... 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 28 February 2015

Books I read in February

Ruth Rendell, No Man's Nightingale [crime]
I used to be a massive fan of Rendell - in the early eighties I had a complete set of her works to date - but she has been turning out rubbish for the last decade and more. This new Wexford story from 2014 is not as bad as some, but it still appears to have been written on autopilot. I used to like the way we only ever see the action from Wexford's point of view - it made the whodunnit puzzle more honest - but the flip side of this is that the other characters can, and in this case do, come across as one-dimensional. We never really feel involved with or invested in them. On top of this, Rendell, has taken in her later work to incorporating clunking political correctness, and constantly commenting on it. This is very annoying. (PD James does the same: two old ladies letting you know very loudly that they've noticed that the world has changed and they're fine with that, really; only you suspect that actually they're not).

Andrew Nugent Soul Murder [crime]
Short but engaging murder mystery, nicely written if a little self-consciously, at least at first, with some vivid characters, including a building.

Maggie Lett and Geoff Rowe Flood Waters [local history/historical fiction]
A fictionalised account of the Sheffield flood of 1864 which killed 240 people. Although it starts out looking amateurish (although one of the authors is a journalist), the account of the flood itself, caused by the failure of a dam, is gripping. The book however continues into a rather over-long Dikensian melodrama, before all is happily resolved in the end.

M.E. Thomas Confessions of a Sociopath [memoir]
Well written, interesting, very engaging (of course) and slightly frightening. Not just, or even mostly confessions, but an apologia and a plea for sociopaths' special qualities to be recognised and valued.

Peter Robinson Abattoir Blues [crime]
Robinson at least hasn't lost his touch yet - maybe not outstanding, but good, sound stuff.

Steven Dunne Deity [crime]
Good characters, well written, but a pretty outlandish plot spoilt it a bit.

Prue Leith  A Serving of Scandal [fiction]
Feeble, poorly written political scandal/romance, with food porn shoehorned in.

Stephen King On Writing [memoir/non-fiction]
A book of two halves - engaging memoir, setting out how he became a writer, followed by advice (albeit far from comprehensive) for (aspiring) writers drawn from his experience as a craftsman, rather than an artist.

Gill Hasson Brilliant Communication Skills [non-fiction/self help]
I would be really pissed off if I had paid money for this book.

Caroline Graham The Envy of the Stranger [fiction]
From the author of Midsomer Murders, apparently, which I have neither read not seen. Second rate (which is not to say terrible, just not very good) stalker thriller which doesn't, really.

Elly Griffiths The Crossing Places [crime]
In contrast, the characters here are immediately alive - fat Ruth the forensic archaeologist, Nelson the grumpy cop, and Cathbad the pseudo-druid. There's only so much variety you can get out of having an archaeologist in every story, but very enjoyable nonetheless. This is the first in the series, and set the scene for what I know is to come later.

Ian Rankin A Cool Head [crime]
A 'Quick Reads' novella, more like a short story than a novel in its construction. The characters were worthy of a longer work, but this never got the chance to draw you in.

Ross Raisin Waterline [fiction]
Undeniably well written account of a former Glasgow shipbuilder going to pieces after his wife's death. The representation of dialect is spot on - just right, not laboured or false (thankfully the person who started correcting it to standard English in my library book gave up after page one). Suitably depressing, but ultimately perhaps, a bit empty.

Anna Richards Small Gods [fiction]
A first novel, rolling in descriptive language but always teetering on the edge of incredibility. The characters were never quite real, too much described and not enough felt. I struggled to finish it despite the quality of the writing.

Ellis Peters A Morbid Taste for Bones [historic fiction/crime]
I don't normally care much for historical fiction but Brother Cadfael is wonderful escapism. Well crafted, easy reading. Pure entertainment.

Wednesday 25 February 2015

Old photos of Sheffield

Sheffield Basin (aka Victoria Quays), June 1987
 From the J R James archive
Licenced under Creative Commons

A friend sent me a link to this Flickr account. It's the J R James archive at the University of Sheffield, and contains hundreds of photos taken in the course of studies of town and regional planning. There are lots of various new towns, as you would expect, and also many of Sheffield - most earlier than this one.

