Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

Weirdos and Misfits

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“Weirdos and Misfits.” These are the people who, it is said, prime ministerial advisor Dominic Cummings is looking for to reinvigorate the upper echelons of the Civil Service and shake them out of their complacent, traditionalist ways.

I’ve got some news for him. The weirdos and misfits are right there under his nose. And have been since before he was born. They are in the lower strata of the civil service, for the most part ignored because they hide their lights under bushels, either from choice or because they just assume that no-one would be interested in their outlandish ideas or the odd stuff they get up to in their free time. I refer, of course, to science fiction fans.

Let me give you an example.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been wading through Warhoon 28, a fanzine published by a New Yorker, Richard Bergeron, in 1978. It’s taken that long because Warhoon 28 was rather special. It was a 650-page hardback book, showcasing the writing of Belfast fan Walt Willis. Willis, together with James White and Bob Shaw (both later to become respected authors in their own right) formed the nucleus of what was called ‘Irish Fandom’ in the 1950s and early 1960s.

I’ve written in other blog posts about science fiction fans and their conventions; I’ve mentioned fanzines from time to time, and how science fiction is a genre whose fans can turn into influential writers. But what I may not have made clear is just who these fans are “in real life” (a term more familiar now in the wired world but that started out in fandom). Walt Willis’ day job was as a civil servant within the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont. He never wrote much about his everyday work, but in a fanzine article in 1975 he alluded to his position, working directly to a Minister. Whilst that made him pretty senior, he certainly didn’t start out that way; in those days, you could start as a Messenger and end up a Permanent Secretary. (The last person to do that was Sir Terry Heiser, Permanent Secretary at the Department of the Environment, and he retired in 1992.)

Through his fanzines, Slant and later Hyphen, Willis changed the nature of fan writing, putting the emphasis not so much on the “serious and constructive” discussion of science fiction, but more on what fans did, both in pursuit of their interest and in their everyday lives. Being located in Belfast, Willis was in a way as distant from other fans in England as from the far greater number of fans in North America, and this led to his becoming well-known on both sides of the Atlantic. His column, The harp that once or twice (named for a quotation from James Joyce’s Ulysses), ran in a number of fanzines, starting with Lee Hoffman’s Quandry in 1951. His reputation grew to the extent that he became the first recipient of funds raised by North American fans to bring him to the 1952 World Convention, held that year in Chicago. This started a series of fund-raising campaigns to encourage international interchange of fans that has run ever since and expanded to embrace Australia and New Zealand.

In 1969, Willis described an idea he’d had:

“...the principle is one I follow in my day-to-day work as a senior civil servant concerned with the problem of making people behave better. Privately I think of it as Nudgism, the theory that people can be induced voluntarily to do things you couldn’t force them to do.

Now, if you Google “nudge theory”, you’ll be pointed to a lot of references to the 2008 book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness“.

Walt Willis only ever described his idea once in print, in an earlier edition of Warhoon  (Warhoon 26, February 1969). I’ve seen no evidence that either Thaler or Sunstein ever saw that, and at this stage it would probably be impossible to access what circulation records there might be (if, indeed, any ever existed) to see how the idea got passed on. I suspect it submerged into the collective unconscious and only surfaced some 35-40 years later in a conversation with one of the authors that went “I read somewhere about an idea…”

I can think of two science fiction fans personally known to me who occupied senior roles in the civil service; neither of them were parachuted in but worked their ways up from fairly humble beginnings. And I know of plenty more who never progressed to rarefied heights but did solid, sterling work, all the while having a range of knowledge and ideas that generally never got used in their day jobs.

It’s widely recognised that the Internet is the way it is because so many of the people who helped develop it were science fiction fans, familiar with a world-spanning network of people openly sharing their thoughts, aspirations and ideas on a wide range of subjects with ink and paper through the postal system, with paper fanzines standing in for websites and letters flying across oceans and continents binding the whole together. People became lifelong friends without ever seeing each other, just the way they do now through the medium of e-mail and social media. If fans could invent something that complex without even trying, then someone who took the trouble to identify that talent in a wider population – such as the Civil Service – could harness that ingenuity to bring about powerful and lasting change.

How about it, Mr. Cummings?

Written by robertday154

January 18, 2020 at 11:06 pm

Steam Dreams 2019

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I’m starting to write this blog in the last hour of 2019. I always have a bit of a problem with getting blog posts written in the last quarter of the year. I do stuff over the summer, and think “That would make a good blog post…” I even make lists of subjects for posts. But then stuff in Real Life piles up. As Competition Secretary for the Sutton Coldfield Model Makers, I have a busy time right up to mid-December. Our year ends with our annual Awards Night, for which I have to prepare a list of prize winners and around seventy-five certificates for all the winners. So I had to go out and buy myself a new black printer cartridge, which given the age of my printer had to go on a special order. I was only able to get my hands on it the lunchtime of the day before the Awards Night. I got home, powered up the printer, and got the warning message “Your black ink may have run out. Prepare a new ink cartridge.” So I did that. 75 certificates later, it was still saying “Your black ink may have run out. Prepare a new ink cartridge.” I suspect that when it stopped printing the last time I used it (“Black ink has run out”), there was naturally still quite a lot of ink in the cartridge. Having not used the printer for a good few months, it’s given time for all the remaining ink to drain down into the printer head – but of course, you can never rely on that. Well, not for important jobs; like most people, I suspect that there’s a special circuit in printers that detects the urgency of the job in hand and generates problems accordingly…

