Generally Speaking

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.

But we were there, sure enough, travelling to America on RMS Queen Elizabeth with my father, who was taking up his posting from the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell as Atomic Energy Attache at the British Embassy in Washington. This, we now know, happened to be at a particularly sensitive time, immediately after the Burgess & Maclean spy scandal at the embassy, and which extended through the Suez crisis, clouding diplomatic relations between our two countries still further. It must have been a tough and important assignment indeed, but the details of that story died with my father, who was the perfect embodiment of probity and discretion and never talked to anyone, least of all us, about such things. My story here is very different, it is about the experience of an ordinary English schoolboy being changed by the experience of transportation from the old to the new world in the early nineteen fifties.

RMS Queen Elizabeth

So the family was together on the Queen Elizabeth, except for my elder brother Peter, who had been left at home as a boarder, an agonising decision for my parents, who did not want to disrupt his education at Abingdon. So we were my father, my mother, my younger brother Andrew, and myself.

I know we were half way across the Atlantic because that was the day we passed the Queen Mary on her way back to England. What’s more, we were told that she had no less a person than Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on board for that trip. So I used to boast that three Queens got together on my birthday.


Not a telephoto…

Everyone went up on deck when the moment came. Me with my birthday present – my plastic Kodak Brownie 127 camera – hanging on its thin cord around my neck. Not that there was any chance of actually seeing the Queen Mother, let alone photographing her.

My father (we called him Daddy), who knew about such things, explained that the two ships had to be a long way apart so that we there was no risk of collision, but I thought we could have been a lot closer and still been safe. It would have been nice to exchange a wave with the Queen Mother, like passengers on Hurtigruten ships when they pass each other going back and forth around the coast of Norway. Waving pillow cases and so on.

Certainly no chance of that.

So my two photographs came out disappointingly small when the film was developed in Washington. But they were still precious, and I mounted them carefully in my album. Little thinking that I would still have them all these years later; and of course completely unable to conceive of the idea that I would one day ‘scan’ them and reproduce them in an online ‘blog’. But here they are:

I can still feel the scratch of the sharp steel nib that I used to label the pictures with special white ink: ‘The Qeen Mary with the Queen Mother abourd passing us on my birthday’ is under the first of the pictures. ‘a slightly better shot of her’ is under the other. Let nobody think that accurate spelling and beautiful handwriting were any more universal than photographic expertise amongst English eleven-year-olds in the 1950s.

I used to love it on the deck of the huge liner. I remember the clean scrubbed, slightly disinfectant smell and the fresh bite of the salty air as I stepped out over the metal sill of the storm-proof doorway. It must have been cold because it was late November but I don’t remember that. My mother told us to wear our jerseys and do up our jackets, and I used to stand looking over the stern-facing rail for what seemed like hours, watching the ship’s wake streaming towards the horizon and feeling the slow pitch and roll, the muffled, sullen crash of waves from the bow, the rumble of the engines far below my feet, and always the gulls soaring effortlessly in the updraft of the ship.

Sometimes the gulls would collect together and swoop down suddenly over the side. Then I would go and lean over the rail and see where a slop bucket had been thrown out from a galley porthole far below. I can still hear that raucous squabbling sound as they circled and landed and scavenged in the little foaming pool of discarded food. And then the way the sound was gradually lost into the other sounds of the voyage until all that could be seen were the tiny specks of gulls diving, rising and wheeling over their feast – far, far, far behind in the endlessly unravelling road of our wake.

Me and Andrew at the ship’s stern

I knew all the statistics about the Queen Elizabeth. I knew RMS stood for ‘Royal Mail Steamer’ and that signified that she carried the Royal Mail to and from America – everything except the special airmail letters which went by the propeller-driven Super Constellation aircraft. The Queen Elizabeth was the flagship of the Cunard White Star Line. Just under one thousand feet long, her gross tonnage – the weight of water she displaced – was eighty three thousand six hundred and seventy three tons. Steam turbines drove her four gigantic propellers. Built in John Brown’s shipyard on the Clyde she had been launched in 1938 and immediately converted into a troop ship. She had only come into passenger service after the war.

Although she was the biggest, she was never the fastest. This was a sore point with our cabin steward, who told us that she had never held the coveted ‘Blue Riband of the Atlantic’. The Queen Mary had held it for years with an average speed of 30 knots but the Queen Elizabeth had never managed more than 29 – equivalent to 34 miles an hour. Worse, in 1952, only two years earlier, the SS United States had captured the Blue Riband from the British with an incredible 34½ knots average for the 2,800 mile crossing (as the ships took different routes the average speed for the journey was the decisive measurement). I remember our steward scoffing that the United States had nearly shaken herself to pieces. We thought it sounded very foolish.

