Friday 11 November 2011

Night visitation

Up on the embankment in the dark it looked like something from Close Encounters. Great Haywood marina, by and large, is very peaceful. A railway runs along one side and, every hour or so, a Virgin train tears past. Apart from that it's pretty quiet. Last night the idyll was shattered in the middle of the night, for the second time in a fortnight, by a Network Rail maintenance team. The loco, its accompanying wagons and their floodlights created a strange amalgam of shapes and silhouettes criss-crossed by figures in working gear. Just far away for them not to keep their voices down, just near enough for us to hear everything, and for the regularly sounded horn to keep us from sleep. My best beloved gave up, went off to read in front of the fire. I'd just be drifting off, when the horn would jolt me awake again. There must be something singularly wrong with the track by the marina – they stayed there for ages. "Beep-beep, beep-beep" it went. Bye-bye to an early morning rise for a productive day.

We're obviously out of condition. In Brazil we slept through all-night parties next door. Today we're having a quiet day recovering with the help of home-made soup, home-made bread and home-made Dutch apple cake!

Thursday 10 November 2011

Underneath the mattress

What's under yours? All those savings you can't entrust to the bank? It was never very likely that we ourselves would have much to stash away – serving with a mission agency in Brazil for the central part of your working life is not exactly a smart career move if your principal aim is to accumulate a decent pension. But perhaps there's more to life than that...

Erin Mae came with a very nice 8" mattress, interior sprung, 4' wide (this paragraph apologises to those unfamiliar with imperial measurement abbreviations). There was also a further 6" wide, custom made piece, interior sprung and carefully crafted, together with some plywood panels underneath, that slide out to make a 4' 6" bed. Trouble was that when you took into account the depth of those panels and added a 2" memory foam topper, our heads were getting perilously close to the overhead cupboards. Makes it hard to relax in the night in case you get up without thinking and bash your bonce, crash your cranium, knacker your noddle – you get the idea. Also, because the 6" bit was made by a different person to the main mattress and, being mostly under the gunwale, less lain upon, it stuck up and created a ridge. In the end we bought a 6" deep, 4' wide memory foam mattress (3" of that wonderful foam) and persuaded the company to sell us a 6" wide piece of the same stuff to go down the side at night. Works a treat. We're 4" further removed vertically from the risk to life and looks, and the comfort is unsurpassed. The old memory foam topper now lies folded underneath the dinette seating, waiting to provide superior luxury for our first overnight guests (or us, if those guests merit the bedroom).

Problem – the slide-out panels were getting harder to slide out. Today I tried silicone lubricant, to no effect. So out came the new cordless drill and off came parts of the construction under the mattress, to be shaved down to give an extra mm or so of clearance at the side (see, I can do metric). While down there we had a look below. As with many narrowboats, what sits under the bed is the poo tank. Its proper name is "black tank", but ours is a nice sort of polypropylene, and if the contents are actually black then we're in trouble! Everything looked in order and sealed tight. The only issue is that, being over to one side of the boat, when it gets full it has the same effect as a couple of front-row prop forwards standing on the gunwale. I'm thinking of patenting a device to tell you how near you are to needing a pump-out by the amount of left-list on the boat.

Meanwhile, it just doesn't do to think too much, as you drift away with the sandman, about what lies just beneath the mattress. Even if it's all those savings, worrying about them could keep you awake at night.

Wednesday 9 November 2011


We met Gareth and Ruth 36 years ago, the four of us starting at theological college together. Our Iain, at 10 months, was one day older than their Katherine, and the two sat side by side in their high chairs at coffee-time, holding hands before going back to play in the creche. Over two years of study our friendship grew. Then they went off to Japan and we went to Brazil, involved in our different ways with Christian groups in those countries. We didn't see them again until about five years ago, though we swapped news letters and Christmas greetings.

Meanwhile Ruth had developed breast cancer. It seemed to have been caught in time, but during this last year it re-emerged, and they finally had to return to the UK. Treatment was ongoing, and everyone was hopeful. Then, in the middle of October, various complications unexpectedly set in and on the afternoon of the 19th she suddenly took a turn for the worse and passed away.

Gareth's email likens the experience to a tsunami – a powerful image for one as committed to Japan as he. But, typically and in the context of his faith, he also notes the hope and everything else he and his family have, and asks friends to continue to be mindful of the thousands of Japanese who lost so much in March.

We remember Ruth with great affection, as will those among whom she worked selflessly for years. She was cheerful and fun, warm-hearted and dependable. She gave herself to service a long way from home, and made a home there for many others.

Tuesday 8 November 2011


If you needed 2 screws to mount a smoke alarm, and B&Q would sell you 20 for £1.90 while a local hardware trading company would sell you a complete box of 200 for the same price, which would you buy? Do you think value-for-money or storage space? Do you like to have them all, just in case, or are you a waste-of-the-earth's-resources person? Minimalist, or cover-the-angles?

I bought the box. But then I've a garage shelf at home to store the bulk of them until they go rusty. I think if Erin Mae were our only home, I might have done differently. Mind you, some of the boating bloggers report constant purchases of DIY-related goodies, by themselves or their other halves. I turned to my Google Reader page for a suitable example, and this immediately leapt out at me. Case in point!

On Thursday week my old tutor group are coming round to say farewell properly, since it somehow didn't happen in the summer. Unfortunately, the dining room is still full of the stuff removed from the loft. And the garage will need a good clear out before there's room for it in there. Minimalism has a lot going for it. But you never know when you might need it...