I’m very pleased to say that this year, my name was on a very special trophy. When I first joined the club back in 1985, the first person I spoke to was a gentleman called George Wright. A Kentish lad by birth, he’d been evacuated to the Midlands during the war and had never gone back, but equally never lost his southern accent. He had served in the Army after the war and indeed became the youngest ever Regimental Sergeant-Major in the Royal Military Police – the infamous ‘Redcaps’ – which should give you some idea of the sort of person he was. He was a great source of knowledge about a range of aviation subjects and an exceptionally fine modeller. After he passed away a few years ago,. the club instituted an award in his honour, the George Wright Memorial Trophy, for the best model of a piston-engined civil aircraft. I’m vert pleased to say that I have been awarded this trophy for 2019 for a model I made of a Junkers F.13 airliner. Dating from 1919, this was probably the first purpose-designed airliner to enter service.

I’ve been thinking about the year’s personal highs and lows. Lows? A couple, including laser retinal surgery; but I prefer the highs – the trophy, my sister’s 70th birthday in Cornwall, my own personal Fantastic Voyage to the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, and a weekend spent with the Austrian Railway Group’s sales stand at the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway in mid-Wales, marking the arrival of a visiting engine from Austria, Zillertalbahn No.2. I wrote about my trip to Cornwall back in July, so perhaps more about the Welsh excursion would be appropriate.

The Welshpool & Llanfair (W&L) is a rural line; unlike the other Welsh narrow gauge railways, it was not built to take minerals down to the coast for trans-shipment. Rather, it was built to provide a rural area with access to rail transport, mainly for the carriage of cattle and other agricultural produce to new markets. It was also built fairly late, opening in 1903; and it was built to a gauge of 2 feet 6 inches (750 mm), which was comparatively unusual in the British Isles but fairly common worldwide. This has meant that the W&L has acquired a number of engines and rolling stock from around the world that share the same track gauge, including places such a Antigua, Sierra Leone, Hungary and Austria. My last visit was in 2013, and I blogged about it here.

Fairly early on in their existence as a preserved railway, they were donated four coaches by the Austrian Zillertalbahn. The Austrians used that gauge because it was the one that they settled upon when the Dual Monarchy started to build military railways in Bosnia-Hercegovina; indeed, it is known in Austria as the “Bosnian gauge”. When Yugoslavia was created after World War I, the new Belgrade government had to build more narrow gauge to connect Bosnia with the rest of the country; thus it was that at its height, the Yugoslav narrow gauge formed an impressive network of some 1,995 km, and a journey from Sarajevo to the coast at Split would take a day through mountainous country, plus another day to get down to Dubrovnik. Mere spectacle could not save it; the system was either closed or converted to standard gauge in the 1960s and 70s; and then Yugoslav railways were seriously disrupted in the civil wars of the 1990s. Today, there is one section of line preserved over the Sargan Pass on the Sarajevo -Belgrade line (it’s the only heritage railway I can think of where you have to take your passport with you for the crossing bretween Bosnia and Serbia), and one colliery in Bosnia has retained steam working and is suddenly finding itself the subject of intense – and profitable – attention by enthusiasts. (You will not be surprised to know that these are on my bucket list.)

The Zillertalbahn, which runs from Jenbach (half an hour to the east of Innsbruck in the Tyrol) to the ski resort of Mayrhofen along the Zillertal (“silver valley”), has benefitted from recycling some items of Yugoslav origin; indeed, the last time I went (in 2002), I travelled behind a big, ex-Bosnian engine.

83-076 running round at Jenbach

Former Bosnian 0-8-2 locomotive at Jenbach on the Zillertalbahn, 2002

But they consider themselves to be a local transport operator, who happen to have a narrow gauge railway that is popular with tourists. Their service trains have been constantly modernised, and so a number of their four-wheel carriages became surplus to requirements and were donated to what was then the fledgling W&L in 1968. This was where I first encountered them, and these possibly planted some of the seeds of my fascination with Austria.

A couple of years later, seeking more motive power, a delegation from the W&L visited Austria in search of a locomotive that they could buy to expand their roster of engines. They settled on a former German Army locomotive that had served on a number of different railways before becoming surplus to requirements. In due course, this engine was imported and worked on the W&L from 1970 as their No.10, named Sir Drefaldwyn – not one of King Arthur’s less illustrious knights, but the Welsh title of Montgomeryshire. By 2000, No.10 was in need of considerable overhaul, and it was withdrawn from service upon expiry of its boiler certificate.

Sir Drefaldwyn went on static display at Welshpool pending its overhaul; but in 2017 it took its place in the workshop queue with a projected return to service at the railway’s Autumn gala of 2019. The prospect of a full Austrian narrow-gauge train operating in Wales was too much to miss, and the Austrian Railway Group starting making plans to attend that gala in force.

Fast forward to early 2019, and two things happened. It became clear that work on No.10 was going to be more protracted than hoped, and so it was announced that its return to service might not happen until 2020. But the Zillertal’s No.2, one of a class of more than 50 Class U locomotives used extensively across the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was due to emerge from overhaul in Austria and was at the same time made available for hire; the Zillertal’s tourist traffic can be quite heavy and the availability of Bosnian gauge engines was sufficient for No.2 to be available to the W&L just when they needed an extra engine.

