... feminist, atheist, autistic academic and historic narrowboater ...
Likes snooker, beer, tea, rivets and solitude, and is strangely fascinated by the cinema organ.
And there might be something about railways.

Saturday 31 January 2015

Some books I read in January

As part of my desperate attempt to fill space, I shall re-institute my 'books I read in month x' post atvthe end of each month. Unfortunately, I don't remember most of the books I read in January, but I have retrieved the ones that are on the shelf waiting to go back to the library, so that will do to bring my total number of posts to 1,720 to date, leaving me with a nice neat twenty per month to finish on schedule.

My strategy in the library is to wonder around moreor less aimlessly, grabbing something from non-fiction/biograpgy, a few from general fiction, and one or two from crime. The only shelves I really avoid are fantasy/sci-fi/supernatural. I like my stories credible. I'll have a glance to see if I think I could bear to read it, but I try not to reject anything too readily - so I do end up reading a fair bit of rubbish. I'll give up on something that's really badly written, but good writing can redeem a weak plot, and very occasionally, vice versa.

My local library is now one of those staffed entirely by volunteers. To be honest, I haven't noticed a big difference, as my interaction is entirely with a machine. Unlike the person-substitutes in the supermarket, this one does not attempt to speak to me, preferring to assume that I can read (it is in a library, after all) and consequently, I have no problem in dealing with it. I do draw the line at being shouted at by a machine though, and in front of people too.

Anyway, in January, inter alia, I read:

Jonathan Powell, The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World (sorry, on iPad/Blogpress tonight, hence no italics)

Now, I'm as keen as anyone to rehabilitate the reputation of Machiavelli - political philosophy's first realist - but Powell's book is an uneasy mix of political memoir and attempts to be the title character, which reads like a Private Eye parody in places. The most interesting parts were the - albeit very partisan - insights into the Blair/Brown relationship.

Martin Edwards, The Hanging Wood

One of a series set in the Lake District and centring on a cold cases team. Pretty good who (and why) dunnit, decently written, good characters, plot stretches credulity slightly butnlittle the worse for that.

Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens:A Life

I've recently read Tomalin's Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (the death bit in particular was horribly graphic) so knew she was a good biographer. What I learnt for this was that Dickens wasn't a very nice man, and - more importantly - I haven't been alone in thinking that his novels actually aren't that great.

Obviously, I've read a lot more than that since the new year, but since I read as other people veg out in front of the telly, it hasn't been particularly memorable. But next month I will keep a better record.

Wednesday 28 January 2015


Having noted the other day that I have been blogging for nearly nine years (longer than Granny Buttons!), and had, by that point, racked up in the region of 1,715 posts, I thought I would see how that compares with some of my favourite boat blogs. All the ones I'm going to mention are in my blogroll (to your right) so I won't put links in the text. The main reason they're in my blogroll is so that I can catch up with them quickly and easily, but I do of course heartily recommend them. I looked at the ones I thought were likely to have been the longest established, and who post fairly frequently: Herbie, Halfie, Captain Ahab, and Valerie. I used the crude metric of looking at their archive and plotting their annual number of posts against the year in question, then totalling them up.

What was immediately noticeable is that there was a very strong trend of starting slowly, building to a peak, and then gradually declining, in terms of number of posts per year. If we include Chertsey, to make a total of five, three of those (Chertsey, Herbie and Captain Ahab) fit that pattern exactly: a sustained increase, followed by a sustained fall, with a single clear peak. Chertsey and the Captain peaked in 2010, Herbie in 2009. Halfie had a sort of twin peak, almost identical top post counts in 2010 and 2012 (and scarcely fewer in 2011), While Valerie had a clear peak, in 2012, but a slightly uneven build up to it. The consistency of the pattern however is remarkable, and given that we are looking at a time frame beginning between 2005 and 2007, and ending in 2015, the position of the peak on that time line is stunningly uniform too. It's a shame I can't produce nifty little graphs to show it graphically - but I bet Neil of Herbie can!

The longest established blog in my selection was, to my surprise, as I'd never read that far back, Valerie, with Les's first post being made on March 8th 2005. Over nearly ten years, Les - and now Jaq too - have racked up 938 posts, giving the oldest blog the smallest number of posts.

Captain Ahab may appear to have a claim to have been the longest running but it's hard to tell as he has a number of retrospective posts going back to events in 1971, which he has rather cunningly backdated! I really couldn't tell when the first post was actually made, but as it was unlikely to have been between 1971 and 1985, 2005 seems the earliest possible year, and the first post of 2005 was on April 1st - a good three weeks after Valerie's inauguration. His post total is 1357.

