Posted by: Alex MacPhee | November 11, 2012

Another ‘remembrance day’

I bought my poppy last night from a decorated old soldier in the shop where I bought my cabbage and peppers on the way home from Send, and pinned it to my jacket this morning as I prepared to leave for my walk. The poppy shape seems a little different these days from those I bought as a youth. Then, they were bigger and rounder, with paper green leaves behind the red poppy, and a long stem made of wire that fitted into my lapel buttonholes. The shape is slimmer, a little more abstract now, with just a short plastic stem, a product perhaps of mass manufacture. But no matter ; the significance of the poppy has always been in what it represents, and why we wear it.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of this eleventh month, I stood by my desk, observed the two minutes silence, then set off for a long walk in the November sunshine. The sun is low at this time of year, and cast long shadows as I strode along the road before me. The flickering of shadows through the trees made me think of a picture I have seen recently, and you may have seen too. It is a picture of an old man with a walking stick, standing by a wall at a Remembrance Day service. The old man casts a long shadow on the wall, but it is not his own shadow, it is that of a young soldier in combat gear. It is very cleverly done. The connexion is clear : that soldiery goes on, and we are linked to the past in innumerable ways.

And as I walked, I thought that perhaps every old man of that time casts a shadow, his own piece of the jigsaw of history. Yet it may not be the sunlight that reveals his piece of the jigsaw. His shadow and its story may be revealed in other ways.

I can date it fairly closely. We were living in a little flat in Paisley just after we married and before we took our first little house in Livingston New Town in the summer of 1974, and in the mornings I took the red Paisley bus into Glasgow town centre to the place where I worked. As I got on the bus just after half past eight one morning, I noticed an old man sitting on one of the seats about half way down the bus. He was in his late sixties, short, unkempt, with a flat brown soiled-looking cap, a dirty brown overcoat, and in his hand a brown paper bag crushed at the top. I knew straight away that the brown paper bag camouflaged a bottle, some cheap alcohol or fortified wine. And he was drunk. His eyes were bloodshot and wet, and it seemed he could only focus them with a concentrated effort. I pushed my way down and, like other passengers, sat several seats away from him, leaving him isolated. I looked out of the rear window of the bus, so as not to look at him.

As the journey continued, he could be heard muttering, at first barely audibly, and as the bus rolled on, a little more loudly, yet hardly more distinctly. He seemed to be having a conversation with some invisible person in front of him, and periodically he would jab the air with the bottle in the brown paper bag as if to reinforce some point he was making. Hardly one slurred word in four could be made out, and those that could be made out were crude and vulgar. Yet as the old man muttered and mumbled and swore, there seemed to be some kind of story coming out, as though his words were on pieces of a jigsaw that could be fitted together to make a picture.

This old man wasn’t on a bus at all. He was in a field in northern France. And he wasn’t holding a bottle in a brown paper bag, he was holding a tin can of cold beans that he was eating with a spoon. Beside him, there was no passenger, but an old comrade who was sitting beside him in the trench, also eating from a tin of cold beans.

“See that, fuckin beans, Ah hate they fuckin beans, they’re fuckin cauld.”

He held up the bag a little.

“Ah’m looking roon at Jamesie, and he’s got fuckin beans an’ a’. Jist a tin a fuckin beans.”

The bus rolled on, and most of the passengers tried to avoid making eye contact with the drunk.

“See they fuckin shells? They’re jist wan fuckin thing efter another, feeep feeeep feeeep.” He tried to make whistling noises, and his other hand made slight motions like he was trying to point to traces. “Whistle and bang, whistle and bang. If wan o they things are gonny get ye, it’s jist whistle, thur’s nae bang, if ye hear the bang, it’s nae got ye yet.” And he tried to whistle again, but nothing came save a dull hiss of air.

More words came and, though still nearly all indecipherable, more of the sorry scene came with them.

“Ah’m jist sittin there, ye know? A fuckin whistle, feeep, an Ah turns roon tae Jamesie. Know whit? Jamesie’s no fuckin there. Fuckin shell. Thur’s nothin a Jamesie at a’, he’s no there, but jist that tin a fuckin beans a’ his, no even fell ower, jist sittin there on the grun’.”

As these pieces of a horrid scene emerged from the drunk’s ramblings, I remember the sense of shame I had in my first disgust. This old man, over thirty years on, was still reliving the moments when a shell took his comrade clean from the face of the earth beside him, leaving nothing behind but the can of beans he’d been eating from, sitting upright and intact on the ground.

I have thought of that journey, and that old man, many times. He had his own shadow, and it was a drink fuelled journey on a bus that pieced together the story within its darkness, nightmare memories that no passage of Novembers can erase.

For some, not all remembrance days are in November, and not all remembrances are eased by the lovely and poignant poppies. On this Remembrance Day, I remember him too.

Posted by: Alex MacPhee | November 10, 2012

Fencing boobs

It’s strange how a half-forgotten name, or just a song, can trigger a set of old memories. Sometimes melancholy, other times humorous. This one is of the latter. I hope the women who are its subjects will not object to the re-telling.

