Sunday, 21 December 2014

For example

Last week I was invited to attend a medical health check on behalf of my local GP surgery, a facility I hold in great respect partly because of  the fact that 2 of the doctors are older than me and seem to have no intention to retire.They are also sufficiently caring without being over intrusive. Since they thought the medical  was a good idea, I went along to the village hall of nearby Hixon to face the inquisition.

I arrived at a deserted hall, with few direction signs and even fewer signs of life, so a rather anxious search of the building began. Having applied my "just in time " approach to the appointment there were only a couple of minutes to spare. A white coated young enthusiast suddenly appeared and ushered me into the end room where I was invited to multi-task. This involved answering his verbal questions for computer input whilst completing  a complicated little form  by hand "for the medical record".

Having used his first 2 minutes productively he announced he was going to take my blood pressure.

I had the usual sinking feeling. He was going to get a high reading - then I was going to be told about the problems caused by high blood pressure; he wasn't going to be interested in my "take" on the reading and I would be referred to my GP.

So having applied the elasticated tourniquet to my left arm, without rolling up my sleeve, he announced the result.

"Always happens like that" I said," especially when I haven't had chance to sit still and relax for 5 minutes. It's just 1 sample. If you tried again in 5 minutes I bet it would be lower." So he tried again, immediately, then again within a minute of the second, despite my comments and maintained that the reading was still high and that I should seek guidance from my GP. I didn't bother to explain that I regularly monitor my blood pressure at the surgery.

Then we moved on to the Body Mass Index - another statistic that doesn't suit my short heavy boned, heavy muscled body. Another terse lesson, this time on the dangers of obesity and a deaf ear to my diet which includes five portions of vegetables or fruit a day, a frequent consumption of oily fish on my multi-grained bread for the lunch time sandwich (as an alternative to my home-made, home grown vegetable soup) and no take-aways.

Exercise questions came next - how much exercise the previous day (a cold, rainy, dark winter's day)? The walk wasn't long enough and wasn't there some other exercise I could take?

Dark winter days are for brain exercise - suduko puzzles; codeword puzzles; kindle reading; keeping the village hall accounts up to date or practising my choral part with the help of the excellent John Fletcher web-site. I think I would rather keep my brain active in winter than risk a physical accident caused by digging frozen ground or falling over whilst jogging. Jogging!! The very thought fills me with horror.  The only alternative to a brisk power walk would be a bike ride and I'm not sure I wish to be associated with what has become a rather aggressive 2 wheeled tribe.

If only the Wellness Foundation had chosen to take their sample in summer. I was working 4 to 6 hours a day in the garden. My diet was extremely healthy and I had plenty of time to get to appointments. Why, I could even have cycled to Hixon.

Just to illustrate the point here is a photo I took this afternoon on the shortest day of the year whilst out for a power walk.
Sheep and a canal. Not just any sheep, these happen to be Jacob sheep and they are not typical of the area. The canal in the background is not just any canal - it's the equivalent of the M6/M5 motorway junction. The Trent and Mersey canal runs across the picture and it is joined by the Staffordshire and Worcester canal under the bridge. So from here - most parts of England and Wales that lie near canals and navigable rivers can be reached. A picture of this scene 250 years ago may well have had the same breed of sheep but there would have been a lot more traffic on the water.

When I took a picture of the same canal in January 2013 - this is how it looked :

Snow, obviously, and a layer of ice upon the surface. So when I took the picture is critical to any conclusions I can draw from this sample of the Trent and Mersey canal.

I try hard to remember this "sampling " point whenever I hear about UKIP (based on one or two results); or football manager performance (often based on the latest results only) or women bishops; Alternative energy, or views of Mars. Samples are exactly what they are.

I am however persuaded that the Greenland Ice cap is melting and that the earth's climate is changing because enough samples have been taken in enough places at enough times to make a convincing argument.

I'm thinking about where olive trees might grow........for example.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

What day is it?

One of the minor irritations of older age is the inability to remember simple items. We have a daily game of "hunt the glasses" or "hunt the wallet" for example.

The day of the week is a particular case in point. Dates? No chance - unless there is a special event which has been entered on the large print large calendar hanging in the kitchen. But days? - there ought to be a fighting chance to get this right (well 1 in 7 anyway).