Of course, life is rarely that simple. On arrival in the UK, it was found that No.2’s Austrian boiler certificate was not valid in the UK and so an inspection had to be hastily arranged. That inspection then found that the boiler was not compliant with more recent UK pressure vessel requirements, having one long continuous lap joint running along its whole length. This meant that under some circumstances, under pressure the boiler could take up an oval rather than a circular cross-section, and this would not do! However, some rapid thinking and boilersmithing to install some additional boiler stays resulted in the engine passing inspection at 9am on the first day of the gala, much to the relief of the railway’s traffic manager; due to other failures, he was faced with hosting a Grand Steam Gala with only one out of three engines actually working! But with work on the other engine quickly concluded, what was a crisis before 9am was completely rectified by 9:30, with three engines in steam and ready for service.

Although differing in a lot of areas from UK practice (the engine is festooned with lights, for example, run by a steam turbo-generator), crews rapidly got to grips with No.2’s habits and it ran perfectly well throughout the rest of the weekend.

Here are some pictures of No.2 and the rest of the gala.

I’m hoping for fewer lows in 2020. I’m planning a trip to Austria in the summer, my first extended stay since 2007.

(Finished at 11:30pm on Sunday, January 5th.)

Written by robertday154

January 6, 2020 at 12:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

I am STILL not the other Robert Day

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The world is full of strange coincidences.

I posted on a tester’s blog earlier today, mentioning that whilst most of my blog posts got between 30 and 70 hits, and a handful passed the 100 mark, the most-read post of mine of all time is one about mistaken identity and my getting enquiries for another professional photographer called Robert Day. This post was written in 2011 and to date has had well over 800 hits, and the most recent one was just a couple of weeks ago.

I also share my name with a minor British tv and film director from the 1960s and 1970s.

Earlier on today, we were talking in the office about old media – tape, floppy discs and CD-ROMs. I recollected that when I worked at Ofwat, we did business with a firm whose stock-in-trade was bulk duplication of CD-ROMs. The company was called 4B Martinvest, based at Tring in Hertfordshire. They did us a good product and gave good service, and I built up a good business relationship with the company’s owner, Peter Bridson.

“I wonder if they’re still going?” I asked myself, and so reached for Google. The answer was not: they were declared insolvent in 2012. Then I looked at the Insolvency Notice and I nearly fell off my chair. Check out the name of the insolvency practitioner.

4B Martinvest

To the best of my knowledge, we are not related.

Well, that was today’s quota of Weird well and truly used up.

Written by robertday154

September 19, 2019 at 12:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Fantastic Voyage

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I’ve written before in this blog about the science fiction community and its gatherings, or conventions. The biggest of these is the World Convention (Worldcon for short), which moves from city to city every year; for many years, it was mainly an American thing, but since the late 1970s other parts of the world have increasingly had their turn in the limelight. Five years ago, I went to Loncon, the 72nd Worldcon held at the ExCel centre in London’s Docklands; when Dublin won the bid for the 2019 convention, the imperative to attend was obvious.

In my time in science fiction fandom, I’ve been to six Worldcons; but until this year, I’ve never actually left the UK to go to any of them. It hardly takes a transcontinental voyage to reach Dublin , and existing arrangements between the UK and the Republic make the border currently as friction-free as it can be; but the Republic is a different country and has followed its own destiny for almost a century, so it’s just sufficiently different to get that sense of otherness that comes with travel. Indeed, the area around the convention venue, Dublin’s Docklands, uses so much European street furniture and the buildings so many European fitments and fittings, that getting off the tram by the back of the Conference Centre Dublin (CCD) almost felt like being in parts of Frankfurt or Munich.

(Having said that, and with the official line being that the Common Travel Area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland remains in force, I was a bit surprised to find that the Irish police were doing ID checks as you came off the ferry in Dublin. This wasn’t a full-blown immigration check – apparently, any photo ID would do – but if I hadn’t been pre-warned by social media posts from early travellers to the convention, I might have been taken by surprise by this. Or perhaps not. These are strange times we live in.)

The other thing to note about Dublin is that it is a remarkably expensive city. My original plans for the convention – before a friend dropped out of the intended trip – involved a hotel bill that would be close to a four-figure sum. Travel was also potentially much more expensive than just buying a tank of petrol. (And we won’t even mention an exchange rate so close to parity as not to make any difference.) But to cut a long story short, I eventually settled on travelling via train and ferry, and staying in university accommodation a couple of miles out of the city centre, commuting in by bus and tram each morning, and getting a taxi back at night. I reckoned that saving nearly £700 on the room entitled me to spend a bit more on personal transport.

I was staying on the Glasnevin campus of Dublin City University. Centred on the 1851 Albert College building, the bulk of the university dates from the 1970s and 1980s. DCU has a very diverse, international student body, and also runs a number of summer schools; so the campus was far from empty and some of the nightlife was quite vibrant. At the same time, some of those schools attracted older visitors and there were also a number of people staying on-campus as tourists like me (though as far as I could see, no other Worldcon attendees). My room was fairly spartan, though little worse than an Ibis hotel. (The bed was a little Klingon in terms of firmness, though.)

