Monday, 12 October 2020

Rules (and tiers before bedtime)

 Autistic people love rules, right?

It certainly felt like it when I was explaining last week how the Programme Regulations for East Asian Studies didn't permit an optional languages module in the foundation year. Nope; those are the regulations. Yes, I know it's not logical; I know it's not consistent, but that's what was agreed with the department and THOSE ARE THE REGULATIONS. You can try and change them if you like; you can apply for a Special Regulation, but as it stands your student can't do that language module.

At this stage of the academic year, I'm doing a lot of work on getting students to do academic referencing. Not teaching them how to do it perfectly. Yet. Just to understand the principles behind it and not be scared of it. I love referencing. I am a Harvard demon. I used to be very picky with students' referencing - if I can do it perfectly, why can't they? And then I remembered. When I first started as an undergraduate, referencing made me very uncomfortable. Rules. That I didn't understand. And that I might get wrong

I came to understand them, and I grew to love them, with a passion. Just as I do Programme Regulations. Known, understood and unchanging rules are a secure framework; a comfort blanket, something to fall back on when all around is chaos.

But I think, perhaps, that like being supremely well-organised, loving rules may not be an inherent autistic trait. It might be a coping strategy. One that has become so ingrained we lose sight of the fact that it's not our natural default. We gain mastery of the rules because the alternative - the prospect of getting it wrong - is so unbearable. To avoid this, we may even rebel against the rules and refuse to play the game entirely.

When I wrote this post, back in March, I though of myself as a person who didn't like obeying rules (and indeed, obedience - the loss of autonomy - is a bit of an issue). But that same person didn't leave the house for four months in order to avoid being confronted by those rules. Scared to obey; scared not to, and above all, scared of not understanding - the only option then is to avoid them completely.

I love rules.

Rules frighten me.

Unclear rules make me uneasy.

Unclear rules enforceable by the power of the state terrify me.

Irrational rules cause me significant internal conflict.

Unclear and irrational rules enforceable by the power of the state are the reason I don't go out.


Monday, 28 September 2020

Mad world (or, a collective action problem)

 Oops, it's been a while. I thought I'd better not let September go by postless, but what is there for an extremely busy recluse to write about?

Yup, the world is officially, outrageously, barnstormingly bonkers, and if the press is to be believed my beloved profession is at the heart of it. And I have to say there's some truth in that. On Thursday, if I can muster the courage (I have someone standing by to step in if not), I shall be back in the classroom. From having not been near more than one person at a time for six months (and that rarely) I shall be faced with fifteen of them, from all over the country. Then after an hour, another fifteen. Then after lunch, another fifteen. And then another. They will be sat a metre and a half apart and all wearing masks. We can't have any handouts or groupwork. They will get 45 minutes of this and that will be their lot of what we somewhat ironically call 'face to face' teaching for the week.

I have been fearsomely busy these last few weeks turning most of my teaching into online teaching. This has been really exciting and I - along with my colleagues - are doing some really good, engaging, imaginative and innovative stuff. My students will be getting better value this year than ever before, in terms of the thought and structure that we are putting into their learning and the amount of material we are pulling together for them. Online tutorials will be far smaller than conventional classes and each student will get more individual attention. The library is forking out a fortune for new ebook licences so that everyone will be able to access the books I set, rather than wait for someone to bring a copy back to the library. As at the end of the last academic year, the university is making funds available so that everybody has the IT hardware and online connection they need. So do not for a moment believe that online teaching is a cheap option, or that it is not good value. Do not think, either, that it is not good teaching. It is.

That is not, however, to say that students will have as good a learning experience (as the jargon has it). Of course they won't. You cannot reproduce online the buzz of a heated seminar debate, or convey the enthusiasm of a tutor leaping up and down and waving their arms around in front of the class; above all you can't create those tiny unexpected conversations which can open up whole new worlds. It won't be such fun. But we can still prepare our students to start a successful degree programme next year; the foundation year can and will still deliver on its promise. And - as I consoled one student last week - with any luck they get a second chance at the whole freshers' week thing when they start their 'first' year next year. 

But to get back to my earlier point - what I was trying to convey there was that while in many ways online teaching is no substitute for 'normal' face to face, it's probably a lot better than Covid face to face, with all its inevitable limitations. And that's just looking at it from a teaching point of view, without considering the other risks.

So why are we going to such massive lengths to deliver, at some non-trivial risk to students and staff, what is likely (although I must, I know, reserve judgement until after I have seen it) to be a less good learning experience?

The answer is that this is what we doctors* call a collective action problem. It's an absolute classic of the genre.

Back in the spring, students, applicants and potential applicants, when asked, said that they would like face to face teaching when they went to university in the autumn. Back then, we all had the generally vague sense that by now things would be more or less back to normal, if you recall, rather than heading lemming-like for the cliff edge. So why wouldn't they say that?

Many people counselled that it would be sensible to plan for entirely online delivery this autumn, to forestall the biggest internal migration in the UK. Many universities probably wanted to. But there was also a widespread fear that recruitment would drop very sharply across the board, increasing the pressure on each university to attract applicants, and that universities whose student numbers fell would have to close courses and lay of teaching staff - a position that they might never recover from even once student numbers (almost inevitably) picked up again. No one wanted to be that university. 

If some universities were offering face to face, and some online only, given what applicants had told pollsters, it was reasonable to assume that any institution that went online only while others were still offering face to face would be signing its own death warrant. 

Even if all universities wanted to go online only, no-one would dare to. That's the essence of a collective action problem. It's in everybody's interests to do X, but only as long as everybody does it.

But if everybody else does X then it's in any individual's interest not to. If everyone else is going online, then the institution that offers face to face is going to hoover up all the applicants. The usual way of addressing this problem is either for all the parties to come to a binding agreement - with some mechanism in place to ensure that they stick to it - or for it to be imposed by a greater power. 

Universities UK could have done the former; the government could have done the latter. The majority of universities would probably have been mightily relieved to have a level playing field on which to compete on the quality of their online offer. We could have avoided this entire mass migration of students, significant numbers of whom are already doing their courses entirely online but in what is effectively a cell miles away from their families and support networks.

