Steer for the deep waters only

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

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.

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Written by robertday154

September 14, 2019 at 12:02 am

Posted in science fiction

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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

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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

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The Triumph of Time

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With the exception of a short post in November, I see that it’s eight months since I last posted to this blog. The reasons are numerous, but simple; I’ve been busy. And that busy-ness hasn’t really been much to write home about.

My work, for example. It’s kept me busy. That’s not to say that I’ve been working all the hours God sends; neither does it mean that my work is exceptionally onerous. But it is quite intense. I work as an IT software tester; and testing nowadays isn’t about following scripts or just “pressing all the buttons”. Rather, it’s about understanding users and what they want out of a piece of software; then trying to replicate users’ behaviour to see if the application will break when people try to do to it what people generally do with computer software. If the application survives that, then we try to stretch the envelope, as test pilots say. We apply extremes of working conditions, to see how the system responds. We try the application using different Web browsers, or different devices, and we look for special conditions of use that might break it. We look at how fast it performs, how many records it can handle, and whether it is proof against malicious activity. We think up new ways to try to bend the system, and see whether its responses are appropriate. If it fails, how badly does it fail? And if it works, how well does it work?

A lot of this involves talking to the developers who wrote the application, and sometimes to the end users as well. And I’m not a tech person – my programming skills are many years out of date, though I often surprise myself with how much I do understand. But the point of all this is that I find myself often quite tired when I get home, and relaxing can often turn into something a bit deeper. My commute – 30 miles each way, from just outside Leicester to the south side of Coventry, adjacent to Warwick University, doesn’t help. With clear roads, it can take about 45 minutes. Usually, it’s closer to an hour, and can be anything up to an hour-and-a-half each way if traffic gets bad or if there are accidents.

Ah yes – my car. The good news is that I’ve found a local garage who used to be a Saab dealership, so they know how to deal with them. I put the car through its MoT (mandatory annual safety check) last week and came out with a bill of less than £50, which is exceptional; only three minor bulbs needed replacing. But I have advisories for things that may well need attention by this time next year, and these are more significant, such as brake discs and suspension components. And so far this year, I’ve had a new exhaust on the car and had to replace the petrol pump.  (Interestingly, though, I find that my 17-year-old Saab with nearly 130,000 miles on the clock is nonetheless considered Euro 4 emissions standard-compliant by Transport for London and so would be exempt from the new London Ultra Low Emissions Zone charge, should I be mad enough to want to drive into central London.)

London makes me want to mention this year’s Easter science fiction convention, held in a hotel just outside Heathrow. We left the decision to go too late to get a room in the convention hotel, but we secured a place in the Ibis Styles almost next door for about a third of the price. The convention was not particularly astonishing, though I had some interesting conversations with old friends and in particular got an insider’s perspective on the current state of the space industry, especially the relationship between the Russians and Chinese that suggests why the Americans suddenly want to get back to the Moon inside five years…

My other interests have also kept me busy and away from this blog; the Austrian Railway Group and Sutton Coldfield Model Makers took up time, whilst I have continued posting book and model reviews to my other blogs (Deep Waters Reading for book reviews [mainly] and In Shallower Waters for my scale modelling activities).

And then there’s politics. I’ve strenuously kept clear of commenting on Brexit, and I’m going to continuing so not doing. I can’t see my adding anything useful to the debate, I won’t change anyone’s minds, and the only comment I’ll offer is one from a comedian – I can’t remember which one – who commented “To think we wasted the perfectly good word omnishambles on a Budget that put 5p on a Cornish pasty.”

I will just say one thing: a lot of people with strong views on Brexit are making a lot of noise about how out of touch our politicians are, or how the media isn’t giving them a fair crack of the whip. My reaction is “Hello! Welcome to my world!” These are exactly the sort of complaints that the trade union movement were making thirty or forty years ago, and no-one ever listened.

None of the things that I’ve touched on above spurred me on enough into sitting down at the keyboard to write a blog post. I have a number of blog ideas – perhaps four titles are sitting on a post-it note on my desk right now – but some of them require quite a bit more work, especially in the way of photographs.

I also don’t seem to have had many photographic excursions so far this year. But I did have one trip out that ticked one destination off my list. Back in February, I did a bit of chauffeuring to take a friend up to Leeds; and I was going to be at a loose end for the day. So I determined to go somewhere I hadn’t been for forty-seven years – yes! Forty-Seven Years! I refer to the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway.

 

In 1972, we had a trip to the Yorkshire Dales in the October half-term. We had fairly crisp, cold Autumn days. This year, the trip was in February, but there resemblence ended. February 2019 was unseasonably mild, so much so that some early flowers had come out. In 1972, we drove to Haworth and made a circular tour from there, as well as visiting the engine shed. In 2019, I drove to Ingrow. On my previous trip, Ingrow had looked semi-derelict and certainly unloved; now it is a fully restored Victorian urban station, with a grand-looking cobbled yard, and ancillary buildings occupied by the Bahamas Locomotive Society and the Vintage Carriages Trust.