 

My morning commute became part of the fun. One thing I always enjoy doing in any new city I visit is being what the French call a flâneur – a gentleman stroller of the city streets, who observes the foibles of urban life with a certain cool detachment. I may have been indulging my flâneurery from atop a bus, but the ability to see a slice of the life of ordinary Dubliners became a pleasure to start my day. I would drop off the bus on O’Connell Street, Dublin’s central thoroughfare, and then walk the length of it to where the LUAS tram ran from Abbey Street along to a stop at the back of CCD, and then on to the convention’s second venue, The Point, a new (and unfinished) leisure development where the Art Show was located together with a number of other programme items.

It quickly became clear that the LUAS was becoming an informal convention venue itself. I bumped into friends old and new on the tram. We didn’t quite get to the extent of holding tram parties, but in all other extents it was part of the convention. The Conference Centre Dublin itself was a modernist pile on the banks of the Liffey, notable for a series of escalators passing up through a glazed atrium that gave a number of attendees vertigo attacks. It also rapidly became clear that trying to squeeze more than 5,000 warm bodies into one building was going to need some heavy-duty organisation; queue management became a rapidly evolving management art. The clever convention-goer began queueing for programme items they wanted to see up to an hour beforehand. One American was unimpressed – “It’s like a totalitarian regime, being told where to stand!” he grumbled – though the absence of convention staff beating fans with rubber truncheons for not queueing properly rather defused that argument. The rest of us just used it as an opportunity to chat to people, as you do.

When not queueing, perhaps the main focus of the convention was Martin’s, the bar area. Martin’s was named for UK fan Martin Hoare, who had organised the bar at most British Eastercons and many other conventions across Europe for many years, as well as organising firework displays, but who unexpectedly died a couple of weeks before the Worldcon. His job on the Worldcon Committee was Bar Manager, and so the naming of the bar after him was a foregone conclusion and most likely an instant tradition. Martin deserves nothing less.

The rest of the convention committee were kept very busy, though the CCD staff joined in and especially made queue management a definite joint effort. Certainly, none of the committee stood still long enough to talk to much until the Sunday afternoon when I bumped into committee member Dave Lally at the Newcon Press launch party, held in a particularly unfinished part of The Point. Even then, Dave was still fizzing with his accustomed energy, such that in my photograph you can see that his extremities are mere blurs even when he himself was standing still.

It wasn’t just the committee and CCD staff who were busy. On my first day, I went into the Dealers’ Room and within minutes heard some publisher telling another, in incredulous terms, that “John Jarrold has 35 meetings planned this weekend!”. John, long-time fan, once a major publisher’s science fiction editor and now a freelance agent, seemed quite relaxed about this when I saw him on Friday morning between meetings and was even unfocussed enough to chat for a few minutes.

I went to a number of programme items, of course. After all, the registration fee was so hefty, I wasn’t going to ignore the programme altogether, even though I come from a generation of fans that considered going to programme items as definitely Uncool. Most of the programme items I went to centred on the Apollo programme, seeing as the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing had been marked just a month or so before. Apollo retrospectives, Alternate Apollos and future missions – especially NASA’s ambitious plan to be back on the Moon by 2024 – all featured and featured heavily. This last strand really was Rocket Science, and we had the benefit of a number of Rocket Scientists on the panels, including Dr. Jeanette Epps from the NASA astronaut corps.

One of the other panels I attended was a discussion between two astronomers. One was Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was one of the convention’s Guests of Honour. Born in Lurgan, Co. Antrim, she was the person who discovered the highly energetic astronomical objects called pulsars, for which her boss was awarded the Nobel Prize. (It should be noted that he never got invited to these sorts of gatherings for some reason.) She was in conversation with Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, whose Day Job is Director of the Vatican Observatory. They talked about science, their work and the influence their individual faiths had on these things. Neither saw faith as any obstruction to their work. (Burnell was raised as a Quaker.)

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My original plan for the weekend had included some sightseeing, perhaps a bookshop crawl around Dublin and possibly even an excursion out of town – after all, Irish Rail is as cheap as chips, and a day return to somewhere like Wexford would have cost me little more than my taxi back to DCU; but in the end, this was curtailed by the knowledge that I’d spent a lot on attending the convention and so really ought to get my money’s worth. I’d reduced my plans to perhaps a trip out to Howth on the Sunday afternoon, only to find that the convention clashed with the All-Ireland Hurling Championships Final that day, meaning that the city centre was heaving with sports fans from early morning and most places would be deserted in the afternoon with those not actually at Croke Park glued to their televisions. My one excursion, then, was to take up an invitation to lunch from one of my online friends. Apart from my blogs and my Flickr account, my other major online activity is the book cataloguing website LibraryThing (www.LibraryThing.com), which also has quite active discussion groups about, oddly enough, science fiction. LibraryThing (or ‘LT’ to its community) is pretty far-flung, but many of its users are based in North America and so don’t get to meet up all that often. Peter (pgmcc) had organised a rolling programme of meetups, recognising that many of us LTers at the convention would have fully packed programmes. So at Friday lunchtime, I ventured out across the highly modernist Samuel Beckett Bridge to a pub called The Ferryman. Unlike a lot of the pubs in central Dublin, which had excessive amounts of Oirishness to appeal to tourists, this felt more like a proper city pub, frequented by office workers and ordinary Dubliners. Peter, who works in Dublin, was familiar with the place and had suggested the venue. It looked not unlike any one of the thousands of Irish theme pubs that sprang up all over the world in the 1990s, except that this one really was Irish. Drink was taken, which may go some way towards explaining how heavily I was leaning on the bridge parapet on the way back to the convention.