This summer the July sheet was absolutely stuffed with events - some of which stretched over several days and involved an arrow to mark start and end. Our arrival at the first stop of our West Country holiday proved to be a day premature - much to the amusement of the holiday camp owners who, being at work, had no problem at all in knowing which day it was. They didn't seem convinced about my story concerning overlapping arrows on a busy calendar. Their turn will come, I just know it. Thankfully they extended the start of our stay at no great extra cost. And the owners of the second campsite, in Somerset, were very helpful by allowing us to arrive one day earlier at their site as a consequence.

Actually we are no strangers to the Somerset caravan site. They have become used to our curious ways. Spring visits see the ritual washing away of winter grime - an activity helped by having use of the campsite adjustable ladder. Officially they can't lend me the ladder for "health and safety" reasons. So I have to walk past the owner, carrying the ladder, waiting to be challenged about theft. It never happens. Other guests on the site appear to use the mobile caravan washing service, which I am sort of expected to use on account of my age. Where's the fun in that? And it costs..

Speaking of unwanted help, we were returning from a late season (cheap) holiday last week and  had reached the stage of boarding the train from the bus station link to the airport. This was after a kind lady from the station buffet had run after us with my wife's handbag. I narrowly missed the overhead luggage rack with my first attempt to swing up a heavy piece of hand-luggage . Almost immediately a "helpful" guy offered to lift the luggage for me with the comment "Not implying you are too old or anything." I hope my grumpy old man expression was sufficient reprimand for his cheek. 

So, after a relatively safe return home with limbs and luggage intact we decamped into the spare bedroom. I went to check the mansion and estate grounds whilst my wife got the plum job of sorting the clothing items for the washing machine. It didn't take her too long because, as usual, we only used about a quarter of what we had taken. I was delighted to find that even in early November I still had ripe tomatoes on the vine in the green house. Nothing had been blown over; the grass was not overlong and apart from leaf accumulations all seemed well.

Upstairs however I began to sense that all was not well. A damp patch could be seen on the wall adjoining the downstairs bedroom of the bungalow and the upstairs wall of the bathroom in the roof extension.

In the bathroom I discovered the joys of "capillary rise". That's the one that allows water to defy gravity. It seems that my wife's dislike of spiders had caused her to leave the plug in the bath.Now if you add a faintly dripping tap to a towel draped over the side of the bath I can tell you that water will be absorbed by the towel before it starts to spill through the overflow. Water will rise through the absorbent towel, creep over the side of the bath then migrate freely with all the enthusiasm of toddlers in a play barn, rushing around the bathroom floor looking for new places to saturate (so to speak).

We had just spent over three weeks with absolutely no need to acknowledge which day it was. Kindle reading; strolls on the beach; sunbathing (with a hat, and factor 95 sun tan lotion of course) and people watching make for a very relaxing time. The only mild stress came when we forgot to put our watches back an hour and we turned up early for lunch. 

Suddenly we were back and the name of the day mattered! A Sunday is not a good day for emergency call outs. Monday is a cold calling day when someone with an unusual way of speaking English wants to conduct a survey. Tuesday is catch-up on TV missed whilst on holiday day. Wednesday is a day to play bridge and sing. The week-end starts on Friday morning with a visit to see grandchildren. That only leaves Thursday to sort out the damp spots. 

Now if only I could remember where to find the hair drier...

Friday, 28 February 2014

Happy Valentine's Day my mind I had planned the perfect Valentine's Day meal to celebrate my wife's return home. I had even got as far as laying out the single red rose in a  vase as centre piece on the dining table and stored all the ingredients for a fine meal in the fridge.

Sometimes events just conspire against the best laid plans. February rain and floods played a major role in the conspiracy. The weather forecast promised the worst weather yet for the day my wife was preparing to return from rain swept soggy Hereford. 

So why had the visit been made in the first place? 

Think slippery muddy ground, a testosterone driven cockerel determined to assert himself against a nervous daughter-in-law and a broken leg from a sudden turn. Apparently the cockerel then gave a triumphant crow and returned to his perch in the hen coup (oblivious to the fact that would make for a very easy transfer to a chopping board and a hot oven...)

The return home from Hospital had needed a good deal of preparation in the way of cleaning, furniture removal, stocking up on sundries etc and extra help had been welcomed.