And now, even now that the madness of the situation is staring us in the face and students aren't nearly so gung ho for their face to face experience, we can't back out of it, because the government has effectively told students that they can sue universities under consumer protection legislation if the universities don't deliver what was promised. We promised 'some' face to face teaching, and 'some' is what they're getting - and we're telling them that they have to turn up to it unless they've a good reason not to.

One of my favourite WonkHE bloggers has summarised it in a far more measured way here.

So yes, it is all mad, and yes, it could have been completely avoided, but no, it's not a conspiracy by exploitative money-grabbing universities. It's a collective action problem.


*of Philosophy

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Down to the river

That should be 'up and down' really. I could just go down to a river, to the Don, but that's not a very picturesque route, nor indeed bit of the river. But I have now found a route to the Rivelin which is not as hilly as my previous one, and is only just over a mile and a quarter, so I aim to make this a regular walk. 

When I first set out on Wednesday, it was pretty much the first time I'd left home in four months, total avoidance being my coping strategy of choice. And I wasn't missing people, or shops, or indeed nature, or the great outdoors (as opposed to the small outdoors of my garden), but I really, really felt that I needed the exercise, and that's what drove me out, early in the morning before anyone else was around.

It's impossible to imagine now, but the lower Rivelin Valley was - in terms of the use of water power -  once one of the most heavily industrialised stretches of river in the country, with twenty watermills in a three mile length, the first built in 1581, and the last still operating in the 1950s.

This is (if I have identified it correctly) the remains of the overflow weir at Mousehole Forge, which was still making anvils in the 1930s. The waterwheel was used to drive air into the forge.

Friday, 7 August 2020

And the answer is ...

 ... they were both born in the Black Country.

I said it was surprising.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Evaluating commentating

I wonder whether the BBC has any means of seeking viewers' feedback on snooker commentators - a bit like students give us feedback at the end of each module. Because if they do, how come they still employ John Virgo? Now, a small mercy of the current situation is that John Virgo is stuck in Spain, and is thus unable to make me scream and throw things at the telly, for the first time in living memory.  However, the BBC are trying out a few new names, and there is some close competition for the role.

The maddening thing about Virgo is that he burbles. He thinks we want to be party to his every fleeting thought, and that any silence in the commentary box is there to be filled, preferably by him. I don't know about you, but what I want to hear from a commentator is their considered opinion or insight, not the entire process of arriving at it. Twice. And then burbling inconsequentially away from it afterwards.

Sadly, the BBC seem to have found a worthy successor in this regard in the shape of Joe Perry. Now, I've always liked 'Gentleman Joe' as a person, even if he's never excited me as a player. But my god I wish he would shut up, rather than sharing every thought as he thinks it, with, it has to be said, the added annoyance of a rather irritating intonation. There is, perhaps, some hope for Joe though; he's new to commentary and perhaps it's nerves. Perhaps he could learn to say a little less and make it count a bit more.

Because it is good to have players in the commentary box, even if they're not the greatest commentators. There are two new voices on the BBC this time who aren't players or former players: Dave Farrar (who he indeed) and MC Rob Walker himself. I had never heard of Dave Farrar, but Google tells me he's a football commentator. I find that quite hard to imagine. As a snooker commentator, however, he seems made for the role, in the mould of 'Whispering' Ted Lowe. He's a good commentator who knows when to keep quiet and asks pertinent questions about play of his accompanying pundit, although he's not one to go to great leangths to avoid a cliche.

After seeing Rob Walker doing his MC thing live in 2016, I decided that he wasn't as annoying as he appeared on the TV. I have now reconsidered that and reverted to my former view. He's a decent MC and a good interviewer, but please BBC do not put him back in the commentary box again. Not only does he not shut up, but unlike Joe 'thought process' Perry, he's not even talking about the game he's meant to be commentating on, but telling lengthy anecdotes and not even noticing when something interesting happens on the table.

As for the remaining player/commentators, how would I rank them?

Denis Taylor is annoying; he talks too much, but not to such an extent. Get him and Steve Davis or John Parrott in together and it becomes a bit too pally, a little bit cliquey. Steve Davis - who was my favourite player for decades - is OK, and so is John Parrott when he's not in with one of his mates. I used to like Ken Doherty, but either he's lost his touch, or I've just heard it all before. If he ever opens his commentary with any line but 'I couldn't agree more Denis/John/Steve' it's a shock, and also why do players (and Doherty is not the only offender here) never simply have great cue power; why must they always be blessed with it? Also, there's something slightly sinister about him. While all other snooker players look about 20 years older than their actual age, Ken Docherty looks 20 years younger and is still going backwards.

So who does that leave? My runner up is Alan McManus, mainly because I just love listening to that voice. He's also knowledgeable and genuinely enthusiastic, but without quite talking too much, mostly. There was a phase where he was always predicting the players' next shots wrongly, which was quite amusing, but he seems not to do that so much lately.  But - slightly surprisingly to me - my top commentator is Stephen Hendry. Very knowledgeable, good at explaining things, and rarely opens his mouth unless he has something interesting to say.  I was also impressed over on ITV4 with the commentating debut of Peter Lines - I thought he was particularly good at explaining what players were doing, and why - perhaps the BBC should snap him up.

Finally a mention for the BBC's new presenter, Radzi Chinyanganya, the Sabbatical Officer for snooker. Or as a fellow snooker fan academic put it, he looks like a media studies student on work experience. He's actually an economics graduate from Loughborough and - who knew - a former Blue Peter presenter. Maybe I'm getting old, but his breathless enthusiasm still smacks to me of children's TV.  But here's an obscure quiz question for you, with a very tangential boating link - what surprising thing do he and Ronnie O'Sullivan have in common? And because not even my even-more-snooker-mad-than-me-friend didn't get it, here's a clue: you wouldn't know it from the way they talk.




Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Interesting figures

Average age of the male referees at the snooker World Championship: 49*

Average age of the female referees at the snooker World Championship: 31

We must just be quick learners.

