Generally Speaking

A grain or two of truth

W.S.Gilbert put a lot of himself into Jack Point, the tragic jester in The Yeomen of the Guard – the nearest thing to serious opera he and Sullivan wrote together.

Yeomen of the Guard 2004 me as Jack Point

I was lucky enough to play Jack Point myself, one of a number of roles I had over the years with our small town’s amateur operatic society. Alton Op & Dram – AODS for short.

Naturally, people see Gilbert first and foremost as a jester – his wit and brilliance with rhyme and meter have rarely if ever been equalled.

But I remember being aware as I played this role that there was another side to Gilbert, that he also wanted to say serious things about human nature, about society, about scandals in high places. Which is exactly what he is saying, through his character Jack Point in this great song that I – a recently retired doctor in the town, no less – had the joy of singing:

Winnow all my folly, folly, folly and you’ll find
a grain or two of truth among the chaff

Gilbert’s librettos were full of truths, surely one of the reasons why so many amateur companies did little but ‘G&S’, and in some cases nothing but G&S, for generations.

Here, for example, is one of my favourites: Private Willis (no relation) is on sentry duty outside the House of Lord’s at the opening of Act II of Iolanthe, and he tells us:

I am an intellectual chap and think of things that will astonish you“.

Like this one:

That every boy and every gal That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal Or else a little Conservative !“.

Surely that is an enduring, and rather depressing, truth. That people seem to be born pre-stamped with an indelible political polarisation. Just as true today as it was at end of the 19th Century – it’s hard to think of a better response than Sgt. Willis’s baleful “Fal, lal, la !“.

It is well known that Gilbert’s ‘grains of truth’, aimed at the highest places in society, made him unpopular with the establishment. Thus we have his splendidly-named Lord Mountararat in Iolanthe, recounting without apparent irony the glories of British history:

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte, As every child can tell,
The House of Peers, throughout the war, Did nothing in particular,
And did it very well.

That is supposed to be why, in spite of his peerless verse being at least as important as Sullivan’s music in the phenomenal success of their collaboration, Gilbert was never knighted.

You may say that he asked for it. Time and again he depicted his highly-placed characters as figures of ridicule. The Major General in The Pirates of Penzance is so ‘modern’ and educated that, although he can ‘write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform‘ he actually has no idea ‘what progress has been made in modern gunnery‘, and no more of ‘tactics than a novice in a nunnery‘.

In HMS Pinafore Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, advises anyone wishing to follow him and become ‘ruler of the Queen’s Navee‘, to “stick close to your desks, and never go to sea“, just as he had done. This was a jibe at the notoriously land-lubber Admiral of The Fleet of the day. But as today we see political cronies devoid of appropriate experience being appointed to senior defence and intelligence positions on both sides of the Atlantic, Gilbert’s jesting once again speaks of something timeless about the human situation.

Iolanthe 1998 – Lord Chancellor

One final example: the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe, another part I once played (Think Nightmare Song – I cherish the memory of managing the dress rehearsal and all six performances without a single slip), sings a long list of naughty things that (other) judges get up to, which he has promised himself he will never, ever do. For example:

My learned profession I’ll never disgrace
By taking a fee with a grin on my face
When I haven’t been there to attend to the case
(Said I to myself – said I !)

But it wasn’t just senior figures he lampooned, he also directed his barbs at contemporary trends. The whole of The Mikado is a spoof on the then prevailing fashion to admire all things Japanese. The comic names of the characters – Pooh Bah, Pish Tush (noble lords) and Yum Yum, Nanki Pooh (the love-lorn central couple) – were among many aspects which would today be regarded as diplomatically suspect, to put it mildly.

Another hot topic at the time was Darwin’s Origin of Species. So Gilbert had his go at the explosive new suggestion that mankind had descended from the apes. In Princess Ida he gives Lady Psyche a song in which she tells the tale of an ape’s attempt to win the love of a certain ‘Lady fair, of lineage high‘. The courtship was not a success:

He bought white ties, and he bought dress suits,
And he crammed his feet into bright tight boots –
And to start in life on a brand-new plan,
He christened himself Darwinian Man !
But it would not do,
The scheme fell through –
For the Maiden fair, whom the monkey craved,
Was a radiant being,
With a brain far-seeing –
While Darwinian Man, though well-behaved,
At best is only a monkey shaved !