Passengers were divided between three classes, we were in the middle – Cabin – class. My father can’t have been the sort of top diplomat who would go First class, certainly not with his family, but it was still luxurious beyond anything I had previously experienced. But in those days I was a ridiculously faddy eater, and ate practically nothing but cold sliced ham from the amazing menu in the restaurant.

The Queen Elizabeth carried 662 Cabin Class passengers and I have a vague memory that the tickets cost about £60 for the five day passage, although whether or not that was a return fare I am not sure – probably not.

Apart from the church service on Sunday morning when we were allowed to go to the three-deck high, art deco temple of the first class lounge, we weren’t supposed to mix with the 823 first class passengers, nor with the 798 tourist class ones. Each class had its own cinema. (Although when Peter and I travelled back by ourselves two years later, we discovered companionways linking the classes so that we could pick and choose from the programmes in all three cinemas.)

We had to go up on deck to take photographs in daylight because my camera had a small lens, slow film and no flash. One of the pictures we took up there shows me and my father posing on either side of one of the ship’s life belts with one of her two enormous funnels in the background.

With my father

Notice our school uniforms – grey jackets and short trousers, grey shirts, ties neatly knotted, V-necked jerseys, socks pulled up to our knees, our hair and clothes all blowing in the wind. Apart from the polished walking shoes, which don’t show, and the cap, it is a picture of typical English primary schoolboys of the time. That is because we had no special clothes for the journey; our mother knew we were going to need to buy new clothes in America.

Andrew with our parents at the stern rail

Almost the worst thing I’d had to leave behind in England was the radio serial Journey Into Space. I left it poised agonisingly at a crucial juncture with Jet Morgan, Lemmy, Doc and Mitch just landed on the ‘Red Planet’ and getting the first intimations that there might be a thing outside the ship… I had made my friend Derek Pollard promise to write and tell me what happened. But he never did – and I still don’t know.

We had also left our house on the hill near Oxford, my father’s beloved Daimler, inherited from his father, the caravan (which we called ‘the Drum’ because of what happened when it rained), the hens, the ducks, Silky the cat, Mark the dog, all of whom had made their own little journeys to their own new homes. But the extraordinary thing for me about it all was the feeling of unreality. I was acutely conscious of that strange feeling, which I have had since but never anything like so strongly, that none of it was really happening.

But that feeling of unreality only grew stronger through the confusion of the first few days after our arrival in New York. It was there during the night time journey along crowded multi-lane roads in the huge car with chromium plated fins and strange, ticking indicator lights. The most tangible thing I remember was the wonderful plastic model aeroplane kit – again the first of its kind I had ever seen. It was in the window of the foyer shop in our first night hotel, and my father thrilled me by buying it for me.

I suppose someone at the embassy must have arranged our house for us. It was furnished and as far as I can remember we moved straight in. What I do remember is going to buy our American clothes. We went to a big shop, which they called a ‘store’, with our mother and Mrs Molly Shuttleworth, one of the other embassy wives who became one of her closest friends,, who showed us the kind of things we’d need for school in Washington.

Off to school in Washington

Those are the clothes we are wearing in another picture in my album, “Andrew and I off to school”. There we are, in full length jeans with their bottoms turned up to show their woolly tartan linings, sneakers, heavy winter jackets buttoned to the chin with bright stripes down their arms, gloves, and peaked caps with fur muffs pulled over our ears. It is almost impossible to believe that only a few days had elapsed since those photographs were taken of us on the Queen Elizabeth.

Here is another picture from my album, Andrew and me standing with our mother in front of our house in Northampton Street

3753 Northampton Street NW

That house is still there – you can find it on Google Street View:

Current Google Street view image

And here is my picture of the school we went to, three quarters of a mile’s walk away.

Lafayette Elementary School – 1955

and that is still there as well:

Lafayette School today on Google Street View

(For my second year I moved on to Alice Deal Junior High School – now called a ‘Middle’ school – which was a bus ride down Connecticut Avenue. )

So it was indeed a new world in which I found myself, but I never for one moment stopped feeling English. I was very unusual, if not unique, amongst fellow embassy children in never losing my English accent during my two years at school there. I was very proud of that. Nor did I once join my classmates in putting their hands on their hearts and pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes before the start of the school day. This they always understood and they seemed to respect me for showing my own brand of patriotism. And I had a lot to be proud of : Edmund Hilary had just ‘conquered’ Mount Everest with Sherpa Tensing, Roger Bannister had just broken the four minute mile, and the new medium of television had just enabled much of the world to witness the magnificent pageantry of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second.

My two years at school in Washington were indeed a happy and sunny time in my memory. There was another and almost equally total dislocation when I returned to the darkness of boarding school in England with Peter two years later. But a great deal of my shyness was gone, never to return, and my new tastes went far beyond cold sliced ham for breakfast.

My old briefcase after four Atlantic crossings. Tourist Class must have been on the Ivernia when all three of us made the final trip home together to school. Parents following soon afterwards

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.

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