The downside though (to someone who's not a Flickr expert) is that the hundreds of photos appear to heve been uploaded fairly randomly, and aren't tagged, so you will have to devote many happy hours finding your favourites, whether they be of Park Hill or Cumbernauld.

 Still very much worth a look though.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

A bracing stroll

 I went for a walk on Sunday and found myself crossing a moor in a blizzard, horizontal snow blasting my face. It was great. Somehow it slipped my mind to take any photos actually during the snowstorm, but here are a couple taken from the top of Win Hill just before it started.

Monday 23 February 2015

No smoke...?

You know how drivers of certain cars are stigmatised; stereotyped on the basis of their choice of wheels? Sometimes there's more than a grain of truth in it. BMW drivers as flash and arrogant; Mini drivers as self consciously cute; Ford Focus drivers as sensible and unflashy. And Volvo 240 estate drivers, I thought, as solid, practical, nostalgic, Guardian-reading, muesli-munchers. The very last people who would pickle their children in second hand cigarette smoke.

Well, not according to NHS England's latest 'Smoke Free' campaign advert.

I can only assume that they didn't want to alienate viewers by using a car that anyone was actually likely to own - or perhaps, more hopefully, that they think anyone in their target audience (i.e. people who like to pickle their children in second hand smoke) was likely to own. And that even if every Volvo 240 Estate owner in the country was as outraged as me, the worst they could expect was a stiff letter in the Guardian.

Nonetheless, as a lifelong non-smoker (albeit not an evangelical one) I do feel that I have been very unfairly tarred with this particular dogend.

Sunday 22 February 2015

The bathroom project

I live in a nice flat on the top floor of a nice house in a nice part of Sheffield. The flat has many attractive features, including high ceilings, big double glazed windows, gas central heating (when I first viewed it in freezing December 2012, living at the time in a bedsit with a single small electric radiator, this was the reason I snapped it up), big rooms, new carpets and a very nice landlord. It also has some endearing eccentricities, the main one of which is that to get to my bathroom, I have to go out of my 'front door' onto the tiny landing, and in through another door at right angles to it, as the bathroom is separated from the rest of the flat by a substantial chimney breast. Can't go through it; got to go round it. The tiny landing is only shared with the one other flat on the top floor (they have their own, internal, bathroom) and so far this has never presented a problem.

On the positive side, this quirk means that the rent is considerably cheaper than it would otherwise be, and that I have an absolutely massive bathroom. While the bath and shower are fairly new and modern, the basin and loo - and the tiling over the basin - are probably fifty or so years old. The Twyfords pedestal basin is deep and solid, and the Dudley Slimline plastic cistern isn't pretty, but boy does it flush. I like it all a lot. There was no denying, however, that decoratively it was a little tired. At some point it had been papered with the woodchip wallpaper that doesn't quite hide all evils (and which always peels off when you want it to stay on, but is absolutely impossible to remove when you don't). The skirtings seemed to have been made of lots of leftover scraps, and the radiator - whilst wonderfully warm - was undeniably rusty.

So in a fit of looking for a project, before Christmas, I asked my landlord if it would be ok for me to decorate, stressing my credentials as having been fully trained by Jim. He agreed, and said that he would pay for the materials. So all I had to do was start. Well, I bought the paint, and various abrasives, and a few weeks later I started to rub down the radiator. Sadly, within ten minutes, I was heartily sick of it. Well, I thought, it's going to take a long time at this rate. So the next time Jim offered to help, I accepted with alacrity.

Jim came up for a long weekend - Rocky stayed with Baz in Eastbourne; we didn't think we'd appreciate his help - and we got started first thing Saturday morning, and by Monday afternoon everything was rubbed down, filled, rubbed down again, patched up, repaired, stuck down, primed, undercoated and painted. I don't think I've ever in twenty-whatever years worked so efficiently with him! We even had time to go out for fun with Adrian and Linda on Sunday afternoon while the gloss was drying.