Another contemporary trend was aestheticism, and specifically the cult of Oscar Wilde. In a scarcely disguised parody, he has Bunthorne in Patience – revealing in confidence to the audience – ‘am I alone, and unobserved? – I am‘ – the shocking truth that his professed æstheticism is merely ‘affectation, born of a morbid love of admiration‘:

Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high æsthetic band,
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your mediæval hand.

And every one will say,
As you walk your flowery way,
“If he’s content with a vegetable love which would certainly not suit me,
Why, what a most particularly pure young man this pure young man must be!”

I will finish with my own last G&S role – The Pirate King in AODS’ 2009 production of The Pirates of Penzance.

Pirates of Penzance 2009 Pirate King

Here we have Gilbert once again pointing out the essential amorality of establishment norms.

Frederick the apprentice pirate has reached his age of maturity and is about to return to the respectable world, where he will feel obliged to seek the extermination of his beloved former companions. He urges the King – me in this case – to render such unpleasantness unnecessary by accompanying him back to civilisation.

No, Frederick,” I reply, ” it cannot be. I don’t think much of our profession, but, contrasted with respectability ‘banking for that matter’ (topical ad lib this – for early 2009) it is comparatively honest

The second verse carries on in the same vein:

When I sally forth to seek my prey
I help myself in a royal way.
I sink a few more ships, it’s true,
Than a well-bred monarch ought to do;
But many a king on a first-class throne,
If he wants to call his crown his own,
Must manage somehow to get through
More dirty work than ever I do,

Here we have another ‘grain or two of truth among the chaff.’. The idea that people in low places – even actual pirates – are more honest than people on high has powerful resonances today. Knowing life in this small town as well as I do after my career here as a family doctor, I see absolute honour amongst small people almost every day.

Gilbert the tragic jester puts this advice into the mouth of his alter ago Jack Point:

He who’d make his fellow, fellow, fellow creatures wise,
Should always gild the philosophic pill.

There was so much more than mere comedy in this verse, and in these extraordinary roles. Which is what makes Gilbert great, and for me what made it such a privilege to perform them.

Why I am not ‘moving on’ from the Cummings affair

This is based on a letter I sent yesterday to my MP, who is a Conservative back-bencher and former Minister.

I cannot express how profoundly worried I am by the fact that Dominic Cummings is not only still in post, but still wielding extraordinary power in Westminster. I want to know what on earth this means. And I want to know what hold this deeply-sinister man had over the Prime Minister, the Attorney General, the Minister of Health, and even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that led them to trash their moral authority, and in the case of the Attorney General her clear duty under the Separation of Powers, by making public statements on the record in defence of what was so obviously indefensible behaviour.

They tried to take us all for fools, but it did not work because we are not fools. The resulting loss of the government’s moral authority, and its abject failure to punish Cummings’ gross irresponsibility, has been the cause, not only of further national humiliation in the eyes of the world, but of an unknowable number, possibly in the tens of thousands, of coronavirus deaths which could otherwise have been avoided.

‘Move on, nothing to see here’

I know the Prime Minister wants us to ‘move on’. I know he has declared the Cummings affair ‘closed’. But that is the trouble with throwing away your moral authority – you lose the right to respect for such appeals. If it had been me that had behaved as Johnson and the others have behaved, I would in addition have lost the right to something even more precious, something beyond price, my self-respect.

But in my small life, and in the small lives of my father, and of my closest friends, that reputation for honour, for integrity, has not been thrown away. And nor has that self-respect. And that is why we do not ‘move on’. And that is why the Cummings affair is not ‘closed’.

It simply beggars belief that with our proud history of scientific, medical and governmental excellence, the UK’s, and specifically England’s, response to the coronavirus pandemic has been one of the worst, or even by some measures the worst, in the entire world.

Mr Johnson has shown himself incapable of the slightest shame or apology for his dreadful performance. But as an intensely patriotic citizen, I personally feel a deep sense of humiliation for my country. While Johnson obviously thinks apology is a sign of weakness, people worthy of admiration see it as a strength. This government has brought shame on us all and all I could say to my own MP, who had been Minister of Education under Mrs May but escaped reappointment by opposing Johnson, was to congratulate him on his good fortune in not being part of it. The current attempt to shift blame onto senior civil servants just underlines the sub-Trumpian rottenness of these third-rate people, whose only qualification for office was their unswerving commitment to the imbecile cause of Brexit.