I’d had an early start and so had missed breakfast – a cardinal sin in my book. On enquiring at the ticket office, I was told that there was no longer any refreshment facilities at Keighley, but the volunteer recommended a café in the main station building. My 10:30 departure for Keighley, the next train in, arrived promptly behind a Black Five – I recollected the railway advertising itself back in the 1970s with a slightly satirical cartoon of a rather superior enthusiast saying “Of course, we have two Black Fives at Keighley…” Keighley station itself – at least on the Worth Valley side – has an excellent atmosphere of the sort of railway station I remember for the 1960s. The breakfast was extremely good as well.

The time I took for breakfast meant that I missed the next train back up the valley, and instead had to take a diesel service; although the K&WVR advertise “steam trains every day”, in the off season they – quite reasonably – only steam one engine, though I have to admit I hadn’t been expecting anything so grand as a Black Five. Working out the time I had to be back in Leeds by, I worked out that I could either traverse the line in total, or I could miss out the section from Haworth to Oxenhope and have a look at Haworth yard and the railway bookshop. But in truth, now that access to the locomotive yard is closed off, for health & safety and security reasons (like most other heritage railways), I didn’t get much out of this exercise. The yard at Haworth is quite big, and I reasoned that I wouldn’t even have time to walk to the overbridge that gives a view of the yard if I wanted to visit the bookshop.

 

However, I made up for this by the visits I made – in a bit of a whirlwind – back at Ingrow. The Bahamas group were set up in the goods shed, and had created a rather fine museum there, with a couple of their industrial engines that I had seen at their previous home, the late lamented Dinting railway centre. Bahamas itself was out on main-line railtour duty, but the LNWR Coal Tank was present and being worked on. And the Vintage Carriages Trust shed and museum was possibly the highlight of the day, with some excellent examples of restoration on display and a bookshop superior to the railway’s own.

I found this visit fascinating for the changes I saw over nearly a fifty-year gap. Having easy access to the Great Central line between Leicester and Loughborough, I’m not starved of steam interest; but that line’s run of 25 miles rather spoils me, and I was struck very much by how short the trip on the Worth Valley was on a heritage line of only 5½ miles! I suppose if I hadn’t seen the GC in nearly fifty years – as that scheme has been running for a similar length of time – I’d be astonished about that, too.

It’s really quite remarkable that, more than fifty years after the end of main-line steam on British Railways, there are so many heritage lines in the UK. Based here in Leicester, a quick count suggests that I have ten heritage lines within 90 minutes’ drive, with at least two more within two hours’ drive, plus the Tyseley locomotive works looking to run regular steam services between Birmingham and Stratford on Avon as a timetabled heritage service in between Chiltern Trains services, and the Great Central well on course to join up with their northern section from Loughborough to the outskirts of Nottingham.

All this does make me sometimes wonder quite how viable a lot of these railways are. They operate with volunteer labour, and indeed running a steam railway is such an expensive business that their business model would most likely not be viable without the help of volunteers. And yet the demographic of those volunteers suggests that some of these lines may well have to make hard decisions in the next five to ten years as those volunteers are not replaced by younger people in the numbers required to maintain services. One heritage railway – the West Somerset – has already had a close brush with bankruptcy, in part because of their need to employ some staff (although other factors had an influence there). Even the demographic providing the volunteers may find itself more taxed for free time in the coming decade, as the pension age is pushed up from 65 to 66 (the cohort I’m in) and on towards 68 in a few more years’ time. It’s also quite noticeable that many heritage lines don’t offer concessions for older passengers – or if they do, those concessions are token only. It may be that we are seeing the Golden Age of preserved steam; I was 11 when steam ended on British Railways, and although we travelled a lot by train when I was young and my father worked on the railways, we didn’t live so close that I could go and watch trains regularly, so my memories of main-line steam are fairly few and a little vague. Those who are younger than I will need a lot of enthusiasm if heritage railways are to survive as viable businesses into the next fifty years.

 

Written by robertday154

May 18, 2019 at 11:33 pm

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Life lessons

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The talk about moving retirement ages here in the UK has concentrated on combatting the “work till you drop” fear that, given the attitude of too many employers, is fairly widespread here. This article from the Harvard Business Review gives a different perspective from (admittedly) the top end of corporate America.

https://hbr.org/cover-story/2018/11/when-no-one-retires

(One major difference between the UK and the USA is that age discrimination is unlawful in the UK, though actually proving it is a different matter. I know I’ve experienced it in my last two bouts of unemployment.)

