Sunday 28 December 2014

All together

Although a 60-footer, Erin Mae has only 4 berths max – one main bedroom and a convertible Pullman dinette. When the kids are with us in the summer we fit the three of them into the bedroom and, at a pinch, we could sleep an extra person on the floor of the living space. But this is not hire-boat design, with room for 8 or 10 for a week's holiday. So we have no hopes of getting our extended family all on board.

In fact, we don't often get the opportunity now to all be together. So it was great that number one son was able to come to Norway with us, and that newly-married number three and wife could join us yesterday.

We're not actually having a picnic in the forest. That's the wall-covering and it's 10˚ under outside. What the Norwegians call "10 cold degrees".

Today the three brothers and their Norwegian brother-in-law have gone snowboarding. My days of even thinking about such things are long past, so we remaining adults and children went out for a walk and sledging in the cold forest,

ending up at a cabin café in the woods for hot chocolate and waffles. Yummy, even at Norwegian prices!

Saturday 27 December 2014


Oldest son and I have some things in common, and some things definitely not in common. One of the commonalities is ownership of a floating life-support pod – in my case Erin Mae and, in his case, a 24ft Achilles class boat called Snow Goose. He keeps her where he lives, at Falmouth, and in that is considerably more fortunate than we, who have a drive of several hours to get to our marina. This Christmas he has given me The Levelling Sea, by Philip Marsden. It's a story of Falmouth, and the way in which its development mirrored the place of the sea in British history. So far I've read just the first chapter. It's been a delight and has wetted my appetite for the rest. And it has contained a lot about Marsden's grandfather, the figure in his life who infected him with a fascination for the sea.

I have just four images of my own grandparents. That of my maternal grandmother is of someone in a bed when I was, I suppose, about 3. The bed was certainly taller than I was. My mother portrayed hers as a wonderful woman, confined to her bed with arthritis in her later years, but I never knew her. Of my paternal grandmother I also have just one image – a small person sitting in a chair when we stopped to visit on our way to a summer holiday in Wales. Because of her dementia she hardly knew my father, and I certainly never knew her.

My paternal grandfather had been a cabinet-maker. The sole image I have of him is one from a visit he made when I must have been 9 or 10. An old man, he sat in my father's chair in front of the fire and talked to me about the characters of the different types of wood that were waiting on the hearth, ready to be added to the flames. He gave me a copy of The Sword of the Volsungs, a child's collection of old Norse tales, which I still have. I don't remember any other interaction with him. My maternal grandfather lived longer – he died when I was about 17. When I was younger we would go down to Felixstowe from time to time for a day's visit. He was a tall figure who had played county-level golf. The only image I have is of meeting him once walking back from his regular visit to the putting green. He smiled in a friendly-enough way, but I don't remember him having anything to do with us. We would be under the care of Mrs Lacey, his housekeeper, or go with my mother to visit an elderly friend of hers a few roads away, or dance among the pebbles on Felixstowe beach and eat sanded sandwiches.

This was, of course, a good many years ago, when travel was harder and less commonplace, and when old age came younger. But I am sad that my grandparents had no input whatsoever into my life. My own parents were splendid in their interactions with our own children and their cousins, and left a significant legacy there. Now it's our turn. One of the motivations for buying Erin Mae was to be able to bring over the Norwegian grandchildren for some summer holiday time, since the daily, weekly or monthly contact some of our friends enjoy is out of the question for us. And it's been great fun to be over with them for this Christmas season. In the end, I'm not worried whether or not they get a taste for boating (like Marsden did for the sea). But I'm so glad that we get the opportunity of building into their lives something that comes out of the relationship with us. If that, for them, can be a positive experience, then perhaps the impact will go on down the generations.

Friday 26 December 2014

White Christmas

No sign of snow back home, so we flew to Norway (actually it was all arranged weeks ago). The differences are subtle. Lots of good food – but the whole thing a touch more formal.

Not a pair of jeans in sight! The Christmas Eve menu in this household is one of the traditions from the west coast. "Stick-meat" is the literal translation – steamed lamb ribs with mashed potato, swede and loganberry jam. It would actually have been a poor family's Christmas treat. Dessert was "Rice cream" – like a very rich rice pudding served cold with blackcurrant sauce.

After that we joined hands (all 15 of us) and walked round the Christmas tree singing various Christmas songs, before finally opening the presents. Children in bed by 10 p.m. In Brazil they had to wait for the presents until after midnight.

Christmas Day in Norway is usually a day for getting out and walking off the previous evening's input, but in our case it is also oldest grandchild's birthday. So exactly the same group met at the other grandparents'  house and did more of the same, though with a dash less formality.

The view from the room was stunning – the lights in the photo are due to my reticence at stepping out onto the balcony to get the photo when it was 10˚ under outside!

