Wordshore

Writing in the long form
February 28th, 2015 by John

When winter leaves

The end, finish, conclusion of winter in the Northern Hemisphere is a matter of conjecture, opinion and history. BBC weather tells us that winter ends today, February 28th, meteorologically. Some say it ends at the vernal or spring equinox, which this year is March 20th. Some say it’s when the clocks go forward and we suddenly have daylight and sunlight well into the evenings. Sometimes we just notice things that indicate a change of season. And some, in Boston, doubt it will ever end.

It perhaps does not matter what others say. Winter ends when you notice it is ending. That’s good enough.

Steam under the bridge

I’ve enjoyed this winter. On the downside, some signs of aging. I feel the cold, even mild cold, which is something new to me and I don’t like that feeling. Things take longer to repair themselves; hell to my aching shoulder of some time now. As the beard lengthens (nearly four years now), so the proportion of whiteness increases. By age 50, Gandalf perhaps. Though I’ve written much, it’s mostly been recollections about people and events and times, and that’s all been filed away; maybe for future use, or inspiration, or maybe not.

On the upside, much has been done and completed. I’ve hit a vein of work that is interesting and, sometimes, fun. And controversial, but emerging technology in education always is. We perpetually argue about the proof, what it is and where it is. Occasionally, we agree on it.

Occasionally.

Hilltop

This has also been the first winter out of the last six where I haven’t lived in a city, either Birmingham (England) or Toledo (USA). The lack of daylight or street light hasn’t meant an end to walks, though the mud and rain and surface water have meant diversions, and the strange preponderance of doggers and other people with their rituals in the rural east Midlands has also been a source of caution.

But I’ve got out and about, over field, up hill, and on trains both steam and modern to villages, towns and small cities in the eastern reaches, as the pictures on this post show. And that’s been fun.

Tea in the chapter house

Some of my significant legacy issues (more about that several years down the line) have been tackled; things I’d left for so long I didn’t think they would ever get sorted. From the mundane – finally getting rid of a load of physical possessions so I could downsize my storage unit – to more complex issues. Still much to do, but personal progress has been greater this season ending than in many previous.

Which is good. I just hope this momentum continues for the next six months, over the spring and summer.

Pub garden

Habits and daily mundane routines have changed, a lot. I still regress to a few bad habits; lemon curd, watching the relentlessly grim Walking Dead, getting pointlessly annoyed. And social media – I’m looking at your addictive qualities and we need to ‘have a talk’. Yet again. But much more of a useful nature gets done nowadays, between rising from the pillow and returning to it.

There is still much to do. The vein of work, although useful, needs more funding, perpetually. Some old things need replacing; tech and clothes especially. I have to make some difficult decisions about old books. I need, as ever, to do a bunch of legal stuff but that seems like a lifelong thing now. I have found the perfect present for my current housemate, which need to be procured soon. Closure on a few more issues would be good.

Lane

But overall, this winter has been quietly satisfying. Helped by, as said previously, living in a quieter place, on the edge of a market town, and often on my own. The sound of predictable chatty voices grinds me down; it’s been pleasant, restorative, to have coming on for a year away from that background noise.

My common sounds this winter have been the typing on this keyboard, the rustle of pages, and the radio. Four for the talking stuff, Five Live for the cricket. And if that means I’m old, then I’m old.

Doh!

Possibly for the first time ever, logistics and moving things around mean that all three of my suitcases are with me in this room. The battered grey one that I hauled around two continents for several years; the very expensive-looking gold colored one that I rolled through Detroit on my first stay there instead of getting a taxi; the smart red one which has been pressed into service to transport human and animal ashes on several occasions this last six years. They probably all need a thorough clean before further use.

And one of these will soon be loaded, with new clothes, a cumbersome amount of tech, three books, a lot of stationary, and Cadbury chocolate (the genuine version). It’ll be coming with me on a long trip (multiple modes of transport, multiple days) I’ve started to plan out, and book.

Deepening sky

Daily, several times, sometimes many times, I look up at the sky, where others fly for reasons significant, to places distant. It’s lighter a lot more now, as we steadily head towards the equinox, then the summer solstice. Looking at the sky frequently is a good thing to do; you leave the babble of people on the surface behind, make your eyes stretch far, become aware of the weather, the light, where you are, who you are, where you want to go, where you’ll probably end up.

It’s been a while.

December 28th, 2014 by John

Walking, not writing

The older you get, the more you realize how artificial the calendar is. December 31st marks the ending of a period of time. January 1st marks the starting of another. “Easter” moves around according to some bizarre rules. Some floaty date in mid-June marks the solstice. A fixed date, one of 366, marks the day you exited your mother’s womb.

Sunset

Far better, arguably, to follow the passage of nature, the sun and the seasons, the cycle of crops and food; the stuff you essentially shove into your mouth to keep going. But this (self-indulgent, introspective and wittering) post, with pictures I’ve snapped on walks and days out this latter half of the year ending, will play along with the concepts of “arbitrary year end” and “arbitrary year beginning”.

Test Match Cricket ticket

So, 2014.

Tree

2014 has, personally, been a very good year. And I’m content, happy even, with this.