I am never able to hear the name Ralph McTell, or the song ‘Streets of London’, without thinking of Mary O’Donnell. Or at least, Mary O’Donnell’s breasts. No, no, all of Mary O’Donnell! I’m getting ahead of the story.

I usually take a small recorder or music player on my walks, so that for those times when I don’t need silence, I can listen to music, or some of my favourite radio broadcasts. On my walk today, I found myself listening to an old Ralph McTell song, which I hadn’t heard for years. It brought back two memories that were strangely symmetrical. And straightaway, I was back four decades ago and fencing with Mary O’Donnell.

When I began fencing, the sport I came to love above all others, I was a callow youth, fresh-faced and new, in my teens, slim to behold and terrified of girls. (I am working to regain the former property ; the latter never went away.) I was taught to fence by the marvellous Christine Tolland, in Glasgow, who had been for many years Scottish Ladies Champion at foil. Of all the coaches I have had in fencing, she has been my favourite.

I loved the sportsmanship in fencing : you could fence with someone who would be aiming to cut you in half on the piste without quarter, yet in the coffee room later was as an old friend. When I’d begun to acquire some of the skills, I began fencing rounds with other, more experienced club members. I fenced with Brian, who’d spent time teaching me elementary ‘conversation with the blade’. I fenced with a beautiful French girl, Hélène, who tore me to pieces. Then I fenced with Mary.

Mary was one of those girls who exuded self-confidence. Not overly tall, but slim, curvy, with long waist-length frizzy black hair and flashing dark blue eyes. Feisty hardly describes her, for she’d left home after an argument with her father and learned to fend for herself. Mary’s favourite singer, she often told me, was Ralph McTell, and she adored the song ‘Streets of London’. Perhaps it had an echo of having had to fend for herself for a while until she got her own place. But whenever I hear ‘Streets of London’, it’s Mary O’Donnell.

One evening, not long after I’d arrived at the ‘salle’ and had been fencing with Brian, she strode over to me and asked me if I’d like to fence a few hits. (I was to learn that left-handed fencers, like me, are often popular with right-handers looking for experience against sinistrals : the higher up you go in competitive fencing, the greater the number of left-handers compared to the population average, so having the experience is useful.) Etiquette, of course, is that you always accept a fencing request, and as Mary was dark-haired and beautiful-eyed, accepting was never hard.

“There’s just one thing though,” she added on that particular night, “you can’t give me hits on the chest.”

Before I’d even time to look perplexed, she explained that she’d just opened her fencing kit bag and discovered she’d left her breast protectors at home. These are cup-shaped (well, what did you think they’d look like?) high-impact plastic inserts that fit into internal pockets on women’s fencing jackets. She must have been putting her whites through the wash and forgotten to put the protectors back. She continued to explain that she’d been reading an article which said that breast tumours could be caused by high-impact strikes or bruising, and as she didn’t want to risk that, I’d to avoid chest hits. Whilst I’d never heard of that before, her reasoning was perfectly understandable, and so of course I readily agreed.

We set to en garde, then began to fence. I was fairly good at keeping off-target, making the odd hit on the shoulder or flank. Just now and again, I’d forget and make a riposte to the chest, and she’d stop momentarily, cross her hands at the wrist and wave ‘no, no’ signs, and I’d remember and continue. Then I’d forget, and there’d be another ‘no, no’ signal followed by her fingers pointing to her chest, and I’d try my hardest to remember the Chest Directive.

Mary was always an attacking fencer, whereas I was usually defensive, trying to lure the attacker into making a mistake. But as I was now always fencing defensively with hardly any attacks at all, Mary became even more aggressive, pushing the attack and herself not realising that I was backing away because of the Chest Directive. It was a natural progression. As she pressed her attacks harder, and I had to step farther and farther back, with little option but repeated parries with no counters, I knew I was being pushed up to the wall. The fencing exchanges got faster and faster : straight attacks, attacks from disengage, beat attacks, beat disengage attacks, they were coming pell-mell, for Mary could press her attacks now with impunity.

When you have been drilling fencing exercises for some time, they eventually turn from exercises to instinct. You begin to ‘read’ the play, and to anticipate instinctively. And in your mind, at high speed, you’re ever rehearsing what’s about to happen and how you will respond. At that moment I just knew what Mary was about to do. She’d strong legs, and a powerful lunge, and she was going to launch a beat attack on my blade from her ‘sixte’ side, knocking it out of the way, then propel herself from her back left foot with an attack on my ‘quarte’ flank. With nowhere to go, it had to be parry of seconde downwards and a riposte to her own ‘quarte’ side. All within less than a second.

It happened in a heartbeat : beat .. lunge .. attack .. parry .. attack-disengage-and-HIT!

I hadn’t meant it, but I knew I’d done it. Sheer instinct. Straight to the chest. Her left side. Perfect hit. My blade flexed beautifully.