Of course Tatiana and Desi will still be refereeing in their fifties and sixties.


*Five out of seven male referees for whom I could find birthdates. Including 31 year-old Marcel Eckhardt pulling the average down. In all cases I have assumed that they have had their birthday this year.

Do you have a favourite snooker referee? Mine's Paul Collier.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

The mysterious world of the External Examiner

I thought you might be wondering what I was doing in Edinburgh, at the end of January, making tea with two hotel teabags (they only supplied four; I had to go out and but some more, plus empire biscuits - a delicacy of which I had been previously unaware - for my expatriate Scots colleague).

I was there to undertake that mysterious activity known in academic circles as 'externalling'.

Universities are all technically independent, autonomous institutions, setting their own standards and overseeing their own degree programmes. There's no National Curriculum; no SATs, and no common exams like GCSEs and A Levels. Yet somehow, students and employers need to know that a first class degree from one university is in some important way equivalent to a first class degree from another - possibly very different - institution. (And yes, I know that on one level that is a forlorn hope, because  universities and some degree programmes are so very diverse, but bear with me for now).

Students also need to know that their work has been set and marked fairly, and to standards roughly the same as for students at other universities, and that it's at the same level of difficulty; they want to know that their degree classifications have been worked out correctly, and that all the marking has ben transparent and above board.

The traditional - and indeed thriving - means of achieving all this is through the offices of the External Examiner. An External Examiner ('External' for short, usually honoured with an initial capital) is an academic, in the same field, from another university. Rather than one body overseeing every institution, there is a vast criss-crossing network of Externals who between them, theoretically at least, ensure standards and consistency across the whole sector. 

So every now and then, a request gets circulated (often in our case via the Foundation Year Network) for an External Examiner for this or that subject area - Externals' terms of office generally last three years, and there are rules about not having reciprocal arrangements, or more than one external from any one institution in a department, or anyone holding more than two externalling posts. When we see a call in our subject area, naturally our first thought is 'How can I fulfil this opportunity to serve the academic community?' and not 'Will this look good on my CV?' or 'Will it be a nice place to visit?' I must confess that I have been known to apply the last criterion, hence my current External Examiner posts being at York and Edinburgh.

The other thing you don't ask is 'How much are they paying?'  They are paying, but it's probably not much. It's one of those things academics are expected to - and willingly - do from a combination of status-seeking and good citizenship. We know that the system depends on us all playing our part. There is also of course the opportunity to spend five hours on a train and a night in a hotel with four one-cup teabags at someone else's expense (which as unalluring as it sounds is a damn sight better than trying to do it via Microsoft Teams).

It is quite a lot of work though. For every Exam Board you attend (and Edinburgh has lots, which disappointingly at the moment means lots of Microsoft Teams and not so many opportunities for that long awaited Big Day Out to Ladybank) you have to look through samples of the students' work (which now includes videos), and the marking and moderation, and feedback, and the processes by which marks have been arrived at, and extenuating circumstances determined; you need to be familiar with the particular institution's unique set of arcane regulations (Null sit? Ah, that's what we call NA ...) and (the worst bit, for me) look at spreadsheets. The horror. Then you have to write a report.  On the plus side, you get to meet lovely people doing the same job as you in different places and have a good natter/moan/gossip share best practice.

The real compensation, though, is that as an External Examiner, you are treated like a god. Or at least minor royalty. You are, for some reason I have yet to fathom, an Important Person. Probably because you report direct to the university above the level of the department. Therefore everyone is very nice to you and nothing is too much trouble.
See? Plied with regional delicacies. And terrible tea.

Time was, you got a slap up meal too, though none of my posts has ever offered that and in these days of financial belt-tightening I fear that tradition may be gone for good. So I had to fend for myself in Edinburgh:
It was not the most joyous repast of which I have ever partaken.

At Sheffield we used to have a generous, but stringently regulated budget for entertaining Externals. The rules were that you could buy a meal for one member of staff for each External present. Back in the days when there were a number of us each running our own degree programme, a colleague would annually take her External out for a proper posh dinner. One member of staff; one External - the University happily stumped up eighty quid. I on the other hand took my External and my Programme Administrator who did all the work of preparing for the board, to lunch in the local Wetherspoons (this was when Brexit was still a gleam in Nigel Farage's eye) where - being incorrigably abstemious - we managed to spend fifteen quid in total. I sent the receipt in to the External Examiners office, and received an admonitory email and reimbursement of ten pounds, because they wouldn't pay for the supernumary person.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Alternative holiday

I decided back in mid June not to pursue the Croxley run after all this year - for a number of reasons, most of them 'what ifs', but the overarching one being to get rid of the what ifs and give myself some certainty. We already knew it would be nothing like we had planned, and my key co-planner wasn't able to come after all, so we're aiming for next year.

What to do, then, with all that leave I wouldn't use?

Bring it forward a couple of weeks for a perfect Sheffield - nay,  sofa - staycation.

Never, in my forty-plus years of following the World Championship have I been in a position to watch - should I wish - every single match. And knowing that it's actually happening just a mile and a half down the road does make it a bit extra-special.




Saturday, 1 August 2020

How I'm marking Yorkshire Day

Well, how else?
Should keep me going for another three and a half months.

Friday, 31 July 2020

Stretch

My rubber plant reached the ceiling today.

If it had reached the ceiling yesterday, I might have made it into Diamond Geezer's list of current blogs who have him in their blogroll.

As it is, I'll have to settle for 'almost current'

Oh, and it is touching the ceiling, honest. It's just a rather pale tip.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Standing orders

Sitting down is apparently really bad for you - that's the (second) latest thing, anyway. And I do a hell of a lot of it. I don't even have my two miles walk to the office and back now to salve my conscience and stretch my legs. I can stand at my desk,
but more often than not, I don't.

However, all is not lost. I seem to have established a tradition of making myself pancakes for Sunday brunch. And pancakes - unless you have someone else cooking them for you - have to be eaten standing up.