Walk in the woods

Despite the strands of mainstream news, amplified by social media, lurching from reporting one horror to the next. We are told it’s been a bad year. Many bad things have happened. War, abductions, horror, misery, kidnappings, torture, beheadings, injustice, the violence of online, oppression, more war, endemic racism, poverty, millions going without and needing charity and food. And, indeed, there’s no denial; these things all happened in 2014.

Barge

As they have done in previous years.

On to the castle

Every year.

Doh!

The difference being that 2014 has been a year of peak gratuitous video footage, easy to obtain through GoPro and camera drones and tech everywhere, and thrust in your face through many different channels and mirrors and screens. The lead news story isn’t determined by what’s the most “important” news, but which news has the most distracting media. People plant some trees? Restore and use derelict buildings? Help other people? Boring; show some fire and smoke and grieving relatives after a tragedy instead. Paranoid Android writ large.

Deepening sky

Until the next horrific story with graphic video footage comes along.

Posh lights

And social media amplifies the relentless grind. “Look at this bad thing”, “And this bad thing”, “Then this bad thing”, tweet and facebook otherwise intelligent and rational people, becoming gradually addicted to, and comfortable and habit forming with, declaring bad things. Sometimes to vent, sometimes to amplify because others amplify, sometimes out of a sense of social or personal or privilege or peer guilt, sometimes to assert political or social credentials. Sometimes, genuinely.

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

It isn’t healthy for your mind. It cannot be healthy for your mind. To have a wall of reminders, of outrage, of fury, scrolling across your various screens. To not allow the light, or the positive, or the good that people do, in. To be frightened, as some or many seem to be, to post positive observations, or nuanced observations, rather than just the relentless churn of “People are bad and here is yet another example”.

Hilltop

People do good things. Groups of people do good things. If you think that’s a statement of weakness, or imbalance, then that is a reflection of your own unhealthy state of mind. Seriously, seek help. Allow yourself to let some light in.

Cattle in field

Anyway.

Sunset

Unless you were caught up in one of the horrifying events we were reminded of 24/7, whether it has been a good year or not for you depends on other, different, factors. Not what a newspaper, website, or god forbid a social media algorithm tells you. Perhaps – how was your health? Family? Relationships? Circle of friends? Career, job or income? Did you do some creative or interesting activities? Go to new places, read new works, eat satisfying foods, see things that made you smile? Resolve past issues, move, be content where you are, have good times? Do something genuinely useful to help the planet (e.g. planting some of those trees) or other people (e.g. worked in a food bank or shelter, or campaigned for something useful)? How many days did you feel good, in mind and body, and how many were you in pain, also in mind or body, for? But most importantly – what are the things that are important to you, personally, and how did they go in 2014?

Barley

Those, and many more factors, determine if your 2014 was a good year. Not what the TV, the twitter, the newspapers, the online media, those people you follow on twitter, some bearded dude whose blog you are reading, tell you.

An intermission of rural England

As introduced, mine was very good. Not a slam-dunk; a few things went wrong, or did not progress much or at all. I haven’t written much publicly, spending much more free time making notes on childhood days, people I’ve lived with and worked with, places I’ve visited, and thousands of other words on experiences. I don’t know what I’ll use any of it for but it’s there, backed up now, for when memories fade or I need reminders and accuracy, or material for a post, a story or an e-book.

The church, the cross and the flag

I still have unresolved long-term family issues and I wonder if some will only be resolved by specific people dying. My favorite cat died, robbed of one last glorious summer by the negligence of an idiot neighbor. And, though some medical issues were fixed and I’m building fitness and muscle in the gym or on long walks most days, at this age bodily things become more an issue of maintenance and sheer luck based on genetics, what you’ve done over the last few decades, and just random things.

Dusk

But there’s the good. As said, some health issues are sorted. I can walk for hours, 12, 15 or 18 miles and feel great afterwards. It’s taken a while, but I have a clearer idea of work directions for the next few years – plus there is some work that goes with it. I’ve sorted out a lot of the inconsistent mess of online start-and-restart writing from the last few decades (though there’s a lot still to go). Tracked down every single item of work, and every article and paper and report, done over the decades (turned out there was a lot). Offloaded a lot of casual or fake friends, and become less grumpy and more sociable with genuine ones. Read some great writing, watched a lot of movies, and walked and explored and noted and watched the sun rise and set and walked some more.

Autumnal woods

And found it much easier to briefly glance at the “news”, or social media, notice the wave of negativeness, and rather than get sucked in to the flow, turn it off and go and do something far more mentally healthy, productive and useful.

Sunset from the dial

2008 was the most fun year of my 40s so far; the five after that were at best average, at worst life or sanity-threatening. 2014 was a welcome return to the positive far outweighing the negative. I’m not going to predict 2015; that just tempts the wrong kind of fate. And I know there are some tricky legacy situations to inevitably see through, and I probably will be writing even less in public than in 2014. Instead, I’ll just remain quietly hopeful.

Dusk

Whoever you are, and for whatever reason you are reading this, I wish you a peaceful, productive, and above all healthy 2015. Define your own year; don’t let others, the media or the commentators, define it for you. And if you want online content that is often positive, interesting, fun, but also has quality and depth, then try the Vimeo staff picks (no, they haven’t paid me to say this). Free, legal, often informative, not a magnet for abusive commenters or keyboard activists, and above all it won’t quietly and gradually take your mind to a place of despair.