Which brings me to my explanation for the extraordinary immunity of Cummings. There is only one issue which is sufficiently massive to explain the bizarre dominion of this ‘unelected bureaucrat’ (to use one of the Brexiters’ favourite phrases). Having been the Director of the Vote Leave campaign, he has chapter and verse on aspects of the 2016 referendum which render its result invalid and he has threatened to spill the beans if he is sacked. That would cut the ground from under the government’s sole uniting cause and place them in a wholly untenable position. Avoiding that is more important to them than anything else. Even the health of the nation and its international reputation.

New World

Many of us are finding the simplified life enforced by this strange, strange coronavirus lock-down to be providing us with an opportunity to do things like sorting out records of the past. I have been looking at an album of my own childhood photographs which is bringing back memories of what is probably the most dramatic dislocation of my entire life.

I had my eleventh birthday in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And in the middle of a change in my life so great that the new world I was about to enter would not seem to have the slightest connection with the one I was leaving behind.

Looking back some sixty five years later, I remember most vividly that feeling of disconnection, together with a pervading sense of unreality – a weird feeling that this tremendous thing wasn’t really happening.

Read more…

Protecting the River Wey in Alton

written by Glen Skelton and Jenny Griffiths

A group of 14 volunteers from Alton & Villages Local Action for Nature (part of Alton Climate Action & Network – ACAN) is working with Glen Skelton, the Wetland Landscapes Officer from Surrey Wildlife Trust, to protect and improve the health of the River Wey in Alton.

River volunteers

Glen has trained the volunteers in how to check for pollution incidents and get them investigated. Through Riverfly surveys, they will also track changes in the numbers of riverflies in the river, such as mayfly and caddisfly larvae and freshwater shrimp. They can then help to restore the river in those areas with low numbers of these insects, the areas that need the most urgent help.

Celebrating our river – a chalk stream

The River Wey has only two sources – we are fortunate that one is in Alton. The Wey runs from Alton all the way to the Thames at Weybridge. The North Wey between Alton and Farnham is the only part of the River Wey that is a chalk stream. Chalk streams are so important – there are only about 200 in the world, and 85% of them are in the southern half of England. They are one of Earth’s rarest habitats. Chalk streams are full of gin-clear alkaline-rich water which comes from springs in the chalk aquifer – water stored underground, with a stable temperature all year round. The river bed is gravel or chalk with shallow banks and an abundance of aquatic plants.

‘Gin-clear’ water

Their headwaters dry up in warmer months (known as a “winterbourne”).

Pressures and problems

Unfortunately all is not well with Alton’s river. Alton is a built-up area and this causes pollution of the river from sewage, road run-off and even dishwashers connected up to the wrong drain. Pollutants bring unwanted nutrients into the river causing algal blooms, which starve the river of oxygen and kill fish and insect life.

On the outskirts of the town, soil run-off from fields gets into the river after heavy rain and flooding, often travelling down roads. The sediment covers the river bed gravels, smothering aquatic plants and invertebrates. Sediment also transports pesticides and fertilizers again causing suffocating algal blooms. The headwater streams that feed into the main river, such as the Caker stream, are important spawning sites for migratory fish such as the brown trout. The eggs need lots of oxygen, but get smothered by the sediment. The fields at the top of Brick Kiln Lane have been releasing large amounts of sediment into the river during this winter’s rains turning it brown and smothering the gravel.

Soil running off from fields and down Brick Kiln Lane…

The impact of this could clearly be seen at Flood Meadows

…and into the source of the river Wey half a mile away.

We need to work with landowners to keep soil on their fields, encouraging the use of herb- rich field edges to trap soil run off or planting crops which hold the soil together in the winter months.

Kings Pond

Kings Pond, Alton

Kings Pond collects all of the sediment coming downstream and is slowly filling up. Also the large amount of food thrown in to feed the water fowl creates a nutrient-rich soup which damages the river. This has been picked up in Riverfly surveys which have shown low numbers of invertebrates in the river downstream of the pond. In an ideal world we would find a way to bypass the river around Kings Pond, allowing plant and invertebrate species downstream to bounce back.

