Slow Down, These Things Happen

The Arvon Foundation provides courses for aspiring writers at four centres in Devon, Shropshire, Yorkshire and Inverness-shire, with resident centre managers and visiting tutors who are professional writers in the relevant area for the course – novels, poetry, drama, film, even comics and graphic novels. Diana and I tried to book on a course in Scotland, but it was full instantly. It was half term week so we reckoned they were all teachers. We found another relevant-looking course, at Totleigh Barton, Devon, called “Work in Progress – or work in distress”. This was not fully booked so we signed up.

The week eventually turned out to fit in well with our planned travel to the South West and gave us a short trip along the Atlantic Highway (or A39, more prosaically) from Wadebridge. The roads get smaller and smaller as you approach Totleigh Barton, until you turn off a single track road onto a single track track, albeit a concrete one, down to the former farm and manor house. The rigid edges of the track are in most places well above the surrounding fields, so if there is something coming the other way, there is no going off the track to get past each other, unless one of you is a tractor, and even then it might be tricky.

On the first evening we all met in a yurt in the garden: Adam, Christine, Diana, Garlen, Hilary, Jane, Kevin, Linda, Nina, Penny, Peter, Roger, Sandra, Sue, Tim, (there should have been 16, but one didn’t arrive) plus tutors Monique Roffey and Andrew Miller and centre managers Olly and Clare. It was a good mixture of individuals of varying ages and genders. I even found a fellow graphic novel reader and a science fiction writer.

The pattern of the days was a workshop in the morning led by one of the tutors and half-hour individual tutorials in the afternoon. This meant two workshops from each of Monique and Andrew, and everyone getting half an hour with each of them. This is apparently the tried and trusted Arvon format. In the evenings there were readings, Tuesday by the tutors, Wednesday by a guest, Christopher Wakling, and Thursday and Friday by ourselves. There was a rota for cooking dinner and washing up. In between there was time to talk – and what a pleasure to have writers to talk to! – write, walk, even trot up the track to find a mobile phone signal from higher ground.

I found it extremely enjoyable and very useful. I haven’t been back to my novel since the course. I finished the first draft just before going on it and am currently obeying Monique’s instruction to leave it alone for six weeks. But I have written a short story since then, using some of the things I learned from Andrew and Monique, particularly ‘attention’ and ‘slowing down’. I ended up writing something quite unlike anything I have done before. Let’s see how the Woking Writers Circle reacts to it in a week or so.

Normally in my blog I witter on about whatever it happens to be in a vaguely amusing way, putting in jokes (but generally too few of them) and adjectives and adverbs (but generally too many of them) and keeping it light and frothy. This time it would seem presumptuous, since everyone else there was also a writer, and a damn fine one at that. So I am going to stop there, but invite everyone else on the course to add a paragraph with their thoughts and impressions, now that we’ve had a few weeks to get over the initial euphoria. Over to you, people. Click on the bubble up top, or where it says “Leave a reply’ below.

Kitchen on the Brink

The day after the degree ceremony, 10th September, Diana and I headed down to Cornwall. By the time we had packed, it was mid-afternoon, so we were too late to call in on Ashley and Rosie on the way. We wanted to get down there. The kitchen was due to start on 19th September and we needed to empty it before then. Whilst it might appear from the dates that we had plenty of time – a whole week indeed – to do this, in fact we only had a couple of days, since we were booked into an Arvon Foundation writing course in darkest Devon from the Monday afternoon through to Saturday morning.

Many years ago, before my parents-in-law owned it, the extension at Treforest was used for holidays lets, with its own shower room and kitchen area. We got rid of the cooker there  when we started letting the whole house, but the rest remained as a utility area. That meant cupboard space and drawers, mainly empty, to put things into. So most of the kitchen contents went in there. We had to keep a few things separate – kettle, toaster and the like – and carry them into the breakfast room or beyond for easy access while the kitchen was being taken apart and reconstructed. The only way through the house to the extension is through the kitchen, although you can walk round the outside to the back door. So we got most of that done.

On the Monday morning we went down into town to make our final selections of door and drawer handles. Out of the ten or so we had selected, four were no longer available. We looked at the other six and didn’t like them in real life. Then we saw an older-style one, which after some umming and ahhing we decided we liked. We borrowed a door, worktop sample and handle to see in combination with the floor samples we had. We picked up the decorative glass tiles from the Natural Tile shop. We had lunch and set off for Totleigh Barton in Devon, a few miles East of Bude.

By Degrees

The week after the Orieladelphians, 9th September, Diana and I had to get up early and join the commuters into London. Horrible thought! It was Eleanor’s degree day at UCL. She was getting her PhD, although she has been called “Doctor” since her thesis was accepted. We didn’t have to queue very long for train tickets at the machine, were straight onto a train where we got seats, caught the Northern Line from Waterloo to Warren Street and walked to the main quad at UCL precisely on time at 9.30, where we were met by Joe. A few yards into the quad, Ellie was talking with another PhD, and I knew that before we were close enough to speak because they were both wearing the grey and red robes and black floppy hat. Photographs were taken.

UCL has a big quad and it was filling up with ‘graduands’ – people about to go through the graduation ceremony. Most of them were first degrees wearing boring black robes and mortarboards, but there was a noticeable smattering of grey-robed PhDs. Ellie had made us arrive in plenty of time, so we could take a slightly meandering course through the college, taking us past (and into) the Ladies and Gents, to the location for the ceremony. This was not in UCL itself, but in a very superior marquee on Bedford Square, about ten minutes walk away. We stood around outside the marquee for a while (more photos) then went in.

Near the entrance, the path diverged, going different ways round a bush. Graduands went one way and guests another. I am not entirely sure why they did this, because the paths joined up again on the other side of the bush and there was only one entrance to the marquee itself. Our tickets had allocated seating, and entitled us to a massively thick programme. Eleanor was in the front row of all the graduands. Diana, Joe and I were in the second row, right in front of the stage. Many rows of tiered seating rose behind us. The stage had steps at either side, two lecterns, a row of seating behind and another small block of seating to the left. I looked at the programme and found that it listed the names of all the graduands, what their degree was, and whether they had done especially well and got on the ‘Dean’s List’. I discovered the reason for the thickness of the programme: it contained all the graduands from all the UCL degree ceremonies taking place right through the Summer. This was the very last one, for the UCL School of Life and Medical Sciences – Division of Biosciences, and Ellie’s name was the fifth last in the entire book.

A big screen was showing various pictures of students and various uplifting messages about UCL and its alumni. At 10.15 we were called to order and a film was shown about the Alumni Network (a recruiting film for the graduands, clearly). This was followed by trumpets, not just a fanfare, but a short performance by Majestic Brass, all three of them. A mace bearer led the Academic Procession of the Faculty of Biosciences, who took the seats on and by the stage. The Vice-Provost (Research), Professor G David Price, gave a speech. Then we were down to business.

The graduands started to line up to the right of the stage, walking down from the back of the marquee. Evidently, Ellie was going to be right at the end. The Dean of the Faculty, Professor Mary Collins, announced the type of degree being awarded – Bachelor of Biochemistry, Biology and so forth. As each person walked up the steps on the right, they handed a slip of paper with their name on it to the Dean, who read it out. The person then walked across the stage, shook hands with the Vice-Provost and went down the steps to the left. There was no handing out of certificates. The system ensured that each person was announced with the right name and missing persons did not cause chaos. They timed it so that each was on stage alone with the Vice-Provost and got their moment of glory, but didn’t linger. Dean’s List graduates got a few more claps from the audience and a few more words with the Vice-Provost. In this way they worked efficiently through the graduands, never seeming to hurry people on, but never unduly delaying.

What struck us was the diversity of the graduates. UCL brands itself as London’s global university and the people there give weight to that claim. They were clearly from many nationalities and backgrounds. Everyone was in a minority of some sort in that community, even the classic ‘white caucasian males’.

After vast numbers of Bachelors, we got to the Masters, a much smaller number, less varied in ethnicity, but more varied in age. One or two had seemingly come to a Masters degree after a life spent elsewhere. And finally, the PhDs. After a heartfelt introduction from the Dean – she knew from experience how hard it was over three or four years, she said – each was introduced as ‘Doctor’. And near the end, we got to the PhD in Structural Biology, Doctor Eleanor Williams.

That felt good.

The academic faculty processed out; this time ‘academic’ included all the graduates. We met up with Ellie outside in the street and went back to UCL for photographs and a reception. We took a back way into UCL, ignoring a steward who tried to direct us to the main entrance, since we had earlier spotted a sign saying ‘Photographs’. Misleadingly, as it turned out; it took us to an empty room. We carried on through the building, heading for the quad, when we came across another sign saying ‘Photographs’ and joined a short queue. Ellie filled in a form whilst queuing, then went forward to have her photograph taken on her own. The photographer handed her a ‘degree certificate’ prop to hold, despite no such thing having been part of the ceremony. Then Joe, Diana and I joined her for a group photograph. The photographer printed out proofs on the spot (her camera had a wire connecting to a PC) and we went away. The queue by this time was longer, so we had judged it about right.

The reception offered champagne and what appeared to be a soft drink but turned out to be Pimms. There was a bar in the corner for refills and other drinks. There was a counter with stacked trays of Indian snacks, very tasty but not filling. We went out into the quad and stood around while Ellie took her robes back (they were hired, not bought). A group of Bachelors were photographed on the steps of the Portico, with the obligatory ‘throwing the hats into the air’ shot. There were several takes, and I doubt people got their own hats back, though I doubt as well that it mattered.

We went for a late lunch, a very respectable pizza, pasta or rice, and came home. Joe went straight back to Oxford, Ellie to see friends in her old UCL lab for coffee. Yeah, it did feel good.

Bloody Good Dinner

Original post: Friday, 30th September 2011

There are troubling signs that this blog is evolving into being all about dinners and lunches – six of the last twelve postings [if you care to go back and look at the archive on my old site]. Well, you can’t fight evolution – here’s number seven out of thirteen.

It was the Orieladelphians 37th annual dinner on 2nd September, a Friday, as they all are. Christopher was the President. He had contacted me a few weeks earlier, in my self-appointed capacity as keeper of the archives (or to put it another way, as Steve of course did, “Kevin, you ought to get out more”) to check what the menus had been over the last couple of years, so as not to repeat them. This shows admirable conscientiousness, paying attention to the details that no one actually notices. No one remembers what we eat from one year to the next. Even I have to look it up, on the menu cards I purloin (no longer surreptitiously, since everyone now knows I do it) from the table each year.

I have objective proof of this. One year we had exactly the same food as the year before and no one realised. I only spotted it some time afterwards when I was filing the menu card. And no one cared. “Bloody good dinner!” we all said, both times. The only dinner that we all remember, that we never let Neil forget, is the one where he decided to have a large and splendid piece of fish, but no meat course. The dawning horrified realisation that after the fish knives and forks at the place settings were only pudding and cheese implements, swiftly followed by the production of the actual pudding, rather than something meaty, made an indelible impression on all present. Though it is the absence of the meat that is remembered, not the food that we ate. There is even some debate about the fish itself – turbot? halibut? No one has tried anything that experimental again.

There is a sameness about the annual dinners that is reassuring. The same ten people turn up, and they are largely each the same people as they were the year before, changing gradually as many years pass. There are five regular guests who join us for the pre-dinner drinks. Weather permitting, we all meet on Second Quad lawn outside the SCR. This year we were standing right behind a notice saying something to the effect of: “Do not go on the grass.” Ha! That notice is not for us! We stood right there on the green stuff.

Last year, Neil caused a stir by wearing a white jacket (see archive blog entry  for 10th September 2010 “OOGs”). This year I took my own white jacket as well as the black, and since the day was hot and summery, in contrast to the week, indeed weeks, preceding it, I decided to wear it, with barely a comment at all. As we stood on the grass with our champagne, word filtered through that Judge Neil would be late. He was on the M1 somewhere North of Nottingham, stuck in traffic. He arrived at around 9 o’clock with some excuse about having been given the wrong case to try, the four day case rather than the three day case, meaning he couldn’t leave Durham until late. Anyway, the staff had saved him most of the meal and he worked his way through it while we drank port.

In the course of dinner, it emerged that long-missing original member, John Chettoe, is still alive. The linguists of our year, of whom Christopher was one, decided at the Gaudy to have a reunion themselves and tracked down the aforementioned Chettoe. He came to the first few of our dinners, then declined one, then stopped responding to our invitations. So we stopped trying and ejected him from membership. Occasional stories would surface. He had joined GCHQ. He was a spy. He had been abducted by the Soviets. He had gone over to the Soviets. It turns out that he had joined GCHQ, but as for the rest, probably not. (Unless – perhaps joining GCHQ was just a cover story…)

We adjourned to the Small SCR, snaffling the remaining port and bottled water to go with the coffee and brandy and whatever else was in there. Several people got very pissed. At the end, it was just Neil and I and we discovered it was about 3 a.m. I hadn’t pulled that late a night at the Orieladelphians for twenty-five years or more!

We both made it into breakfast, though. And it was a bloody good dinner.

State of Readiness

Original post: Thursday 29th September 2011

It was around the beginning of summer that our retirement plans began to come into sharper focus. For some time we had known that we intended to stop letting out our house in Cornwall, and indeed had informed our letting company so that they didn’t put it in their new brochure and start selling dates in 2012. But we were now on the home stretch with only six more lets confirmed and the final week still available. With every set of keys that came back, a weight lifted – another week gone by with no problems to sort out.

We had a date in mind for the start of work on our kitchen in Treforest (mid-September), but still some decisions to make about tiles, flooring, worktop, door and drawer fronts, handles, integrated dishwasher – quite a lot of decisions, really. There was no alternative but a quick sprint down to Cornwall for a few days. Wadebridge Kitchens gave us samples of worktop designs in a swatch no bigger than ten square centimetres and four examples of unit doors in different woods which we laid in various positions around the old kitchen, seeing how the light fell on them at different times of day and at night and we exercised our imaginations in extrapolating from these small areas to a whole kitchen, so that two days later we made a decision. We also called in on the Natural Tile & Stone company in Wadebridge and surveyed numerous tiles, before settling on one called ‘Pearla’ plus a number of decorative glass tiles from a artist/craftsman in Wales called Steve Robinson. Finally we went to Astons in Wadebridge about flooring, looking for a vinyl floor similar to the old one we were taking up. They didn’t have anything at all similar, so we took a brochure away. Later, I sent for samples from the manufacturer, but we didn’t decide on the floor until the last week before work started. We didn’t manage to decide on handles either, but took a brochure away. We found eight or ten we liked the look of from the pictures, but here again we could leave it until the last week before deciding.

Back in Woking, we blitzed the internet looking for dishwashers. We had decided on a Miele – expensive but good, based on our own experience – but couldn’t decide which one. The internet gives you lots of things, but I always find it a pain, flicking between half a dozen alternatives with a screen for each, and possibly two or three screens for all the information. But I did find a Miele Experience Centre (yes, that’s what they call it) in Abingdon, where you can make an appointment to see appliances and have them explained to you. They do not pressure you to buy, since they do not sell from the Centre. Possibly this is one of the reasons Miele is expensive.

Eventually, I managed to make an appointment for 3 pm on Friday 29th July. Ideally I’d have liked a slightly later time, but they had a staff meeting at 4, they said. This fitted nicely in with a plan to visit daughter Eleanor in nearby Oxford and deliver her birthday present only a day late. The Experience Centre was easy to find, just off the A34. We parked, went in and were greeted by someone who said “You must be my 3 o’clock appointment”. “If you are Zoe, that’s right,” I said. She showed us the toilets, which was a good thing to know, and took us through to a coffee lounge where we had a coffee and a cupcake, which was a pleasant way to start. Then we went to see the dishwashers and receive a detailed explanation of the features, and how they got better as the price increased, right up to the most expensive one which clears your dining table and individually cleans and polishes every item. Oh no, that’s a butler. But it does have automatic load recognition, an autoclose door and an interior light, among other things not possessed by the average Jeeves*. We decided that these were not worth the exorbitant price and went back down the range to something merely expensive. After making use of the toilets, we headed for Oxford.

We stopped at the Redbridge Park and Ride on the South of Oxford and took the bus into the centre, sitting on the front seats of the top deck to enjoy the view over walls and down into gardens, and getting off in Abingdon Road. We walked up to Modern Art Oxford, a gallery in Pembroke Street recommended by younger daughter Tris, to kill time before Ellie was due to arrive home. I’m not sure I ‘get’ a lot of modern art. Clothes airers covered by snug-fitting knitted cosies – I don’t see the point. There were also pieces constructed from venetian blinds, painted in bright primary colours. The smaller ones were a bit meh, but a large one hanging from the ceiling yielded interesting curves and shadows when you looked at one blind through another placed at an angle to it. The gallery shop had candlesticks assembled from pieces of copper pipe and T-joints painted red and blue, selling for prices that even plumbers never imagined.

We arrived at Ellie’s, to find her delayed at work, but son-in-law Joe let us in and fed us tea and biscuits. Ellie eventually arrived, bearing pizza, and we were joined by Tracey, Ellie’s friend from secondary school. That sounds unfortunate. Not her only friend, let me make clear, but one of her best friends. We handed over the birthday present, a black top hat. Eleanor does role-playing games and she has plans for a top hat. I tend not to pry further…

August also saw some unexpected expenditure. After 25 years, our water softener gave up the ghost. Last time I filled it with salt, I thought there was too much water in the container and emptied it. Then I saw water coming from the overflow pipe, dripping onto the grass and killing it with the salt content. The container was full of water again. I phoned Harvey Softeners in Woking to see if I could get it repaired. We don’t do that model any more, they said, we’ve had two more generations since then. We haven’t got the parts. What would a new one cost? If ordered from the service department, at a discount to the price from the sales department, just under £1000. Gulp! I spoke to Diana, but we had to go for it. Woking is a very hard water area and kettles get covered in scale in no time, visible evidence of what would be happening out of sight in the boiler, central heating pipes and washing machines. We’ve never regretted buying the first one, only a few months after moving into the house – the only thing Diana says she has bought from a cold-calling door-to-door sales-person.

Finally, I should mention the Woking Writers Circle August meeting, which each year varies the read-and-comment format of our regular third Thursday meetings and this year took the form of a dinner at the Red Lion in Horsell. This being the holiday season, several people were away, but those that remained had a good time, even being joined a little later by a couple of non-diners, who had only come for the beer. Well organised by Dermot, say I.

*Note to pedants: yes, I know Jeeves is a valet, not butler. But it sounded good.

Starting New

I am transferring my blog from the Apple-hosted website to this, my own domain. I’ll re-post the last couple of entries from there to here, but since I cannot easily transfer the whole lot, the rest will stay there in archive until I can figure out something else to do with them.

Click here to see the archive, until it gets taken down.