She stood up, slowly pushed her mask up over her face, feet apart ‘at ease’, backs of the hands on her waist, arms akimbo, and said,

“Alec, will you PLEASE stop prodding my tits!”

At just those very seconds when she spoke, there had fallen one of those occasional and entirely accidental lulls in the general hubbub of the fencing salle, so that her voice now carried over the ensuing silence. I froze with embarrassment, feeling the surge of crimson blush rush up from my neck and all over my face. A few heads turned quizzically in our direction, and I could see Christine, who’d been giving lessons to some novices, turn her face slowly towards us with a look that said clearly, ‘What IS that boy doing now?’

I looked again at Mary, only to see the broad grin of laughter cover her face. It was pure mischief. I couldn’t help my sense of mortification, but she only teased me more in the coffee room afterwards, and she knew it had been an innocent mistake in the heat of the bout. “Oh, Alec! If you could only have seen your face!”

On leaving Glasgow, with the change of career and start to married life, I’d to leave this lovely club at Bellahouston, and Mary O’Donnell.

When we came to Surrey, many years later, I found a fencing club to join. By this time, I’d been fencing more at épée than foil, having been a fencer now for about twenty years. One of my regular fencing opponents had been Geoff, a tall, slightly older man, built like a fencer, whom I loved fencing as he had a perfect classical French style, which was how I’d been taught by Christine. Geoff’s wife, Margaret, was also a fencer, a foilist. I was to fence her often. She was an American (she still is!), from Philadelphia, and I loved her east coast accent and the way she pronounced my name, which she sounded as “Ell-lix”. During those early evenings, I think I’d fenced her about three times. It would have been around the fourth occasion, when we were exchanging a few hits, circular disengages, cutovers to her shoulder, the customary testing things. Suddenly, she stopped, pushed up her mask, and said,

“Ehl-lix, I know what yore doing.”

I must have looked puzzled.

She stepped forward a little. “Yore avoiding my boobs, aren’tcha?”

I had to nod, because I was. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but I’d been making hits to her right and left flanks, cutovers to her shoulders, a few low-line hits to her waist and stomach.

By now she was grinning from ear to ear. She stepped forward again.

“You don’t haffta. Look, you can hit me here on the boobs!” and she pushed her chest forwards ostentatiously, then struck herself on each side with the knuckles of her fingers, making the plastic protectors ping with the noise. “It doesn’t hurt! I’m protected! I actuallly prefer it if you hit me here because I don’t feel a thing! When you hit my sides, it hurts, but it doesn’t hurt here!” And she gave herself another couple of demonstrative blows with her knuckles.

I nodded.

“Tell ya what, Ehl-lix, I’m coming in next week, and I’m gonna have bulls-eyes painted on my boobs so you know where to hit ‘em!”

I could only laugh at her, and myself, and agree. After all, when a lady tells you to pay attention to her boobs, it’s only polite to comply.

In the bar that evening, I told Margaret and Geoff the story of Mary O’Donnell. I was “too sensitive now”, she said, but for all that, we shared a chuckle over the two tales.

I’ve often wondered what became of Mary O’Donnell, she of the long black hair and the flashing blue eyes and mischievous smile. I hope she found her Mr Right, and got to meet Ralph McTell. Looking back on my fencing life, what I am sure of, however, is that my fencing boobs were bigger than hers.

Posted by: Alex MacPhee | November 3, 2012

An unexpected milestone.

Saturday is always my day to go for a long walk, no matter what walking I may have done during the week, and no matter what the weather may argue otherwise. It’s my day to walk to Send, and take my bouquet of carnations to her. It never matters what the weather is, but today, there was sunshine, that cold-aired, brisk, pinching, late- autumn sunshine that braces and makes the skin tingle and the blood rush to try and warm the fingertips. These are the days and the walks when the quiet of the road clears out my head and recharges and rekindles my spirits. Always, I know, at the end of that road, I’ll renew the carnations with fresh blooms, tell her how my week has been, read her mum’s weekly letter to her, and sit for a while on the bench under the tree shade, to have my flask of coffee and my sandwich. The road ahead is my time for thinking, remembering and re-speaking old conversations, all those memories that enrich and are enriched by moments spent in recollection.

On my walk today, I was thinking about walking. How Frances used to love going for long walks. Walks by the River Spey. Walks along the Cornish Coastal Path, where she lost an entire toenail, bloodied, footsore and blistered. Walks to Tintagel, the legendary seat of King Arthur. The day we walked into Edinburgh and down to Leith. How in recent years I’d grown out of condition for walking. How, when even a single step was eventually denied her, I understood that old saw about never missing the water till the well runs dry. How I’d resolved never to take again for granted those so-taken-for-granted things she’d lost, like walking by the riverside, holding things, making things with her hands, eating an apple, even breathing air. It’s been the common thread in all those things I have been doing in the days since we laid her to rest : walking, cooking, using my hands by learning to play piano. They all link back to her. And for her.