Herbie, like Chertsey, began in 2006, on January 14th - beating Chertsey by two and a half months, and had as of yesterday reached a grand total of 1,277 posts.

The baby of the five, in terms of years, is Halfie - est. 19th November 2007. But guess what - in a mirror image of Valerie's position, the blog with the fewest years under its belt has managed the biggest number of posts - a whopping 2307.

Peak post, by the way, was 184 for Herbie, 186 for Valerie, 297 for Chertsey, 320 for Capt. Ahab, and 396 for Halfie (with 394 two years later). Lowest annual count (excluding this year) is 11 for Capt. Ahab (excluding the backdated years); 27 for Halfie, 32 for Valerie, 70 for Herbie and 79 for Chertsey. For all except Chertsey, this figure occurred in their first year - for Chertsey, it was last year (I hit 100 in year 1).

If only I had paid more attention when we did SPSS, I could produce the graph...

Tuesday 27 January 2015

I can gather all the news I need on the weather report

If I have been feeling more calm and cheerful since the new year, it may be due to any number of factors. One that should not be underestimated is having retuned every radio in the flat from Radio 4 to Radio 3. So sorry, Frank, no witty apercus on the forthcoming* election.

I used to be interested in politics. I followed general elections with fascination from the year I was nine (there were two that year). I was probably the only fourteen year old in my school who could name all the members of Thatcher’s first cabinet – and do bad impressions of her to boot (that actually must have been earlier, as they consisted entirely of saying ‘as Leader of the Opposition…’ in a nasal voice. Still, there wasn’t much entertainment on school camp and it made a welcome interlude in between renditions of Green Grow the Rushes-O).

I got passionate about politics, joined a party, became a councillor. The passion quickly faded, to be replaced by disillusionment, but the interest remained. I studied politics; I researched it, and I taught it. And now, with the possible exception of a remaining trace of psephological Asperger’s, I am heartily sick of politics. Above all I am sick of talking about it with people who have nothing new to say. I know being a doctor or an actuary or similar is meant to be a classic conversation stopper, but announcing yourself as a politics lecturer can’t be far behind. ‘Politics!’ people say. ‘Don’t get me started on politics!’. And then, unfortunately, they invariably do.

On Radio 3 there is just enough news to keep up with what is happening in the world; to be cognisant of the fact that Leon Brittan has died, it’s going to snow in New York, and David Cameron wants to reintroduce the Poor Law Amendment Act only without the comfort and security of the workhouse. And people will vote for it.

On Radio 3 you get the news, but without the dissection, posturing and sanctimonious pontificating that makes me shout at the wireless. Well, unless someone starts applauding too soon after the end of Verdi’s Requiem. There is a downside of course, viz. Schubert Lieder, but on balance it’s easier to ignore.

So don’t get me started on politics.

*Because ‘upcoming’ is not a word.

Monday 26 January 2015

The death of the blog?

Each year, blogger extraordinaire Diamond Geezer charts the decline of the blog as a form of mass communication. He posts every day, and he's not short of readers, but the number of comments, the level of engagement, he observes as steadily falling. The received wisdom is that, as new media go, blogs are old hat, overtaken by the immediacy and spurious individuality of the likes of Facebook and Twitter. These give the impression of communication with friends on an almost personal level (Or so I believe. I am not on Facebook, and my level of Twitter activity can be gauged from the widget on this blog. I only signed up so that I could post brief updates when out of internet range, in the days before 3G); a blog, on the other hand, is far more akin to writing a newspaper column. It can be an amusing one, a special interest one, or a highly personal one, but the key point is that you don't know who's going to read it - or, unless you're very clever, who actually has read it. It's scattering your pearls randomly, then waiting to see who, if anyone picks them up.

I like the blog as a format. I like that element of impersonality; the fact that it is a public document and I have to restrain myself accordingly in terms of what I choose to post. I like the challenge of having to think up something interesting to write, something that will grab the attention of a passing reader rather than being dropped into someone's inbox and unfolded under their nose.The trouble is, of late, I have been having trouble rising to that challenge. It was easy when there were boats being worked on - first Warrior and then Chertsey; engines to be rebuilt, whole new worlds opening up. My passion for my boat, boats in general, and (admittedly to a lesser degree, i.e. one not great enough to spur me to actually do any research to write about - too much like work perhaps) canals, is as strong as ever - but it is no longer new, and therefore does not spark the enthusiasm necessary to believe or to convince someone else to be interested in it. My lack of posts since Christmas has been occasioned not (any more) by lack of time, nor of motivation, but of material. I no longer read CanalWorld Forums (they made me too cross, and anyway it does get a bit groundhog day after a while), and I don't want just to spout opinions anyway. Well, not too often. I do want to keep the content largely boat related, but I'm too lazy and/or insufficiently motivated to undertake swathes of research.