On the day of the return train journey my role was to act as taxi from the local station home. Cleverly (I thought) during the journey I scanned each of the station arrival boards on the Internet looking for early signs of disruption. The main outcome of this was a decision to provide the lift from one of the connecting stations to compensate for late running and the exhaustion of lugging a  heavy case up and down staircases at stations with no lifts.

The train was due, I was about to set off from home when a visitor arrived on a mission. During the pause for breath after 10 minutes I managed to make my apologies and drove off a great speed to the station. Joy of joys - on a busy uphill stretch of the main road - with wind and rain building nicely - the camshaft drive belt chose to snap. The car ground to a halt and heavy lorries began a swerving tactic as they attacked the hill.

2 hours later a nice breakdown  man arrived and I began to thaw out a little after spending a fraught time in the car watching the battery run down (hazard warning lights) and making text messages on a mobile phone that was also running down its battery.That was when I developed the heavy cold and cough that has plagued me for a fortnight now. 

My wife arranged her own lift with friends and had the grace to thank me for the red roses decorating the table on her return. Needless to say the meal was put on hold until we had recovered, physically and mentally.

 Eventually I suppose we will see the funny side of all this - but currently it's about as funny as the moment when super glue escapes from the repair and trickles onto as many fingers as possible creating a need for instant decisions about where to place the repair and how to stop the fingers from joining together. (I could have just bought a new watch strap I suppose.)

Next year Valentine's Day really will be a celebration - oh how we will gloat as we gorge ourselves on Capon for a change..

You tek the high road and I'll tek the low road.

We spent a summer  on a coach based holiday to Scotland - a decision when I was still recovering from a DVT  and uncertain about flying.

I'd forgotten the realities of 2 previous coach holidays - one to Spain about 25 years ago and one to Austria and Switzerland about 10 years ago. Within 5  minutes of boarding the coach the memories came flooding back. We were to be at the mercy of the coach drivers and other passengers for the next 6 days.

Worse still, there was a daily seat change tradition  to share out the joy of viewing through the front window or being slightly coach sick from the motion of the rear of the coach. Good in principle except that the way it worked, everyone had to move back 2 rows. Thus there was no way on escaping the rasping cough of the elderly lady tasked with sitting behind us. Add to the cough one of those loud voices that never seemed capable of saying anything quietly, including comments on the driver, and I became rapidly resigned to clutching at straws, such as toilet breaks, lunch stops, "freedom to explore days" and any other activity that broke Cruella's stranglehold on my quality of life.

The organiser of the holiday proved to be a genuine megalomaniac .(viz my coaches, my hotels, my choice of what you eat, my treat of herding everyone into a community hall in order to experience Scottish music and Gaelic songs - without sub-titles). So on the 'free-day' we chose to take a train from Lower Tyndrum to Oban.

On the map this route looks idyllic. A single track railway meandering through glens and forest stopping occasionally at country halts to allow hikers and bikers on board. We were really looking forward to this.
Imagine our joy when the train arrived full to overflowing with London based hearties who had travelled north overnight in order to do a charity bike ride. Two hours later we stumbled off the train in search of black coffee and a quiet Oban bench overlooking the sea. Not only did we find a bench but also the best crab sandwich stall in the world!

Time passed,the DVT treatment ended and to my joy I discovered that the extra insurance premium for declaring a DVT is a mere 3 pounds. Scotland will vote later in the year about becoming independent - in  which event I will probably cancel the long term plan to have another coach trip when I am in my 80's - provided my hearing is failing; my mobility limited and my memory such that every instruction will have to be repeated at least 3 times.

Revenge will be sweet I think...

Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Lost Chord

Although there have been moments when I have been more than happy with my own company I have to say the best moments in life have been, and still are, when I have been part of a "team".

These days the team most often takes the form of a choir. Last year the Rolling Stones performed live at Glastonbury for the first time. I say live despite the fact that some of the less flattering camera shots gave the impression of animated corpses using up energy rapidly at first and gradually slowing as the energy wound down. Proof positive that ageing baby boomers (a group of which I happen to be a member..) can continue to perform despite the passage of time. So, 2 or 3 times a week I find myself standing alongside compatriots trying hard to absorb a new tenor line.