Climate Change

Headwater streams are the first to be affected by climate change. As our world gets warmer, springs are drying up earlier each year. Ancient populations of brown trout

An ‘important’ brown trout

that have been isolated in headwaters for millennia are starting to get into trouble as flows decrease and waters warm up. These trout are so important for helping to renew trout populations reduced by pollution downstream.

Re-naturalising the river

The river in Alton has been straightened in many places. The uniform channels lack variation in flows and deeper water crucial to support a range of different species, and they offer little refuge for fish species to escape predators. Overwide channels also drop sediment during low flows. But we can help. Creating a more sinuous channel through the use of berms (barriers) can help to speed up flows, cleaning the gravels and helping aquatic plants to re-establish, supporting fish and invertebrate life. The Wildlife Trust and volunteers have already re- naturalised the river in this way at both the Lamports and Flood Meadows. AVLAN is open to all and welcomes new volunteers at any time. Get in touch through the ACAN website www.altonclimatenetwork.org.uk or email altonclimatenetwork@gmail.com , or contact us through AVLAN’s Facebook page.

Posted here on behalf of the Riverfly partnership.

ACAN – making a difference.

One year ago Alton Climate Action & Network did not exist. This post is an account of how much has been achieved since then – of our ambitious plans for the future – and of how much we believe there must be a future. (It also explains why I haven’t written much else here recently.)

It’s not that climate-change awareness wasn’t already alive in our town. Following our long-established town Greening campaign and our 2015 rally in support of that November’s COP21 Paris Climate Talks, Energy Alton last March organised a door-to-door survey of popular attitudes to climate change. This demonstrated widespread concern and willingness to make changes (albeit small ones, and largely focusing on single-use plastic).

The same month The Alton Society, Alton Local Food Initiative, and Energy Alton combined to show the powerful French film Demain (Tomorrow). This inspired those of us who saw it with the urgency of the need for action and showed just how much local initiatives can have far-reaching effects.

So, a small action group formed and began to sign up supporters, to set up a database of individual and group contacts, and to establish a public profile. My wife was a member of this core group and I became involved, not just because of my obvious sympathy, but because I knew how to set up things like email accounts, altonclimatenetwork@gmail.com and social media accounts, for which we used the handle @altonclimate on Facebook and Twitter.

I was also asked to use my experience with a Desk Top Publishing program to try out some designs for a logo. After playing around with various ideas I came up with this combination of font, colouring and background image that seemed, largely by happy chance, to work rather nicely.

Meanwhile, the core group set about building on the unprecedented impact on public consciousness that had been generated that Spring by the triple-whammy of peaceful Extinction Rebellion protests in London, the extraordinary Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, and the outspoken broadcast by David Attenborough. So the group began a Climate Awareness Stall at the Farmers’ Market in the High Street and appearances on our local Wey Valley Radio, both to continue monthly thereafter.

In June things really hotted up. We advertised the existence of the new group though an editorial for Round & About magazine, delivered free through every door in the area, and we paid for a multi-page ‘Green pull-out’ in the Town’s newspaper, The Alton Herald.

The banner I designed for the front page of the Alton Herald’s ‘Green pull-out’

And we ran a stall at the Town Council’s Community Fayre in the public gardens that month.

Open meeting flyer

But the big event was on the 17th with the Inaugural Open Meeting in the Alton Assembly Rooms. Our Chair, Jenny Griffiths, did the welcome, before introducing a trio of deliberately short presentations. One speaker gave a frank but ultimately optimistic view of the crisis facing the natural world, a second spoke powerfully from the perspective of Extinction Rebellion activism, and our County Councillor, Andrew Joy, had come straight from a Cabinet meeting in Winchester with the incredibly-timely news that they had decided that very morning to recommend to the full Council the immediate declaration of a state of climate emergency.

Discussion Groups. For the rest of the meeting everyone moved to their favoured topic labels fixed to the walls, and then spread out into discussion groups, some of which overflowed onto the lawn around the war memorial outside.

  • Green Spaces
  • Food
  • Less Stuff
  • Transport
  • Energy
  • Building Standards
  • Lobbying
  • Information and Outreach

These are a couple of the pictures I took of the meeting, which I put together with some video and subsequently posted as a short movie sequence on our Facebook page. (I seem to be able to post it here as well!)