My bathroom was lovely and big before, but now it's big and lovely.

Saturday 21 February 2015

Quiet addition to the blogroll...

No fanfare because she's actually rather shy, but Sebastian's wonderful girlfriend has started a blog...

Friday 20 February 2015

Large print computer

Last year, I decided to treat myself to a laptop. Not a new laptop you'll note; my very first laptop all of my very own. Partly on grounds of cost, mostly on grounds of portability, and slightly on the grounds that it's so very neat, I went for a small one. I believe it has an 11" screen. It certainly packs away very neatly and is light and easy to transport (although for boating the iPad still wins hands down because of its great battery life and low charging demands).

However, I had reckoned without my aging eyesight. Working on the laptop at my desk (ok, dining table) with external keyboard and mouse, I found myself peering at the screen, or zooming in so much that I was constantly scrolling from one side of the screen to the other. I hadn't really wanted to get a monitor, because the current set up is very easy to pack away out of sight (in an old Extramural Studies bookbox) when I've finished working. But when I saw one in Oxfam for £9.99, I couldn't resist. It's a really big one too. Turns out it's about ten years old, but I plugged it into the computer, switched everything on, and wihtout any further action from me, it worked. I was very pleased. And now I can write this without straining my eyes and see the whole document in all its glory in front of me. Meanwhile the laptop itself stays in the box (open when in use) and my table top is less cluttered.

Thursday 19 February 2015

Bought for the boat 3

Whilst having my weekly browse in Oxfam, this lace caught my eye.

Then I realised that it was attached to a rather lovely linen pillowcase, complete with tapes under the lase to keep the pillow in. Perfect for the back cabin!

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Bought for the boat 2

On the boat, largely because of the relative hassle of boiling the kettle (and with the Origo, it is only relative) we do tend to make tea in a pot. The Bernard Hales Memorial Teapot, as it is ceremonially known, as although Bernard is still very much alive, the teapot always reminds us of him. I bought it for 50p at the HNBC Droitwich tat auction (to which Bernard contributed it), and it came with two small frying pans thrown in. One of the best 50ps I've ever spent (and I've spent a few).

The teapot is aluminium, so it's great for sitting on the stove. However, in the summer, in the hold, there is no stove, so we needed a tea cosy. We also needed a pot holder, for handling hot pots without setting fire to the tea towel. So here, along with a napkin as a bonus, is the answer to all our Chertsey kitchen problems.

Tuesday 17 February 2015

Mystery teapot

Last weekend, Jim came up, and Adrian and Linda took us for lunch at the Broadfield Arms on Abbeydale Road, with the opportunity to peruse its junk shops beforehand.

One of the things we found - very cheaply! - was this teapot. It's massive, made of stoneware, and printed with the words 'MRS STEVENSON . ECKINGTON . 1914'. It's got a band of blue painted around its middle, embellished with small black transfer prints, including a bunch of grapes, and bordered with a simple impressed pattern.

I was drawn to it because of its obvious parallels with Measham ware - a gift or souvenir teapot personalised for the recipient. But more mysterious, is that I am certain I have seen something like it before, but can't for the life of me remember where. I've tried searching online, but nothing similar has come up.

So, does anyone know what this is, where it was made, etc. I wondered if it might be a local speciality, as Eckington is in Derbyshire, not far from here, and on the Chesterfield Canal. There are no maker's marks at all on the pot.

Monday 16 February 2015

Bought for the boat... 1

One good way of filling space with lots of relatively short posts, is to tell you about things I've bought lately. I will try to limit these to things with a vaguely boating theme. Mostly.

Currently, I only have about two yards of canal-related books, and this included just three of the David and Charles guides - the North West, the West Midlands and the East Midlands. So I was jolly chuffed to find the Trent and Mersey, in excellent condition, in the Oxfam shop for a reasonable (for them) £4.99.

I may even read it, as I suspect I might be seeing a fair bit of the Trent and Mersey this year.

