Sunday 30 September 2012


When I was 5 or thereabouts we moved down the road to a house that had one of John Laing's experimental heating systems. The compact, open fire in the lounge heated the wall of the small dining-room behind. It had a back boiler linked to the hot water tank upstairs, together with a mechanism for directing the heat preferentially round the boiler or further forward towards the room. And it had a system of air vents that drew in cold air from the hall and convected it to two of the three bedrooms (I, alas, slept with brother number 3 in a bunk in the third). Proper Brits at the time despised central heating as producing pasty-faced Yanks, but this didn't really count. The cast-iron frame also had a plate that drew down across the front so you could keep it in overnight. Some of my childhood memories centre round this fire – my dad getting it going again in the morning, my mum with a large sheet of newspaper held at the top and against the wall on either side, to encourage it to "draw", the coal-dusted men carrying huge canvas bags of coal round the side of the house to empty into the bunker in the back garden, and my paternal grandfather sitting in front of it on a visit, talking to me about the logs in the hearth. He'd been a cabinet-maker, he lived 100 miles away in Birmingham, and that is the only memory I have of him.

My parents always had an open fire in the other houses they moved on to, and family gatherings at Christmas naturally centred round it when we were inside but not at the table. It's part of our own children's memory bank. We, on the other hand, have only ever had electric or gas varieties. Efficient, clean and relatively trouble-free, but definitely not the same thing. Erin Mae, however, came with a solid-fuel burner already in place, the ubiquitous Morsø Squirrel. Not sure how it gets to have a name like this, especially being of Swedish origin. I was more concerned about children's safety, my best beloved said not to worry, and she was right. It's been great to have it glowing away in the corner on a cold evening.

But I could do with more of my dad's expertise. I find that if I've let it die down a bit too much, even though it may be smouldering bright red, adding more smokeless fuel on top seldom gets it going again. There seems to be a point beyond which it doesn't recover. Opening the door to stir things up a bit usually results in little excpet smoke coming out all over the room. Perhaps the chimney has got too cold to create the updraft needed for an effective burn. If anyone knows what this is all about, I'd be glad of a comment.

Meanwhile, I'm thoroughly enjoying having two living flames aboard.

Saturday 29 September 2012


When I searched for a leather hat I couldn't find one tight enough to stay on in a breeze without being so tight as to give me a headache. But I really like leather as a material. Stranded or interestingly tooled leather belts can thumb the nose ever so elegantly at accompanying attire that is necessarily formal, without seeming out of place.

I nearly replaced my belt two weeks ago in a leather shop in Camden market, but nothing was quite right. Today, strolling back from the tea rooms by Haywood Lock on our first exercise since a nasty cold put me in bed this week, we passed NB Anon, with its racks of leatherwork on display on the towpath. We had a good look at the belts, and enjoyed Dave's simple take on the cost – the buckle sets the price. Then we found his range of windlass holsters, and were hooked. We'd talked on and off about something like this for a while. So we bought a holster and belt that my best beloved could wear with joy, and got the belt cut to a size we both could use.

Nice result. I also saw a design that would do me well for my next everyday belt, though he didn't have it in the shade I wanted. However, he's probably back in Great Haywood next weekend and that, I think, will be that.

Sunday 9 September 2012


So the show's nearly over – this summer SportsFest. Erin Mae's reception was mostly good enough, and we were at home for a part. Some don't like competitive sport and some are just cynical, but we've been blown along with the majority, in the enthusiasm of a festival successfully implemented, and in admiration for the achievements and the athleticism.

There's one bit about the paralymics, however, that puzzles me – some of the event classifications related to the degree of disability. Various sports have divisions for people of different characteristics – distinct competitions for men and women is the obvious one. Boxing and judo have their weights, and even rowing has events for lighter oarsmen / oarswomen. But basketball doesn't have separate competitions for players under 6 feet, or fencing for people with shorter arms. So I'm puzzled that you can have a sporting classification for disabled people that distinguishes between the relative power loss from a muscle wasting condition, for example. Loss of a limb (or the loss of its use) is easy to differentiate from loss of two. But I can't easily get my mind around having separate races for people because their condition means their legs are less powerful than others. In the Olympics, if your legs are not so good at speed but are better at endurance, you might enter the 5000 rather than the 100 metres. Most of us, however hard we tried, would never get there at all. I thoroughly enjoyed all my years of playing hockey, but I doubt whether the most dedicated ambition and training regime would have made me able to compete in the Olympics with others of my general physical characteristics. I don't lose any sleep over not having a competition specifically tuned to my condition.

The athleticism of those we've watched has been truly amazing, and it's great that a country and its sporting organisations offer opportunities for people of all abilities, whatever their origin, to participate appropriately. To enjoy and to celebrate achievement, especially achievement against the odds. So I may eventually be convinced that these Olympic classifications are a good thing, in spite of the difficulty, for the outsider, of understanding all their detail. For the moment, it's good to see sporting accomplishment provide a focus for anyone, and especially for people whom others might consider "least-likely-to". It was only when one of my sons got into athletics for a while that I began to appreciate the significance of a PB – a Personal Best. Taking on the challenge of doing better than ever before is something I hope I don't lose as I get older, even if what it relates to changes.