It starts to look - not for the first time - as if the blog will fizzle out. But that is the one thing I am determined to avoid. I look at Granny Buttons, among the first and the most widely read canal boating blogs, posting almost daily from 2003 until 2012, and then just stopping; fading away, no announcement, no goodbye... I don't want to do that. I noticed with surprise, just then, when I looked up when Granny Buttons started, that it lasted in total for nine years, August 2003 - August 2012. An eternity in blog terms, but a mere nine earth years nonetheless.

I started blogging in April 2006, with Warrior. I did 100 posts in 2006, 247 in 2007, 245 in 2008, and 267 in 2009 - a total of 859 posts in three and two thirds years. Then at the start of 2010 I moved over to the new Chertsey blog, where I made 297 posts in 2010, a high point from which it has been downhill all the way: 197 in 2011, 162 in 2012, 116 in 2013, 79 last year, and a pathetic five so far this year. Nonetheless, that's 851 in five years. Almost the same as the first not quite four years. Overall, it works out at an average of 171 posts a year, and a grand total of 1,715 (counting this one but not the lone 2010 changeover post on Warrior which is the one you'll land on if you visit. Go on, have a look - I wrote much better stuff in those days.)

So, a fairly noble enterprise overall, and come April it will have outlived Granny Buttons! But all good things must come to an end, and at some point it will be right for me to move on to new projects and forms of expression. Not just yet though; and not with a whimper. I hereby commit and give notice that I will cease blogging on March 31st 2016 - ten years to the day after I began. I shall thus go out with as much of a bang as a few lines of text can muster. That is the easy bit. The hard part is that I shall attempt to make that final post my 2000th - i.e. I need to create another 284 between now and then. That's about twenty a month - not an outrageous target, although you might doubt that on past form. Of necessity, many of these will be short, although not necessarily to any particular point.

So there we have it. Now that the end is in sight - although still some way in the distance - and a grand finale planned, hopefully I won't feel so vaguely (and mildly, don't worry, I'm not actually losing sleep over it) bad about the blog withering on the vine, and having already made my excuses, I can post little inconsequentialities, if I can think of any that it. Please feel free to send in topics you would like/like to challenge me to expound upon.

Thursday 15 January 2015

A ramble by canal

Being one of those times when you start off writing one thing, and it goes off in a direction all of its own...

The Grand Union means my boat, a Grand Union Large Woolwich motor boat, on of eighty six pairs of boats and butties built in the mid to late thirties, following an even larger order of slightly shallower drafted boats from 1934 onwards. A Grand scheme for the Grand Union. An act, it turned out, of great hubris – or so at least it appeared with hindsight. Did they not see war coming? Was it too late? Or did they think the war would be the making of them?

Many of these boats never went into service. But was it because of the war? Was it really because there weren’t the men available to steer them? Inland waterways transport was a reserved occupation. Would so many of this famously insular, illiterate, separate, community have deliberately not just volunteered, but insisted, on going to fight? How many of them would even have been young enough? Perhaps it was that goods were no longer arriving by sea in such quantities, and not leaving either – the mainstay of the Grand Union’s trade. Maybe the war didn’t make that much difference. Maybe trade, even on this greatest of England’s canals, was already dwindling, and its people moving onto the land; retiring, dying, and not being replaced. Perhaps if wider boats had been introduced sooner, perhaps perhaps, and maybe.

If the war didn’t kill the Grand Union, its aftermath did. While most of England’s narrow canals had long since, famously, been put out of business by the railways, it took the rise of the lorry to put the final nail in the coffin of the Grand Union – and after the war there were lorries galore, and the men looking for work who could drive them, and the men looking to set up the businesses to employ them.

After that, canal carrying was no longer a mainstream occupation carried out by the people who had traditionally done it for centuries – adapting to the times with motor boats and electric light, but carrying more tradition that any other working class profession. The aftermath of the war was the start of the canal as a place for misfits and rebels; not dropouts at first, but working, and working bloody hard. Young, middle class men seeking a challenge and, perhaps, the dignity of labour. Roughening their hands and blackening their faces and punishing their muscles, hauling coal, nearly always, the last product it made economic sense to shift by water. Just. This tiny renaissance, this Indian summer, was rained on by the arrival of oil, which revolutionised the powering of jam factories and paper mills as it turned so much else upside down. Surely it is above all oil (and not silicon) which has made our lives today all but unrecognisable to someone from merely fifty years ago, if they hadn’t been here to witness the transition.