Fortunately in the local choral Society there are some excellent singers who have been with the choir for a good number of years. Amongst the tenors are a 70 something and an 80 something, both of whom can still hit notes clearly, and with a repertoire between them that is impressive. So the tactic is to manoeuvre into a place in front of one of these maestros to pick up on awkward notes and tricky leads, especially when the tenor line is exposed (i.e. the only part singing).

Our last performance of Handel’s Messiah in the local church involved a final practice at 5.45 p.m. ready for the 7.15 start. Many of the loyal audience who turn out every year to listen to us have realised the value of turning up at 5.45 as well. They get a real insight into what is likely to go wrong, and a rich shared experience a few hours later as they check how well we fare.

This year, the soloists worked through a number of lines to get used to the ad hoc orchestra that gathers for the event. By 6.50, one of the four soloists had not arrived; the conductor seemed pre-occupied with the orchestra and it was left to the choir to speculate on how the performance would go, without a Contralto soloist. Needless to say there was a growing anxiety amongst a section of the ladies and, it seemed, a certain amount of speculation amongst the other 3 soloists. How could the part be shared out??

Fortunately, at 6.55, to considerable applause the final soloist arrived. Problem solved. Meanwhile amongst the tenor section I was having my own private misgivings. One of the two stalwarts was ill. The other stalwart was sitting so far back that front row dependants couldn’t hear him! This led to a frantic chair shuffling session in the few minutes between rehearsal and performance. One tenor arrived just as the opening chorus was about to start (having been held up o the M25), we took a deep breath and began what was to be a memorable sing – inspired no doubt by the level of adrenalin now flowing through our veins.

To hit a note at the moment you are supposed to hit it - accurately - and, to quote a well-known phrase "with one voice", is a moment to share. The hair does tingle on the back of the neck (just as well because hair seems to have deserted the rest of my head). To miss a lead, to lose a note here and there does not seem to matter, since the "team voice" keeps the music going and it’s great to experience the "team spirit" that invades any group activity when that activity is done well. A crisis does seem to help produce that team spirit.

I was once part of a 14 strong crew on a small "tall ship" sailing across the North Sea from Middleberg, Holland to the Thames estuary. As we left through the Dutch storm barrier winds started to pick up, a small rope snagged on a sail and skipper was rewarded with a wellington boot full of seawater as he freed the knot. Halfway across we were being treated to very large waves, force 9 gusts and a wind direction that pushed us north to Lowestoft. Next day we had to sail the extra stretch of East Coast, wet and tired, and yet the team spirit that banded everyone together was palpable. Singing, silly jokes, shared food all took on a different dimension.

Life can be especially rewarding when we have to struggle hard for a while – when we have to rediscover that "lost chord" of mutual dependence and rely on each other to succeed.

A banal conclusion I guess – true, neverless..

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Stand in line please

Queues. Queues at the bar. Queues at the checkout. Queues at the security check. Do I have a unique inner talent that both guides me to the queue with the imminent problem, whilst  transmitting my intentions to all and sundry? And why do I attract taxi-drivers with a lifetime of sob-stories which they need to share with passengers?

We have just returned from a splendid holiday in Turkey. Weather was great; food was good; company was excellent and the activities generally taxing enough to be satisfying without being unduly tiring. 

There was just this irritating queueing problem that kept catching me out. 

We had just recovered from a 20 minute monologue about the problems of a divorced single overweight red-bull intoxicated cabbie and got our way through the airport obstacles of bag drop and security check. I lost the plot for a split second and offered to go and buy a paper (mainly for the puzzle page to keep my mind active during the flight). 

Getting the paper was easy. Paying for it via the "scan-it-yourself-pay-and sort-the problems-out-yourself" checkouts was almost impossible. In desperation about not missing flights I saw frantic tourists throwing £20 notes into an honesty basket to pay for a Daily Mirror. In my case I had stupidly tried to buy a bottle of water to replace one confiscated at the security check so I just had to wait for the one slow, harassed assistant to serve me.

Hey ho - off to the plane, which departed on time (despite having me on board). The fact that we were almost the last to board mattered not. It meant less time thinking about the physics underlying the problems of getting a very heavy metal weight into the air. However I really didn't think enough about what to have from the hot snacks menu. My wife had thought it through and calmly chose a hot bacon baguette which miraculously managed to appear within 3 minutes. Needless to say, my cheese and ham toastie took a full half an hour.