Sometimes, to pass the time on the road, I like to count things. I like to get a feel for numbers, and for estimating distances. So I know how many thousands of paces it is from Cart Bridge to Tannery Lane on my route to Send, and how many paces it is from the crossroads and up Send Hill to the cemetery gates. Since I began walking last year, I have walked around three and three-quarter million steps, and covered around 1,750 miles. Today, on my walk to Send, I wondered how many steps I had taken walking to the cemetery from then until now, and how many miles that came to. I know the distance well now, and I know how many thousands of paces in each direction. I know when I first started walking the route, and I know how many times I have walked it since. I multiplied all the numbers in my head, multiplied by my pace length, and multiplied by the number that converts it all into miles.

I had to stop in my tracks. I counted the numbers again. It is hard to explain the elation, but suddenly my head was full of song. As of today, in my walks to the cemetery and back to be with her, I had walked 500 miles. Five hundred miles! You will know the song that has been in my head all the way there, and all the way home.

She’s the only lass I have ever walked five hundred miles for, and I will walk it for her again.

And yes, there was sunshine in Leith on that day too.

Posted by: Alex MacPhee | September 29, 2012

Olives and red wine

I met Suzanna at the cemetery today.

I was sitting on the bench eating a carrot when I heard her come up and say hello. She was bringing gladioli to her late husband, Vincenzo Ravalese. I only ever meet Suzanna here. We chatted, and she told me she’d just come back from a short stay in Crete with an old friend, Pat, also recently widowed. It had been so warm, and her trip to the ancient civilisation at Cnossos so absorbing, that she hadn’t wanted to come home. In the late warm evenings there, there had been black olives, and warm bread, and soft cheese, and wine, the essence of Mediterranean joy. Even our late evening sun streaming through the branches of the oak tree seemed warmed by her stories, and I asked her how she’d met Vincenzo. He’d been working in a hospital in Brookwood in the sixties, where she was a nurse, and had swept her off her feet, a romance that lasted forty years. I think we’d been chatting an hour or so when more steps crunched up the gravel path, and it was Tony, who in a previous visit had brought me that thirst quenching bottle of lemonade when I’d been dehydrated. So I told him how I’d talked to his mother Antonia the other week, which of course she’d already told him about. The late sun shone more, we laughed and talked, and eventually we said our goodbyes as Tony went to visit his late father, and Suzanna arranged the gladioli for Vincenzo. I had joked with Suzanna that her stories of Crete had put me in a holiday mood, and we laughed again.

So this evening, for late dinner, it has been homemade bread with olive oil, and black olives, and soft cheese, and red wine. A little remembrance of a Mediterranean island I’ve never been to, and a little toast to Frances, and Vincenzo, and George Frederick.

Posted by: Alex MacPhee | August 20, 2012

A small kindness

I set off today on my Saturday eight mile walk, on what felt like the hottest day of the year (not that there have been too many of those to choose from this summer), my shorts, a light tee-shirt, and backpack. I forgot my hat. I forgot my water bottle. But no matter, there was the faintest light breeze to keep me from overheating, and the prospect ahead was agreeable and attractive, and not just because of the occasional pretty girl in light summerwear who crossed my path. I stopped at the usual place, Jean’s, to get my flowers, and set off once more, pleased to be distracted by the sunshine and blue sky, and only slightly feeling the heat. By the time I got to the cemetery, I was ready for a short rest, and sat on the bench under the tree, when I noticed Tony. Tony isn’t someone I know personally, I only ever see him at the cemetery, where he comes to tend his father’s grave, and sometimes our visits overlap, so we nod, and occasionally chat. Like everyone I see there visiting someone lost, he has a routine. His begins when he stands behind the cross at his father’s grave, kisses the palms of each hand, closes his eyes, puts the forefinger of each hand on top of the cross, then says a few prayers. The un-needed rule is never to interrupt the routine. Tony’s around mid-fifties, and a project manager of some kind, though he looks for all the world like an Italian restaurateur, with a suitably cheery demeanour. The bench I sit on was put there by Tony and his family as a dedication to his father, Frederick. I stood up to say hello. I must have looked as faint as I suddenly felt, for he said, “Hi Alex, you look like you’ve had the sun!” And I had. I felt light-headed, which is usually a sign of lowish blood pressure, and I nodded. “Hot isn’t it?” I said, sitting back down. He looked at me again, and said, “D’you want me to get you some water? I might have a bottle down in the car.” I shook my head, saying I’d be fine in a few minutes, and anyway, there was a mains tap at the entrance to the cemetery where I could get water on the way out. For all that, I felt almost dizzy and slightly palpitating, realising what a mistake it had been to forget to put my water bottle in my backpack. We chatted a little more, then he said he would be off, and leave me to my time ; and as always, a handshake on parting. He strolled off down the long central pathway, to the gates and his car.

