Intermission: Peaky Blinders revisited

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An interesting article here about Peaky Blinders from the viewpoint of discussions I’ve had earlier with various people about whether or not it can be described as a work of art which presents an overwhelmingly male face or whether it puts women front and centre. And no, I still haven’t watched any of it, but this article (see link at bottom) does a great job of summing up my concerns. It’s from the finance section of yesterday’s Guardian and for me it really points up the issue: is it a series primarily about and for men, or is it a series equally about and for women?

Now, I entirely accept that if you’ve watched it it’s a series which is equally about men and women, which includes numerous strong female characters and storylines about those characters. But the vast majority of people who are aware of Peaky Blinders as a cultural phenomenon will be like me and won’t have watched it. And what will those people see? Based on the information in this article, they’ll see a TV series primarily about men: men’s clothing, men’s grooming, drinks with men’s faces on them, a famous male footballer, a floor to ceiling mural of a male character played by a male actor (who is the only actor from the series name-checked in the article). It’s not exactly gender equality (and if you’re black or trans, up yours bigly, you have no place here at all). It’s revealing to me because it shows what the companies concerned think will sell – the image the show is promoting which the fans want a part of, in other words. And that image is overwhelmingly male.

Oh, but wait, that’s business, which is sexist anyway – that’s not the show! Well, is it? If you’ve seen the show, it’s possibly different (I can speak for my friends who’ve seen it, but not for the rest of the viewers). My strong suspicion though is that that difference doesn’t permeate through to the outside world, who far outnumber those who’ve seen the show. As an example, for the past two weeks I’ve walked to the tube in the mornings past a massive billboard on a main road advertising Peaky Blinders. The picture is a piece of fan art showing a man’s head in a peaked cap in anguished shades of purple and red. It’s one of the pieces of fan art chosen by the BBC to advertise the new season. You can see all of them here. Most of the people who see this billboard won’t have seen the show, and the impression they’ll get is that it’s a show about men.

But it’s not all about men, cry those who’ve seen it! Isn’t it? Go back to the link I just posted to the BBC exhibition of the fan art they, the show’s creators, have chosen to advertise it, and have a count of the number of those images which portray men and the number which portray women. Count again. Nope, you didn’t get it wrong the first time.

Now, I don’t know why that is; whether it reflects the gender divide of the pieces which were submitted (my guess would be that it does, based on extensive research*), or whether it reflects the bias of those who chose the images, or whether whoever chose the pieces were looking for those which reflect the image of the show they want to project to the outside world and which they think will attract the most viewers. Whichever way it is, it reflects a world which is divided 87% white men, 13% white women, 0% BAME/trans. (If you wanted to be REALLY REALLY charitable you could say, based on the fact that three characters are portrayed and one is a woman, it’s 66% white men, 33% white women, but personally I’d only accept that version if there were five pictures of Polly, and there aren’t).

And why is this important? It’s important because the things we see around us on a daily basis help us to make sense of the world and both reflect and create the world we live in. If those things appear to support a worldview in which the vast majority of people are white men, then we believe that the world is primarily about white men, and that feeds through into the way we behave and the way we regard others. Women become subsidiary characters in men’s stories, which feeds through into real life in so many many ways.

I entirely accept that if you’ve watched it, Peaky Blinders is about women equally as much as it’s about men. But the face it presents to the world and to those who haven’t taken the time to view it, is an overwhelmingly white male face. And sadly, that’s the way things are in the real world as well – in order not to be biased, we have to make a deliberate effort and take time and trouble. We think of a board director, or a manager, or a CEO, as a white man, and then we have to make a concerted effort to think differently, via D&I initiatives and unconscious bias training, to enable us to see the world differently and to support, promote and employ people in those roles who aren’t white men. It’s difficult, and uncomfortable, and often irritating, because it takes effort and thrusts us outside our comfort zone. Meanwhile, a cultural phenomena like Peaky Blinders is confirming via its advertising and monetisation that our subconscious, and therefore comfortable, view of the world as primarily a world of white men is correct, rather than encouraging and supporting our efforts to change by showing a more diverse vision of the world.

So, sorry, Peaky Blinders, guilty as charged of gender bias. Nul points. And no, I still haven’t watched it, but maybe that allows me as an outsider to see more clearly the face it presents to the world at large. “O wad some power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!” A great man, that Rabbie Burns……

*a quick Google image search on Peaky Blinders fan art, hem hem.

Peaky Blinders fever: from David Beckham-backed clothing to a two-day festival

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/aug/23/peaky-blinders-fever-from-david-beckham-backed-clothing-to-a-two-day-festival-bbc?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_WordPress

Swimming Lake Annecy*: aka “It is so big, and I am so small”**

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* Intermission intermission….

** I spent a huge amount of the swim thinking this…..

I have never finished a swim and immediately wanted to burst into tears, but when I got out after eight hours swimming the 14.7 km length of Lake Annecy, I literally sat with my head in my hands, almost crying with relief that it was over.  It was not meant to be like that, and I should stress that my tearfulness was nothing to do with John Coningham-Rolls and his colleagues at SwimQuest, organisers of and support for the swim, who were magnificent in every way.  It was, instead, my own fault, the result of preparing for the longest swim of my life and getting it, if not exactly tragically wrong, then certainly not triumphantly right. This, in case you find yourself preparing for your own big challenge, is my account of what I could have done better; the list of Things I Wish I Had Done.