This is the part of Oslofjord where a famous incident from WWII occurred – the sinking of a battleship that enabled the Norwegian king, the Norwegian government and Norway's gold to escape from use the eyes of the enemy. Or so I am informed by my grandchildren's other grandfather…

The food was equally delicious, but from a different section of Norwegian cuisine, pork ribs / steaks with delicious crackling. Not many vegetarians in Norway!

Kompis the puppy got in on the delicacies by a slightly unorthodox ruse.

Then, today, we did get out for our walk, down to a frozen lake about 10 minutes away.

 The children had great fun in the snow, in the woods and on the ice,

on their own,

and with their uncle.

We just avoided frostbite, and are back in the warm for tea.

Erin Mae's getting snowed on, we think, but it's not like this!

Friday 19 December 2014


A mailing list email from Phil Grundy / LICC arrived in my inbox today. I thought it interesting enough to reproduce. Merry Christmas!

On this day in 1843, a short story was first published that has played a significant part in our Christmases ever since. Never out of print, it has been adapted many times for film, stage, opera, and other media. Darkness, loneliness and death are juxtaposed with light, joy and warmth in a moral tale of second chances and redemption.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was partly inspired by the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the working class poor, children in particular, and Dickens’ desire to convey their plight. Into this he blended the supernatural and spiritualism, feasting and family togetherness, generosity and compassion. Charitable giving increased after its publication. It popularised the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’, and established other words – like ‘Scrooge’ and ‘Humbug’ – in the English language.

Much of its sentiment remains at the heart of our modern day Christmas. We now have a curious blend of the biblical account of the coming of Christ the Saviour King mixed together with stories like A Christmas Carol, with its ideas of togetherness, family and charity told against a backdrop of commerce and consumption.

If Dickens were here today, what might he have made of the scenes a few weeks ago during the discounting frenzy that is ‘Black Friday’ – with strangers engaged in tugs of war over plasma screens? The inequality and selfishness evident in A Christmas Carol are still with us. Technology has connected us in ways that could only be imagined in 1843, yet loneliness hasn’t been overcome. Is that perhaps why the story still resonates?

Two high-profile TV adverts this season seem to point back to the sentiment of Dickens’ tale. Sainsbury’s sign off with the strap line ‘Christmas is for sharing’, whilst John Lewis prefer ‘Give someone the Christmas they’ve been dreaming of’. Behind the marketing strategy seems to be a genuine search for a more profound message to accompany the call to consume. Both are centred on sharing and people, not objects or wealth.

Margaret Oliphant, Scottish novelist and historical writer, wrote that A Christmas Carol ‘moved us all those days ago as if it had been a new gospel’. And its popularity and pertinence remain undimmed. But shining even brighter is the old Gospel – the ultimate story of second chances and redemption that is ready to move us again this Christmas and lead us to sharing it with others.

Monday 15 December 2014


To the outsider, boating looks like a very healthy pastime. Fresh air, locks to work, walks to the shops, and so on. For those in the know, it doesn’t quite work like that. Ever since my best beloved decided that the strain of working the locks was nothing compared to the tension involved in steering Erin Mae straight into them, I’ve stood like a lord on the stern while most of the hard work went on around or above me. Exercise consists of a yard this way or that across Erin Mae’s delightful cruiser stern, though occasionally I would gallantly climb up a dripping ladder with my windlass to give a hand. It doesn’t take long to note that the average waist-band size among boaters is no less that that of the population as a whole.

Many moons ago, a colleague and I agreed that one day we would run the London marathon. One day… We never have, and probably never will. Meanwhile my main exercise was via playing hockey through the winter months, and doing various things with my students in the summer. But about 8 years ago I said farewell to wielding a hockey stick, and I haven’t had any proper exercise since. Not even on Erin Mae. My best beloved, on the other hand, had acquired a gym membership to help with recuperation after surgery, and was getting quite addicted to the machinery, the endorphins and the company. Once we started spending serious time on Erin Mae, however, the gym membership lapsed and she, too, began to be concerned, especially about the lack of aerobic activity during the winter.

So we took ourselves (and the wallet) along to the local sports emporium, and came home with a cross trainer. It was a bit like an Ikea flatpack to put together, but we managed it, and now it sits in the garage, cajoling us into some cardio-vascular worthiness.

As it happens, it’s a Kettler (mostly because all the other fitness equipment firms seem to have gone into liquidation over the last year). That means our garage is getting extremely full of German technology, what with the new Grundig fridge freezer I wrote about last week.

I wonder if Erin Mae will notice the difference in the new, sprightly us, when we get back on board in the spring.

Saturday 13 December 2014


Falmouth is full of boats, none of which look in the least like Erin Mae.

Number 1 son this year acquired a cool looking Achilles 24 called "Snow Goose". Very nice.