Without silicon and all it stands for we wouldn’t have computers, tablets (or the whole new meaning of that word), smartphones, or the internet. Granted. But we wouldn’t have those things without oil either – the oil to make the plastics that encase those devices’ intelligence; the oil to extract and transport the precious rare elements they devour; the oil to produce the heat to manufacture them and then again to ship them, literally, to us. And without oil, cheap, plentiful oil, how different would our domestic lives look and feel. No plastic, and none of the bright colours our plastic products encapsulate. So many fewer imported goods; nothing so cheap, and therefore nothing so plentiful, and then, of course, nothing so disposable. No incinerators; massive landfills merely middens. Less stuff; more precious stuff. I remember being struck by a scene in one of Flora Thompson’s books, in which a rural labouring family buys a new tea set. For them, this is a once in a generation purchase, anticipated perhaps for years. To make it, they have to wait until the annual fair. They are not a particularly poor family, within their local context, but this represents a significant investment, and is treasured as such. Because it is treasured, it gives them great pleasure. The anticipation of buying it, the careful choice, is probably greater than we today would invest in buying a car, and then there is the constant pleasure of using it, often accompanied by the memory of the day it was bought, the fair, the ribbons, the dressing up and the fairings. And the old tea set – only the items that are broken of course, and beyond use – that goes, piece by broken piece on the midden. Imagine a society in which so little was thrown away that each household had its own individual rubbish tip, and was not overwhelmed by it in a matter of years, if not months. Imagine if you had to keep everything you threw out at the bottom of your garden.

I digress. From the Grand Union to the transformation of our lives by oil. But that’s what canals do. They transport you from one place to another, via an often winding route, so slowly and with so many distractions, that you don’t notice the transition.

Friday 9 January 2015

My fault

I've finally got round to catching up with Alan and Cath's new blog, for their new boat, Flamingo - and have updated the 'Old Boat' blogroll to feature it. What a fabulous looking boat - and that bathroom looks luxurious to me! I've never seen it before either - where has it been hiding? - but I can't wait to.

Their detailed tales of 'ones that got away' stirred some memories - although to be honest, despite briefly considering maybe half a dozen boats, there was only one other seriously in the frame for me before Chertsey appeared.

Why my fault? Well, in 2013 I enlisted Alan's help to assist Jim bringing Chertsey back from Watford (old story; I had to go back to work). And I swear that it was from that point on that he was re-bitten by the big boat bug.

Well done Alan and Cath, I'm really looking forward to meeting Flamingo.

Wednesday 7 January 2015

More beer: it started here

If you didn't know better, you'd think this was the Harbourside Inn, Fort Road, Newhaven, another sadly abandoned and already semi-derelict pub. But to some of us it is and always will be the Sheffield Arms Hotel, which it was until about ten years ago - haunt of local liberals and town councillors (the two categories have been interchangeable since 1991), owing to its proximity to the council chamber, and the hall where party branch meetings were held.

It is not the pub where I first drank. That honour goes to the Sussex in Haywards Heath - an imposing corner building long since demolished - but oh my, Beer in the Evening still has a photo of it!

This is where I gathered with my fellow sixth form part time Sainsbury's colleagues to drink under age Woodpecker in the early eighties, listening to Sade and wearing a rather fetching black and white zig-zag jumper knitted by my mother. The eighties were not a great time to come of age, really.

No, the Sheffield was where I learnt to drink beer.

It was following a party meeting, in the early nineties (pedantic political point: I was, at this time, clearly, a member of the Liberal Democrats. But - and this is important - that is not the party I joined in 1987, and I still have my Liberal Party membership card to prove it). I was a new, keen member, about to stand for the Town Council (which is not NEARLY as important as it sounds), newly escaped from domesticity, and we had retired to the Sheffield following a meeting in the nearby Meeching Hall. A veteran party member and District Councillor (relatively important, in that district councils at least used to get to make policies and spend money) by the name of Peter Harper asked me what I would like to drink. I muttered something about shandy, or possibly a Bass top (I lay myself bare here) and - picture him, a big bellied, tall, bearded, imposing man - boomed (there is no other word for it): "YOU CAN'T BE A LIBERAL IF YOU DON'T DRINK HARVEY'S"

So I did. And I have done ever since. And it's only when I go back to Sussex now after having been away for a while that I notice just how distinctive Harvey's Sussex Best Bitter is.

So it was with some sadness that I noted the decline of what was once an imposing local building. I can't see it surviving, somehow.

There was something particularly poignant about the bag of dog shit carefully looped over the door handle, never again to be opened to welcome the local not-so-great and not-so-good to talk politics and drink beer.