  1. Be completely, even brutally, honest, both with yourself and with other people. Two years ago my chum Ruth and I discovered that we swim at pretty much the same pace. One of the great joys of outdoor swimming is the way one can, if one wishes, find a swimming buddy, someone who enjoys the same sort of swimming as you, alleviating the boredom if you’re training and doubling the enjoyment when you’re taking on a big swim.  After a 5 km swim down Lake Bohinj in Slovenia when we cruised together the whole way, Ruth and I decided to take on the challenge of Lake Annecy in tandem, and during the spring we trained together frequently, swimming at the same pace up and down the beautiful Olympic sized pool at Crystal Palace for hours on end.

This would have been fine for the swim itself had we been swimming, as in training and in Bohinj, in swimsuits alone.  Unfortunately Lake Annecy has a water temperature in June of 18°, and for a swim which we were happily anticipating would be six hours, we would need to wear some sort of thermal layers. And of course, as soon as you start putting on neoprene or anything similar, you change the way you swim, and thus your speed. In the event, despite efforts to find combinations of wetsuits, swimskins and other items which would keep our speeds complementary, we still ended up swimming at slightly different speeds.  Over a swim of a couple of hours it wouldn’t have mattered; over a swim of eight hours, supported by only one boat and therefore having to stay together, it did.  In hindsight it would have been much better to have admitted that we might not end up swimming at exactly the same pace and have booked to swim together on the same day with different boats.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lac_d_Annecy.jpg

So big…..

  1. Train for the whole swim, not just the swimming bits. Huh?  I hear you say, and I duly clarify.  On any long swim, you won’t just be swimming, you’ll also be feeding as well.   You hear a lot about this if you’re any sort of marathon swimmer, and with good reason, since feeding, aka the act of taking on board sustenance, is of great importance to the success or failure of a long swim.  Ruth and I did a lot of swim training, but not much feed training, which in hindsight was a mistake.  Partly this is because of nourishment – if you’re turning your arms over for eight hours (more if you’re doing something like the Channel) in cold or coldish temperatures, your body needs something to keep it going.  Most people use carbohydrate drinks, but I preferred not to as I’ve had bad experiences with them upsetting my stomach, so we decided to do the swim on warm Ribena, bananas and jelly babies.  I’ve done swims like the Dart 10k on this mix, and it works well for a relatively short swim like that, but for eight hours it wasn’t sufficient. I think I’d have had a lot more energy during the second half of the swim if I’d been taking on a carb drink – there are various kinds, you can test out which ones upset you and which don’t, and I wish I’d done so.

The other issue with not feeding was that we simply hadn’t practiced taking on board decent amounts of liquid whilst in the middle of a swim, and thus accustomed ourselves to the process. Not only did we waste time actually getting over to the boat and grabbing the drinks, but we found getting them down us surprisingly difficult.  In the middle of a huge amount of demanding exercise, our bodies wanted to concentrate on the limbs and the cardio/vascular system, not on the digestion, and our stomachs were not happy to have large gulps of Ribena dropped into them quickly.  Feeding is something you should practice so that you realise that a bit of discomfort during the process is not an issue in the same way that being a bit cold or a bit tired or a bit freaked out during a swim is not an issue and doesn’t necessarily signal a problem.  We didn’t and paid the price in our feeds taking up much more time than they should have, thus holding up the swim.

  1. Do your research. Specifically, do proper research on the swim, the route, the water temperature and the weather conditions you are likely to encounter, together with the effect these will have on your swim. This does not mean listening to a few friends who did a much shorter swim at a different time of year and tell you enthusiastically how warm, calm, and pretty it is, so that you decide, incorrectly, that you will be swimming in a holiday brochure.  I can’t tell you how demoralising it is to find yourself, fifteen minutes into what you anticipate will be a six hour swim, wondering whether you can actually put up with the water conditions. It was entirely my own fault for listening to my mates; if I’d asked SwimQuest or those with more knowledge of local conditions, I would have worked out that it can get windy on the lake leading to a bit of chop and prepared accordingly. Not being an experienced sea swimmer I am not a fan of chop, and it was a real shock when we got into the water at 6 am to find a brisk pre-dawn breeze whipping up the surface into nasty little unpredictable waves that always seemed to smack me in the mouth just when I turned my head to take a breath.  Ruth seemed to be coping fine, but I was miserable, to the extent that after twenty minutes I actually stopped and confessed to John “I’m really struggling with the chop”.  He gave me two bits of excellent advice: first, to remember that conditions further down the lake might be quite different (they were; as the day grew warmer the wind dropped and the lake became the glassy blue of the holiday pictures), and second, to relax and “swim soft”, rather than fighting the chop, which immediately made things much better.  Unfortunately, having that experience right at the beginning of the swim really put me out and after that I could not get out of my head – see point four.

The other moment when I really suffered a mental downturn was when we passed the castle at Duingt.  For some unknown reason I’d convinced myself that once past there, it would be a matter of a kilometre or so to the end.  Not so – the part of the lake which is the other side of the castle is 5 k long and known as the Petit Lac, although it’s not so bl88dy petit when you have to swim the whole of it, believe me.  The demoralising effect of coming past the castle to find a whole other lake in front of me and the finishing point vanishingly distant was horrible – I really did have to dig deep to keep going.  So this next bit of advice is one which may be controversial, and it comes down to knowing where you are in terms of the overall swim.  Most marathon swimmers strongly recommend just swimming to the next feed, and with good reason – if you do the Channel, say, nobody including your crew and pilot can say with any confidence where you are in the swim until just before you finish, and therefore you have to give up any thoughts of “How long until I can stop?” and just focus on, in the immortal words of the great Freda Streeter, keeping swimming until your tits scrape the sand.  However, I’m not planning to do the Channel, and in my long swims I always feel much, much better if I have a vague idea of how close (or far away) I am to the finish, based on the landmarks around me.  If I’d planned properly I could have memorised the map of the lake and worked out where I was and how far I had to go at any point, which I think would have been more helpful than constantly wondering where I was and how far I had to go, which drove me more or less bonkers.