Realising the power of my latent "rent-a-crowd" talent I began to focus on an expedition to the toilet - an expedition that would clearly have "timing issues" (to quote a popular misconstrued phrase). No need for further details....just think extreme discomfort.

And so it continued throughout the holiday. Almost every time I headed for the drinks bar I would arrive no higher than 10th as 2 or three lines of customers glided into the queue formation. The queues behind me were almost always non-existent (after all it was much more fun to arrive just before me rather than just after). On the rare occasions when I got there first, the drink had just run out (coffee, coke, tango, orange) or the beer barrel needed changing. 

In the self-service buffets of the all-inclusive guests, diners in front of me would help themselves to just the right amount of pancakes/ fried eggs/ beefburgers to leave...nothing. I could have lived with this had I not noticed, time and again platefuls of uneaten meat and eggs littering the table tops. Maybe the sight of so much food was just too strong a temptation - which I suppose is a harder issue to deal with than queues.

For the most part, several days passed without problem (or perhaps I had moved to a denial phase).

Then came the thunderous climax - the grand finale - the mother and father of "rentacrowd" problems - checking in at the airport for the return flight. 

Wickedly, Bodrum airport actually has 2 security check-ins. The first one is a "total baggage" check which takes place just after the departures entrance and comes at a moment when thoughts about passports and airline tickets are uppermost. So I struggled to get all the baggage onto the moving rack without slowing down the queue too much, whilst removing my metal buckled belt with one hand and getting small coins into the plastic box with the other hand. The red alarm light flashed as I went trough the scanner - and the guard gleefully found a mobile phone at the bottom of  a deep pocket (the usual place for my wallet). Place small mobile into large plastic box and go around again. 

As I came out the second time, conscious of trouser slippage, I was confronted by 2 security guards - despite getting a green light from the scanner. "Open bag.!" in a tone and expression that left little room for negotiation. So clutching my trousers with one hand (having only managed to get the belt through 1 loop) I opened my rucksack to reveal 3 spherical objects - which to an x-ray machine could just about have been home-made bombs or baked hand grenades - but which were in fact 2 apples and an orange.

The disappointed trigger happy guards (with back -up hovering within metres) scowled and sent me on my way - doing up belt and re-arranging hand luggage contents whilst walking in the wrong direction for the check-in desks. 10 minutes later, just as we reached the front of the baggage drop queue I heard the public announcement about a mobile phone left in a plastic box at security.

When I finally left the hard-to-convince guards, clutching my ancient "bottom-of-the-range" nokia mobile, I swear I sensed a communal "high-five" going on in the background. But at least the problems couldn't get any worse I thought. I was now mentally prepared for the wrong choice of snack on the plane and a customs queue at the domestic airport. 

I just wasn't prepared for a booked taxi which arrived an hour late at the pick-up point. It just wasn't fair on my friends.

Great holiday, really great. In fact it's difficult to remember when I enjoyed a holiday as much as this one - 
..just a shame about my "rentacrowd" effect...

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Gather ye rosebuds..

Every so often we make an effort to treat ourselves taking advantage of discount fares on the trains (senior railcards), sales, last minute offers and bus passes. We have become accustomed to discovering like minded ageing enthusiasts on these adventures.

Having scrounged a lift to the train station from friends (the bus timing didn't fit) it was no surprise to find the train south only partially full. Inevitably we had hit the carriage with our compatriots - in this case a rambling group heading, we guessed, for Welsh hills - judging by the profusion of anoraks, heavy sensible walking boots, walking poles, small rucksacks and safety equipment. No-one purchased from the refreshments trolley. No-one had a lap-top - and no-one seemed preoccupied with updating status on Facebook.

Amazingly, these people were talking to each other - a trait of the older generation perhaps. In the next carriage a younger generation of thirty somethings was staring fixedly at ipads/ipods; used, it appeared, for playing computer games or watching videos, with earphones as a must.There seemed to be obligatory coffee cartons everywhere.

Great excitement - a change of trains at Birmingham - which has been recently refurbished. Needing to find a vital platform I came across a wall-mounted touch screen offering all the information I could want about arrivals,departures delays and so on. I rapidly worked out the next stage in a tenth of the time it had taken my wife to buy one cup of coffee from a coffee stall, fully equipped with coffee, cups and machines, but run by a teenager faced with the stress of 2 people in the queue.