My galley-type kitchen (almost exactly the same dimensions as the one on Bakewell) is perfectly suited for this.

First, I prepare everything by laying out plate, caster sugar and lemon (the only thing I ever have on actual (as opposed to Scotch) pancakes) cup of tea, book and glasses on the counter opposite the hob.
 Then on the other side is the batter, oil, pan and spatula...
So it's a case of cook the first pancake, get it onto the plate, oil the pan, get the next one on, juice and sugar the one on the plate, glasses on (so they don't get sticky doing it later), roll it up and eat it while reading a paragraph and keeping an eye on the next one.

I work on the basis although this feels terribly decadent (especially as growing up, pancakes were most definitely a once-a-year treat), the egg and quarter pint of milk, two ounces of flour and a drop of oil actually probably compares quite favourably in terms of protein:carbohydrate:fat ratio to having the egg on toast (which would be horrible anyway). So that's all right then.

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Desperate for a ...

... subject to post about, I thought of my most recent Oxfam purchase. 'Most recent' meaning, in this instance, on March 21st (the day I last got my hair cut and last handled cash).

But what a fabulous purchase it was:
In absolutely perfect condition, a ceramic holder for those boxes of interleaved toilet paper, which - hooray! - I see are still sold. On the front is embossed 'JEYES - THE HOUSE OF HYGIENE' and their address at 99 Regent Street.

But the best bit is that incorporated into the top of the holder is
an ashtray!

Clearly designed in the interests of employers for the efficient multi-tasking use of workers' break times.


Sunday, 24 May 2020

Our lives are made from the things we pay attention to

I thought that was a lovely quote, and an important idea, when I read it in the Guardian last week. It was written in the context of walking in nature, and paying attention to birds, and peace, and beauty.

It's true, certainly to an extent, that we can focus on what we want to remember; what we want to form our experience, what we choose to be important to us. And those memories and those experiences are the essence of what we look back on when we look back upon our life (so far).

Ironic, then, that that was in the Guardian. Over the last week or two I was gradually dipping back into the media - in the form of the Guardian website. It felt, as the grip of 'lockdown' loosened slightly that there was a glimmer of normality appearing; non- (or only tangentially-) Covid stories in the place of the previous focus on the drama and horror of it. I began to lift my self-imposed isolation from the media.

And now I regret it. As the tide of horror has receded, its drama played out, it has been replaced, it seems, with an even more insidious current of judgementalism. Every agony column seems to be about someone 'breaking lockdown' and the agony aunts are no longer the non-judgemental figures we have come to expect, and everything seems to be turning into a witch hunt. There is probably no one in this country whom I dislike more than Dominic Cummings, but to see the way the Guardian - (channels 1985 Neil Kinnock) the Guardian - has hounded and surveilled him has done more than anything to bring me to the brink of despair. 

Now. I am not an epidemiologist, and I am perfectly prepared to err on the side of caution and to accept that the regulations - albeit appallingly drafted - are a necessary and proportionate response to the situation. However, the alacrity with which they are being policed and enforced, in the streets and supermarkets, and in the press and blog comments, by members the general public high on their own self-righteousness, is truly frightening.

Hopefully Covid-19 will be under control within months; how much longer will it take for the poison of self-righteousness, judgementalism, surveillance and suspicion to work its way out of our collective system? Please, everyone - and I'm sure my readers don't need asking this - please let the authorities - the police, the council, the health services - do their job of enforcement. Please save your energy to approach your fellow humans with kindness, not condemnation; sympathy not judgement.

Meanwhile, I once again withdraw from the media, because that is not what I want to pay attention to; that is not what I want my life to be made from, when I look back on this time.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Maybe he's just not very good at canals

I don't want to have a go at Stuart Maconie. I haven't listened to him on the radio for ages, but I'm sure he's very good, and his books  - especially Cider with Roadies and Pies and Prejudice are very funny. I like his style; his affectionate yet not uncritical take, and the details he homes in on.

His books present all manner of obscure and fascinating facts, and this is a big part of what makes them so enjoyable.

But sometimes those facts aren't. Sometimes inaccuracies slip in. I picked up on one such canal-related misrepresentation in Pies and Prejudice way back on the Warrior blog, when he neatly excised the Huddersfield Canal from Ashton to Diggle (and said some slightly careless things about its dimensions).

I'm now reading his Popular History of Britain on the Kindle - so OK, it only cost me £2.99, but equally, it can't be hard to correct errors. And here he doesn't just get a canal wrong; he invents one entirely from scratch. It's called the Airedale Canal, and it occupies the space in Saltaire more usually associated with the Leeds Liverpool. To add slapdash insult to inaccurate injury, he goes on to say - rather dismissively, I thought - that he has no idea why a licenced cafe (or now, according to its website, 'the most happening bar, restaurant and lounge' in Saltaire) would be called 'Don't Tell Titus'. Despite the fact that he has just written pages about Bourneville and its dry nature, he either doesn't know that the same very much applied to Saltaire, or he's not made the connection. That in itself isn't important, but - as I said back in 2007, it makes you doubt the accuracy or care applied to everything else. And it's slightly spoiled for me a book that I had very much been enjoying (and had in fact been about to recommend to a colleague who'll be teaching history next year). A slightly cavalier approach to the facts might be ok in a book poking gentle fun at northerners, but in one purporting to be a history it's a bit less excusable. I shall carry on reading though, because it is quite funny.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Holiday request

I finally decided last week that I would put in a leave request for August, just in case.

Going away in August isn't easy. Colleagues with children want to take their holidays then, in school holiday time. Clearing puts additional pressure on everyone involved in admissions. And for me, as Exams Officer, there's the August resit exam board to prepare for.

So I thought I had better make a good case. t'Boss is an archaeologist, with a keen interest in history (although I must own that he did glaze over a bit the time I started explaining the differences between Woolwiches and Northwiches) so my plan was to capture his interest with a vivid historical angle (having, of course, already checked with all my colleagues and made sure cover was in place for everything I need to do). With that aim, I compiled a supporting document that I am now shamelessly reproducing as a blog post.