Annecy 2

Ruth in the so-called “Petit” Lac. Very pretty, though!

  1. Which brings me to my next, and one of my most important points, mental preparation. Marathon swimmers say with good reason that 90% of any swim is mental rather than physical, and oh my goodness, are they ever right. I had in fact done a certain amount of mental prep during training, including practicing not thinking about “after this swim is finished”, but just accepting that I was, at a given point in time, swimming, and surrendering to that rather than concentrating on how much I’d done and therefore on how soon (or not) it would be over. Using this method I found that I could not only complete six K swims indoors, but actually enjoy them.  The problem is, there is a huge difference between a two hour swim and an eight hour swim; I hadn’t done any really long swims since the previous autumn and so was completely unprepared for making the mental leap to the eight hours required.  There’s a reason why Channel swimmers have to complete a six hour qualifier; six hours swimming round and round with nothing to think about except the swimming can drive you absolutely nuts, and it’s vital to practice this so that you can work out and get comfortable with ways of un-nutting yourself.  This I had not done, and so when I got into a state at the beginning of the swim due to the chop, I had no resources to get myself out of it and therefore had to stay in my head, with my unpleasantly challenging thoughts about how long it was taking, how far it was, how little I was enjoying it, how much I wanted it to be over, and so on and so forth for the whole eight hours.  Nightmare!  With hindsight, my preparation should have included more longer swims so I could get used to the mental gymnastics involved.
  1. Enjoyed it. I wish I had enjoyed it more.  Unfortunately with all the messing around and worrying and being in my head and so forth, there wasn’t a lot of it I enjoyed at all, which is a real shame given that the lake for most of the swim was absolutely beautiful, the weather once the sun came up and the wind dropped was perfect, and the swim was in fact totally fine, with no moment during which there was any doubt that either Ruth or I could finish it with ease.  It was a challenge, sure, but not one which was beyond us, and I wish I’d been able to appreciate it while I was doing it as a lovely experience, rather than afterwards as a learning opportunity.

Having said all that, it was definitely a learning opportunity, a very big one, and as a result I went from thinking in the middle of the lake “I am never, ever, ever, ever doing anything like this ever again, forget it!” to thinking the day after “Hmmmm – how could I do things better next time?”  Which is why I’ve written this piece, really – to crystallise my thinking so that I can remember next time – and so that you can learn from my mistakes!  Which reminds me, there is one further thing we should have done:

  1. Thought about the open water P factor (that’s pee, pooh and puke for the uninitiated). Obviously you can’t practice puking, and you DEFINITELY shouldn’t practice any of these in the Lido!  But if you can practice peeing whilst swimming along, perhaps in a lake or something, it’s quite a handy trick (there are actually blogs online which tell you how to do it).  And whilst I would never recommend practicing ‘releasing the brown trout’ (Openwaterpedia 😉) anywhere there’s anyone else, it might be worth thinking about how you would manage if you did need to do it.  Believe me, the middle of a bl88dy big lake is not the place to have a first go at taking off a thermal rash vest and a swimskin whilst in the water. (Pro tip: don’t try to get the rash vest off by grabbing the neck and pulling the whole thing up over your face, you’ll waterboard yourself – I’ve never changed my mind so quickly about the optimum way to remove a garment).  And then, of course, you need to practice getting them back on again…….  Now that you CAN do in the Lido – and trust me, from bitter personal experience, there is no better way to test the efficiency and effectiveness of your ability to support yourself using only your vertical kick than getting in and out of your wetsuit in the middle of the Lido.  Learn from me, and practice this, and everything else, before you need it 😉.
Annecy
That bl88dy hotel never got any closer.  You can just see it in the distance – it looks like a cottage but it’s about the size of Versailles……

Intermission 27: What I did on my Vacation

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On arrival at the majestic Majestic, we admired the Art Deco, Native American, Middle Eastern and Arts and Crafts interior and settled in on a terrace with shady tables where we could look across a wide green lawn to the meadow at the valley bottom and the towering rock walls beyond. A uniformed waiter brought us cocktail menus and, in due course, cocktails. This being Yosemite, our hiking clothes and boots were completely in keeping with the ambiance, and we were relaxing into our afternoon when another member of staff arrived to entertain us.

Like our waiter, she was in uniform, but in her case the uniform was smart sandy fur shading to grey, accessorised with long sharp teeth and a big bushy tail. Ms Coyote came trotting round the corner of the hotel, stopped for a moment to get our attention, and then moved forwards to take up a photogenic pose right in the middle of the lawn. She looked for all the world as though the manager had just said to her “Celeste, do those accounts later, would you – we’ve got a lot of guests around the lawn and they love it when you do the noble pose thing”, and she’d replied “No worries, Sal – I could do with a breath of fresh air”.