He was as keen to show us around as we were to look, so we enjoyed a good inspection.

Sometime next year we'll hopefully get to accompany him under sail to Frenchman's Creek or some other spot suitable for a picnic.

We're actually down in Cornwall in honour of a significant birthday – what a sweet child he was those X0 years ago. Given that it's December, and considering the weather conditions at Erin Mae's marina, we're doing very well. We've a very nice location…

… (that's our room, at the top, on the sunny side) with a pretty stunning view from our balcony.

 We even sat out on the balcony in the sun for a short while this morning after inspecting Snow Goose.

Tomorrow, of course, is likely to be very different as we motor home in the afternoon.

But first we have a celebration at what Number 1 son calls "Falmouth's best kept secret" – a speciality seafood restaurant. A crowd of his friends will be there, and we're anticipating that a good time will be had by all. He doesn't yet know that my best beloved has baked a couple of her best chocolate cakes, to be topped by some silly X0th birthday candles.

Well, these occasions don't come along very often.

Thursday 11 December 2014


Erin Mae doesn't have a freezer. I dread to think what one of those might do to the batteries and, anyway, there's not really room. The fridge has one of those hanging compartments with a floppy door which freezes nothing, but produces a film of ice over the inside and a constant supply of cold drips underneath. Its main value is that it keeps fresh meat satisfactorily chilled. So we've discovered we can live perfectly well without a freezer. Adjust and cope.

But the house is a different matter, and the time has come to replace the tall one from Comet which is 28 years old. An electrician who came to fix something else told us we would probably re-coup the cost of a new one in a couple of year, just from the greater efficiency. We've also had a second, relatively old fridge sitting next to it in the garage, and the obvious thing was to replace both with a fridge freezer. Question: could we live with the reduced amount of freezer space? The answer from the Erin Mae experience is that we probably could.

Of course, it's never that simple. A little research shows that modern freezers expect an ambient temperature of at least 10˚C. Counter-intuitively, anything less than that and they start to de-frost. They like to be kept inside, in the warm (just as well we didn't have one in our kitchen when I was growing up!). But ours is in the garage and I'm sure that, even though that's integral with the rest of the house, it gets down below 10˚ when there's a freeze on outside. There are some horror stories out there of manufacturers not honouring warranties.

Fortunately we discovered that Grundig have recently entered the British market with an A++ model which, they say, will operate down to 5˚. It got a thumbs-up from Which, and we've taken the plunge. Today Currys delivered it and took away the old machines. It's up and running, and we managed to get into the new freezer everything we took out of the old one. So far, so good.

However, it really feels funny to have a fridge freezer by Grundig sitting in the garage. 1950s tape recorder, yes. Radio, yes. But fridge freezer…?

Tuesday 9 December 2014


I've just read Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves. I'd known about it for a long time, but only recently got a copy, at a charity stall on a summer's day during the Wimborne Folk Festival. I really enjoyed her combination of passion about the way that punctuation serves proper communication and realism about the fact that language develops.

Especially fascinating were her insights into the history of some of our punctuation marks – a reminder that things weren't always so, which is a helpful corrective to the conservative tendency to preserve things in stone. It was intriguing to see her examples of text from not-very-long-ago-at-all, with numbers of commas and semi-colons that look completely over the top today. She makes the case for punctuation being really significant to the extent to which it (a) makes the meaning completely clear, and (b) helps the reader to enter into the music of the language. But even more memorable was the wittiness of way she critiques her own prejudices as well as those of others.

We've a number of classic children's books on the shelves, and this afternoon over a cuppa I've been reading Amy Le Feuvre's Probable Sons, with a sharper eye (in the light of Lynne Truss) for the punctuation she uses. It certainly has more colons and semicolons that Harry Potter but, given that it dates from 1895, it is remarkably disciplined and a model of clarity.

Some favourite moments from Truss: her mention of a report of a clinic offering semicolon irrigation;  her justifying of her scorn for emoticons (smileys and their children); and her reminder that the unmasking of a document in the government's 2003 dossier on Iraq as a complete fabrication depended, at least in part, on the plagiariser not having removed an erroneous comma.

Friday 5 December 2014

Christmas lights

Today was the day for turning on the lights along the small row of shops in our village. There was a big turnout of all ages, and a loud countdown to the pressing of the switch. It's actually only a dummy switch, and the real reason for the countdown is so that the person waiting by the real switch can hear when to press it! A bit like Father Christmas for the kids, really – everyone knows but nobody says. The switch is pressed and the light comes on – so what if the cause and effect link isn't exactly what it seems!