In July we attended meetings by both District Council and County Council to lobby in support of their respective, successful, proposals for the declaration of climate emergency.

For those who are strangers to the bizarre way we organise local government in England: a town of 16,000 population like Alton has its own Town Council, with limited power, which is subject to a District Council (East Hampshire – population 120,000 – based in Petersfield) which is subject to a County Council (Hampshire – population 1.4 million – based in Winchester) which is subject to National Government – population 56 million – based in London. Got that?

The AVLAN garden leaflet

In August the Green Spaces group, which had by then transmogrified into Alton & Villages Local Action for Nature (AVLAN), produced a popular wildlife-friendly gardening leaflet. Which I put together on my computer.

We had a friendly and productive meeting with our elected Councillors at District and County levels, getting to know each other and establishing relationships of mutual respect.

Our window sticker

And we produced a centre-spread feature for Round & About magazine which included a ‘Climate Aware Household‘ window sticker.

For this I used the old drone image of the Alton Climate Rally which we held in 2015 in support of that year’s crucial COP21 Paris Climate talks. Slightly cheaty to split it in half and do a semi-repeat for the top, but again, it seemed to work.

In September the Food Group began a course of cooking instruction classes, majoring in ecologically-sound ingredients.

Cook and Eat together ad.

The take-up was small, but there was great enthusiasm, and in retrospect the team reckoned that through secondary contacts they had reached around a hundred different people.

Next we met with Gilbert White Museum in Selborne to discuss joint approaches to GW300 – celebrating the 300th anniversary of the great naturalist’s birth.

The Lobbying and Campaigning group, under my all-too inadequate chairmanship, lobbied key figures in the District Council to take the ‘Golden opportunity to incorporate strong environmental standards in the redraft of the local plan (currently under way)’. But with little apparent effect. 1,000 new homes are being imposed on Alton and there isn’t a solar panel in sight! Still less a heat pump.

And on the 20th we organised a popular demonstration in the market square in support of the International Children’s Strike. The photo I took from the window of the Town Hall was used to dominate the front page of that week’s Alton Herald, which, significantly, carried a supportive editorial feature inside.

My photo – and with a strongly supportive editorial feature inside.

October was another active month, when another subgroup brought its plans for a Repair Cafe to fruition.

I discovered an unsuspected talent for mending clocks. No matter how simple the repair (the one above required nothing more than cleaning up corroded battery terminals) the owners were, as you can see, over the moon with gratitude. It it continues to be an immensely rewarding monthly experience.

Our display in the town library

Also in October we contributed to Energy Alton‘s Home Energy Day, and mounted a display in the Town library.

In November we contributed more editorial material to Round & About magazine and set up our stall at the splendid Eco Fair at Gilbert White’s House in Selborne. Then my wife’s efforts with the Town Council to promote tree planting met with partial success as we assembled on one cold morning to be photographed with the Town Mayor and a developer around a suitably-labelled sapling that the latter had been persuaded to plant. A small beginning, but a beginning.

And the main event of November was our second open meeting, when the group leaders took it in turns to describe their achievements so far, before we split up to discuss how best to move things on in each area. ACAN sponsored a special running of the community bus to bring people to the meeting from the edges of the town, but this did not actually make a big contribution to what was another excellent and enthusiastic turnout.

December saw another key development – the opening of the Community Cupboard in a scout hut which was conveniently situated towards the more needy end of the town. For each session volunteers picked up unsold food from cooperating supermarkets (most of them quickly came on board) and handed it out to anyone who wanted it. Just after Christmas one store gave a whole batch of turkeys which had arrived too late for them to sell. They made sure that one of these, plus some vegetables, went to a woman who had literally no other food in her house.

So began 2020. January saw our members being asked to advise schools on making their grounds more wildlife-friendly and on two specific school projects – a ‘design an eco-hero’ competition, and an ‘eco-conference’.

The first of our columns in the Alton Herald

January also saw our website altonclimatenetwork.org.uk go live and the first of our regular two-weekly columns appear in the Alton Herald.