Getting up close and personal with animals at Yosemite is not unusual, as our hotel’s bear and raccoon had already amply illustrated. Humans everywhere are a reliable source of food and many of the local fauna hung out with the homies* in the hope and expectation of a free meal. The park authorities severely discourage approaching or feeding them, as one does not want to be getting into a conversation with a disgruntled bear or coyote who is insisting that they ordered the steak and trying to take one by force. This was well illustrated by Ms Coyote, who was cool as a cucumber whilst we all kept a polite distance. However there was a large tour group with a guide on the far side of the lawn from her, and as she seemed so relaxed and confident they started to approach closer with their phones and cameras. Once a few brave souls had closed nearly half the distance she sat up with a disgruntled “Please do not touch the girls” expression, and eventually took herself politely off back to her double entry book keeping. In the meantime, though, Leslie and Terry had taken some lovely pictures of her. Enjoy!

More tomorrow.

*homo sapiens. Sorry (not sorry).

Intermission 26: What I did on my Vacation

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After our epic hike to Vernal Falls, we decided we needed fortification, and what better fortification can there be following a big walk than the traditional hiker’s refreshment of a luxury cocktail? Fortunately for us we were mere minutes away from a venue which could provide such items in abundance and appropriately luxurious surroundings, the Majestic Yosemite Hotel.

The Majestic is an interesting hotel, not least because it recently changed its name from that which it’s had since it opened in 1927, the Ahwanhee, which is a Native American word meaning Five Stars. (Joke – it actually means Place of the Gaping Mouth, which is almost as inviting. If you’ve ever been to Yosemite you’ll understand why the original inhabitants named this huge, steep-sided, mountain-girded valley thus). The name change came about when the National Parks Service decided to change its hospitality provider and the old provider refused, in a fit of petulance, to hand over the name.

This goes against accepted business practice, at least in the business I work in, of trying to avoid ending client relationships with any phrase beginning “And another thing….”, even when said client has been the instigator of the termination, since such conversations tend to have the effect of ensuring that they will never darken your door again even if they subsequently realise they made a terrible mistake in leaving you in the first place. Playing nice when you can does tend to mean that erstwhile clients can morph back into actual clients surprisingly frequently. Delaware North, the previous provider, had apparently never read “Barbara’s Big Book of How To Succeed in Business”, because they huffily took their ball name and went home. Undaunted, the new provider made a virtue out of a necessity and gave their hotel a spiffy new name which did not hide its light under a bushel.

For the Majestic is indeed majestic, and bang in the middle of Yosemite. It was originally planned to be much larger, but Donald Tressider decided it should be an “intimate” hotel with only 100 rooms, and he got to decide. Who he? and why he get to decide? I’m glad you asked me that. Donald Tressider was the husband of Mary Curry. Who she? Mary Curry was the daughter of Mr and Mrs Curry (Really? Wow!), but that is in fact significant, since the Currys, two schoolteachers, were the people who originated tourism in Yosemite in 1899. During the summer holidays they would take a wagon-load of supplies, camping equipment and guests from Merced and head off on the two week trip to Yosemite for a summer in the valley. They were astonishingly successful, and their son-in-law Donald took over the running of the company when the National Parks Service awarded it th hospitality concession in 1925.

He was thus the person who decided on the look and style of the hotel, which is now commonly known as Parkitecture, for the obvious reason that it is very common in National Parks. When you first see it, you initially think “Disney”, because Uncle Walt copied it for a number of his hotels, and there are crappier versions of it all over the place, but the National Parks Service did it first and did it best. The Majestic Yosemite Hotel is stunning, and all the nicer for not being a mahoosive hulking monolith right in a gorgeous and picturesque spot. When it was first built it suffered from financial problems due to various issues around the building process, including having to beef up the roof so it wouldn’t collapse under the weight of snow in the winter, and the Tressiders’ solution was pleasingly bonkers – in order to drum up business they launched a grand annual ball.

This is the Bracebridge Dinner, which takes place in December and purports to be the Christmas gathering of a fictional Renaissance Lord, Squire Bracebridge. Well, of course they did. They were in the middle of California on the site of a Native American village in a valley which looks nothing whatsoever like anything the United Kingdom has ever seen in a building designed as a fusion of Art Deco, Native American, Middle Eastern, and Arts and Crafts – of COURSE they launched a dinner in which everyone wore Elizabethan dress presided over by Donald Tressider got up like Henry VIII. As if that weren’t nutso enough they also roped in Ansel Adams as the Squire’s jester, which he enacted by climbing, impromptu, the stone pillars in the dining hall up to the roof beams thirty four feet above. Yes, that Ansel Adams. Bonkers. And inspired. It is still considered one of the United States’ foremost Christmas dinners, and at one point was so popular that tickets were allotted by lottery, with one year a reported 60,000 applications for the coveted 1,650 seats.

To get it going they invited large numbers of celebrities and dignitaries to the first ball with a complimentary night in the hotel. It was only after the guests had departed the following day that they discovered that their high-end clientele had nicked everything that wasn’t nailed down. This is not unusual behaviour in the wealthy*; Queen Mary, the wife of George V, was notorious for going into shops, pointing at things and saying “I like that”, and then waiting in a meaningful way for the shopkeeper to give it to her. They used to hide all the expensive stuff if they knew she was coming. In a similar vein, when Terence Conran opened his restaurants on the south bank of the Thames in the 1980s they were very popular with financial types, since they were only a short stagger across Tower Bridge from the City of London. That was in the days when you could smoke in restaurants, and the Chop House in particular provided customers with lovely zinc ashtrays adorned with an embossed cleaver, the symbol of the restaurant (“Chop” House, geddit? Oh, they were crazy times, all right). The staff pretty soon learned to check the tables as their Masters of the Universe clientele were leaving so that they could stop them at the door and relieve them of the ashtrays which had accidentally ended up in pockets and handbags.