I got my flowers ready, took the old ones out, and refilled the vase. It’s become a kind of routine, for me too, that when I’m on my own, I fix the flowers, then tell Frances how my week has been, what has gone right, what hasn’t. As I stood there, I heard a soft crunch on the gravel behind me, and looked round. It was Tony, strolling back up to the bench. “My wife’s been shopping,” he said, and he held up a bottle of lemonade, reaching down over the bench and planting it down beside my backpack. “Have this, maybe it’ll help take away your thirst!” And with that, he waved, and set back off down the long path. Gladder than I wanted to admit to, I opened the bottle, took a long slaking gurgle, and went back to tell Frances of this latest thing.

It has made my day. I have often thought that some of the smallest gestures have contained the greatest kindnesses. Tonight, my glass was raised to Tony.

Posted by: Alex MacPhee | August 19, 2012

York C102 exercise cycle

York C102

My primary exercise is walking. I wanted something to take the place of walking for those days when it was impractical, and after evaluating several options, chose the York C102 exercise cycle.

It took three attempts to get a working model, and were it not for Amazon’s customer-focussed replacement policy, I’d have given up much earlier. The first arrived with a fault on the tension control, so that the cycle always operated at full tension. When the second arrived, a piece of unfinished machining, leaving an edge sharp enough to cut skin, had severed the electrical connecting cable, which had been folded across the sharp edge in packaging. The third worked as it should on assembly.

Assembly takes about an hour (or in my case, about thirty minutes by the third attempt), and is time-consuming but not difficult. Essentially, it’s just a crankshaft connected to a flywheel whose ability to spin is limited by an adjustable set of strong magnets. The tension control has eight settings, and it works by adjusting the distance between the magnets and the flywheel, with ‘1’ the easiest, and ‘8’ the hardest. In practice, it works well, giving good control over the exercise regime. There is little that is adjustable other than seat height, and there is no adjustment to height of handlebars, though they can be moved forward or backward, and are long enough to give a variety of holding positions. For people of average height (I am around 5’9”), a comfortable sitting position should be easy to find. The saddle is adequate, but not particularly comfortable, and after fifteen minutes or so, ‘numb bum’ is inevitable. It is also not a standard size, so finding a gel cover proved tricky, although eventually I found one (Velo Extra Wide Gel Saddle, Amazon Marketplace), which fitted perfectly, and did the trick.

There is a wire frame magazine holder, which is supposed to allow you to read a magazine whilst exercising, but it is clearly something that was thought a ‘good idea’ without actually testing. It’s completely useless. It won’t hold a magazine, or a book, as there’s no ‘shelf’ for the magazine to rest on, even when butted up against the display panel, and no way to stop the magazine flopping off.

The display panel shows a variety of measurements, some useful, some not. Along the bottom of the panel are shown pedal cadence/rpm (alternating with a notional speed in km/h), time pedalling, a notional distance travelled in km, calories burned, and pulse rate. On the upper and larger section of the display, is shown each of the lower display figures in turn, cycling through the displays at six seconds at a time. This is less useful than it might seem, and a static display would have been preferable.  On the right hand side is displayed one of several heart symbols, showing the pulse rate expressed as a percentage of ‘maximum heart rate’ (using the rough formula ‘220 – age’). It shows one of the figures, 55%, 75%, 90%. This is next to useless, as a heart rate of 74% will still show as just 55%, and especially when it’s borne in mind that there’s a caveat in the user guide on not training at 90% unless you’re a ‘professional athlete’, yet an 89% rate will register as only 75% on this display. It would have been a simple matter to convert the displayed pulse rate into a %capacity figure. My workaround has been to print a small table of pulse rates and equivalents, which is taped to the side of the display. I can then read my pulse rate on the table and see just what heart capacity level I am exercising at.

There are several training programmes, but these are just ways of setting a count-down target of time, or distance, or calories, with a beep to signal when the target has been reached. The beep is virtually inaudible, even in a quiet room. They’re not worth bothering with.

The calorie display is not particularly accurate, and the manual rightly cautions against using it for medical purposes. I use a Polar heart monitor whilst training, and its calorie figures seem accurate, as I use them whilst on a calorie controlled diet and my weight lost/gain tallies closely with my calorie intake and burn. By comparison, I reckon that the C102’s display over-estimates calories burned by around 75%, and that also tallies with my subjective impression on how I feel after burning the same number of calories in walking. I therefore ignore this part of the display. There is no connexion between the rate of calories burned and any tension level set on the exerciser, it seems purely linked to the pedal cadence.

The most useful part of the display is the pulse rate and the timer. Using the tension control, I can get very good control over the working heart rate I choose, which for me is between 110 and 130 bpm. The pulse display occasionally stops registering, mostly, it seems, when my hands have become damp through perspiration.

The display includes a ‘fitness level’ indicator, which at the end of a training session returns a value between 1 (fully fit) and 6 (very unfit), apparently by measuring over one minute the rate at which your heart rate drops from the exercise high. I have strong doubts about its accuracy or usefulness. I have been shown as ‘2’ and ‘5’ on the same day, with no discernible difference between the rates at which my pulse dropped after the same exercise session.