I relate to some of the positive stuff in the article; I work with a predominantly millennial team myself. I find it really very exciting; I’ve learnt more about testing in the past two years than I ever did in the previous twenty! At the same time, I’m passing on my experience about the daft things users do, the sort of problems that systems have and the way businesses in the outside world operate; most of these experiences may be years old, but human reactions to systems are often timeless.

At the same time, I have to suggest that my employers may be in the minority in their positive attitudes. Also, I am looking at my future finances and thinking that I may well have to carry on doing some sort of work after retirement because the small pension I already have from the Civil Service is not going to cut it. After all, it’s all very well having a final salary pension, but that rather relies on your final salary being in any way adequate. In the rank-and-file Civil Service, it was anything but.

Written by robertday154

November 13, 2018 at 3:17 pm

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The Dignity of Labour

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(Note: this post is not about any current issues affecting the UK Labour Party. Now read on.)

Yesterday, as is my wont, I walked down the road from the office to get a sandwich for lunch. I work on a modern business park, adjacent to Warwick University (which isn’t in Warwick, but on the Warwick side of Coventry. Seeing as there wasn’t a Coventry University when Warwick was set up, it does make you imagine some sort of marketing input to the naming process. But I digress). The business park was built some ten to fifteen years ago, with units in a variety of sizes to suit different tenants. Obviously, from time to time units come empty, awaiting new tenants; and one quite large office unit, No.1 The Oaks, came empty earlier this year.

Given the number of IT companies and other enterprises active in the digital economy, I fairly reasonably imagined that some other company would take the building on in due course. So I was surprised, when I walked down the road yesterday, to hear a crash from the Oaks site, and to see a rampaging excavator demolishing the building. Today, I’m working from home. I expect the site will have been levelled by the time I go in to the office tomorrrow. According to the Internet, the site is being cleared to make way for student accommodation. Obviously, this pays more than commercial properties these days. Interestingly, the picture I grabbed from the business park’s website is named “bottom_barclays”. Barclays Bank has a large office complex on the business park, but they have consolidated a number of their staff to another site in Northampton this year and made others redundant. As the building is well away from the main Barclays site, I can quite imagine how it might get the nickname “bottom office” (though “lower office” might have been a bit more genteel).

bottom_barclays

The Oaks (picture from http://www.westwoodbusinesspark.co.uk)

Now, that’s hardly a great piece of architecture. But I’ve touched on these sort of issues before, in my post The Sacred Workplace. People designed that building; people built it; and people worked in it. It probably wasn’t really there long enough to have gathered any sort of workplace community about itself; people in future are unlikely to be starting websites looking for former colleagues who worked at No.1 The Oaks. But it filled the working lives of a diverse group of people for a number of years, and that deserves some sort of recognition, otherwise we begin to get a sort of social amnesia about our pasts.

I was mulling these things over when I had an e-mail this lunchtime about an online petition. I normally don’t do these things, because there are so many of them and you can easily end up with campaign fatigue if you’re not careful. But this one struck home a little bit with me. Not too far from where I live, there used to be a place called Snibston Discovery Park. It included a numbher of exhibits about Leicestershire’s industrial past, and was based around the old Snibston Colliery. The UK coal industry has disappeared; yet it was the basis for our industrial development and played a massive part in our social and economic history. But after the 2008 economic crisis, Snibston Discovery Park became one of the early victims of austerity, as the local county council closed it down in some degree of haste, using the excuse of poor visitor numbers in recent years.

But mining communities have a great sense of identity, even when there’s no more mining going on: and so this petition has appeared:

https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-snibston-colliery?

Leicestershire seems very fond of rubbishing projects that might promote growth and inward income streams, whether they be attractions or improvements to transport or amenities. Things that cater to the educational needs of people, to their intellectual or artistic development, are left to the voluntary sector or only done where the accountants say they can turn in a clear balance sheet profit on that one location, rather than contributing to the overall wealth of the community. Their attitude often seems to be “We’re fed up of telling people there’s no demand for this sort of thing.” Attracting visitors to an attraction or a service is a matter of promoting it properly; and as austerity has dragged on, more and more people are finding a need to explore their own localities rather than going miles afield for their leisure. This trend is going to continue for some time to come, or so all the pointers suggest.

Celebrating our industrial heritage is an important part of maintaining the dignity of labour – something that modern capitalism seems determined to ignore, preferring us to be nothing more than simply units of consumption or production with no role other than the economic. But our lives are in no small part shaped by our work experiences; when you have self-respect because of your job, you are a better person because of it. Instead, many people attach no importance to their jobs and so have to find validation elsewhere. Sometimes, that’s not positive validation. The bottom strata of the so-called “gig economy” has provided many examples of this in recent years.

The fightback for dignity in work has to take place on a number of different fronts.

This is one of them.

Written by robertday154

September 18, 2018 at 4:28 pm

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