Monday 7 November 2011

Nasty niffs nailed

We were warned – most English people talk about the weather, boaters talk about electrics and toilets. We resolved to break the stereotype and resist. Some hope! Ever since we returned to the Erin Mae once to find the toilet bowl full of – well, let's just say it wasn't clear water – we've been trying to identify the cause. Marina engineers pressure-flushed it (for a price) but that did little to prevent the ... seepage. So, following up on a tip from Caldon Canal Society members we'd met in September, we went to see Keith at the Anglo Welsh yard round the corner. Together we pored over the diagrams in the user guide and identified a one-way (or possibly not!) valve which looked as though it could be the culprit. I ordered one from the supplier (for a price), and today we went back round and they fixed it.

And once again, as with the question of our slightly over-heating engine, Keith proved himself knowledgeable, helpful, extremely fair with a price, and an all-round good bloke.

So far, so good. The loo is now fit for her majesty (anyone remember that episode of Steptoe and Son?). I doubt whether I'll report back on the long-term success of this operation. That would be to start talking about toilets again. Anyone who's interested can pay us a visit and see for themselves!

Saturday 5 November 2011

Sing those blues

Picked up my guitar today for the first time since early summer. It quickly became apparent (a) that the strings needed to be replaced, and (b) that finger-picking was going to be painful. A nice new set of Elixir Nanowebs already sitting in the case quickly resolved the first issue. The second is going to take some working on. Strumming was fine, but the third finger wasn’t picking as it should. And when I lifted my arm away after going through a song sitting down, all the wrist tendons screamed at me for a while, till I got them interested in some more music. Standing up with a strap was easier, so it must have something to do with arm position.

I could hear Tom the physio telling me this was all very good for my wrist. Stretching and strengthening in equal measure. Do the exercises. Why do you think you’re still taking those pain-killers? Well, as to that, it was interesting that the finger-tips on the left hand gave me no trouble at all – unusual after a long lay-off.

So, I’ve got that promised jamming session with Mike on nb The Great Escape to motivate me. I can feel a blues number coming on, all about irretrievable loss and great inner pain. Can a white man sing the blues? Don’t know about the singing, though the voice is suitably gravelly these day, but the wrist and fingers could write a new little number out of personal experience. Just that we'd have to get away from the marina to jam it, to avoid thoroughly depressing all the other boaters!

Thursday 3 November 2011

Autumn Encounters

Only a little cruising on the Staffs and Worcs in October, but some good encounters. Just a selection:

Evening mooring near Wildwood

Autumn shades at Tixall

Balloon over the Haywoods

Music at the Spittal Brook, Stafford

Tixall swan: see Bruce's take on them!

Grey-t Haywood heron

October was good.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Finally, retirement

Yesterday was the final first day of my retirement, if you see what I mean.  No? Well, the college released me from active service at the end of July, except for some some IT stuff that could be done at a distance (retirement 1). Unfortunately that was when I broke my wrist. Then half way through October came that momentous 65th, the official retirement date according to my pension provider (retirement 2). Happily, however, the college were paying me up until the end of the month. 1st November, then – retirement 3. The day I woke up uncontracted (if you see what I mean). How did we celebrate? In exactly the same way we did on my birthday. By cleaning out Erin Mae and driving three and a half hours from Great Haywood to Christchurch. Needs must. My best beloved had her final knee replacement physio appointment early this morning.

So what happened today? Went into the college to discuss the IT work they're contracting me to do over the next few months! Workaholic? Not this lazybones. It's mostly about unfinished business – necessary developmental stuff there simply wasn't time to do while I was still running the academic programme. That I shall throughly enjoy it is entirely incidental. As are our plans for the extra income. As is being able to do some of it from Erin Mae via a good mobile broadband connection.

I can get used to retirement.

Church, Cathedral or Museum: a response to Bones

This started out as a comment on Bones' most recent blog post, but it grew in the writing, and eventually I thought it bad manners to use her comment space for, effectively, a whole post of my own. Check out her blog to see the background.

Sacred spaces are special to lots of people, I think. When out walking, we love to drop in on country churches, large or small, and are disappointed if they're locked. For me it's very different to simply enjoying and responding to creation itself – I like being in an enclosed, quiet space, taking time to be still and to talk with God about important things. With very old buildings it's also awesome to think of people coming here to worship together for so many centuries. All this affects me more than a huge and busy cathedral, much as I might appreciate the architecture, the grand design, the concern to do something great for God and the beauty of sung evensong.

I think the tensions Bones writes of are the tip of the iceberg, especially for parts of the Church of England. Here is the established church, with a very broad brief, a strong sense of its traditions and frequently, the strong association of those with its buildings, trying to relate to the whole community. Meanwhile that community seems less sure about the detail or relevance of what the church stands for, may well be more interested than it used to be in cultural and antiquarian things, but doesn't know how to relate that to activities and buildings needing to be maintained and financed. The church / museum dichotomy is the elephant in the nave. What is the church, anyway? Does the question "Who is it for?" actually make any sense, as though the church were a social services department? Is it "for" its members, or committed Christians, or people seeking reality / truth, or those in need, or the public at large? In what sense is it "for" them? Is it for God?

A new breed of independent "community churches" faces similar questions – they are not confined to an established, national church. As soon as you define yourself, in some sense, in relation to the surrounding community, you get these same tensions about role, even when they are not building-centred. Much easier to be a cosy, inward-looking club than work with the messiness of reaching out to others! How do you reach out to a society that has grown tolerant of almost anything, when the convictions that lead you to reach out include some about absolutes, bottom-line realities? Bones' cup-cake refuser clearly had some convictions, but lacked the ease with which to communicate them with love. For me, this was the saddest part of her whole post, as the moment hardened the caricature.

I thought back to moments of my own when I hadn't the skill to keep integrity and graciousness together. Here's to the wisdom that entwines them.