After a few weeks of regular but not excessive use, the cycle began to develop an annoying squeak, which eventually became so loud and distracting, that I could not use it for more than five minutes at a time. The squealing was so loud it could be heard next door. I had to take the casing off, which was a tricky job, and using a good quality cycle lubricant, lubricated everything that rotated. So far, it seems to have done the trick, but there are no access points to allow routine lubrication, and it’s a fiddly job, including detaching the pedals and many deep-sunk screws. Had I not been able to do this, this exerciser would have been in the metal recycling cage at my local household waste site.

When it works, it works well and does what I expect of it. It is a pity that there have been so many rough edges to contend with.

Would I buy another York exerciser? On the basis of my experience with the C102, I think it unlikely.

Posted by: Alex MacPhee | August 6, 2012

The more, the merrier

my tatties

Among my earliest memories of my father, a quiet, hard-working, decent man, is going down with him to the vegetable patch he worked and cultivated, in the south west of Glasgow. For although he spent most of his life in Glasgow, he was of Hebridean stock, and the crofting and the growing of things was in his blood, and in his father’s. I remember one late afternoon, it would have been in the late summer, around five decades past now, he went down to dig up some of his tatties. And it was one he’d to keep a wary eye on, living as we were in a place where neighbours would send their children out at night time to dig up and steal it for themselves. The rain poured down that day, and I was drenched, asking him with boyish impatience if it was time to go home yet. He looked up at the rain plummeting down from the gray noisy sky, pouring over us and soaking us to the skin, looked up at me, then with that funny, lop-sided grin, said “The more, the merrier!” And he carried on digging and lifting tatties, until his work was done.

I don’t remember how cold or wet I felt that day, nor do I remember much of the rainwater down the back of my neck or the wet socks in my shoes that would have been like sodden sponges, so long had I stood in the mud and the rain. Time changes what we see is important. What I remember is his bright smile and the cheerful way he just carried on putting his back into it, and then the sight of all those tatties, which our dad had planted, our dad had grown, our dad and tended, and dug up for us. And whenever it has rained hard, and the heavens have disgorged seas of stormwater, I’ve looked up and remembered him, “The more, the merrier!”

It is half a century now since that day ; and this afternoon, as I stood looking out of the window, the rain came down, battering at the shaws growing in my tiny little vegetable garden. So I took my fork and my spade, and went out, and dug for my own little harvest of tatties, planted in the spring. The rain came still down, but it didn’t matter, and as each forkful brought up more of the golden and rounded potatoes, and the rain soaked into my arms and neck, I heard myself saying aloud to him, “The more, the merrier!”

I understood a little more about my dad today.

Posted by: Alex MacPhee | June 9, 2012

Wood-effect metronome (available Amazon)

Wooden style metronome

Although my keyboard has a metronome built in, I wanted one that I could use away from the keyboard, and which would give me a visual cue as well as an audible one. I chose this one as it was simple enough to use and had a pleasing, traditional appearance.

This metronome’s wood effect does look remarkably convincing, though it yields its secret immediately on touch, which is smoothly plastic. The look, nevertheless, is still pleasing. But however attractive it looks, it has a function, and that is to keep time, so the purpose of this review is to report in an objective way on how it performs.

<The metronome is wound by a fixed key on the side, and approximately ten turns of the key will fully wind it. To set the metronome in motion, simply tap the pendulum rod to one side, left or right, and it will begin to tick, the tempo being chosen by first moving a click-stopped weight on the rod to align it with the desired tempo scale printed behind. For example, setting the upper edge of the weight against the ‘60’ line on the scale will give around 60 beats per minute, and so on. It is stopped in a similar way, with a touch of the finger, and will stay that way until you tap it into motion again.

There are three things to consider :

(i) how accurate is it?
(ii) is the tempo consistent throughout a session?
(iii) how long does it run on a winding?

I measured all these using an electronic stopwatch and a statistical graphing calculator (well, it was raining outside, and there was nothing on the telly). The accuracy is very good throughout the tempo range, with the nominal 40 bpm setting giving 40 ticks in a minute by my stopwatch, the 60 setting likewise, right through to the 208 bpm setting. There’s no way to calibrate it, but the accuracy is certainly fit for purpose, and the weight can always be tweaked outside of the ‘click stops’.  I could detect no asymmetry or ‘limping’, and so no difference in timing between the left and right strokes of the pendulum.

I next looked at consistency, which I measured with the metronome set to 60 bpm, measuring the time per beat averaged over 10 beats at intervals of approximately 10 minutes. When fully wound and set in motion, the average beat time measured 1.028 seconds. After 10 minutes, it was 1.005 seconds ; after 20 minutes, it was 1.004 seconds ; and after 30 minutes (around stopping time at this tempo)  it was 0.968 seconds. So consistency was good, with just a slight increase in tempo of around 5% towards the end of the half hour, though it took a stopwatch to tell me that, it wasn’t apparent to my ear. I have not carried out this test at other tempo settings, but am satisfied the results would be similar.

