Friday 16 January 2015

Favourite food

In our first letter to Rafael, the child we're sponsoring in Brazil, we had to write down certain things about ourselves, including our favourite food. Now that's hard, but in the end we plumped for saying "food with a Brazilian flavour". They say that one of the things Brazilian men miss when they leave home is their mother's seasoning! When we lived there, we found new flavours and new ways of cooking that we enjoy to this day.

Tonight we were going to go to the supermarket but, when I got home, we were tired and it was cold out, so we decided to leave it till tomorrow. Our evening meal therefore depended on what we had in the house, and the Erin Mae experience has basically trained us (a) to carry less; (b) not to depend on the freezer; (c) to keep a small stock of specific supplies that can easily be made into a meal. So tonight it was macaroni cheese, using fusilli rather than macaroni, and with a tin of tuna incorporated. A little bit of extra seasoning helped it along, but what really made it was the tin of baked beans! Back to our childhoods with a vengeance. Not Brazilian at all, but yummy!

Thursday 15 January 2015

Customer service

The help desk at the people who host the BCF website is a model of helpfulness. They answer the phone within a few rings, they listen to the issue you're raising, they are knowledgeable enough to deal properly with it, or to pass it on to someone else who can. I even had the chief technical honcho ring me, unsolicited, because he thought a response I'd been given hadn't got to the nub of the problem. Today I had the surprise of talking to a techie whose mother we know as a BCF member. Very cosy – but I can't fault their concern for their customers.

I've had some other similar experiences of late. Trying out some software for working with data to be submitted to a quango, I came across an anomaly in what it was telling me. I emailed the developer about it, and got a message by return that it was probably a software bug, and he'd let me know when he'd sorted it. What price honesty! He was true to his word, and I'm now using the updated version. The quango in question is the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and you wouldn't necessarily expect people who get a kick out of working for an organisation with a name like that to be experts at public relations. But exactly the opposite is true. They bring light and clarity and a helpful, happy voice to those who, in a state of data-befuddlement, have rung them. And, once again, no waiting for a response, no menu of options before you speak with a real human. And then I blogged back in October about our experience with replacing our pressure cooker lid. Good customer service seems a no-brainer, and it surely can't be all that difficult to provide.

But, seeing that CRT have appointed Ian Rogers as a new head of customer services, I wonder how easy he'll find his role. It was good to see boating and boaters mentioned a couple of times in the announcement, but I imagine that it is far from easy to define clearly who CRT's customers are. Especially with a range of dubious business and other schemes inherited from British Waterways. Ian will no doubt very quickly come to appreciate the range of interested parties with conflicting interests. Nothing was said as to whether he has any experience already of boating or the canals. Fresh eyes and ears may be a good thing, but it may be hard to work out exactly what it means to put customers at the heart of this operation.

We wish him (and Richard Parry) well. It's all too easy to snipe from the sidelines. But, speaking as a boater, I hope that navigation and the things that facilitate it are firmly at the top of the priority list.

Wednesday 14 January 2015


They're all very pretty – which is why they get a foothold in the first place. But Himalayan Balsam, Japanese Knotweed and, to some extent, Russian Vine have an undesirable reputation for refusing to go home once they've got a foot in the door. We've taken Erin Mae past vast plantations of the stuff.

Now the BBC have published a story about the use of goats by an enterprising man in the USA.

It seems he bought the goats to raise and sell for meat, but got to know them and couldn't bring himself to do the business (shades of Babe!). Fortunately he discovered that they had a hidden talent – the ability to clear a large site of its undergrowth, in a time-frame just short enough to avoid getting fed up with eating the same thing all the time. Now he rents them out for clearance purposes.

I wondered if the scheme might take off along the canals. Have a read of the article and see what you think. Perhaps boaters should think about having a goat on board rather than a dog. A nicely-roused goat could probably offer the same degree of protection, and contribute to towpath ecology along the way!

Tuesday 13 January 2015


10 years ago Sam was born, at 26 weeks. Under 2 lbs, and about as long as a pencil.