Pub garden

Update: 30th December. I made the mistake of turning on the TV news this morning. In order:
1) Plane crash wreckage (with footage)
2) Ebola case in the UK (flashing light emergency service footage)
3) People die on burning ferry (footage of boat on fire)
4) Three people die in house fire (footage of police and incident tape)
5) Weather forecast (not “it’s sunny” but “it’s going to remain cold” – negative to the end…)

*Turns off TV*
*Goes for a walk*

October 21st, 2014 by John

Winter, arrives, in England

Observations of the outside, this evening. As tweets, originally.

+ + + + +

That warm autumnal yesterday, shunted, fronted away by the tail of the storm. Winter enters, for the clocks to fall back in a hundred hours.

The fourth quarter slides in. The quiet countdown to Christmas, the silent worries of relative visits; that micro-social etiquette of cards.

Dinnertime darkness. Signs for bonfires protestingly tug at fastenings with each gust. Cyclists slowly strain and wince into the headwind.

Crinkled, bronzing leaves, twirling in mini-tornados. Swaying, unbroken, trees that have seen this and worse, and darker and wetter, before.

Draught snakes deployed; duvets togged up and heating notched up; ubiquitous white plastic garden furniture shedded; hatches battened down.

Coated commuters and headsunk shoppers. Gloved. Scarfed. Minimal exposed skin; minimalist conversation. Crocs and sandals replaced by boots.

Halloween tat vies with Christmas tat for shelving. Duffel coats are “in”; summer fashions “reduced to clear”. Mince pies “use by December”.

Less salad, more soup. “Summertime specials” culled by “Winter Warmers”. A modest stack of pumpkins where the “value barbeques” once camped.

Mittens for the young ones. Chocolates for the wife. Socks for the husband. Eggnog for the elderly. The commercial Groundhog Day of gifting.

“Where’s the saffron?” “This is Tesco, not Waitrose; you’ll be wanting bloody myrrh next”, bicker the identically attired couple in aisle 5.

Outside, still England. Just a damper, darker, version of a recent self. A lonely, early, firework ascends the sky. Pop. Szzzzzzzz. Sparkle.

But it’s quieter, fresher, sharper, newer. A trade-off in ambience. No drunken raised voices, now brushed away by that cleansing cold wind.

The near-identical glow of a terrace of televisions; the same living room corners, the same channels, beginning their sedentary winter eves.

The courtyard cat, now the fireside cat, tracks a floating leaf from the other side of the glass. Still a curious cat, but now a warmer cat.

A few more steps, key in lock, inside. Door closed against that outside. The unwinding relief of being “In for the night, now”.

Winter.

August 13th, 2014 by John

True Librarian

Phil Bradley, library advocate and activist, writes about libraries and Internet things (he’s particular good on search engines). He’s on the ball, open-minded, and tends to – sensibly – avoid many of the zero-win library arguments on social media. His website.

His latest post, A response to “This Librarian Is Not Impressed With Your Digital, No-Books Library”, is worth a read. I’ve posted a comment, though I can’t help but think I’ve written the same before in various places, about public libraries and librarians. Several times. Diminishing returns. Maybe it’s time to reluctantly acknowledge there will always be entrenched, opinionated, media elitists who favor one type of information container over another, or over all others. And leave them to their book sniffing, or techno-lust.

I’ve repeated the reply below as Typepad and me don’t get on, the reply lost the external links, and the grammar (I so need an editor) is a bit better.

+ + + + +

Yes; a thousand times yes. The grocer that sells only apples, even the finest quality apples, is soon a bankrupt grocer.

The extremists on both wings of the information access spectrum are just that; extreme, and selfish, and lacking in empathy. The “book sniffer” who only reads print, fetishes paper, and looks down with false superiority on those who use the library computers as being of a lesser, less intellectual and intelligent mind. The “techno bore” who parrots the lie that “everything is online”, ignores the many millions with no IT skills or experience, and looks down on those who read print as feeble, old-fashioned and just old (as they too will one day be).

There’s snobbery on both wings, and both weaken the standing of libraries and librarians with their intolerant, narrow and narrow-minded “I find information this way, therefore everyone else should” agenda.

This is particularly pertinent this week. Everyone has heard of the death of Robin Williams. Depression, mental illness and suicide are being debated and commented in varying degrees of enlightenment across print and digital media. Many on social media, in real life, are choosing this time to declare past and previous problems, battles in the mind. These are not rare, and easily remedied, conditions; these are common, but complex and individual conditions.

But where does a person who wants, or needs, quality information on these issues go? And go to, right now? Friends and relatives often give worse than useless opinions, masked as advice. “Pull yourself together”, “You’ll get over it”, You have a job; count yourself lucky”, “Get a job”, “Go and have a drink”. Does this advice work? If not, where else does someone go?

The A and E hospital department? Overwhelmed with people in stages of trauma, and frightening. The CAB? Again, busy and overwhelmed, and it doesn’t solve but sends the person elsewhere. The police station? Frightened of being sectioned or detained. The council’s social services? Overstretched, underfunded, and the paradox of requiring a tenacity to navigate that is often missing in those who need it. The GP? Again, needing the tenacity to get an appointment, wait, get seen too, maybe get mysterious medications, maybe get onto a mental health waiting list. With a heavy emphasis on waiting – and what does he or she do while they wait?