Sunday 15 February 2015

The grit of not having an oyster... and a glass of white wine for the lady

 I spent a most enjoyable afternoon this weekend with Mike on Lady A. It wasn't what I'd planned to do. Back in December, a small group of old Birkbeck cronies, some of whom had moved on to other places, met up for lunch, and we agreed that we'd enjoyed it so much that we'd do it again in February. A date was set, and I dutifully purchased my advance train ticket. Then a couple of days beforehand, one of our number asked, was it really happening, only he'd have to leave at two (I was due to arrive at St Pancras at 1.30), then another said 'My fault! I was supposed to be organising it. But I have so much work to do I'd rather not now.' So, that could have been a waste of £64.

Fortunately, however, I'd already been trying to sort out meeting up with Mike (Mike, some of you will recall, sold me my first narrow boat, the gorgeous little Andante - TEN years ago! He also gave me my first ever narrow boat steering lesson, and we've kept in touch ever since, as he has made the move from web designer to trip boat supremo, and I from darling 32' R&D to brutal 72' H&W). It had looked a bit tricky, but suddenly all was possible. He was leaving City Road at two, having dropped off his morning's party, so we could meet up practically as soon as I got to London. Once on the train, I realised that I only know the way to City Road basin by canal, and as there's no towpath through Islington tunnel, that's not very helpful. So we agreed that he'd pick me up once through the tunnel and that's what happened.

Pretty soon we were at St Pancras lock, and Mike correctly intuited that I couldn't wait to get my hands on a windlass. The Camden locks were all against us so I got a fair bit of gate heaving practice. A steady chilly drizzle fell throughout, but I was enjoying myself much more than I think I would have done in a nice warm restaurant.

On returning to Lady A's mooring in  Little Venice, we repaired to Zizzi in Paddington Basin for a quick tea before I had to head back to St Pancras. Something happened there that I haven't experienced for a long time. The waiter came for our orders, and to drink, I asked for a small Peroni, while Mike ordered a large glass of white wine. On bringing the drinks, the waiter had great trouble comprehending that the beer was for me and the wine for Mike. The irony, of course, was that the wine probably had twice as much alcohol in it!

I had to give myself a seriously good kicking though - ever since I stopped working in London, this is the first time that I have returned without remembering to bring my Oyster card. Just having one is a sort of badge of honour. But I'd left it behind this time and (not, thankfully, having a contactless debit card) had to queue up with the tourists (not that thick on the ground on a wet February evening in Paddington) for a single ticket. £4.80! That'll teach me.

Still, I made it back to St Pancras in plenty of time and found that my train was one of those relatively old ones I like (someone tell me what they're called and just how old they are). It was a slow one though (Market Harborough, Alfreton, etc), and delayed to boot, but I was delighted on arriving in Sheffield to catch the penultimate 51 bus of the night, from whose empty top deck I could observe the scantily clad revellers on West Street.

Saturday 14 February 2015

Calling up ghosts

CRT's new 'Guidance for boaters without a home mooring' is causing a few comments. It's interesting to note the new terminology here - these are what were previously referred to ac 'continuous cruisers', and the perceived problem being addressed here is those boaters who are nominally continuous cruisers, and are licenced accordingly, but who don't actually fulfil the requirement of making a progressive journey around the system - 'bridgehoppers', or 'continuous moorers' in the pejorative parlance often employed.

I'm not saying that I have any sympathy for people who break the rules that they've willingly signed up to, but I do seem to have less steam coming out of my ears about it than many people. For some, it's just the thought that others are 'getting something for nothing' that is most objectionable, when they are paying for a mooring. Of course, when you pay for a mooring, you do get something for your money over and above what a continuous cruiser (genuine or otherwise) enjoys: a secure, guaranteed place to leave your boat, often with useful facilities like electricity, water and toilet emptying to hand. Continuous moorers are often lumped together with non-licence payers, but this initiative is aimed explicitly at those who have paid for a licence - maybe just the 'wrong' sort. So they are still paying for the use of the waterways, and it could be argued that, in some areas at least, they are causing less inconvenience to other boaters by staying in one place than they would if constantly on the move.