But I digress. More tomorrow!

*It’s how they become wealthy.

Intermission – the dreaded lurgy

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I’ve been rubbish at posting recently, partly because I’ve had the best part of two weeks off work this month. The first week was a flu-ey cold, then I was back at work for a week feeling sub-par, and this week I’ve been mostly off again with either a) said cold coming back for an encore b) another virus/secondary infection or c) a menopausal hormone lurch resulting in a few days of my body having zero energy to do anything but adjust to the new state of affairs. Impossible to tell, and I will go to the doctor’s, and they will tell me that it’s either a), b), or c), and that I need to rest until it goes away. Which I know, but I still need to go to the doctor in case I’m still off next week and need to produce a doctor’s certificate for work. Extremely boring all round. Oh, bring me the world’s smallest violin…..

On the upside, I have never been so up to date with social media, and the cats have never had so many opportunities for nuggles. This morning, because it’s my day off, I didn’t have to wake up at seven, try to get up, decide I couldn’t go to work and email them to cancel all my meetings, so I turned off the alarm and decided to sleep in until I or the cats woke up. I woke up at eight on my own. Apparently the feline residents were also totally onside with the prospect of a lie-in.

I was lying there wondering whether to go back to sleep when there was a meow so small that I wasn’t sure whether it was in fact a meow or merely my breath squeaking a bit in my nostrils. A few seconds later it was repeated, slightly louder. I peered over the side of the bed to see the senior cat standing there in an attitude of deferential enquiry, rather like a ladies’ maid a la Downton Abbey, although sadly without a tray of tea. Goodness knows where they get their manners from, it certainly isn’t from me. After breakfast and a swift necessary garden break Missy was back for nuggles whilst I drank my own, self-made tea in bed. Apparently it’s shedding season *picks cat hair out of eyebrows*.

Anyhoo. Yosemite service will be resumed shortly. The fact that I have the mental energy to blog is an improvement, believe it or not. First world problems, eh? 😁

Intermission 25: What I did on my Vacation

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I have to say, I’m slightly saddened at the less than enthusiastic reception my writing about my shoes has received in some quarters. In my humble opinion it’s exactly this sort of closed mindedness that has led to so many of our modern day problems. (Only joking, lovely regular readers! Please don’t stop reading! #ingratiatingsmile.) * Anyhoo, the point of the shoe writing is that I was wearing Keens walking shoes, which have a sole made, I presume, from the same stuff as the soles of their water sandals, and which sticks to wet rocks like cat sick to a cushion**. Thus shod, I was able to leave the trail and clamber down to a spot above the pool at the foot of the falls, where I could see and photograph the mist hanging in the air festooned with rainbows.

I gazed longingly into the pool itself, but, perhaps fortunately, I didn’t have my swimming gear with me. Even if I had, I probably wouldn’t have gone in, as the trail up to the falls had notices at various spots warning tourists not to enter the water, with dire warnings in the shape of tales of families who had gone for a paddle and lost several members. (Awful as this is, it did remind me of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, when he lists, amongst the Sensible Presents, “books of cautionary tales about little boys who were warned not to skate on Farmer Giles’s pond, and did, and drowned”.)

Whilst I was down at the water I noticed a heron wading around in the pools downstream of the falls. (Clearly hadn’t read the notices.) When I’d climbed back up to Leslie and Terry I pointed it out, and, as we watched it, it took off and flew gracefully downstream a little before swooping upwards again to land photogenically on the top of a lone dead pine looming over the valley. Nor was the heron the only bird sitting silhouetted on the tree – one of the lower branches was occupied by a crow which had found something tasty to eat and had taken it up to the top of the pine in the hope, doubtless, of a peaceful lunch. The heron was clearly intent on nicking said lunch, rather like the school bully lumbering across the playground towards a scrawny first-year, except more graceful and in feathers rather than a blazer.

And now played out a wonderful little drama. The heron, hunched on top of the pine, was acting as though she hadn’t noticed the crow, doubtless in the hope of employing the element of surprise. The crow had stopped eating and was staring suspiciously at the heron. The two remained like that for a few minutes, shifting around in a sort of Mexican standoff as though wondering who was going to go first. Then the tableau was amended by the arrival of another crow, which I initially assumed to be likewise after a free lunch but which turned out to be a have-a-go heroine out to save her chum.

The first crow remained on her branch a few levels below while the second crow started to gradually jump closer and closer to the heron. I could imagine the conversation:

“You ok, Kaz? That slag bovvering you?”

“Won’t leave me alone, Di. Giving me the right ‘ump, I can’t eat me lunch.”

“Right, leave ‘er to me. Oy, Helen or whatever yer name is, wot’s your game?”

“Careful, Di, she can be a right cah when she wants to.”

“Yeah, well I can be a right cah an’ all. Oy! Skinny! I’m TALKING to you!”

This conversation was extended until Di was sitting right underneath Helen threatening to “Come up there and sort ‘er AHT!”. Helen managed to repel boarders by the simple expedient of ignoring the small sweary bundle of feathers threatening to “turn yew inter fevver dusters” and Di, perhaps sensibly, didn’t have the balls, or whatever is the avian equivalent thereof, to jump up there and actually tackle her. Di then jumped back down and sat next to Kaz, the two of them doubtless sharing unpleasant gossip about Helen’s weight, shape, haircut, lovelife and family until Helen finally got fed up with it and flapped off back to the river on the basis that if you catch your own lunch at least you only have to put up with backchat from the lunch and not from obstreperous neighbours.***

Fortunately Leslie had her camera with her and was able to take fabulous pictures of the exchanges, which she then kindly shared on Facebook so I have been able to reproduce them here. Enjoy! And more shortly (about hotels and coyotes rather than shoes 😉).