Which leads to: what if you need that information now? If the thoughts going through the mind aren’t good ones, and aren’t abated by hearing “The earliest initial appointment is in three weeks”. Or if it’s difficult, as many with mental health issues find, to deal with people and agencies, in appointment or on the telephone? People who want, or need, reassuring privacy to absorb information in their own way and at their own pace. What options are left? Often, only two are apparent, public, obvious and there.

…either, the pub. Alcohol is cheap, oblivion comes soon, and pubs are inviting; they want your money. Go in a few at opening times and find the many who chose, or had to choose, this easiest but non-solving and worsening of options. The cheap, chain bar became the default 21st century “Care in the Community”.

…or, the public library. Possibly. Print? There can be useful books there, which you can borrow and read, at your speed, in the privacy of your home. Online? There’s computers to get you to websites, some with up to date information, more information, and contact details. A library that provides both the analog and the digital maximizes the chances of providing essential and accessible information to those who really need it.

So long as there is the third component: the skilled and experienced librarian, who respects privacy and does not have a bias towards a particular media; who knows how to help and nudge people with complex needs in the right direction and into the appropriate media. Not the volunteer, well-meaning but lacking information and media skills, who may be judgmental, or not respect privacy, or not have the experience of encountering people with complex needs. But the true librarian, who can encounter an inarticulate, possibly frightened, probably emotional person, figure out what information they need, and help them to get it using the array of media in that same building. Who knows where an appropriate book is, or how to get it on loan; who knows how to get to an appropriate website.

True librarians, with their many information skills and experiences, can and do help, improve, and even save, lives. But they need, in their libraries, the diversity of information media – print, digital, book, online – to do so. The elitism and snobbery, the favoritism of a pet media to the exclusion of others, helps neither librarians, nor the patrons and members of the community and society, they serve.

August 2nd, 2014 by John

Nidificating

It’s the first Saturday of August. After being held prisoner all night with an overactive mind I’m sitting, surprisingly comfortably, in an empty, early morning, coffee place in an English market town. So guess it’s somewhat like my childhood, except with better coffee. And the money to buy it. And wifi. And the person making the coffee reminds me of Lena Dunham in Girls. And the coffee place has the spacious, relaxed, brick wall feel of a coffee place in an American midwest town. Okay, it’s nothing like my childhood then.

Thank God.

This last year has been frustrating, though not as much as the previous three which felt like going backwards, while the body relentlessly aged. Health, in a wider sense, has had knockbacks, but there’s been more positives than negatives. Some legacy issues have been sorted. Others are in the process of being sorted. Some remain, kicked into the long grass for probably another year.

I’ve written more in the last year than any of the previous ten, but most of it isn’t public. A combination of nerve, legal worries, a lack of editorial skills – I still cannot figure out how to do apostrophe’s – and wondering if there’s any audience for these texts means most of it stays in the digital vault. Yeah, I’ll come back to that.

People I know, or knew, have had children, gotten married, gotten divorced, died. Less family deaths this year, but there’s not many relatives left now. Planes fall from the sky, rockets fall on schools, tanks roll into towns, diseases wipe out communities. The news is a relentless reel of grim; there is no dog on a skateboard any more. Twitter isn’t significantly more positive, but at least there are cats there.

Always cats.

And no matter what you do, or what you don’t do, life perambulates on everywhere else.

I’ve cut back on social media and use it more sparingly and less like a sugar addict in a sweetshop. In both social media and real life most people have been quietly dropped. I’ve escaped the city, my biggest mistake of several big ones these last six years being to not realize, or remember, that I’m happier out of the city than in it. Though that’s tweet-simplistic and there’s a bundle of probably contradictory feelings, on Birmingham and Detroit, to unpack at some point.

I’ve walked a lot of miles and seen a lot of trees. One or two may or may not have been hugged when there’s been no-one around. It’s probably the beard.

But though these are fields and trees, they are slightly familiar fields and trees. The country of my birth, which I don’t love but have learned to tolerate, still holds me while its health service (one of the pluses) fixes me, a frustratingly long car service at the biological garage. Home, in heart and mind, are a long way away and I feel like a semi-detached visitor on this island of sixty million. The contrails in the sky are my route map; the sound of the wood pigeon a daily reminder that I’m still here, and not there.

+ + + + +

The most significant event this last year was a malfunction, several months ago. Though, on reflection the most significant event may have been my inability to properly pack a large glass jar of coffee in my suitcase a few days before. Yadda yadda yadda coffee grinds and broken glass in seemingly everything, including some tech.

Thus my backup drive, instead of purring in its usual digital cat manner, screeched in a high pitched and almost violent fit, then suddenly went silent. The air filled with the chemical smell of some kind of plastic-metal melting or burning. Instinctively I knew this, whatever it was, wasn’t going to be fixed by a software upgrade.

On contemplating the digital death of the apparently sentient drive, I realized what was on my computer was the only versions of many things. And that computer was over half a decade old and would one day unexpectedly keel over, perhaps in sympathy with the now-smoldering drive. I could have run out and bought another backup drive, but that would have continued my usual bad practice of dumping everything on there in a random manner, with the good intention of sorting it all out one day.