At the same time we saw our influence on our MP apparently reflected in these words from his new year message in the same paper:

We should be positive as we face the great challenges of the 2020s. Top of the list is climate change…

Ongoing activities throughout this time included establishing and maintaining positive relationships with all three layers of local government and with our MP. We continuously engaged with the public and spread the word in every way we could. When the occasion arose we promoted rail travel and other aspects of sustainable living by example. Sometimes we got evidence that people who had initially reacted with hostility to this sort of thing did eventually become more thoughtful.

Working with the District Council’s Climate Change Champion Cllr. Ginny Boxall, we are working to improve the planting of green spaces around the town to beautify it and improve biodiversity.

Sadly, it was necessary on a number of occasions to write letters to the local paper challenging climate science deniers. After debating whether these people’s missives, often immensely long and grossly misleading, were best ignored, we came to the view that, as had happened in the case of the organised denial of the link between smoking and diseases in the last century, they must never be left unanswered. So, along with other responsible correspondents, we did answer them. And the perpetrators often bounced back with further and even longer examples. And so it continues.

To some extent we have written to national media, including the BBC, mainly to congratulate them on the increased climate crisis coverage which so marked the year.

Not the least important of our functions is to provide mutual support to one another as we engage on a daily basis with the frightening realities of the climate crisis, and confront the intractability of its denial.

The big development for the future is the Community Hub. Thanks to generous donors and grants from town councillors, we have been able to hire a vacant room in the Community Centre for the coming year. There we intend to develop a whole range of our activities from a permanent base, as well as introducing new ones. As I write we know we have secured sufficient funding to go ahead, and, once again, I have been busy using my wholly-amateur skills designing a logo and a flyer.

Here is the second draft that I have just sent out to everyone for approval.:

Mending things

I just mended my grand-daughter’s clarinet.

One of the notes wasn’t sounding and we played around until we’d tracked it down to one of the bottom key covers not closing snugly onto its sound-hole. (Apologies if this isn’t the correct nomenclature, I’m an amateur) When you looked closely you could see a fatal gap remaining under the pad when you pressed its key higher up the instrument. If you held the cover down directly with your finger (we discovered) the note came out perfectly. Lift it off again and it stopped. You could play a little trill like that. And we did.

The diagnosis was clear – the ‘close that cover’ message wasn’t making it through the intricate arrangement of shiny levers.

Part of the ‘complicated system of levers’

There was a concert imminent and phone calls were being made to try to find a spare clarinet. People were unhappy.


Now I have something of a reputation for this sort of thing which I cherish. Ever since, many years ago, when I did some trivial mending job – putting a wheel back on a toy car or something – and its little owner went toddling around the house holding it up to people and explaining ‘Gran’pa fix it‘.

Life doesn’t get much sweeter than that.


But now that treasured reputation was on the line – musical instruments being on a different level of delicacy and complexity from model cars. The best I could come up with was to suggest weakly that the pad might be dry (did that happen with clarinets?) perhaps we could make it plumper by moistening it with something? The young owner mentioned the special grease she used for the cork-lined joints of the instrument, and that sounded the sort of thing. I duly smeared some of that about with a wooden toothpick.

Absolutely useless.

So I put the instrument down while we attended to other things. Until stubborn curiosity drew me back for another look. And this time, as I pressed the keys idly up and down, I saw something new – one of the pivots seemed to be slightly sloppy. It looked, it seemed to me, like wear in that joint. Did that happen with clarinets? Were they supposed to be oiled?

Not sure, but it never had been.

Perhaps that was it?

One way or another, it was looking like a professional job.

But again I couldn’t resist one more look, and suddenly the penny dropped – that glorious eureka! moment: A little silver rod projecting from the mechanism, which I had noticed earlier and assumed was meant to be like that, was in fact the axle of the faulty key which had become detached from its socket. So the whole bearing wobbled slightly when you worked the key. I pressed on the end of the little rod with my finger and sure enough it started to move. Not the whole way in, but that was OK because I could now see a tiny screw slot across its end. All I needed, I announced to the company, was a suitable screwdriver to finish the job.

While my wife was searching in her handbag for the little glasses-repair kit she always carries (!) our young musician remembered that her equipment did indeed include a tiny screwdriver, for which she had never found a use. Exactly what I needed, this enabled me to screw the little axle securely home, completely abolishing the fatal floppiness.

And lo, the clarinet was sounded, and a torrent of melodious arpeggios poured into the grateful air.