*Although I would not recommend Sex and the City, which has quite a lot about shoes…..

**Personal experience.

***Of course they would have been speaking with American accents, but I can’t write American slang, so Sarf Lunnon it is.

Intermission 24: What I did on my Vacation

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Upwards and upwards we climbed towards the valley rim. Patty turned back (someone has to turn back on all the best quests or it’s not a proper quest, so she took one for the team), but Terry, Leslie and I pushed on. We crossed the river on a wooden bridge where Terry and Leslie tried, with mixed success, to instruct me in the gentle art of selfies so that I could get a picture of the water in the background foaming over tumbled grey rocks (or not…see below), and climbed some more until we reached the approach to the falls.

In spring when the flow is at its fiercest walkers need to put on waterproofs at this point to protect themselves from the spray and there’s no way you could leave the path. In autumn the flow was much less but still beautiful. The falls were a slim line of white dropping into a deep basin at the base, where the rising mist caught the sun in nets of rainbows. It was cameras agogo for pretty much everyone. There are metal railings along the path to stop Darwin awards candidates from trying to get a closer look, and I’m sure that in spring I would have stayed the right side of them, as a river in spate is not to be trifled with. As it was, a number of us climbed over and made our way down relatively well-worn trails almost to the lip of the basin.

At this point I’ll take a slight diversion to mention my shoes. I was wearing Keens walking shoes, which I bought after owning several pairs of Keens water sandals. There is an actual link here, since the first pair of Keens I owned were bought in San Francisco during the weekend I spent there after the Grand Canyon trip on which I met Leslie, Patty and Terry, having seen and admired Terry’s Keens during the trip. The whole trip we were in and on the water, so the advice from the tour company was to bring sandals which one could wear in the river, and I had a pair of Tevas, which are very good walking sandals.

However, the Keens were even better, since they had been designed for Colorado raftsmen (really), were made out of neoprene with huge thick soles and bumpers across the toes to protect feet from the rocks. Plus they came in a range of gorgeous colours; Terry’s were a delightful shade of dark blue. I was deeply covetous of them, although even if I had managed to bump her off and dump her body in the river sans sandals one dark night it would not have done me any good, as her feet are a lot smaller than mine. (And she is a really fabulous person and a good friend. Also murdering people is wrong, even for their lovely sandals. So a bad idea all round, really).

What I did do during the weekend I subsequently spent in San Francisco was to hunt desperately for a pair of Keens of my own. They were (are, for I still have them) bright green, as that was the only colour in my size; my feet are big and the sandals are bigger, so when wearing them I looked a bit froggy, but I didn’t care – my very own Keens! This was, of course, back in the day, before globalisation had fully got its claws into us and Keens were at that point unknown in England although now they are common and lots of people wear them. The downside to this march of everything everywhere is that one has somewhat lost the delightful novelty of travelling to a foreign city and finding the shops full of things and brands one would never see at home (yes, Eddie Bauer, I’m looking at you). The upside is that I now have three pairs of Keens. I still own the original froggy pair, now much repaired but still going strong (Keens are wonderful if you like a sustainable product, as they provide replacement fastening cords for their shoes free of charge and also a link to a helpful YouTube video which demonstrates how to fit them). In addition I also have two other pairs, one bright pink and one purple. I lust after a berry red pair but feel that four sets of Keens is possibly a bit much for one person, even for one who likes Keens as much as I do.

More shoe (and waterfall) related stuff tomorrow!

Intermission 23: What I did on my Vacation

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Right, onwards! To our second full day in Yosemite, featuring waterfalls! views! herons! coyotes again! and corvids! (I love corvids, don’t you? If you ever wonder what happened to the dinosaurs, just imagine a crow the size of an SUV. There you go.) Leslie recommended a hike up to Vernal Falls, about three miles there and back. Elaine decided to stay around the village and go for a wander, but the rest of us set off for our hike. We were distracted momentarily at the start by the sight of numerous climbers on the rock wall looming over the trailhead car park. It was much smaller and closer to us than El Capitan to the road, allowing us to see the climbers upon it with the naked eye, picking them out largely by the flecks of colour provided by their clothing – red, turquoise, green and yellow. Although they were relatively close to us they were still smaller than ants on the vastness of the valley wall. Leslie also pointed out the place where a rock slide some years previously had come down and crushed some of the cars below it. Fortunately no rocks fell whilst we were there 🙂.

And then we set off, down a trail alongside the delightful Merced River. As this was autumn the river was low, since all of Yosemite’s rivers are fed by meltwater from the winter snows and therefore are at their most impressive in the spring. We could see the mighty Yosemite Falls from our accommodation and whilst we were there it was the merest white thread sliding over a rock lip stained and carved over a much wider area by the spring deluge. It was like going to see Usain Bolt and finding him stretched on a sofa in his dressing gown having a little nap. No matter, the rest of the park was still totally awesome. As we walked along the river I regretted not packing my swimming gear, which I’m sure I wouldn’t have been thinking in the Spring as the waters roared down the valley.