How long it runs on a full winding depends on the tempo setting. I found that at a setting of 40 bpm, the lowest (‘Largo’), it will last a little over 45 minutes. Set to 60 bpm, run time is just over 30 minutes, at 90 bpm, run time is just over 20 minutes, at 120 bpm it lasts about 16 minutes, and at 208 bpm (‘Presto’), it will run for just over 9 minutes. To a rough approximation (it’s not linear), you get between 1800 and 2000 beats in total from one winding, whatever the tempo.

There is a little bell which can be set to chime on every second, third, fourth, or sixth beat, or turned off, depending on how you set a small sliding lever. Whilst it’s useful to signal the first beat in every bar according to time signature, there is some reverberation in the bell, so that it becomes less useful as an aural cue the faster the tempo, and by around 160 bpm I found little advantage in using it as the sound of the bell began covering subsequent beats. It may be possible to muffle the reverberation somewhat by stuffing something inside the bell, but I have not thought this worthwhile for me.

The tick-tock is quite loud, which is doubtless required when playing loud instruments, though I am primarily a recorder player, which is a softly spoken  instrument.  It would have been handy if the metronome’s sound level could be moderated, but even so it’s not a significant issue for me. It does what I wanted it to do, it does it accurately, it gives me the corner-of-the-eye cues I wanted, and it looks good. It is expensive for what it is (£28 post paid), but not so expensive I would change my mind for something cheaper.

Posted by: Alex MacPhee | May 18, 2012

You can ‘screw it’ if you B&Q it

We wanted our bathroom and WC refitted, including, specifically, easy-to-turn taps and fitments because of my wife’s progressive loss of muscle power due to serious illness, which had meant it was very hard for her to turn a tap or shower on or off. B&Q promised us a ‘properly project-managed experience’, dissuading us from having our own separate plumbers, electricians, and carpenters. One fixed price, one project. It was to be completed before Christmas.

The nightmare started with the first pre-installation survey. They couldn’t meet dates, and required a second survey from different fitters. B&Q cancelled that date too. By February, nothing had been done, and a third survey required for yet another fitter. This time, B&Q said the price would have to increase as the third survey showed extra work they hadn’t seen first time round. Or second time round.  Or the initial design survey. I told them that we’d agreed a fixed price as their selling point, and asked what the point or reliability of these surveys was if they produced inaccurate and contradictory results. Foolishly, I agreed to carry on.

Things were not delivered. A part load of tiles for walls and floor was delivered, and when I asked why the floor tiles were in the delivery van but not the wall tiles, I was told they thought I was going to the store and load up my own car with the rest, a load far too heavy for a domestic vehicle. Astonishingly, the B&Q delivery van was coming to us anyway and they wouldn’t load it with all the ordered materials even though they were all in-store. Delay after delay followed. Wrong bath parts were delivered that wouldn’t fit together. When they came to install the toilet pans, they found they wouldn’t fit the designs, and this hadn’t been picked up in any of the three pre-installation surveys. It meant buying a different style and returning the ones we’d chosen. B&Q tried to increase the price again because of their design errors. More delays followed, with more botched workmanship, and by the time it was ‘finished’, it was June the following year. We had some fitments left over, which we returned to the store, unopened. B&Q refused to accept them back, on the grounds we had no receipt to hand (yet they had a full order record on their computer system) and so couldn’t prove they were from B&Q. This was bizarre, as they were B&Q own brand fittings, with ‘B&Q’ all over the boxes. And this, too, despite the fact that the store assistant refusing to accept the return was the very same fellow who had sold them to us. My wife stood in the store (in Guildford) and just cried.

On the day the B&Q fitters left, they demanded extra money, in cash, for ‘fitments’, but when we asked for a receipt, we were refused. I asked why, and was told simply, “VAT”.  Clearly, a tax dodge was going on. (I hope HMRC reads this.)

The entire project was a botch from start to finish, and the ‘easy to use’ sink fittings were so stiff I had trouble using them myself, and my wife with her muscle illness couldn’t move them at all.

I have now had to have the entire WC ripped out and redone by a proper tradesman, and he has shown me the “mangled plumbing” (his words) behind the sink and the soil piping behind the cistern, the unlevel surfaces, the leaking joints. There wasn’t even sealant used anywhere, which is why we had slow leaks appearing on the walls downstairs from the back of the basin.

Once they had our money, B&Q didn’t give a toss. They farmed the job out to a series of hopelessly inept and cheap (in the worst sense) sub-contractors. My time-served tradesman has fixed everything, for a price less than B&Q took to mangle it in the first place, and in four days, not seven months. As far as I am concerned, B&Q stands for ‘Botch and Quit’.

Dealing with B&Q, both the store and the ‘service fulfilment centre’, has been the most horrible retail experience we have ever had, in over forty years.  It was worsened by the fact that they ensured it was a sustained bad experience, over the course of eight months and more, B&Q showing repeated resistance to fixing problems, handling complaints, or attempting to retain a customer. Since then, I have not bought so much as a drawing pin from B&Q.
I have since learned that my experience is not uncommon. Take very great care if you are thinking of engaging B&Q in any home improvement project : ‘“You can screw it if you B&Q it.”