Would this persuade you to let me go? I'll let you know what he says ...

Holiday request August 2020
This is my boat (on the left), loading coal at Gopsall Wharf on the Ashby Canal, on August 18th 1970.
Richard Pearson
This is the loading note, signed by the Transport Manager of Ashby Canal Transport, showing that they loaded 23 tons.
Ashby Canal Transport was set up as part of the ultimately successful effort to keep the Ashby Canal open. They didn't own any boats of their own, but subcontracted to a number of individuals and small companies, mostly enthusiasts who had bought boats in one of British Waterways' big disposals in the early 1960s when canal transport was ceasing to be commercially viable (the winter of 1963 was a final nail in its coffin, with boats being unable to move for three months).

This is Chertsey on the Grand Union, en route - the last time she was fully loaded.
Richard Pearson
The journey of 120 miles and 83 locks can be made in a week at a steady pace, putting in longish days (ten hours or so).

And this is Chertsey being unloaded on August 25th 1970, at Croxley Mill (where they made Croxley Script paper) on the Grand Union near Hemel Hempsted.
Richard Pearson
Already a far cry from the scene a decade or so earlier:
courtesy of Diamond Geezer
That traffic came to an end the following week, when Croxley Mill went over to getting their coal delivered by lorry. The very last regular long distance commercial narrow boat traffic (coal to a jam factory near Paddington) ended in November 1970.

Ever since I bought Chertsey over ten years ago, I have wanted to recreate her last commercial trip on its fiftieth anniversary. I began planning this last year, and teamed up with the owner of one of the other boats that was on that run and with the former traffic manager of Ashby Canal Transport (who signed that loading note), and our original plan was to involve as many as we could of the motor boats and butties that were there in 1970 in a commemorative trip, with the local history society organising events at the site of the mill, and possbily unveiling a commemorative plaque at the site of the wharf at Croxley - the mill is long demolished, and replaced by a housing estate, but a length of concrete banking remains.

Obviously, these plans have been thrown out of kilter somewhat, and I don't think we will be able - or even want - to organise a big event. But I don't want to completely write off the idea of making that run if possible (whilst allowing for the contingency of it not being). And obviously I do need to use some leave.



Saturday, 16 May 2020

Gratuitous large pair

Last week I was trying to calculate for dg the dimensions of the box I've been living in, in my case since April 1st. (Gratifyingly, I think mine came out the smallest of all the comments.) I started by looking out of the window and counting the fence panels from the end of the garden to the house, then I recalled the rough size of the rooms from the estate agent's blurb, and I couldn't believe the numbers I was arriving at, numbers known not to be my strongest point.

So today I got out the tape measure and set about it systematically, and I was right, and it is still unbelievable.

From the railings at the front of my house to the end of my back garden is 72'4"; from one side of my garden to the other is 14'4", which is also the average width of my house.

So that's roughly the same footprint as a breasted pair; and you could fit my house and garden into a Grand Union lock. Which even now I've measured it is still unbelievable. Although admittedly it's a long time since I saw a Grand Union lock.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Eleventy

Yesterday was not a particularly remarkable day.

But it was - I discovered this morning - an eleven cups of tea day.

I discovered it this morning because every morning I empty the previous day's teabags into the compost bin. And I have, sadly, got into the habit of counting them as I do so.
Well, I'm off now for a cup of tea.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

What to keep

Nev shared his thoughts over a month ago about what we could learn from the situation we've been thrust into, and how we might pledge to change.

My take is a little bit different - and, I readily confess, a whole lot more self centred - but of all the changes that have either been forced upon us, or have been our adaptive responses over the last couple of months, there is quite a lot that I would like to hang on to, if I can. In no particular order they are:

1. Working at home - If you've read yesterday's posy, you'll know why. I know at some point I will have to stop working exclusively at home - partly for the reasons Andy pointed out in his comment yesterday, but also for the more blindingly obvious reason that at some point we'll be teaching and engaing with students IRL again - and that's what I do, and most of the time, it's what I love to do. The office on the other hand ... I will try to avoid as much as possible. Now the precedent is set for video meetings, why not continue to have them, if there's just one person I need to have a chat with for half an hour? This might be one of the hardest habits to keep up, because it can't be 100%, so it will be hard to stop it gradually being chipped away. But I will try.

2. Video socialising - I've never liked using the phone, and it's easy to slip out out of touch - maybe oh-so-gradually - when you're reliant on emails and texts to keep in touch. Setting up a video meeting somehow feels more like arranging a visit (and less like a phone call) and I've rekindled old and developed new friendships with people hundreds of miles away and laughed and ranted and drunk for an hour or two just like you're meant to do with friends.

3. Not shopping in supermarkets and not buying processed food - now this is one I've tried before, but I hope my motivation is stronger now. Beanies have been a lifesaver for me; the reason I haven't needed to leave the house. They're a co-op who support local and organic producers. Of course they're not going to be as cheap as Tescos. But at this point in my life I am fortunate enough that cheap doesn't have to be my first priority. Prior to this kicking off I was getting a veg box once a fortnight, and feeling hard done by when there was celeriac in it (again). Fortunately I decided to go back to weekly just before things got desperate, and I find I now get through all the veg in a week, and I really appreciate it. Similarly, early on, I almost cried when there was flour one week; yeast another. So an additional thing I hope I can also hold onto is appreciating those things we so easily take for granted. But before I get too serious and smug,

4. Kelham Island beer deliveries - I have done my taste tests, and I like Easy Rider and Riders on the Storm; perhaps surprisingly, the stronger Pale Rider is my least favourite. Its a bit smooth and what I'd call ESB-y (although that might not make sense to anyone else). Or indeed HSB-y, for anyone who remembers Gales (which I see is now also brewed by Fullers). But I digress. Tasty beer, brewed just a mile away, delivered to the door, at a sensible price - that saves a lot of car journeys to the supermarket. Though I will resume supporting my local pub as well!