As the trail proceeded up the river it and the river diverged, the river running at the bottom of a deep gorge carved by its waters over numerous winters and the trail climbing the gorge sides. We went past moss covered rocks, tumbled boulders, leaning trees decked with gold and red autumn leaves, and views, views, views, through pine forests acrosst the gorge to sharp grey peaks lit by brilliant sunshine outlined against azure skies. I kept expecting Gandalf to appear and announce that we were nearly at Rivendell. It was completely different to the hike of the previous day, and just as impressive.

More shortly!

Intermission 22: What I did on my Vacation

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Oops! I said “More tomorrow”, I actually meant “More next year when I can get my act together…..”. Well, I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas and New Year in the meantime, and here, have a bonus longer edition to make up for the break 😃.

So finally we return to our heroes, halfway up El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. Tommy Caldwell has just reached Wino Tower, from where it’s a pretty easy* climb to the top. Kevin Jorgesen, meanwhile, was stuck below Pitch 15, where he had given up the attempt to conquer the Dawn Wall free climbing, and had turned to supporting Caldwell in his climb. All Caldwell had to do was go on and reach the top and the successful completion of a challenge which had occupied him for seven years. And he couldn’t do it.

When he reached Wino Tower, he realised that completing the climb without Jorgesen would be meaningless. The two of them had worked together for so long to conquer the wall that to do it without his buddy would take all of the pleasure from it. Bromance! Honestly, if Hollywood wrote this you’d reject it as overly slushy and contrived. No matter. Caldwell determined that he and Jorgesen would climb the Dawn Wall together or not at all. He declared “I went into full-on support mode”. In other words, he decided to go back down and help his partner to catch up with him, whatever it took.

At this point, Dawn Wall goes into Hollywood mode itself and gives us a swelling music, triumphant hugging version of what happened next, and if you want to see how Kevin Jorgesen made it past Pitch 15 and The Dyno and to the top with Tommy Caldwell, you’ll have to watch the movie. But the bit that was most interesting for me was barely alluded to, except in one small comment that Kevin Jorgesen made when he was waiting to make yet another attempt on Pitch 15. Caldwell was doing everything he could to support him. His family and friends in the meadow were totally behind him. Strangers around the world were rooting for him. But having acknowledged that, as he prepared to step out onto the stretch of rock that had previously been his nemesis, he said “Now it’s down to me”.

How well I know that feeling! If you’ve ever done anything which requires you to take a step outside your comfort zone to meet a challenge which is almost beyond you, you will know that at the end, however much support you have, you have to meet it on your own.

Now, I am someone who loves being part of a team and I adore both experiencing and watching the joy evinced by individuals when they are part of a group which achieves something by working together. To take an example, I have been involved in amateur dramatics for more years than I care to remember, and one of my most treasured memories comes from almost the first show I was involved in, Ring Round the Moon. This is a play which revolves around identical twins, and, since most directors don’t have access to matched pairs of actors, the twins are played by one actor. As you will doubtless have surmised for yourself, this leads to lots of incidents when Twin A exits stage left in a bowler and moments later Twin B enters stage right in a top hat, exclaiming “Is Archie here? Dash – looks as though I’ve just missed him!” Of course the audience is in on the joke and realises that the actor has merely nipped across backstage, changing his hat as he goes. In this particular play Anouilh (for it is he) has a bit of fun with this in the third act, by which point the joke is well established, when Twin A exits stage left and Twin B almost immediately enters stage right in a completely different set of clothing, thus confounding expectations and delighting the audience.

In the professional theatre, with dressers and wardrobe who for all I know create two complete suits of clothing which the actor simply steps into and Velcros up the back, this is relatively easy. In amateur theatre with a limited budget, not so much. The team deputed to change Dermot, the actor in question, was four young men who played his friends. At every single rehearsal they strained every sinew to get him changed in time for his cue, and at every single rehearsal they failed. Dermot would come on stage late, doing up his tie, and since the dramatic effect entirely depends upon the actor in question coming in dead on cue looking perfectly polished, this killed it stone dead. There’s no way an audience is going to be delighted if the line “Oh, here’s Algy now. Hello, Algy, old boy!” is followed by an awkward pause and the entrance of a flustered Algy with his shoes on the wrong way round.

Reluctantly, the director decided that the joke would have to go. Some lines would be added to make the change possible. The team concerned were distraught at this news. PLEASE could they have one more try? They knew they could do it. And there were still two dress rehearsals until the show. Ok, agreed the director. One more chance. If it’s not right for the first dress, we change it. It will be! they promised. And they practiced. Oh, my goodness, how they practiced! They practiced like practicey things. Came the moment: “Hello, Algy, old boy!” Everyone held their breath. And came the answer “Hello, old chum!” as Dermot stepped onto the stage, suave as a well-dressed cucumber, settling his tie in an urbane fashion. Everybody in the cast cheered like crazy, and each night thereafter his timely entrance brought an audible gasp from the audience.**

I remember this so well because I witnessed the quick change every night, sitting waiting to go on, and I watched the perfect choreography as each carried out his role, whipping off jackets, doing up trousers and shoes and slipping already tied ties over Dermot’s head as the final shirt buttons were done up. I saw the delight and the high fives and the silent air punching of the gang of four each night after they had got their man onto the stage in time for his cue. Nobody else saw this and they got no reward or applause for it (other than from me – I applauded them silently every night) but it still filled them with palpable joy, the joy of working as a team and supporting someone else as part of a larger effort. It’s a wonderful thing, and to be a part of it is its own reward. But the point here, for I have digressed a lot, is that in many of these situations, the team effort is to get one person to a point where it is down to them.