The unprecedented numbers of attendees made a few changes to convention custom and practice necessary. For the first time – and perhaps as much to control the flows of people around the venue – access to some of the major events was managed by pre-booking wristbands. These wristbands were issued free of charge during the day for events such as the Friday evening orchestral concert or the awards ceremony on the Sunday night. The concert, I went to, and enjoyed. Vincent Docherty had first organised this for Loncon in 2014, so when he found himself with his own Worldcon to arrange, he lost no time in scheduling another concert. I enjoyed both concerts, though in this one I felt there was an over-emphasis on music from film and tv (the inevitable Game of Thrones theme being the least worst instance of this) and a little more inventiveness would not go astray. (Where, for example, was a performance of Howard Hanson’s Second Symphony, as heavily used in Alien?) Still, live music is always worth supporting.

As for the Hugo awards ceremony (the Hugos are named for Hugo Gernsback, the editor of the first dedicated science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, published in 1926), not being 100% up to date with my reading I didn’t have too much interest in the blow-by-blow details of who won what, and so was happy with the live stream being shown in one of the secondary event halls and in Martin’s. This did mean that I missed Jeanette Ng’s iconoclastic speech accepting the (then) John W. Campbell Award for best new writer, and doing such a hatchet job on Campbell that the award was promptly renamed. Eventually, I met up with some old-time fan friends, and we nattered and drank, and then flâneured the post-ceremony con bar. I didn’t get to see George R.R. Martin’s Hugo Losers’ Party, which was, apparently, excessively curmudgeonly, even for George.

I nearly forgot the books. One of the reasons for my choosing not to fly was the understanding that I might well be acquiring a number of books. Having had a close encounter with excess baggage once on a trip to Vienna (by virtue of stuffing my coat pockets with some of the books I’d bought, I managed to get my hold baggage to within 250 grams of the overall allowance), I reckoned that the ferry would be my best solution, and so it proved. (My luggage for this trip consisted of my camera bag and a gigantic wheeled holdall that is of such a size that you could easily conceal a dismembered torso in it.) There actually wasn’t much that I acquired that (in theory) I couldn’t find at home in the UK, though as I hardly ever go into a city centre these days and visit a proper bookshop, any opportunity to buy science fiction is to be welcomed. I was able to find a couple of Peter Watts titles, and the new Ted Chiang collection Exhalation. I was pleased to be able to pick up a reprint of Michael G. Coney’s Hello Summer, Goodbye in a new edition by PS Publishing; and I took special pleasure in finding a monograph on the classic British horror film Theatre of Blood (wherein Vincent Price plays a rather over-the-top Shakespearean thespian who returns from his apparent death to kill off his many critics in various gruesome Shakespearean ways). There was little that was obviously Irish about my purchases, save for Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (Irish surrealism) and something fairly unique to fandom: Warhoon 28, Walt Willis’ legendary fanzine detailing the history of Irish fandom in the 1950s and 1960s, a sort of fannish equivalent to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, so special that it ended up existing only in a hardback edition (!) and copies of which change hands online for exorbitant prices (£60 and more! For a fanzine!). The convention had unearthed the last stocks of this fannish icon and were offering them for 20 Euro, which was a bargain. At least, I thought so until I saw them offering copies on the last day for 10 Euro. So it goes.

I managed one little side trip, just so that I got some railway interest into the trip; on my way back to DCU on the last day, I stopped off and spent half an hour looking at one of Dublin’s two major railway stations, Connolly. I had seen the Dublin commuter trains, the DART service (Dublin Area Rapid Transit), passing over various bridges in the city; DART had purchased Japanese units for these services, and it was very odd seeing trains which I instinctively identified as Japanese running around Dublin.

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Dublin Connolly station

For a lot of Irish fans, this was not only their first Worldcon but their first convention of any sort. Many seemed highly delighted to have the convention in Dublin, and their enthusiasm was extremely infectious; certainly, I enjoyed this convention more than I’ve enjoyed any Worldcon since my first (Seacon ’79 in Brighton; but in those days I was pretty new to fandom as a whole and so a Worldcon had novelty value for me). Sadly, funds wouldn’t stretch to my staying on and then travelling to the European Convention the following weekend in Belfast; but I enjoyed myself so much that a return visit must be inevitable. I may look at attending an Octocon, the Irish national convention (in October, strangely enough), or find some other excuse based around my other interests to make a return visit. As for Worldcons, next year is Wellington, New Zealand; 2021 is Washington DC; neither of which I am likely to attend. After 2021, the site has not yet been decided, but there are bids for Chicago in 2022, and for Memphis (USA), Nice (France) or Chengdu (China) in 2023. Whilst Nice is possible, the most likely Worldcon I’d be going to in future, assuming they win the bid, would be Glasgow in 2024.

But I enjoyed Dublin and want to see more, both of the city and the country. I was last in Ireland in 2010, and that was a flying visit helping drive a team of hill walkers around the highest mountains in these islands of ours; another trip did not ought to wait so long.

Written by robertday154

September 14, 2019 at 12:02 am

Posted in science fiction

Tagged with ,

A Child of the Space Age

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I’ve never had a lot of luck with these “you’ll always remember where you were when…” memes. Instead, I seem to remember something in particular about major events that may not have happened exactly at the time, but which form my associative memories of the event all the same. So it is with the Apollo 11 landing.