A good intention never carried out. And I’ve written several times about this good intention, of sorting out all my old ephemera, and the started and abandoned blogs (several) and social media (many) accounts online, and making it all neat and tidy and online and blah blah blah. But never actually got off my 45 year old English ass and followed through. Always a job for tomorrow. Tomorrow never came.

But now, in the gaps between medical appointments, work tasks, waking up and the first coffee working, it made sense to do the big sorting out and saving and backup. To “nidificate”, as Becky told me; to build a (digital) nest.

The first task, sorting through and backing up everything from the laptop in some kind of ordered fashion, is pretty much done; all 14,319 files. Various “clouds” (look, a cloud is just some remote place you FTP stuff to – no magic) now house my stuff. More clouds house backups of other clouds. I should be able to survive at least one security breach, or cloud owner going under, or laptop eventually joining the old backup drive in digital heaven, without losing my stuff.

The second, much longer, task is underway; moving some of this stuff into one “blog” or place. The name was supplied by Becky and is appropriate, so it’s eventually my home for previous posts – everything except for the long-form decent writing which stays here on Wordshore. And by everything, not just the conventional posts of extremely variable quality, but ephemera such as posts from the quirky BBC Island Blogging thing from the middle of the last decade, most of the posts from this site, some of the descriptors from Flickr pictures, diary entries of varying tones from current times to some years back (effectively a private blog), possibly some other stuff I’m looking at now that may cause the odd ruckus. A smorgasbord of often quantity over quality. And the ride won’t always be fluffy and pleasant; I’ll leave the fakery and the trying on of personal hats to social media.

Why, rather than delete it all and start afresh? An aide memoir. Some context for what I do. An experimental place for writing. Hopefully a reminder of previous mistakes so history doesn’t get repeated (yeah, right). A few records being set straight (“history is written by the one who remembers to backup his shit”). And a memory stamp when digital history, and the history of digital, is being silently removed at an increasing pace. To explain; all six UK academic organizations I worked at or for, doing digital library and informatics stuff, between 1995 and 2004 have closed down in the last five years. Some of these have archived their stuff; some have rammed it into one database; some have chosen to just wipe everyones work from over the years (seriously, CDLR; wtf?). Yes, there’s the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, and it’s great – essential, even – but it takes time to browse around historical timelines. And what happens if the volunteer-funded Wayback Machine itself stops?

So, Nidificate it is for much of my online texty stuff that’s currently scattered online and off. This will take a long time to do, as it’s the work that fits in the gaps between everything else. It’ll certainly take a lot longer than a year, so on the first Saturday of August 2015, I’ll hopefully be typing about what is done and what there is still to do. Maybe.

July 27th, 2014 by John

Archipelago days

An ‘archipelago’ is a group of islands, or a collection of bits of land in a sea, ocean, or stretch of water. Sometimes it’s a cluster of islands, sometimes a chain, sometimes a random sprinkling of tiny specks of land in a large expanse of watery nothingness. There are archipelagos with lots of land mass e.g. Indonesia, and lots of islands e.g. off the southwest coastline of mainland Finland, and archipelagos within archipelagos e.g. the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides) off the northwest coast of the main island in the British Isles.

But there’s another way to think of an archipelago: as a collection of ferry routes to be enjoyed.

Ferries are great. Some I’ve been on are tiny and precarious. Some smell of sheep. Some are just for tourists now. But it’s those that ply their trade between the islands of an archipelago, with their own nuances and quirks, that endure in the mind.

Sure, regular scheduled ferry services aren’t the only way to travel between islands, and there are often smoother modes of hopping from one to another. Norway have their road and subsea tunnels. Planes are much quicker, often hilariously so and usually more thrilling; Barra island beach airport is never dull to land in or take off from. Or live on an archipelago? You may have a neighbor, friend or relative with a boat who says he’s just going to pop over to that island over there while pointing at a small lump of rock some miles distant, and a few minutes later you find yourself in his boat, safety gear on, surrounded by nothing but increasingly deep sea. So outside of the five month Hebridean winter this kind of thing would happen:

Out tae sea

Or I’d spend a birthday on an island inhabited by just a herd of deer, courtesy of Donald and his blue boat:

Deer

There’s always something to look at on a boat or ferry trip. The scientific; how the boat moves, how the sails fill, distances and speed. The romantic; the moving land or lights on the horizon, the rhythm of the waves, spray, feel and smell of the water and air, dolphins, whales, the sense and thrill that you’re doing something that mankind has done for thousands of years but is still not quite natural for us land-evolved animals.

Though, not all ferry trips were thrilling experiences. In the summer of 1998 I spent a month in the (English) Channel Islands because … ah, why not. It’s a small archipelago whose main industries seemed to be tourism, agriculture and being the home of many extremely rich people and their bank accounts; an awkward blend of rural England, rural France, and the Cayman Islands. One day I had a ticket to go from Jersey to Guernsey by ferry, the boat being delayed by bad weather. Most of my stupid decisions are taken in the morning before three cups of coffee and todays was deciding, as I watched the boat pitch and roll around and struggle to dock, that I had time for a fry-up breakfast before boarding.