The situation is reputed to be particularly bad on the Kennet and Avon, which, to my shame, I haven't yet boated to, and London. Certainly, when I visited London this week, there were many, many more moored boats through Camden and towards Kings Cross - but this was in places where there had previously not been any moorings. I thought it was an improvement to see boats there, even if they are not always the prettiest and best maintained - they are often among the most interesting. It is bringing life to what was previously quite a sterile stretch of waterway, with its impenetrable concrete banks. Yes, I know it can cause problems when visiting boats, continuously cruising or on holiday, can't find anywhere to tie up. I know it's out of season, but as Neil on Herbie has noted, and I observed myself, visitor spaces were available in Paddington Basin. Perhaps one part of an answer is to gradually increase the number of such patrolled and controlled visitor places, while leaving the towpath more anarchic.

What bothers me slightly about the very popular crackdown on 'continuous moorers' is the inequity of it. You are only required to be making a continuous, progressive, journey around the system if you do not have a home mooring - as the wording of the new policy makes clear. If you do have a home mooring, there is no requirement that you spend a minimum amount of time on it. Subject to not overstaying on limited stay mooring, or returning within the time limit if there is one, or staying more than a fortnight on one bit of towpath, you can bridgehop as much as you like. So, the same behaviour is subject to different rules and sanctions based purely upon whether you can afford to pay for a home mooring that you might in fact never use. That looks like one rule for the rich, to me. If you pay for a mooring, then you get all the advantages of that mooring, and that should be sufficient compensation for your outlay, without expecting more flexible rules as well.

I can see this leading to a big increase in 'ghost moorings' - a nominal mooring that's very cheap, on the understanding that it'll never be used and might not even exist, on a waterway well out of CRT's purview.  I've a feeling that CRT might have begun to address one issue by opening a whole new can of worms.

Wednesday 11 February 2015

On the bottom

The pictures of a dewatered Grand Union at Braunston in this post of Neil's give me the excuse to recycle another little snippet...

The next morning we awoke at an angle. When you’re on a boat, and wake up to find that you either can’t get out of, or can’t stay in, bed, that your breakfast orange won’t stay on the table, and you’re sure you’re not drunk enough for the floor to be at that angle, it can mean different things – none particularly good, but some distinctly worse than others. For example, it can mean that your bilges are filling up with water, or, if you are on a tidal river, that the tide’s gone out and you’re hanging by the ropes you tied too tight. But if you’re on a canal, it’s most likely the least worst – but nonetheless ‘oh my god what a way to start the day’ eventuality: somehow or other, the water in the canal has disappeared overnight and your boat has nestled gently on the bottom. Most canals are saucer-like in profile, rather than being square troughs, and next to the bank will slope inwards, at an angle which is really quite gentle, but nonetheless inconvenient for a floor.

This tends to happen when you are tied up in a short pound. A pound is the stretch of canal between locks; it can be as short as two boats, or miles long; it’s still a pound (the same thing on a river is a reach, although river locks serve an almost entirely different function). On later canals, like the Grand Union, locks tend to be built in flights: many in quick succession with short pound in between, sometimes just long enough for two boats to pass. The biggest flight on the Grand Union is Hatton, near Warwick, with 21 locks stretching visibly and intimidatingly to the heavens, raising the canal there by 148 feet. There are also smaller flights either side of the Braunston Tunnel – why keep going up over the hill if you get to a point where you can go through it – seven locks at Buckby on the south side, and six at Braunston on the other.