Probably didn't help that his dad (our son number two) is a paediatrician. Couldn't be involved in the treatment, but knew everything that was going on and understood the perils all too well.

Sam had problems with both feeding and breathing. He needed a tube down his windpipe, but a tube they inserted was a size too large and caused scarring on his larynx. He lived with a tracheotomy for a while, and had no voice. So many indications were negative.

But Sam was a fighter. And the Norwegian social services (the family lives in Oslo) were magnificent in providing backup and funding treatment. He grew through all the problems into a fun, imaginative child with both a killing sense of humour and the ability to have serious conversations with his grandparents. He has an amazing sense of balance which sees him climbing all sorts of things and doing breakdance. He eventually even recovered a voice, though nobody is quite sure how and parade ground shouting or opera singing are unlikely to figure in his future. For the last three years he's been able to come over in the summer, along with Elissa and Theo, and sing the Erin Mae song with us.

Today, Sam is 10. Happy Birthday, Sam!

Sunday 11 January 2015


I printed off this picture of Erin Mae this evening, to send to Rafael.

Rafael is a 7-year old Brazilian boy, with whom we are just starting out on a journey. Whether that will ever include him coming cruising on Erin Mae, only time will tell. For the moment the journey means financial help from us towards his education and related issues, backed up with contact via letters. We hope he will find it really encouraging that someone thousands of miles away is interested in him and wants the best for him.

We'd been thinking about sponsorship of this sort for a while, especially through coming into contact with Compassion UK, the organisation that acts as intermediary with those who are involved at a local level in Brazil. It felt such an obvious thing to do, but we were well aware that it's an ongoing commitment. So it was after some serious consideration that we finally felt able to bite the bullet.

Well, our first letter is going off to Rafael, along with some pictures of us, our grandchildren, and Erin Mae. We wonder what he'll make of us! But it feels very good to be involved in this way with helping to change one boy's life for the better.

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Multiple undos

I'm always full of admiration for those boaters I see, as soon as they've tied up for the night, getting out the paintbrush, or the oilcan, or the polishing kit, or the replacement fender they've been splicing. As soon as our day's cruising on Erin Mae has finished, given that it's probably been quite a long one to keep the battery saga from becoming a crisis, I'm ready for a cuppa. And a bit of a read. And then it's time to write the blog and make the tea. Finish with a nice coffee, catch up on what other bloggers have been writing, maybe read a bit or play some silly computer or iPad game. Watch this evening's episode of "New Tricks" and, before you know, it's time for bed.

Pastimes are exactly that – a way of passing the time, which seems a bit stupid considering the amount that's actually allocated to us. But they have their own attraction, and you can always excuse one or two by taking the moral high ground and convincing yourself that they're good for you. And it so happens that I'm now the proud possessor of a couple of items to take the place of that mind-sapping Patience game, and clock off the seconds with some brain-training. Funnily enough, they're both cuboid.

This one was a second present given me at Christmas by youngest son and his beloved. It doesn't stay a cube for long – it unfolds into a twisty snake-like thing with lots of rotational possibilities challenging you to get it back all neatly aligned. Sounds a bit like Erin Mae approaching the Tyrley flight after rain, so it must help to play with it a bit, mustn't it?

The other is courtesy of Master Rubik. I've long wanted to acquire one of these, and having played a bit with my granddaughter's in Norway I thought I would order one and get my mind around its patterns. Patterns are what I love, and if the fun of working on this object can also keep my neurones in trim, who's to complain?

I've discovered very quickly how much I have come to depend on Command-Z on my Mac. It's the undo shortcut, and quickly takes me back to where I was when I've made an error in a document I was working on. It's been quite a shock to realise that, having got Rubik half-way through and then done a couple of wrong twists which messed the whole thing up, I was actually expecting to be able to do the rubik-cubic equivalent of Command-Z! And feeling quite resentful, even as I laughed at myself for the stupidity. It takes so little to revert to a state of utter confusion and have to start again. It's entropy.

I could have done with Command-Z at multiple points in my life – the sort that come back to accuse me when my mind is relaxed and off-guard during my morning shower. You can't undo everything – but it's good to be forgiven!

