only in school, but also, as he progressed, on Saturday mornings at the local Music Centre.

For those, like me, who hadn’t come across the idea of music centres, I should tell you that DD and her family are lucky enough to live in a local authority with a well-organised and proactive county music service. Not only does it supply peripatetic instrument teachers, who give individual or group tuition in school to those whose parents choose it for their children, but on Saturday mornings they come together in a number of towns to run bands and other music groups for young, and not-so-young, budding instrumentalists. And so began the family’s involvement with the Music Centre’s end-of-term concerts.

After a year or so of foregoing her Saturday morning lie-in to take her firstborn to the Music Centre for junior band rehearsals, DD decided that a better alternative to standing on the sidelines would be to join in herself. So it was that she finally fulfilled a longstanding secret ambition and began to learn to play the saxophone, making such good progress that within months she too was able to start playing in the band.

Not to be outdone, a year ago, at the age of 8, Grandson #2 began to learn the clarinet. Soon, as his elder brother graduated to senior band on entry to high school, he took his place in the junior band, leaving his fortunate father at home alone to enjoy his peaceful Saturday mornings.

Last Saturday was therefore not only the eve of Mothering Sunday, but the day of the end-of term concert at the Music Centre. It was a morning concert, a first for DH and me, and a total revelation to us both.  We know of course that DD and her offspring are musical.  We hear them practising whenever we visit and have seen videos of previous concerts, but this was the first we had managed to attend in person and, oh, how we enjoyed it!

We loved the numbers taking part and the variety of music and of instruments played. There were groups for junior and senior strings and guitars, there was a beginners’ group for woodwind and brass, plus the junior and senior concert bands. There was a children’s choir, which sang almost unaccompanied, and to round off proceedings with a truly rousing finale, there was the Big (or Swing) Band, which was (to use one of Grandson #1’s favourite words) awesome!

The standard of playing was remarkably high, but above all we loved the sheer infectious enthusiasm of participants and conductors. To see so many ordinary schoolchildren and a few adults who regularly give up their precious spare time to rehearse together and who so obviously enjoy doing so, was a delight. The memory of it has stayed with me all week and I just hope and pray that in this time of national austerity and swingeing spending cuts, this kind of life-enhancing activity for players and audience will continue to flourish. I for one can’t wait for next time.