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


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


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.