You can guess the rest. The only time in hundreds of boat trips that I’ve been seasick, though this was more uncontrollable projectile vomiting. In a tiny bathroom seemingly designed that no matter where you vomited, the vomit would rebound and hit you. Little comfort that many other passengers and crew were involved in the same elsewhere on the ferry. Finally, arriving at the island, we were given complimentary food vouchers as compensation, the thought of which triggered secondary vomiting in some. The ride took three times longer than scheduled, I couldn’t face the trip back in any weather and purchased an expensive but quick and vomit-free plane ride back a few days later.

Ferries in the Caribbean were far more leisurely. Though, with the islands being more spread out, planes were the default method of island hopping. Side-point: Air Jamaica is still the most relaxed and friendliest airline I’ve ever flown on, and the only time I’ve been offered a spliff by a fellow passenger – during a flight. Despite much of that month being a blur of astonishing heat, cricket, really severe sunburn and rum to quell the pain of the really severe sunburn, the beauty of the islands, warmth of the sea and the laid-back friendliness sticks with you. Maybe it was the rum and heck I drank so much, constantly, on that adventure but the ferry rides between St Kitts and Nevis, in particular, were lovely in every regard. The smell of railings being painted as the boat sailed; the running commentary as some reluctant farm animals were eventually brought on board; the way people would nonchalantly indicate a whale swimming parallel to us while I was “OMG WHALE”; the random dispensing of food from total strangers. Good times, and good journeys, despite the searing sunburn.

In a rather different climate, a few years later found me on a ferry to the Gothenburg archipelago. Living in west (mainland) Scotland had the advantage of being between two airports with cheap flights to various European cities, which we used to full effect. “Nothing happening locally this weekend oh just found £9.95 tickets to Sweden and booked accidentally oh well”. One New Year (2002 or 03) we tried Sweden’s second city, as the capital was a bit pricey. Gothenburg itself was a strange mix of culture, port, industry, eateries, pretty coastline and second city inferiority complex; a kind of Swedish Birmingham-by-the-sea. Side-point: the New Years firework display was shockingly good, still the best of any display I’ve seen (sorry, 4th of July in the USA), with bonus participation by locals letting off fireworks at angles of madness degrees from the gaps between pavement slabs.

One surprise on this trip was the hundred or so tightly-packed islands just off the coast, connected by a Swedishly-efficient network of small ferries, one offering welcome but exhorbitant coffee in the subzero temperatures. We spent a day wandering the islands, walking on some, watching the residents motor around in their adapted Swedish island versions of quad bikes, looking at others from the deck of our often surprisingly close-by boat. Our last ferry back arrived ten minutes late, triggering profuse Swedish apologies and the insistence of a refund; got to love Scandinavian efficiency. From those pre-Flickr days I wish I had kept photographs, so here’s a nice one from someone else:

Stensholmen

And then there were the Outer Hebrides, home for half a decade and the destination of many trips (several for househunting) for a few years before those. The archipelago is long, as tourists who think they can “do” the place in a day gradually discover; from end to end it’s further than from Glasgow to Newcastle. Despite this, there are only two internal ferry services. A tiny boat makes the short hop from Barra (for me the perfect island if only it had genuine broadband) to Eriskay. Then it’s a collection of long roads and causeways up to my previous home island of Berneray, and then the crazy hour of zigzaging between the rocks in the shallow waters of the Sound of Harris before disembarking on Leverburgh.

Zig-zag

Time it right, have a decent car and no fear of single track roads, and with no weather or tidal delays you *can* do the Outer Hebrides in a day, but you’ll end up well over a hundred miles from where you started, and you’ll have zoomed past some of the most perfect beaches in Europe. But getting to the Outer Hebrides; that involves more leisurely ferry rides whether out of Oban, Uig or Ullapool. The Oban to Barra run, a good five hour sail, was a particular favorite, with much Scottish mainland and island scenery, the surprisingly good meals that Calmac can dish up, the airplane-like “Where you are right now” digital maps, the announcements that cheerily say “Caledonian MacBrayne” in that accent, and plenty of places outside and in to sit, write, ponder and watch the scenery slide past. Seriously top tip: Calmac ferries to the Outer Hebrides are usually busy, an increasingly problematic issue for residents in particular, and it’s a seriously good idea to book your place in advance.

There are many other archipelagos to consider visiting. The Faroe islands look interesting, as do the Åland islands. And for years, firmly number one on my personal list are the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway and a little bit above the Arctic Circle. Because Scandinavia. And also because, well, these pictures by other folks who have been there:

Welcome to my world

Arctic Blue | Lofoten, Norway

p e r s i s t | lofoten, norway

But there’s one archipelago ferry service I’ve done before that am keen to repeat, which is the point of this ramble.

+ + + + +

Six years ago this month, I was at the end of a short break, and trip #19, in Scandinavia. Stockholm, my favorite capital city with its cafes, odd hipster culture, architecture, funky subway system, hotel lift signs, biggest Ikea, cheese markets, outside exhibitions, and its cafes. Did I mention those twice? Yeah; sitting outside with a coffee and some Swedish cake in a seafront, or old, part of the city? Bliss.