5. Weekend jobs - Because I've felt the need to keep busy, I've got loads of little (and not so little) jobs done in the house and garden that I'd normally never get round to. I think it's partly tied up with number 1 as well, in that I seem to have a lot more energy - mental if not physical - at the weekends than I ever did when working 'normally.' Not going off doing other things at the weekends has played a part, but not a massive one, because I'd usually spend roughly two out of three, or even three out of four, weekends at home anyway. I think it's partly also having the time and space to think ahead and plan what I'm going to do next, and be able to take it in small stages. But conversely...

6. The sense that it's OK to just be - that I don't have to be doing something or achieving something all the time. The world can wait while I enjoy the sunshine. This sense of calm, of being insulated from the stresses and demands of everyday life ... no, I reckon that one will be impossible to hold on to.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Quaroutine

I can't take credit for the term. It comes from American self-help blogger Mark Manson, who, for all he's an American self-help blogger, talks a surprising amount of sense. Every now and then I remember he's there, and go and stock up on a bit of positivity and perspective.

And one of the things he's written recently is how important it is to maintain a sense of routine when you're severed from so many of your external parameters and boundaries. This is clearly part of the secret of my success. I love routine. I thrive on it. For me routine is not a prison or a restraint, but a framework; a scaffold that supports me in doing what I want to do. The trouble is that very often someone or some unforeseen event will kick a chunk out of the bottom of that structure, and the whole thing will wobble and collapse, taking me with it.

That is far less likely to happen at the moment. Everything that impinges on me - work wise, at least, which is what I spend most of my time on and where I need routine the most - is filtered through email. It comes at me in linear progression, not assaulting me on all sides at once. It comes at me quietly, tamed and civilised into written form. No one calls across my desk at me; no one pops by with a 'quick question'; I cannot overhear conversations or the ping of the microwave, or smell people's lunches from the kitchen. I do not have to walk past a dozen people, making small talk with all of them (or risking looking curmudgeonly) every time I go to the toilet. Equally, I am not tempted to just get up from my desk and disturb someone else with my own 'quick question' that turns into a ten minute chat, which is perfectly pleasant but by the time I've got back to my desk I've forgotten the answer to the question (and probably the question itself). Every chat is scheduled, planned and prepared for. So much more communication is in writing, even - actually, especially - the most spontaneous chats. I don't have to memorise it whilst making small talk at the same time. I appreciate that was more of a rant about open plan offices than a paean to routine, but bear with me.

Although it might look like it on the surface, going into the office every day was not good for my routine, and sometimes the attempt to preserve one did feel forced. In contrast, my working life now has a really strong and useful routine - and it's not one I've consciously imposed. It has grown very naturally and surprisingly quickly, and it's what I will miss the most when I'm finally dragged back into office life. Because never before in my professional life have I achieved so much, so efficiently, so effectively, to such a high standard, and with so little stress as I am doing now. Never before have I felt so confident in my abilities, or so on top of my workload.

I won't write in detail what my routine is, because that would be exceedingly boring, but it begins with waking at six (just as I used to to go into the office), having a shower, getting dressed in work clothes - top and bottom now. I experimented with just the top half for a bit, but I do feel better if I'm nicely dressed, even if no one's going to see. Then I have my tea/cat/dishes/porridge/book breakfast routine, and if I can be at my desk by seven I'm happy. Everything I have to do is recorded and prioritised in Toodledo, and once a week I'll transfer the week's tasks into my Google calendar, which is colour coded aquamarine for tasks and red for appointments. Once they're in there I can shift them about if they take more or less time than anticipated, or if something unexpected comes up. I'll start with the daunting things that I need to be fresh for, and do more mundane things after lunch. I'll stop for a cup of tea whenever I feel like it (which nearly always adds up to nine or ten a day) and I'll stop for a little snack when I feel like it (which is nearly always about ten o'clock) and when I get to a nautral break around lunchtime I'll have lunch; I'll have a proper break and sit in the garden if it's nice after every video meeting, and when I feel like I've run out of work-type energy I'll stop, which is nearly always around four o'clock. Then I'll change out of my work clothes, and start to think about my tea. It's once I've finished work I can feel at a bit of a loose end, as I really don't feel like reading or sitting in front of a screen for a while, and nor do I want to start anything new. Often I do gravitate back to the computer after tea ... maybe to write a blog post.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Artist's impression

This is what I shall look like after another forty days with no exercise:
OK, it's butter, not lard. One of the consequences of shopping exclusively at the right-on local wholefood co-op is becoming a vegetarian again. I still have a small piece of chorizo in the fridge, but when that's gone ...

Yes, I know I'm 'allowed' to go out for exercise - and not only for an hour, and not only once a day. But I've never been very good at doing what I'm 'allowed' to. So I'm sticking it to the man by sitting on my arse all day getting steadily less fit and watching my Sheffield-issue calves reverting to more standard dimensions. Not only will they have to drag me in to work, I don't fancy my chances of making it back up Blake Street to get home again. On the other hand (see above), I'm eating more healthily and wholesomely than I have done for years, so swings and roundabouts, maybe.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Forty days

'A world outside your window isn't free...'*
A period of forty days crops up a lot in the Bible. It''s the length of time Christ spent in the wilderness; it's the period of Lent; it's the number of days and nights it rained  on Noah, and many other things. It's also the number of days it's meant to rain if it rains on St Swithun's day. These biblical examples might arise from the fact that 'forty' was often used to signify 'a really big number'.

Forty days is also the traditional period of quarantine, and, indeed, the source of the word, from when the Venetian authorities imposed it on ships arriving in their city state in an attempt to prevent the spread of the black death. (If thirty days had been effective, we'd now be talking about trentine.)

Today is the fortieth day of my self-imposed seclusion. I last left the precincts of my home on April 1st, for an early morning run that I didn't enjoy. I last went to a shop on March 21st; to a supermarket (and to someone else's house) on March 18th; to work on March 16th, and to the pub on March 13th.