Of course, in this case, although it was definitely down to Dermot, it wasn’t exactly a step into a void, because he’d literally just come off stage, was in the latter part of the play, and was therefore fairly comfortable with his position. But often, that moment when it’s down to you is pretty momentous, lonely and scary. You can have as much help and support as you like, as much encouragement and input, the greatest team or the bestest buddy or buddies ever, but the point comes when you have to step into your own Pitch 15 alone. From going on stage when you’re shaking with terror to jumping out of the plane for your first solo parachute jump to going out to play in the singles finals at Wimbledon, the feeling is probably much the same. As I have said, I know it very well, and it’s both one of the loneliest feelings in the world and one of the least lonely, because although you know that it is indeed at that final point all down to you, you are also comforted and upheld by the help and support you’ve received from others. But you still have to be willing to take that step, alone, into the void.

I’m not really quite sure how, but this reminds me very much of the great CP Cavafy Poem “Che fece….il gran rifiuto”*** It’s a poem I absolutely love although I can’t claim to understand it. But I do think there’s a moment, when you get to the point when it’s all down to you, when you have to say either the great No or the great Yes, and I believe everyone knows those moments and has their answers to them. There are times in my life when I’ve said Yes, and times when I’ve said No, and the poem reflects both of them.****

Che fece….il gran rifiuto

CP Cavafy

For some people the day comes/when they have to declare the great Yes/or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the yes/ready within him; and saying it,

He goes forward in honour and self-assurance./He who refuses does not repent. Asked again/he would still say no. But that no – the right no -/undermines him all his life.

More….soon!

*For, as the immortal Terry Pratchett would say, a given definition of “easy” 😉.

**One of the ways Dermot achieved his prompt entrance was to start his line whilst he was still in the wings, which is very effective provided you come on within two or three words, as the audience assumes you have been on stage the whole time. I dub this the ‘Clive James’ effect, after the distinguished writer who pointed out that tennis players are disadvantaged in a match against another player who grunts, as the grunt arrives on the other side of the net first and the opponent will often be fooled into trying to hit the grunt rather than the ball.

***Get me 😁

****I’ve written on this topic before here

Christmas Intermission: Duvet Know It’s Christmas?

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Every Christmas Day I publish a little blog specifically about Christmas and subjects connected with it (in my mind, at least). Today’s is about a Twitter thread which has, over the last few years, become a perennial joy: #DuvetknowitsChristmas. This is curated each Christmas Eve on Twitter by Rhodri Marsden (@rhodri), and the premise is beautifully simple: people share pictures of their Christmas sleeping arrangements, the crapper the better*.

It’s an absolute joy as families all over the country gather, often with spouses and children, in houses which are far, far too small. There are the perennial favourites: couples who have been married for years in twin beds, adults in childhood rooms in single beds under Jasmine and Batman duvet covers, blow-up beds in studies and box rooms. There are the frequent appearances of spooky dolls, puppets, masks, mannequins and random soft toys. And there are sleeping arrangements which are frankly weird: beds in unheated conservatories, in the attic, in camper vans on the driveway, under the piano…. Take a look, and be amazed and uplifted.

Uplifted? Yep, indeedy, uplifted. And, of course, highly amused – pretty much every submission achieves a wry humour whether the subject is contemplating a bed in a hat showroom, on a leaky airbed next to a desk, shared with a toddler who doesn’t like the travel cot, in the living room where Nan is watching the late movie or in the bottom bunk underneath a five year old nephew. But it’s the pictures which are the real delight, for here is the real world. Not the carefully arranged Insta-ready perfection that most people generally post as a window on their lives, but the backroom, shabby, IRL storage space of the hopes and dreams of ordinary people everywhere.

Here is the reassurance that in our own strange quirky weird little way we are just like everyone else. Everyone else has decorating projects which have stalled for years, hobbies the only evidence of which is the dusty equipment at the back of the boxroom, appalling objects we can’t throw out for sentimental reasons, ancient computers which haven’t been turned on since 2015, mountains of cack stacked up in corners because it’s easier to do that than to make the mental effort of deciding what to do with it (plastic bag full of washed Gourmet cat food trays, anyone)? It’s massively comforting.

And it’s also massively touching. Here is the real Christmas story of love and togetherness writ large by all the people who travel hundreds of miles by planes, trains and automobiles to sleep in kitchens on sofa cushions because they want to be with the people who are occupying every last corner of the house in question. And here too are the sweet and touching and funny gestures made by hosts who have run out of pillows never mind beds, but still want to make their loved ones welcome even if they are sleeping in a cupboard – the clean towels on top of the broken camp bed, the bars of Aero on the appalling seventies pillow cases, the Christmas stocking slung over a stepladder, the fairy lights around the uncurtained window. It’s a triumph of pragmatism, love and humour.

So I’m writing about it here because that’s what Christmas is all about. Being with the people you love and care about, however inconvenient. And that doesn’t just mean at Christmas, because love is for life, not just for Christmas. Maybe your family is too far away in space or time for you to be physically with them. Maybe your family is somewhere else, or you have a family scattered around the country or the globe, perhaps because they are a family you have chosen yourself rather than one you were born into. Perhaps you have yet to create your own family. No matter. Christmas is about love, and the message that love is for everyone, and that it is absolutely fine not to be perfect, because there is a place for everyone.

Wherever you are spending Christmas, however you are spending it, and whoever you are spending it with, I wish you a very happy and loving time, today and every day.

*Rhodri Marsden has asked for everyone who has enjoyed his Twitter feed this year to give a donation to Shelter.