On to the connecting train, having run a gauntlet of "eager-to please" rail staff all very concerned to make sure their new station arrangements were not too taxing or confusing. There was brief moment as I held up a queue of passengers, wondering why an intervening door would not open for me despite my hand gestures across the door sensor. For information - if the door is already open - then the door will not respond as expected. So much for the "senior moment".

Lunch involved pre-prepared sandwiches wrapped in foil (needless to say) with sensible fruit to follow . Three half-completed suduko puzzles later, we arrived at a station ready for a final change of train/company/personnel. This last train actually contained a ticket inspector who gave our tickets and travel cards the merest of glimpses - clearly fearing yet another unwanted long conversation with a pair 60 somethings that would involve questions he couldn't answer and simply delay his progress through the carriage.(I would have thought the chance to share thoughts about the weather; expected arrival times; behaviour of other passengers and the length of his shift would have been seized upon.)

We arrived early at Portsmouth and tried to guess the way to the port, dragging a suitcase. No luck with an immediate route, but fortunately a Morrison's supermarket gave chance for a shared cup of tea and use of customer facilities. A cunning plan emerged. A £1 coin was needed for a large trolley - and subversive loading of the trolley with suitcase and bags took place. To our delight we then discovered that the trolley would fit inside a wooden "cupboard" for use of another £1 coin. As luck would have it, I found a £1 coin left by the previous user (probably a stressed young mum trying to deal with shopping trolley and frantic children). So having solved a "where do we leave the luggage" problem we set off to research routes, buses and other attractions unhampered.

We can recommend a trip to the Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth - there is a fascinating variety of ships; a modern retail outlet (including one of those Marks and Spencer Places where unwanted lines are sold off cheap), and a magnificent new tower called the "Spinnaker".Clearly it was sufficiently photogenic to attract an Australian film crew making a documentary about a character who had been shipped to Australia in the late 19th Century. There only seemed to be one spoken line in the "take" - but a succession of ships horns; delivery vans; refuse removal and interested onlookers was enough for the scene to take 20 minutes. They were obviously aware of our presence (suppressed giggling probably gave us away), so much so that the presenter and producer made a beeline for us after filming to see how we rated the set-up!

Back to Morrison's and several enthusiastic questions from a youth asking "Are you alright there?" as we tried to smuggle the suitcases out of the cupboard having retrieved the invested £1 coins. Guilt overtook us so we decided to share a pot of tea and toasted sandwich bought at the youth's cafe counter. On, via bus (free bus pass) to the port; through the customs (where, unsurprisingly we were not chosen for luggage inspection) and onto the magnificent Britanny Ferries car ferry. We had taken advantage of a discounted 2  night "gourmet cruise" to St Malo - inclusive of cabin on successive night crossings, 4 course dinner; 4 star lunch in St Malo at a highly rated restaurant, with continental breakfast on return.

The dinner was overwhelming in quality. Inevitably by the end our stomachs were filled to capacity. Probably  our senses had also been slightly dulled by the bottle of wine. Cabin bunk beds proved more than a slight challenge! Early next morning as the ship's announcements boomed into the subconscious, we realised that French time was 1 hour ahead of  English time. Rising at 6.30 am was a work habit, long since abandoned.

So in what for us was the early morning, we found ourselves walking the walls of the fine ancient pirate city of St Malo, dodging the early morning joggers and enjoying the clear fresh air. The tide was in, streets were sparsely populated and the main tourists appeared to be English couples of a certain age moving slowly through the streets in search of a cafe or places of interest. The French have a certain style about them - a refreshing support for family life; distinctive style of dress and great flair with their food. Lunch in a gourmet restaurant was therefore an enjoyable time as we tried oysters; cockerel, gravelax, creme brulee and splendid ice-creams. But the real icing on the cake was the conversation flowing around the tables of  the restaurant. 

Good for the pirates we thought. What a splendid place to have founded. Just perfect for those of us who have the time and energy to go harvesting the roses. Sometimes we find what we were looking for; often we have unexpected bonuses along the way - it makes the effort of getting out of the house worthwhile.

Views mentioned in the account - can you place them?