Enveloping the moment of the lights coming on is the carol singing, everyone joining in at full volume in the open air. And, for that, I take my piano accordion along – it's good fun to lead a crowd enjoying their carols. However, it has to be said that it's not the same as playing on the towpath in June. I dress up warmly, and I have a nice pair of red-and-black striped fingerless gloves, but the temperature at 4.30 p.m. in early December is still guaranteed to remove the feeling from my fingers in about five minutes. Doesn't matter too much for the right hand – it's a keyboard and after all these years my fingers pretty much know what they're doing without too much intervention from my brain. Anyway, I can always glance down.

The left hand is a different matter. I've played the accordion since I was 11, but I only got my own last year, and my fingers have never acquired the same degree of automation on the buttons as on the keys of a piano. When I play, I'm mostly working it out from first principles on the hoof. That's not too bad – until you can no longer feel your fingers. Then your only clue as to whether you hit the button(s) you were trying for is the sound – catch it quick, work out where you are relative to where you should be, and switch. With a bit of luck, and if you do it quickly enough, nearly everyone will think it was a cunning modulation or embellishment slipped in to liven things up. Unfortunately, when you're playing for a sizeable group in the open air it can be a bit like playing the piano underwater with cotton wool in your ears (if you'll forgive my metaphor-mixing). With the sound taking a while to register, your last hope of staying on track disappears. Then the danger is that the analytical part of the brain is so busy working out what to do that any connection to the right hand also evaporates and lively embellishments start to happen down that side of the instrument as well.

But turning out for village carol singing is one of the joys of life, even with frozen fingers. I love it.

Thursday 4 December 2014

Le Mans

Congratulations to my friends Charlotte (director / writer) and Jon (Theme song "Drive") on the film / documentary "Journey to Le Mans" which aired on ITV4 tonight. Exciting stuff, following the small British Jota Sport team as they make their way to compete in the 2014 Le Mans 24 hour endurance race. Pretty far from Erin Mae's world.

Tonight's version was abridged, but a longer one is available on DVD / Blu-ray, or via iTunes. Not that I'm advertising or anything, but they are my friends…

And they get some good reviews on iTunes!

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Battery bank

Evesham Battery Centre (at the marina) phoned me today. My four leisure batteries had come back from testing by the supplier, pronounced no longer fit for purpose. The problem, both for yours truly and the marina people, was that the supplier conveyed considerable suspicion that I hadn't been treating 'em right. Was I a liveaboard? I'd clearly been draining the batteries far too much.

I assured the marina that I was far too soft to be a liveaboard, that Erin Mae spends half the year attached to a mains hook-up, and that when we're cruising we typically do 4 or more hours a day. Supplemented by extra engine running should the voltmeter suggest that we've been using too many electrons for comfort. All the evidence in the world is available on the Erin Mae Log, should anyone care to look.

The supplier was suggesting they might meet me half way, so I'd only have to pay for replacing two of the four. Neither the marina (who give the supplier a lot of business) nor myself think this is fair, with the batteries being only half way through their 3-year warranty period. I'd actually been getting quite paranoid about keeping them charged up, with conversations on the CanalWorld forums and research on the Battery University and the SmartGuage websites. It was the fact that they seemed not to take or hold charge as they should that got me worried in the first place.

So the marina people are going back to the supplier to convince them we need a more complete solution. Meanwhile, I'm back to the interweb to see whether I should think about an alternative type of battery. It's quite a good way of amusing yourself on a rainy day.

I'm actually pretty relieved with a "faulty" diagnosis for the batteries – it simplifies thinking about the future. But I'm hoping that "battery bank" doesn't mean a special Lloyds account into which large amounts of dosh have to be placed until there's enough to pay for a new set.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

More cashback

After my success in reducing Erin Mae's insurance premium, I thought I'd try the same thing with the car. Last year I think I got a dual policy discount from Direct Line – car and home insurance both from them. This year's home premium seemed reasonable, so I forked out, but the car quotation seemed rather high, and anyway I'd seen that people of my age-group (cough, cough) are the ones getting stung by the companies.

So I got a quote from Saga and rang DL. Choosing the best automatic response choice (If you are thinking of leaving us, press 2) I was speaking in no time at all to a helpful guy, to whom I revealed the enormous chasm between his quote and Saga's. He investigated and found that he could drop the price by £50. Fifty pounds!! He still couldn't quite match Saga's price, but I judged the few pounds extra were worth it – DL have served me well over the years. But it still irks me that I have to ask.

Meanwhile the time had come to bless my best beloved with a new iPad. Her old one was 1st generation, generally working well, but occasionally crashing in DocsToGo or FaceTime, with a resultant, annoying loss of content. And the new ones are faster, and do different things better, and – well, why shouldn't I buy her a nice present! Off we went to Southampton on "Black Friday" (about as aptly named as "Devil's Garden" on the River Weaver). Apple weren't offering any deals at all, but John Lewis were price matching someone else, with £30 off. So JL it was. They were even offering 20% off a very nice cover.

I'd think I was saving money if my bank balance wasn't going down so fast.