Sunday 4 January 2015


I've often wondered whether extraverts and introverts are equally at home boating. We both relax in the relative isolation of cruising on Erin Mae. My best beloved, somewhat less introverted than I, loves chatting with others locking up or down. So do I as occasion arises – being an introvert doesn't necessarily mean you're shy or unfriendly or don't like human contact, and I really enjoy reaching out to people. But I don't have a nagging feeling that something is wrong if I've been on my own all day. The steerer's position is a great vantage point from which to survey your inner landscape. Erin Mae has a cruiser stern, of course, which means we can do it together, with occasional interruptions for conversation or coffee.

For Christmas, youngest son gave me a copy of Quiet, by Susan Cain. Its subtitle is "The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking". The first couple of chapters suggest it's very far from being a psychometric manual. It's written in a fluent, story-rich style, full of personal experiences and anecdotes. I imagine that many introverts without the opportunities I've had for personal psychometry might read it thinking (not out loud, of course) "Ah, so someone else has experienced that too!" In it I came across the Finnish joke (the one the Finns, apparently one of the most typically introverted nations on earth, tell about themselves). Question: How can you tell a Finn likes you? Answer:  He's looking at your shoes instead of his own! I thought that was really funny and started telling it to a good friend yesterday morning, only to find he'd heard it already. Doh!

Where does the boaty extravert fit in? I suppose this might be one explanation for the apparently strong connection between the appreciation of boats and the appreciation of real ale. At the end of a day's cruising, the extravert steerer is just bursting to get down the pub and share a jar with a group of similarly deprived chatterers. Boat festivals perhaps benefit from the same dynamic – they're about rather more than the shared awestruck contemplation of the shiny parts of a Bolinder.

Maybe the introvert / extravert ratio is no different in the boating community from the population as a whole. After all, I can tie up in the middle of nowhere, while you can share rings on the 24-hour mooring. And if I find myself sharing rings anyway, I'm very happy to get out the guitar and the accordion and the penny whistle, and enjoy an impromptu session with whoever else happens to be next door.

Hm – I'm starting to get in the mood, and it's still only 4th January with several months to go before we're out on the cut again.

Thursday 1 January 2015


When I were a lad, there was Woolworths. Today's Pound stores simply cannot compete. The only thing that comes near to the near-forgotten delights of our local Wooly's is Trago's in Falmouth, and that's a bit too big for my liking. It wasn't so much the sweets or the toys – I would head for the stationery aisle. I know – very sad. But the little sections and boxes for rulers, pencils, rubbers, and especially the geometry sets – that was the stuff to capture the imagination. Much later when, in 1988, I acquired my first Mac, I found it brought together much in me that the Woolworths stationery department had appealed to – patterns on paper, whether of words or design or a line of music, patterns of ideas in logic and philosophy and poetry. And, in addition, other things I hadn't yet realised as a boy – electronic technical things and communication by magic.

We leap forward many years and I'm still using a Mac. Those interests had propelled me, in addition to running an Applied Theology programme, towards managing my college's IT stuff. In retirement I still work on the database from time to time, but we've acquired other interests – especially Erin Mae and the world of the inland waterways. I thought the IT would gently fade away. But I hadn't reckoned with the Boaters Christian Fellowship. We joined the BCF, rather hesitantly, a year and a half ago, not quite knowing what we were going to find. But they turned out to be a good bunch, and we've enjoyed both the chance encounters they encourage and the more organised jamborees. And at this year's get-together in November, it transpired they needed someone to take on running the website – and that I probably knew more about such things that most members. And, of course, a website brings together patterns of both word and design, and ideas to be communicated through them. "The medium is the message" said Marshall McLuhan, and a website has become a classic example.

So, much to my surprise, I have become the webmaster of the BCF website. Naturally enough, I shall have my own ideas about how it develops, and how it serves the aims of the organisation, but there are limits in a volunteer setup – we quite rightly use one of the ready-made template systems out there suitable for non-techies. It's a trade-off between ease-of-use and doing what you really want to do.

But it's amazing how often I've found something in my background finding its fulfilment in what falls to me to do later on.