Emboldened by a similar success with a drain plug in our bathroom sink (not to mention the hall clock triumph which I described in an earlier post) I recently volunteered my lack of expertise for the new Repair Café at our Community Centre.

Arriving with a few tools on the inaugural morning I was so conscious of the presumptuousness of what I was doing that I very nearly turned away and went back home.

But I did go in, and the first person in the queue happened to be a former patient of mine who greeted me like a old friend. And before I had time to demur, he and his broken item – his Father’s old mantelpiece clock – had been allotted to me.

The clock had three problems – it hadn’t run for 25 years, two pieces of wooden molding had become unglued from its case, and it needed a thorough clean.

Just the case left to mend.

I told him I had absolutely no expertise with clocks and he urged me to go ahead anyway – it was broken and there was nothing to lose. So I freed up the nuts that held the movement in place and eased it out.

Far from my comfort zone

It appeared to be fully wound, and as I gently prodded the balance wheel it oscillated a few times before slowing and stopping. It seemed to me that somewhere the mechanism was sticking. So I told him I did have a cheap and cheerful fix which had worked with a clock at home, and again he told me to go ahead.

So I gave it one judicious blast of WD40.

And that was that. It worked. I prodded the balance wheel again (this, I suspect, is again not a technical term) and this time it didn’t stop. I set the hands and it was still showing the right time when he left.

Dismantling the face, cleaning it, and replacing the fiddly-little screws that held it in place was the second and by far the longest job. And then it came to mending the wooden case.

It was obviously a simple gluing job, but I didn’t want to send him home with everything swathed in tape while it set. So I used a tip I once found on the web: we didn’t seem to have any PVA glue, so I mixed up some Araldite (epoxy resin) which we did have, and put a good blob of that in the middle of each piece of loose moulding. Then, and this is the clever bit, I put superglue in several different places on the same joints, and then pressed the pieces together until the superglue held. Handled gently, this would give time for the epoxy resin to develop its tremendous strength. Bingo!

Well. To say he was delighted is putting it very mildly. He wrote the most fulsome and heartwarming letter of appreciation anyone received that day.

Satisfied customer

Our Member of Parliament turned up at the next Repair Café the following month. Recognising me as a retired doctor and a persistent correspondent about issues very far removed from the mending of clocks he expressed surprise to see me there as one of the repairers.

But I pointed out that I had been a GP – a generalist – and that the mending of people in general practice had meant that doing things for the first time, using that amazing thing, educated common sense, had been the daily currency of that job. Or words to that effect. And that was why I had loved it so much.

I opened my book The Paradox of Progress with an anecdote about mending a dislocated kneecap (for the first and only time in my career) on a house call in the middle of one night, to make a similar point. It is here for anyone who is interested.

A lot on my mind

It just occurred to me to count up the number of poster/flyer projects for different events that I am currently designing, negotiating and getting printed. Four! Each for a different event I am currently involved in.

Until I made the effort to think of them all at once – and it was a real effort – I simply hadn’t realised there were that many. So that at least explained why I was getting the stages they were at – drafting – seeking comments & redrafting (repeat ad lib) – posting online – arranging printing – a bit muddled in my mind.

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Kew Gardens and the Dale Chihuly glass sculpture installation

Dale Chihuly’s blown glass sculptures were a memorable feature of our visit to Seattle three years ago, and when we saw that Kew Gardens has a major exhibition of his work running this summer we decided to visit.
Our arrival time, after an hour’s drive, worked perfectly so that we were in position just as Sunday parking on the road outside became legal at 10am.

The whole visit to this superb garden was an absolute delight. So I thought I’d share some of the pictures in the hope of encouraging others to go as well.

The asymmetry of the Brexit debate

The trouble with what is now almost certainly the pro-EU majority in Britain is not that they are ‘moaners’. They don’t moan enough. Too many are ‘bored’ with the whole chaotic saga and have switched off. They don’t talk about it, and they dare not think about it. Still less do they try to influence the outcome.

It is not that those who wish to remain in Europe are undemocratic. Exactly the reverse, a great many believe, however despairingly, in the democratic legitimacy of the 2016 referendum. Otherwise the cries of protest would be overwhelming. That is why it is so important to point out, as I have been doing from the start, that the way the 2016 referendum was a conducted was a travesty of democracy. Read more…

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