I didn’t stay up to watch the event. But I recollect the next day going down to town and visiting the family of my sister’s fiancé – we were busy planning their wedding at the time – and sitting in their back room watching Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk in replay.

I was born in July 1957, months before the flight of Sputnik 1. My father had always thought it important to look forward, as well as back; so after Yuri Gagarin flew in 1961, I started getting the Eagle comic, with Dan Dare, ‘Space Pilot of the Future’ on the cover and all the highly improving cutaway drawings of technical wonders past, present and future. My television viewing included all the Gerry Anderson puppet shows, especially those set in the future and in space – Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds being perhaps the highlights. After all, I was going to be living in that future; the later Anderson live-action show UFO was set in the nearer-future time of 1980, barely ten years ahead, yet it showed us having bases on the Moon as well as fending off dastardly alien attacks.

Meanwhile, I had started reading science fiction, a lot of which was about space travel.

I did the maths and worked out that I’d be aged 43 in the year 2000. And I could not imagine the life I’d be leading then. After all, Stanley Kubrick had showed us the world of 2001, and that film’s vision of human expansion into space – though we didn’t realise it – was based very much on NASA’s projections of where they expected to be in the thirty-five years on from the film’s making.

Reality turned out differently: as a BBC radio series on science fiction in the 1970s put it, ‘the real future will be rather dull’. And yet, we have a permanently-crewed station in Earth orbit, we daily use technology that relies on satellite communications, and some 40,000 people work in space industries in the UK alone. I have met space entrepreneurs and one person who has actually been into space. We have sent probes throughout our local Solar System, imaging all the planets and very many of the smaller bodies in space. We have explored the surface of Mars with robots. And our space-based telescopes and instruments have probed the galaxy. When I was born, we knew so very little about space; but since 1992, we have detected more than 4,000 planets orbiting other stars and have even directly imaged a few of them.

And perhaps all this has been the unconscious background to my psyche; although I have an interest in old technology of various sorts, I remain fascinated by space and our achievements as a species. Human achievements in space bring out the best in us, our urges to explore, to find out and to see what’s over the next hill; and to bring that knowledge back, and share it for the good of all. In these fractious times, we need something aspirational, something to make us lift our eyes from the everyday and see beyond ourselves.. On this 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, that’s something worth thinking about.

Seven years ago, I chanced upon these murals in the Austrian town of St.Pölten. Tonight seemed like a good time to share them.

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Mural in St.Pölten, Austria, 2012

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Mural in St.Pölten, Austria, 2012

Written by robertday154

July 21, 2019 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Aye, eye

with 5 comments

About three items down on my current “to do” list is “write blog post about Cornwall”. A couple of weeks ago, I made the long trip down the Mighty (M)5 to surprise my sister on the occasion of her 70th birthday. This was a complete success; her husband, who was in on the plan, played a blinder in getting her out to their favourite eating place in Bude (a tapas bar called The Barn, highly recommended), where I made the necessary entrance.

I was a bit surprised to find that I hadn’t been down to Bude for nearly fifteen years, and I was equally surprised to see what had changed – trees had grown up, new buildings had appeared, and the cost of everything had increased massively. It was the end of June and the vistor numbers were already ramping up as people got away on holiday before the mad rush when the schools break up. I spent an extra day there and we had a pleasant time walking around the beach at Bude and some of the spectacular cliff-top paths along the North Cornish coast.

Of course, on the actual day of my sister’s birthday, I had to keep a low profile, and so I took myself to a railway, as might be expected. A few miles inland from Bude is the Launceston Steam Railway, a short narrow-gauge line built on the formation of the former ‘Withered Arm’, the London & South Western Railway’s network of lines west of Exeter, in what was regarded by the Great Western Railway as exclusively their territory. These railways were victims of the Beeching Era; most of them served thinly-populated areas and were the preserve of various vintage engines towards the end of their service lives.

The line out of Launceston is usually operated by a couple of the diminuitive ‘quarry tank’ engines, built in large numbers by Hunslet of Leeds for the North Wales slate industry; but my journey was made all the more worthwhile by the line’s summer visitor – an engine from India!

The hill stations of the Raj were served by a variety of narrow gauge railways, as many of you may have seen in the 2010 BBC tv series. The most famous of these ran up into the foothills of the Himalayas to Darjeeling, and for many years wase operated by some small but deceptively powerful four-coupled saddle tanks, known as Class B. About fifteen years ago, one (no.778) was brought back to the UK by a private owner who ran it on his own (extensive) garden railway. A forthcoming house move has meant that the railway has had to be dismantled pending its relocation, and in the meantime the Launceston railway was able to secure the services of this engine for the summer season.

 

 

I had intended waxing lyrical for the rest of this post about the glories of narrow gauge railways and the byways of Victorian railway industry politics; but I think that may have to wait for another occasion. I have a rather more important story to relate.

Last Monday, I was driving home along the motorway when I became aware of a flashing light. It wasn’t on the car dashboard; and it didn’t seem to be outside the car. It looked like a reflection in my spectacle lens; and given that I’ve not long had new glasses, I thought it might be something about the new glasses that I hadn’t gotten used to yet. It was a bit like driving past street lights – except that there are no street lights along that section of the M69, and in any case it was broad daylight.