Posted by: Alex MacPhee | May 12, 2012

Omron Walking Style Pro Step-counter

Walking Style Pro

When I bought it, it was just as a gadget, a toy. I had no expectations other than it would tell me how far it was to go to the shops now and again. I’d bought it somewhat half-heartedly, after a twenty-yard jog to the car had left me out of breath, giving me a wake-up call.

What it has done, unexpectedly, is to transform my lifestyle and have a significant effect on my well-being and health. Far from just being a toy, it has been the single greatest encouragement to regular exercise I have ever bought, far surpassing my expectations when I got it. Nearly a year later, I still cannot get enough of the simple pleasure of walking, and though the price (around £25) may have seemed a lot for such a tiny device at the time, it has been worth every single penny over and over again.
The `encouragement effect’ should not be under-estimated. The mere fact of seeing how far you have walked, and how many calories you have burned, creates a surprising incentive to go farther. If, on the way home from a walk, you see, for instance, that you have walked 9,600 steps, it’s very easy to say to yourself, `Let’s round it up to the next thousand!’, and that can lead to a detour simply to walk some more, by which time you find you’ve reached 10,800, so you walk a little more to get to the next round thousand…

Since I started walking last summer, I have now handsomely exceeded two million steps on the road, or around one thousand miles, and this alone has accounted for over five and a half kilograms of fat burning and over eighty-eight thousand calories spent. But the benefits are not just in encouraging the pleasure of walking.

I have high blood pressure, which has been treated by a range of medications taken twice a day for nearly twenty years. Without these treatments, my BP would be in the region of 200/110 (where `normal’ is 120/80), which is critically high.
One day, after some weeks of regular walking, I found myself feeling unexpectedly light-headed, and on checking my BP, found it had dropped to around 90/60. In order to restore it to the norm of 120/80, I had to progressively reduce my dependence on hypertension medications. Now, walking between 4 – 8 miles on an average day, and up to 20 miles at weekends, my BP level is around 115/75 on no medication. Another beneficial effect is that the side-effects of these medications, such as swelling in the ankles and discolouration of skin on the feet, have now almost disappeared now. The cardio-vascular benefits of the exercise can hardly be exaggerated. Walking burns around five calories per minute, so a two hour walk accounts for around 600 calories. With a little attention to diet, combined with the walking, the other significant effect is that my weight has come down from around 16 st (102 kg) to 12 st 7 lb (79.5 kg). I eat better and I feel better than I have done for many years.

The counter is very accurate. On the first day, I used it to count the number of steps to my local newspaper shop, whilst at the same time counting in my head. I counted 1250 steps. The Walking Style Pro displayed 1250 steps. The calorie counter display appears to be reliable too. I put myself on a calorie counting diet, recording everything meticulously day by day for months, including the daily calorie burn on the step-counter, and my weight loss each week was strongly consistent with that predicted for my controlled calorie intake and the calorie expenditure recorded by the step-counter.

The step-counter is supplied with a software CD and cable, which allows you to transfer the accumulated readings to your computer, so that you can see at a glance, on simple but informative graphs, how far you have walked in the last day, week, month, year, and total, together with calories burned and equivalent fat weight lost. The step-counter records two figures for steps walked per day : the first is the simple total, and the second is the number that have been walked in `aerobic mode’. This mode kicks in when you have been walking at a decent pace for around ten minutes and you are considered to be in aerobic respiration mode. The software will also download data from compatible Omron blood pressure monitors, but even if you don’t have one of these models, there is a facility to enter your BP readings manually, and these can be displayed as a graph superimposed on the steps graph.

Setting up the step counter is easy, and requires that you enter the date and time, your current weight, and stride length. There are instructions to tell you how to measure this. The step-counter only records distances in kilometres, not miles or yards, and it would have made it perfect if it had been switchable between imperial and metric, a function that is technically trivial and a surprising omission, but although it lacks this function, that’s not a reason to remove a star from my review rating. In any case, most OS maps in use these days are lined in metric intervals. There is a fudge you can do to make the readout appear in the equivalent number of miles, but it’s hardly worth doing. Note that the step-counter automatically resets its daily totals at midnight, so that you start each day afresh, though the previous information is still accessible, either with some button pushes, or via downloads to the computer.

There is a cord which can be attached to your clothing or a belt via a plastic clip, but the clip is flimsy and doesn’t give confidence that it won’t eventually break, so I attached instead a small `carabiner’ and keyring, which clips more securely to a belt loop. I then put my house key on it, making a handy combination for when I want to go for a walk, knowing that I haven’t forgotten my key. The step-counter is permanently attached to my belt now, and with my little MP3 player charged with my favourite radio broadcasts to catch up on when I’m on the road, I can’t get enough of being outdoors. My main supermarket is four miles away, and now, the car stays at home, and I take a backpack and walk.
If this step-counter encourages you to take up walking, don’t overlook the importance of proper walking shoes. They make a marked difference.
Brilliant little device. I don’t leave home without it now.

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