Obviously this level of isolation goes beyond what the government demands of me, and that's the point. By choosing not to go out at all, I avoid having to think about the regulations and their petty parsing by the authorities, and shopkeepers; I avoid the surveillance and judgement of my fellow citizens-turned-vigilante; I don't have to notice people avoiding me, or likewise, ostentatiously shun my fellow-humans as a threat (ironically, because I've never been keen on getting close to most people), and I'm not constantly confronted by examples of a world turned upside down, which I find rather disturbing. 

So, it was always a coping strategy, but I've been surprised by how easy I've found it.

I have not yearned to go further afield at all. I have not missed the shops, the streets, the people. I would be sad if I was told I would never go to a pub again, but I haven't felt a desperate urge to be in one. I would only be devastated though, if pubs ceased to exist. I wouldn't mind if I never went to a supermarket again (and indeed, I am going to try not to, but to continue to support local producers through Beanies, and local breweries directly and through local pubs). I am only slightly concerned that when I eventually emerge, it will be as a blob of lard with bits of string for limbs ...

I knew I liked my own company, and valued solitude, but even I have been surprised at how well I have taken to being a recluse. Worryingly well, perhaps. At some point, someone is going to have to come round and drag me back to work. Possibly literally.


*Remember Tanita Tikaram? Perhaps I should add that one to the plaguelist - got it on vinyl.


Saturday, 9 May 2020

Reasons to be cheerful (1)

A while ago, a friend told me that in her journal every day, she made a note of three things: something she'd achieved; a nice thing that had happened, and something to be grateful for. I know 'gratitude journals' are meant to be good for one's mental health and positivity of outlook, but I could never quite fancy the concept on its own - it seemed a bit quasi-religious, and a lot Pollyanna-ish.


But I started doing as my friend suggested, and I definitely noticed that it had the effect of making me notice and register nice things, as I thought of recording them in my diary that evening. Then - in the ways of things - it slipped a bit, and I stopped doing it regularly, but just lately I'm trying to start again. Ironically this isn't because I'm feeling miserable and needing to find things to cheer myself up; on the contrary, it's because I have been noticing many things that are real positives for me. I will put in this disclaimer one last time: I know I am in an incredibly fortunate position, and most people are finding this whole situation a lot harder than I am, and aren't in a position - whether financially, domestically, employment-wise or dispositionally - to find positives. So I'm sorry, on one hand, to go on about good things, but on the other, it would be very wrong not to appreciate good fortune wherever one can find it. And just maybe it might spread a little cheer.

Because I am going to try to fill up a weekly post with a (very brief) digest of my three daily things, not least as an incentive to myself to keep doing it. This is not, of course, to say that nothing bad ever happens, or I never feel worried or upset, or angry or afraid. But it's good to remember there are other things too. So, for each day:
  1. Something I achieved
  2. A nice thing that happened
  3. Something to be grateful for
Saturday

  1. I built a rockery
  2. I didn't write this at the time so don't have anything for this one
  3. Andrew Taylor's Lydmouth series, of which I was reading book 6 of 8 on Kindle
Sunday
  1. Finished writing the Constitution for Friends of Naburn to become a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (17 pages; 30 clauses)
  2. Had a lovely video chat with my friend Dean in Brighton, including laughing uproariously at university governance structures
  3. Google Meet
Monday
  1. Completed a survey for researchers at Middlesex on the effects of the current situation on university staff and students
  2. Not feeling overwhelmed by work
  3. The control over my workload that comes from working at home
Tuesday
  1. Our departmental 'Annual Reflection' with faculty - for which I did most of the preparation - went very well
  2. t'Boss acknowledged the work I'd done
  3. t'Boss. We've had our moments, but he's fundamentally a decent bloke who's extremely hard-working and committed, and very good at what he does, so it could certainly be a lot worse.
Wednesday
  1. Managed to bite my tongue in Learning and Teaching Committee when t'Boss rejected the exam board plans that Ace Administrator and I had so carefully put together
  2. The man from Beanies popped back after the main delivery with the butter that had been left off it, and we had a nice chat about cheese.
  3. Beanies
Thursday
  1. Sorted out the car insurance
  2. One of my students whom I've not seen since all this started turned up to our video tutorial
  3. 2Gether insurance of Wisbech - the only company I don't mind dealing with on the phone
Friday
  1. Finally pulled together my leave request and lengthy rationale and cover arrangements for August ... just in case
  2. The wild sweet pea seeds collected in Newhaven - the ones I soaked and sowed in pots - are starting to sprout
  3. Kelham Island Brewery
Saturday (today)
  1. Fixed up wires to carry the clematis over the back gate
  2. Beautiful and quiet morning in the garden. Lying in the sun, for a while I could only hear birds and bees
  3. Sunshine

Friday, 8 May 2020

Beer update - Kelham Island are amazing!

That beer I ordered at about eight o'clock last night?

It's just arrived. Delivered in person by a man with a massive beard. He said they only got the website sales up and running again last week and have had a much bigger response than expected - which is good news for them.

This is clearly the way forward for me, plague or no plague.

Six p.m. post script
That's more like it!

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Beer news

Because what could be more important?

I have to admit that the Abbeydale Voyager is growing on me a bit, but hopefully I'll be able to break the habit soon, because I have just placed an order with Kelham Island which should be an improvement in at least four ways.

1. Nicer beer - I've ordered eight each of Easy Rider, Pale Rider and Riders on the Storm. I've had all of them before, I like them all well enough, but I can't remember which is my favourite, so I thought I'd better check.

2. Significantly less expensive beer. OK, they're calling themselves 'craft' now, but maybe my 'two pounds a pint' jibe did have some truth in it (as being the difference between real ale and craft beer). A pack of eight x 500 ml bottles from Kelham Island is £15, with free delivery (to S postcodes, sorry).

I've just done some calculations, and The Abbeydale Voyager comes out at £3.44 a pint (£64 for 24 x 440ml); the Kelham Island at £2.13 - even for similar strength.

3. 500ml - i.e. nearly a proper pint, unlike Abbeydale's 440ml cans

4. Bottles

It almost seems too good to be true, so I'll let you have an update when it arrives ...

Talking of beer, I've rediscovered Pete Brown's beer blog, after suddenly thinking of it in the night. Blogger won't let me add it to the blogroll though, so I've added it to the links list (different widget; I dunno).

Cheers.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

My day in tea

Diamond Geezer consistently drinks an average of four and a half cups ot tea a day.  I reckon that my daily consumption is around twice that, and indeed, when I emptied yesterday's teabags into the compost bin this morning, there were nine of them. My daily consumption is nearly always around the eight or nine mark, week day or weekend and, I think, working at home or in the office.

So today I'm going to attempt an incremental post, posting every cup of tea I have. It's a fairly typical day, except I've a semi-social Google meet tonight which might edge one tea out with extra beer.

Cup of Tea 1 (06:45)
The first thing to pass my lips every morning. Come down, kettle on, feed the cat, last night's dishes away, porridge on. Sometimes the first cup of tea is finished before the porridge is cooked, other days there's still a mouthful to wash it down. Closely followed by

Cup of Tea 2 (07:15)
As soon as breakfast is finished, it's up to my desk for an early start to work. Except that, if I've not looked over breakfast (and breakfast is often finished before seven) I'll read DG first. There are going to be a lot of photos that look a bit like this one.

Cup of Tea 3 (08:45)

Half way through chasing up odd marks that haven't been recorded for one reason or another, I'm struck by the sudden urge for a micro-break. I take a brief stroll round the garden while the tea's brewing, then bring it back to my desk.

Cup of Tea 4 (10:00)
All set for the first video meeting of the day (and the 75th since I've been working exclusively at home)

Cup of Tea 5 (11:15)
Normally I might sit in the suntrap outside the back door for my elevenses, but it's a bit dull and blowy today, so it's back to my desk between video meetings to put some work into revised exam board proposals for Learning and Teaching Committee next week.

Cup of Tea 6 (13:00)

With lunch. Again, had the weather been more clement, I might have partaken of this repast on the verandah (OK, I haven't got a verandah)

Cup of Tea 7 (13:20)

And another one to wash it down while I answer some emails.

Cup of Tea 8 (14:55)
Today is heading towards being a ten+ mug day, as I settle down for a weekly group tutorial with my Politics students (hope they turn up!)

Cup of Tea 9 (17:00)

Normally I'd knock off work about now, and think about opening a beer while I start cooking my tea. However, I'm socialising later this evening, so I shall save the beer until then. So a quick sit down with a cuppa and a book and Radio 3 before I start cooking.

Cup of Tea 10 (20:15)

In the event, my social call was postponed to tomorrow evening, so I had a can of beer with my tea after all (that Abbeydale stuff is growing on me, just as I predicted it would ... or it might just be my tastebuds making a virtue of necessity).  And by quarter past eight I was ready to treat myself to a tenth cup of tea and the first bit of chocolate I've had in over a month.

And that, I think, is in fact a fairly typical day's tea consumption.

Monday, 27 April 2020

In series

The blog tells me that I started re-reading Bryant and May in Full Dark House over breakfast on March 24th. I finished Wild Chamber for the second time on Thursday. I was then very frustrated that Hall of Mirrors, which I haven't yet read for the first time, hadn't arrived, and, indeed, still hasn't, so I've had to interrupt my Bryant and May-fest with some other reading.
Nonetheless, my re-run of fourteen novels and a collection of short stories kept me going for just about a month - so that's an average of two days per book, but skewed somewhat by the fact that I got through five whilst on my six day enforced Easter holiday. The rest of the time I was doing a full time job as well.

I enjoyed re-reading Bryant and May; they are occasionally funny, sometimes sad, and usually ingenious. The plots are occasionally a little outlandish for my tastes, but the characters carry them off. The earlier ones - as the author acknowledges - are more outlandish, and whilst even the later ones are never exactly - well, credible - there's no obvious cheating, just some rather tortuous plotting. It was much better reading them in order, I found, as they do on the whole get steadily better. The first one I ever read was The Victoria Vanishes*, which seemed a little too odd at the time, although all is explained in the end. If I'd started with Seventy-Seven Clocks I might never have picked up another one, which would have been a shame. Also, in reading them for the second time I was able to recognise more of the clues and hints that anchor apparently surreal events in some semblance of reality.

I'm a bit stumped now as to what set to re-read next. I was going to go for Stuart MacBride's Laz McRae series (rather gory on occasion, but also very funny) but they don't seem to come cheap on the second hand market. Others I might investigate are John Harvey's Resnick (I did once have a full set, but didn't keep it) or even Ian Rankin's Rebus, some of which I haven't read for years if not decades.

Further suggestions welcome - especially if they can be picked up cheaply.

*Yes, I know it's first on the shelf; that's because it's smaller than the others and fits in underneath the bracket. It's actually sixth in the series.


Thursday, 23 April 2020

Hundred word story

The reason I got to thinking yesterday about things that make me cry, is that I was thinking about a story I wrote quite a few years ago now. It's probably very bad form to be moved to tears by your own fiction, but this did at the time.

It was an exercise I did as part of a creative writing class, in which we had to write a story in 100 words. My favourite fiction is sparse and pared down, so I loved this challenge. The starting point was the need for the rather clipped language, and the character grew out of that. I'd also not long moved to the north, and found that people really are friendlier ...

It doesn't even have a title - that would have used precious words - so here is my 100 word story:


Chatting to people on trains. More Jean’s thing. Knitting. Photos of grandchildren. She had the knack. Talked for both of us.

Woman opposite looks up from puzzle book. Smiles. Must be reasonably presentable. Managed to shave. Last clean shirt.

Scenery changing. Brick to stone. Strange.

Alison at Kings Cross. Sorry Dad. Would if could. Crouch End house tiny. Three kids. Better with Andrew. All that space. Meet new people. Lunch club. Gardening.

They took Poppy though. Silly little dog. Jean’s. But company. Andrew’s wife allergic.

Woman opposite opens handbag. Hands me tissue. There you go love. You’ll be all right.