I got home and went to look in the bathroom mirror. I took off my glasses and looked in the mirror – and the flashes continued. This was not good. There was no pain, and my sight didn’t otherwise seem impaired. I went back to my usual routine, and not long afterwards, the flashes stopped. Only then did I become aware of a new, large and somewhat intrusive floater in my right eye. I’ve got a number of floaters and some of them are old friends – but they don’t normally intrude on my visual field and I’ve had most of the larger ones for a number of years. This was something different.

The next day I phoned my GP and was given an appointment for Thurday morning. I went and my GP listened to my account and administered some simple tests. She made reassuring noises – doesn’t seem to have gotten any worse, probably something fairly minor, but better safe than sorry; but then she said that she’d get me an appointment with an opthamologist as soon as possible, and “if it gets worse in the meantime, go straight to the hospital accident & emergency”. (Less reassuring.)

Friday afternoon saw me go to Birstall, a northern suburb of Leicester, to see the optician. In my area, NHS clinical front-line optical services are contracted out to practising opthamologists, so I wasn’t seeing my regular (private) specialist who carries out my annual checks. But this opthamologist was able to carry out the necessary visual investigation of the retina and a visual field test to make sure I wasn’t losing any peripheral vision, as well as confirming that my intra-ocular pressures were OK. He diagnosed a small tear in the retina, which needed fixing as soon as possible. He was unable to directly image it, though, as the tear was so peripheral as to be just outside the range of view he was able to get with his camera. He then rang the Leicester Royal Infirmary (LRI), who said that they couldn’t see me that day – by now, this was 3:30 in the afternoon – but that I should take myself to the Eye Casualty Unit as early as possible the next morning.

You may have noticed a definite sense of urgency in all this. The reason is that a small tear isn’t in itself so problematical; but if the fluid inside the eyeball gets into the tear, it can spread beneath the retina and cause a full detachment. So the objective is to stop the deterioration from getting any worse. A simple, non-invasive procedure lasting a few minutes can prevent complete loss of vision in one eye.

Well, I say the procedure lasts a few minutes: but getting to that point takes a bit longer. I arrived at the hospital at about 8:25 in the morning, just before their official opening time. I joined a queue of perhaps twenty people, and quickly more joined it. The LRI operates a “walk-in” eye casualty unit, though they point out that “walk-in” doesn’t mean “drop-in”; trivial cases will be sent elsewhere, and patients presenting will be subject to triage, so the most urgent cases get treated first. All in all, I was at the unit for some six hours, working through the stages of triage, confirmation of diagnosis by a specialist, and finally laser repair.

Laser repair! For someone brought up in the 1960s, this does rather conjure up visions of fiendish weapons wielded by super-villains (“Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr Bond – I expect you to die!”), or the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, wherein to undertake complex brain surgery on a defecting scientist, five people (including Raquel Welch and Donald Pleasance) and a mini-submarine are miniaturised and injected into the scientist’s bloodstream, so they can navigate their way to the brain where a brilliant surgeon will conduct delicate surgery with a laser rifle. The reality is rather more prosaic: the equipment the specialist uses is adapted from the standard opthalmascope, and all that happens is that they have to hold a focusing lens against your eye so they can target the tear site accurately to spot-weld the loose retina back into the eyeball. Your eyeball is anaesthetised with drops, so if you have any sort of concerns about touching your eyeball, by the time you get to this stage the discomfort will be minimal. The procedure itself is pretty much painless, and directly after finishing I was discharged immediately.

Much to my surprise, a bit of Googling revealed the fact that this application of lasers goes back to the earliest days of the device in the early 1960s. Before then, medical opinion was divided between invasive surgeries or trying to achieve heat cauterisation of tears through elaborate arc light sources and focused arrays of mirrors and lenses. Either way, treatment was not available so widely or so easily; what I experienced yesterday as a walk-in patient just would not have been available to me fifty years ago.

Whilst in the queue, I struck up a conversation with another patient who was actually employed as a local health worker elsewhere in the NHS. (By that time, we’d both been in the queue for about 90 minutes and were waiting for triage.) He said that the NHS was “buckling under the strain” and that it was a matter of resources; though he admitted that providing new resources only increases demand, a moment’s thought will suggest that it is the case with anything that fills a need – as with new roads, new housing developments, new shopping centres or new transport links, so it is with new health facilities or new medical procedures. If you build it, they will come. Retinal tears are more common than I imagined; short-sighted people are quite prone to them because the distortion of the eyball that causes short sight makes retinal tears more likely. The ease with which they can now be repaired means that there is pressure on the NHS to provide that service; whereas if it was a complex procedure with a low probability of success, only delivered by one or two specialists at certain hospitals, then referrals would be hard to come by, a waiting list would exist, some patients would elect not to take their chances with the surgery and others would go blind before they got to the top of the list. The more procedures that can be offered to the more people, then the more demand will grow. That can only be a fact of life.

How governments decide to deliver those services is always going to be problematical. A change to an insurance-based system, such as is suggested by some British politicians, is unlikely to meet with approval. Most of the stories I hear coming from the USA from Americans about healthcare involve disputes over the extent of insurance cover; and the way the insurance business works, the maximum premiums would be sought from people in the demographic sectors with the most need and the least ability to pay – the elderly and those with multiple conditions. Most people have had disputes with insurance companies over claims for household or motor cover in the past; the prospect of that being extended into the realm of healthcare would be unacceptable to most people. The British feel about the NHS the same as (some) Americans feel about their guns – “this far and no further”. I said I was queueing for some considerable time yesterday; but the overall attitude of the patients was good, making light of a minor setback because we were all going to be seen in due course, and the treatment we would receive would have been considered science fiction in our parents’ or grandparents’ day.