We were tied up in the Braunston flight, below (if I've got myself correctly orientated, which unfortunately Wikipedia can't tell me) Nelson lock. The pounds here are relatively long – there are flights where you can’t stop in a pound at all – and another couple of boats were in the same predicament. There is a sliding scale of preferred explanations when something like this happens, and of preferred putative culprits. The first is vandals. Every boater loves to be able to attribute their inconvenience to deliberate malevolence, because it provides the best opportunities for feeling superior and for embarking upon a disquisition on the inadequacies of the education and/or criminal justice system. It’s pretty easy to deliberately empty a pound, if that is really the best entertainment you can think of. You do however need a windlass for opening the paddles at both ends of the lock, which makes it a less likely option for impulsive fun. The next best target for blame is the hire boater. Granted they have acted not out of evil, but stupidity, but that’s nearly as good. Novice boaters do sometimes do daft things – although experienced boaters are not immune from daft moments – and all it would have taken to drain this pound was to have left the paddles up or the gates open at one end of the lock, as the gates at the other leaked so much. Which leads us to the third recipient of boaters’ ire: Waterways; British Waterways, now the Canal and River Trust. If all else fails, it’s their fault for not maintaining the infrastructure properly and letting the gates leak.

Tuesday 10 February 2015

Making new birthday plans

It's Diamond Geezer's fiftieth birthday this year too. His falls in March, and not on a Saturday, so his options are perhaps more limited - but he has canvassed the opinions of his readers as to what would be a good way to celebrate, and ranked the suggestions in order of likelihood. My idea of a canal boat trip appears to have made the cut (if you'll excuse the pun).

I now also need to come up with new and memorable ideas of how to celebrate my half century, and, like DG's readers, you are more than welcome to contribute. As I have booked the leave, I will likely be boating on and around the day itself - but London is no longer the favourite destination.

One idea is to share the wonders of Chertsey with my Sheffield friends and colleagues by getting as close as possible to the city. One option would be to come to Rotherham via Trent Falls, but favourite is to revisit the Peak Forest Canal, where we were, amazingly, last with Andante in 2006. It will be interesting to see whether my steering through narrow bridgeholes has improved. We've been down the Trent three times since last visiting the Macclesfield and Peak Forest (and broken down twice with Chertsey in the process), so that's definitely a reason for going north rather than east.

However, other ideas - alternative or additional - are still very welcome.

And I haven't actually forgotten about the tattoo.

Tuesday 3 February 2015

It was a brilliant idea...

It was a brilliant idea, sitting in the Nelson, a few pints down and two years away from the event. I was going to get a tattoo as well: the Grand Union coat of arms – two seahorses, only their top half real horses, hooves of cabbage leaves, their motto ‘Silent and Sure’. 

Not for me a girly pretty monochrome unobtrusive bird or butterfly, shoulder or ankle. No, I’d have gone the whole old salt hog, six inches square at least, full colour, between the shoulder blades.  It would have been great, but I was too easily deterred by others' horrified objections. And anyway, it would have hurt like hell.

The tattoo, however, was only peripheral to the Brilliant Idea, which I know I have mentioned to some passing blogging boaters. This was to celebrate my fiftieth birthday with, at last, a complete navigation of the Grand Union Canal and as many of its arms and branches as I could fit in (including for definite all those I've not yet travelled), taking various companions from my past and present along with me, and culminating with a monster party at the London Canal Museum. I had seventy on the guest list, and I booked the museum back in August 2013.

This morning I emailed to cancel. As I came to plan - and more importantly to budget - for both the trip and the party, it became clear that there were overwhelming difficulties of both a logistical and a financial nature. The hire of the museum itself was £800, and the food could easily have been that again. I realised I hadn't done enough saving and couldn't really pull that sort of sum out of the hat with five months to go - let alone justify spending it on a party for myself. Added to that, the requirements of work (the immovable object that is exam boards, among other things) meant that I couldn't make it the trip I really wanted it to be. The logistics of organising food and drink while on the move were depressing. Suddenly it seemed more problems than pleasures (a bit like going to Ellesmere Port in a Blizzard) and it was with a sense of relief as well as regret that I concluded, in the early hours of Monday morning, that cancelling was an option.

So I'm sorry, all those of you to whom I mentioned this and who might have been looking forward to it, anxiously scanning your inboxes even now for the engraved invitation. I'm sure I shall think of some, lower-key, substitute, and I will probably still be out boating on my birthday and hopefully see some of you - leave is booked, but trip plans are now up for grabs.

Maybe I'll just get the tattoo instead.....