Stockholm itself is built on a bunch of islands. It’s easy to forget this when you’re busy or traveling on the subway; less so when you encounter the waterfront and the huge oceanic ferries that tour the world. But tucked away in their shadows are the local passenger ferries and, on a whim this day, I got myself a round trip ticket and boarded one.

Best travel decision ever.

The Stockholm archipelago is complex. Many of the islands are inhabited all year round, with communities or more individual buildings. Some are uninhabited, or have winter homes. Most are accessible, due to Sweden’s law that you can land in most places so long as you don’t hassle nearby residents. And some are even on part of Stockholm’s central integrated transport network.

The ferry I boarded had a mixture of tourists, commuters, and locals out for a day on the water. We zipped around a variety of islands at speed. At one small but particularly inviting island, I got off, wandered to the other side (which took less than two minutes), and came across a small beach with a barbeque in full operation. Offered cooked offerings, I stayed there until another ferry arrived. This one sailed a little slower, ambling through cold and clear and blue waters, past small islands of single and expensive houses, and larger islands of woods and little settlements, and bare rocks of no inhabitants but visitors, sunbathers, swimmers and picnickers. Ferry number two offered a variety of drinks, but only cake as food.

I stayed on the cake-ferry for a couple of hours, as tannoy messages announced additional stops at ports for mysterious reasons (at one, most of the crew disembarked, bought ice creams, and reboarded, so that was possibly one). As we chugged further eastwards, towards over-the-horizon Finland, there was a sense of moving into more open sea and leaving the shelter of fragmented Stockholm land gradually behind. I relented, bought cake, and watched a pair of fellow voyagers do things online, and wondered with envy how this was possible when my own island-based broadband didn’t even work at low tide (true story: another time).

Aware that I was on the equivalent of a stopper-train, I got off at an island – or chunk of mainland, it was sometimes difficult to tell which was which – and waited for a faster ferry. Which turned out to be the original ferry, possibly on its second or third run of the day. I boarded, was reunited with the hat I’d left behind earlier, and we were off again. Past more rich owner islands, and little tufts and rock, and a small island used by unabashed naturists – they waved, I awkwardly waved back – and larger islands, and clumps of land that grew larger as we headed towards Stockholm.

As the afternoon drew on, I looked out of the back of the boat, watched the spray fly behind us as we sped to home, and contemplated home. And realized that home probably wasn’t where I thought it was, and that emigration to … somewhere was not only possible, but inevitable in a way I couldn’t articulate, and personal change was coming.

Sweden

We passed larger cruise ships heading to lands distant, and yachts and smaller boats, and boats of an indeterminate nature. And other ferries, as we approached the port and I got off to go and find a cafe and scribble some notes and thoughts, that have ended up as this post. So, in life, boat trips, and exploring the Stockholm archipelago, there’s a lot of choice. And much of it is good.

And to finish off that boat ride, a lovely sunset:

Sunset

July 11th, 2014 by John

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Under a blue summer English sky, I continue this non-linear quest of Fellowship proportions to get my health back to something that won’t trouble the emergency room of a country without socialist medical treatment. You can probably guess which one.

This week just finished, one minor health setback but one major thing finally ticked off the medical list. In addition, and finally without giving up yet again, I’ve managed to back-up everything digital I still possess from the last 15 years or so to various clouds. And, I’ve made significant, possibly breakthrough, progress on rescoping my work plans for the long term.

So, a good week, ending with my favorite rural walk to date in this part of England. After the obligatory few miles of road and meadow and country lane, five miles of this route became a meandering well-worn footpath, a narrow hinterland between fields of barley and corn and a twisty, shallow, slow-moving brook that oft disappeared into copses and spinneys and woods. The evening was hot and cloud cover increasingly elusive, so the shade of many trees was quietly thanked, and the temptation, at stumbling across a shaded pool, of stripping off and jumping in was only narrowly resisted.

The footpath eventually turned away from the brook and trundled over a small hill, a copse to the right, becoming a bridleway of pitted, horseshoe-shaped ruts in dried soil. The path opened onto a road; houses, a church, rural English civilization. I cooled down in a gentrified rural pub, lemonade and ice rushing through me, and watched the sun set over a Nottinghamshire, or possibly a Leicestershire, hill of maize.

As the dusk fragmented into night, I strode to the next village, a mile and half again north. One footpath, a half-guessed jump across a stream in the increasing gloom, and wading up a hill of stout and unyielding corn. Behind me, the July harvest full moon, tinged pink but full and wide and slightly paler, a little more translucent than the previous, rose slowly above the ridge to the South.

I reached the bus stop, calculated the walk (9.5 miles; not epic, but not insignificant), and watched the moon inch upwards as the sky moved through the last few shades of blue before black. Tomorrow it’s back to typing and doing digital administration for a few days. But these walks, under a big sky, away from the babble of people and the industry of life, help; it’s not just the body that needs to repair, decompress, revitalize, rebuild, but sometimes the mind as well.

June 11th, 2014 by John

Overhead

The ISS appeared again this evening. No longer smothered by the glow of city lights, I watched it from the countryside as it rose and soared, bright and clear, floating silently, constantly, almost overhead. This sight will never pale; in a world that seems relentlessly broken it’s a reminder that, occasionally, our flawed species can produce something great.

And make the International Space Station we did; centuries of science culminating in an almost impossible craft. 240 feet long, 990,000 pounds in weight, 260 miles up and orbiting our little rock every 93 minutes. A solar-powered home to six of our kind, traveling at over 17,000 miles an hour. And if you watch it quietly pass overhead, who knows; one of those six crew might, at that moment, be looking down to where you are.

If you want to see it, use a site such as “Heavens Above” to work out when. Enter your observing location (you don’t need to login); check the 10 day predictions for the ISS. The more negative the brightness figure (magnitude), the better; a number lower than -3 in particular makes for a brilliant view.

Note the times and the directions to look (usually the ISS passes west-ish to east-ish). Pick somewhere away from lights, and things that may block the view. Wait for the object that seems to be an aircraft, that gets gradually brighter but never blinks, that moves silently.

And look. Because we made that.

May 27th, 2014 by John

Writing

You remember the sunrises and the sunsets, and in between the diners, the customers, the food, the coffee refills, the waitresses, the way the cutlery was arranged, the condiments, the font and laminate of the menu, the anticipation. The person opposite you, your reflection in their glasses and in their eyes. You see yourself, and you always look different to the person you think you were.

You watch the confidence and immortality of youth, the middle life struggle of definition, the eventual acceptance of the lot, the scars accumulated by death and grief on those who witness. All of us, we all collect them. You see the comfort in small things, small gestures, small words. New meaning. Different lives. Different futures, now.

You drift, and pause, and move, from room to room. And watch people play, the act of life, and party, and connect, and love, and break themselves and each other, then leave. The talk and the laughter and the tears and the silence. And remember those times, and record in head and on paper, in prose, in image, in poetic line, explicit in fact, or implicit and buried amongst fiction.

But, recognizable. Always, recognizable.

And you eventually write all of these things and times in the long form, and save and backup and edit and tweet and blog and story and book and publish. The thoughts and memories and emotions constantly work to find the weakest point in you, of you, out of you; punch a wound and escape, spew and gush as words, snake venom sucked from a wound, toxins expelled. A day, a month, a decade later. But always, at some time later. You erupt and empty, feel weaker but feel relieved, lighter, content.

It isn’t a calling, a hobby or a lifestyle or frivolity. Dear God, no. It’s a pressure reduced, an exorcism and a confessional, a dam bursting, a burden of witness to humanity shared, a bloodletting with pens and keyboards over leeches, a trepanning of your soul.

A necessity.

Dusk

May 20th, 2014 by John

An intermission of rural England

Rural England is a small place. All of England to start with is smaller than most US states, and can fit into Scandinavia many times over. Take out the cities, take out the airports, the motorways and main roads, the growing suburbs and industrial sites, and you aren’t left with a huge amount of area. Set your mind to it and in a few days you could walk across its width; in a few weeks, its length.

But, what there is still greatly varied in tone, color, views, flora and fauna. And it is a country to be walked in, not driven through or flown over. Rabbits and pheasants burst from their secluded places as they hear you coming, and leap or flap away. Herons move slowly from tree to riverbank. In the gloom of dusk, foxes trot quickly, sharply, on their routes across fields. Meadows filled with a million buttercups invite crossing. And there are thousands upon thousands of those fields, rolling and curving over hills; and hedgerows, and woods and copses and spinneys.

Yes. The trees.

So many trees.

It’s a safe place; there is little that can or will kill you. And it’s a gentle place, in weather and inhabitant. Everyone, no exception, I’ve passed this last few weeks on country lanes has nodded, given some variation of passing greeting, or observation on the current or coming weather. The invisibility cloak you are seemingly given on entering the city is not worn here.

But also, this is a visibly historical place, as you are reminded over and over. The way the country lanes either ramble off in dead straight lines (Roman), or zig zag around fields (Enclosure act), or make no logical sense at all (just … English). The buildings, almhouses and stately homes and passing a cottage called “The New House” with a date of 1573 above the front door, and the remnants of medieval or older settlements. The many churches, stone and bell; the place names, and the dialects.

And the, thankfully enduring, traditions and customs. Stumble into a pub of several centuries, parched after rambling across fields and through woods and over brooks and streams; pat the owners dog on the head, buy a drink and some pork scratchings then notice Morris Dancers preparing to shake their bells and clash sticks outside. Or wander past a village fete, decide to check out just one stand, and a few minutes late you wonder why you’ve just bought three cakes made by a 90+ year old, but you are glad you have as it’s probably made her day and you’ve contributed to some village restoration project.

Rural England is a seductive place. It’s better if you have the money, and the time, to enjoy and explore it (then again, so is everywhere). But above all, it’s a quiet place where nature has, at least partially, reclaimed the sounds. Sure, there is often the distant hum of traffic, or a nearby tractor, or a plane going overhead (and … so many planes, in recent years). But there are farm animals, and birds, and church bells near and distant, the sounds of water, morris dancers and cricket matches, and psithurism (look it up, then go outside somewhere and listen to it).

Though I was born in this rural land, and spent the first 20 years here and kept coming back, and I’m here again, wandering the lanes and fields, this isn’t home. That thing means something different now, and it’s a long way, physically and literally, from here. But I’m finding that it’s deeply satisfying, for a short while anyway, to wander down lanes, through woods and across meadows, again.