Anyway, to close with, here are two pictures of the North Cornish coast, taken at Widemouth Bay, south of Bude.

Written by robertday154

July 7, 2019 at 9:57 pm

“I’ve seen better-dressed wounds!”

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A little while ago, I heard (for the second time) a segment of the BBC Radio 4 show Women’s Hour which talked about dress codes at work. It made me think about my own  experience.

I am a bit out of the ordinary for both my company and indeed the whole sector. I go to work in a suit. Up until my last job, about seven years ago, I would also have worn a tie. Why is this?

Well, for one thing, my parents were that much older than those of my contemporaries when I was born, in 1957. So I grew up in a family where the expectation was that men would go to work in formal work attire, and casual clothes were something that really didn’t exist, not in my parents’ world of the 1930s and 40s when they grew up. (The fact that my father had been an Army drill sergeant might also have had something to do with it.)

Then I went to work in a very traditionalist organisation, the British Civil Service. For the first ten years, I was public-facing and so collar and tie was required. I then moved to the water regulator, Ofwat, and for the first five years I was effectively in the Director General’s outer office. We could have FTSE100 company chairman passing through, Ministers of the British or overseas governments, or any other sort of VIP. And as I was located in the press office, there was an outside chance that I might – if everyone else had been out of the office or otherwise engaged – have had to do broadcast media interviews. (I was a long way down the pecking order, so my appearance on tv would have been a sign that something really, really had gone south in a Big Way, but it was nonetheless a possibility. )

For the next fifteen years, although I was not so directly exposed, my work was nonetheless quite important to the organisation and so there was always the possiblity that VIPs might be brought round to be shown the leading edge troops, shovelling data into the digital furnaces down in Ofwat’s engine room. And I also had to liase and sometimes visit or recieve senior people from the water or civil engineering industries. So collar and tie remained the order of the day.

(Meanwhile, in my former employer, the social security department, there had been a change after one chap whose job was 100% behind the scenes was disciplined for not observing the dress code. This escalated into a full-blown Employment Tribunal on sex discrimination grounds, as women in the same job were not required to observe any particular dress code. Before this was settled – in the worker’s favour – there was the spectacle of dozens of junior civil servants suddenly discovering a previously-unknown Scots heritage and turning up to the office in kilts, as ethnic dress was exempt from departmental dress codes. Yes, it all got rather silly.)

After I left Ofwat, I was freelancing and so, from time to time, had to walk the walk as well as talk the talk; on a couple of occasions, turning up to a consultancy job in a silver Mercedes and showing up in the corporate conference room suited and booted got me not only listened to respectfully but also paid on time!

As I said earlier, I lost the tie in my previous job, as there was a CEO there who wore a suit but an open-necked shirt. He was quite innovative in other ways; that company ran a call centre for taking facilities calls from shops and offices up and down the country, and finding plumbers or electricians or maintainance engineers local to the caller to go out and address these jobs. The CEO took a rather egalitarian attitude to his work, and once a month would block out one morning so he could go and sit on the call centre, not just to be seen at the workface, but actually to put on a headset and take calls. This certainly endeared him to me; sadly, a lot of the Board and the company’s owners weren’t so enlightened and in due course, he went, not long before I did.

When I took up that job, I had to move to get an easier commute; and some of my belongings had to go into storage. I took on a storage unit on a farm not far from my former home, and when I went to see the unit and shake hands on the agreement, I noticed that the farmer and his son-in-law were calling me “sir”. I’d gone straight there from the office; so I said “Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight and drop this “Sir” business. I’m in my working clothes, you’re in yours, end of. OK?” And it was.

I now work in IT, where wearing a suit in a back-office role is distinctly eccentric. (We recently had a client user consultation group meeting, where our dress code was ‘smart casual’. “Do I have to dress down, then?” was my question.) Fortunately, a number of my colleagues, like me, have memories of the tv science fiction show Stargate: Atlantis, which oddly enough has a bearing on this. The premise of the show is that the US Air Force has come into possession of an ancient alien transport device, a ‘Stargate’, which enables easy travel to other planets, and even galaxies. In due course, the lost city of Atlantis is discovered in a distant galaxy and an expedition of soldiers, scientists and archaeologists is sent to explore it; and that expedition is led by a civilian. Towards the end of the show’s run, the civilian administrator of the expedition is replaced by a Washington lawyer, Mr. Wolseley, played by the under-rated Robert Picardo. And although whilst on duty, Wolseley wears the same uniform coveralls as other civilian staff on the expedition, when he goes off-duty, he relaxes by putting on a suit and tie.

The reason for this is, he explains, that he had his best moments as a Washington lawyer in the courtroom. That is who he is, and so that is how he feels most comfortable. And so he reflects his personality and his personal history in his clothing of choice. I identify with that character very closely! And so I wear a suit to work, because that’s how I know I’m at work, and to me it says that I take my work seriously. I’m not saying that my more casually-attired colleagues don’t take their work seriously – they do – but this is how I show it. It’s who I am.

Written by robertday154

June 1, 2019 at 6:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized