19 February 2017

An historical walking route through the heart of London

On Saturday 18 February 2017, having parked the car beside Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on the south bank of the River Thames, I set off on a ten mile round-trip through central London.

The Globe Theatre was originally built in 1599, although the present building dates from 1997.

I crossed the River Thames on the London Millennium Footbridge, first opened in 2000, and approached St Paul's Cathedral. Sitting atop Ludgate Hill, the present cathedral, designed by Christopher Wren, and consecrated in 1697, replaced a former church dating from AD 604 which burned down in the Great Fire of 1666.

Here is a map of the route:

12 November 2016

Ukulele Music

The links below are to printable pdf files of ukulele arrangements I have made of music, mostly popular songs. I have borrowed ideas from many online sources. My arrangements are usually quite easy, although often with just a touch of added colour. Popular songs are typically heavily orchestrated, and arranging the song for playing on a single instrument is both an approximation and a compromise: to what extent should the ukulele chord follow the melody versus providing the harmony, and when the sung line consists of several voices singing in harmony, which chords are the best chords to use? In my view, the least interesting and often the most cumbersome ukulele arrangements are those that attempt to mimic unison singing, a style of arrangement not untypical for accompanying Christmas carols. On the other hand, it can be hard to sing a song accompanied by a ukulele playing only harmonious colour. Therefore arrangement always involves balancing these, and other, factors

It is a matter of regret for me that I have no opportunity to sing songs in (four-part) harmony, as a consequence of which the arrangements below are not separated into parts. Occasionally I include backing parts, and in one song I have divided the song up between men and women, although they still sing only the melody line. What I should really like to do is to write some arrangements that involve different ukulele parts.

Most ukuleles have only four strings, whereas a guitar has six or twelve strings. This gives the guitar a distinct edge when it comes to arrangements of songs. Many songs have already been arranged for a single guitar. However, whilst some ukulele arrangements can work perfectly well based on a guitar arrangement, others simply don't work well at all, and alternative solutions have to be found.

The skin on my fingers is far too fragile for me to be able to strum my ukulele without using a plectrum - otherwise there is soon blood on the strings, which is neither pleasant nor hygienic. Consequently my arrangements rarely involve finger-picking. Rather than use the recommended felt plectrum, with which I find it incredibly difficult to upstrum at speed, I use a soft nylon plectrum. This allows me to play either loudly and quietly, as required, although not with the same sensitivity as a player using their fingers.

I am not a purist, and when I am singing, I have no wish to pretend that I am the original singer. In my view the best covers are performed when the cover singer makes a song their own. The arrangements below, therefore, although similar to what can be found on YouTube, do not mimic existing recordings. By the same token, it would be fine for someone to take any of my arrangements and transform them into new arrangements that work better for them.

Big Yellow Taxi
Joni Mitchel's vocal range can make her songs demanding to sing. This arrangement includes a minor role for backing vocals.

Calling The Sheep Home From Their Pastures
This is a simple piece that I wrote as a practice session warm-up.I continue to use it. The title is derived from my observation that when sheep are called, they move faster and faster the closer they get to where they are going.

Dancing at Whitsun
This poignantly sad folk song about personal loss as a result of the First World War, was written by Austin John Marshall, and is set to a melody associated with a more traditional (1680s) song known, amongst various titles, as The Week Before Easter and The False Bride, and was made famous by the late Tim Hart before forming Steeleye Span.

Dedicated Follower of Fashion
This is the famous Kinks song from the mid-1960s. The Durham Ukulele Group to which I used to belong played this piece exceptionally well. I have intensified the call-and-response aspect by separating the men's and women's voices.

Grandma's Feather Bed
A classic John Denver song that is good for performance.

A silly rockabilly song from 1957. Easy to play, and has the sophisticated-sounding feature of two key modulations.

Let It Be
Until I settled on this arrangement, I had previously found the song curiously difficult to pitch.

Maggie May
This is the Rod Stewart classic that is simply great fun to play.

This is an exercise piece I wrote to incorporate both different strumming patterns as well as some more chromatic chord progressions. It is not easy to play, and was never intended to be.

Nancy Spain
This is the song made famous by Christy Moore. It is a delightful song that is easy to play and easy to sing.

Take Me Home Country Roads
Whilst I have transposed this popular John Denver song into several different keys, this arrangement is in G, which works best for my voice.

Turn! Turn! Turn!
Mostly my ukulele arrangements simply involve selecting appropriate chords. However, with this song, which appears in different versions anyway, I have also re-arranged the words so that the lyrics achieve some emotional coherence.

Wonderful Tonight
Whilst this is a lovely song, a ukulele demands that it is played rather faster than Eric Clapton's own renditions. Some people do not like the gentle dissonance I have introduced, but I didn't arrange it for them.

World Turned Upside Down
Written by Leon Rosselson, the song was later covered both by Dick Gaughan and by Billy Brag. It tells the story of how, during the turmoil of the middle of the 17th century, a group of people led by Gerard Winstanley squatted on some land and were driven off by soldiers at the request of local landowners.

03 October 2016

Social Conformity as a Basis for Moral Insight

In a recent article, Roger Trigg, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick wrote:

"Yet social conformity has never been a good basis for moral insight."

I consider this to be something of an understatement. Any desire to conform to social norms and expectations is based, at least in part, on threat of censure. Criminal law codifies this censure. Criminal law is broadly created by the majority, sometimes in the teeth of opposition from a minority. Sometimes law permits conscientious objection: pacifists (like me) who refuse to have anything to do with war and militarism; doctors and nurses who will not carry out pregnancy terminations; Sikhs who wish to wear a turban when riding a motorcycle, and to carry a kirpan (ceremonial dagger). In other circumstances the law does not permit people to follow their conscience, such as the right to choose whether or not to wear religious symbols at work, and in France for a woman to keep her head covered. Although in part derived from social norms, and undoubtedly in dialogue with them, my morality is my own, and is neither imposed nor acquired en bloc as part of a religious package: in these pluralistic days I can choose to follow the religion that suits my spirituality, whether Quaker, Sikh or Hare Krishna.

It seems to me that laws that permit behaviours considered by some to be objectionable should also give that person the legal right not to engage with it. A Canadian doctor who does not wish to have anything to do with assisted dying ought to have the right to say "Don't come to me about this" and not be expected to make a referral. On the other hand, depending on the nature of the employment contract, a doctor should not have the right to refuse to treat a patient (say, for an ingrowing toenail) just because they also want to be helped to die. A cake baker who believes that gay relationships are an abomination should have the right to say "Don't expect me to bake you a cake explicitly celebrating your relationship", but should be found guilty of discrimination if they refuse to bake a cake for someone simply because they are gay.

Majority expression by means of legal instruments is fickle. In the 1950s Alan Turing was hounded to his death by the police for being gay. Now the law permits gay marriage. In the 1960s the law insisted that severely disabled people were locked away out of sight in hospitals and asylums. Now large numbers of people celebrate Paralympian sporting achievements. In the 1980s, the 'loadsamoney' culture that was nurtured by the government of the day legitimised the elevation of greed over other longer-term ethical priorities. The recent UK referendum has de facto legitimised the widespread expression of low level xenophobic (and racist) attitudes.

It would be unwise for me to choose my moral positions simply based on what is currently popular, and it would be nice if those who frame laws gave adequate recognition to those people who, in all conscience, cannot conform in a given instance.

21 June 2016

A Musical Self-Portrait

A word-portrait of who I am would run to many pages. What if I were able to describe myself in music? The composition would include orchestral parts, and folk guitar, solo and choral voices, a ukulele and a Hammond organ. There would be richly Romantic passages, and haunting airs, driving beats and the use of silence. Such a composition would be far, far beyond my capabilities. However, what if I were able to describe myself, at least in part, by means of a thoughtful choice of music, including song? I accept that whilst there is much of me that translates into music, or has a relationship with music, there is also much of me that does not. There are many sides to who I am, and consequently there are many songs and pieces of music that mean a lot to me. Were someone to want to know and understand me better, they would have to listen to quite a lot of music.

The reasons for my choice of each piece of music may be highly varied. For example, I may favour a piece because I enjoy playing it on my ukulele, or because I have enjoyed singing it, or because I like a particular arrangement, or because I like the voice of the singer, or because I am touched by the sentiment expressed, or because I resonate with the political stance of the song, or because the song reminds me of a particular period of my life (and therefore who I was then, and still am now to some degree): each chosen song offers a different nuance, or set of nuances, of who I am or how I choose to present myself. My selection is also significant in what I choose to omit: for example, there is neither any anti-social punk rock, nor any unmelodious rap.

In a sketch of myself, I should include the Schiller's poem An Die Freude (Ode to Joy) set to music by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony; all of Beethoven's Third, Sixth and Ninth Symphonies; Amoureuse sung by Kiki Dee; Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds by The Beatles; Kathleen Ferrier singing Blow The Wind Southerly; Sandy Denny (both with The Strawbs and with Fairport Convention) singing Who Knows Where The Time Goes?; the Percy Faith arrangement of the theme from the movie A Summer Place; Edward Elgar's orchestration of Hubert Parry's setting of William Blake's poem Jerusalem; Iris Dement singing Our Town; Dave Brubeck's Take Five; Strawbs: Queen of Dreams, You and I (When We Were Young), Another Day; Morning Has Broken sung by Cat Stevens; Gustav Holst's The Planets suite; Maddy Prior and Steeleye Span singing The Saucy Sailor, The Weaver And The Factory Maid, Dark Eyed Sailor and Thomas The Rhymer; Lara's theme from the David Lean movie Dr Zhivago; Planxty (led by Christy Moore) singing Sweet Thames Flow Softly; Supertramp singing Give A Little Bit, and Even In The Quietest Moments; Leon Rosselson singing The World Turned Upside Down, and The Last Chance; Wonderful Tonight, by Eric Clapton; the poem by John Greenleaf Whittier Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind, set to music; The Eagles singing The Last Resort; Le Quattro Stagioni by Antonio Vivaldi (especially the controversial Nigel Kennedy recording); Joni Mitchell singing Big Yellow Taxi; Rachmaninofff's Second Symphony; Dave Cousins of The Strawbs singing Grace Darling; Bob Dylan singing Blowin' In The Wind; the ensemble arrangement of Take Me Home, Country Roads (written by John Denver) sung in Japanese during the anime movie Whisper Of The Heart; Norah Jones singing Come Away With Me; Let It Be by Paul McCartney; Aaron Copland's arrangement of the Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts; Carla Bruni singing Quelqu'un M'a Dit; Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing Homeless and with Paul Simon singing Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes; Buddy Holly singing Every Day, Oh Boy and Peggy Sue; Glen Miller's In The Mood; the extended Genesis piece called Supper's Ready; Spiegel Im Spiegel by Arvo Part; Imagine by John Lennon; Jon Anderson's Olias of Sunhillow; Ewan MacColl singing Shoals Of HerringFarewell To Stromness by Peter Maxwell Davies; Simon and Garfunkel singing The Sound Of Silence, America, Homeward Bound and Bookends; Mahler's First Symphony; Leonard Cohen singing Bird On A Wire; Charles Trenet singing La Mer; Tim Hart singing Dancing At Whitsun; Philip Glass's music for Koyaanisquatsi; The Moody Blues singing Nights In White Satin; Pachelbel's Canon; John Denver singing Sunshine On My Shoulders; ELO singing Summer And Lightning and Mr Blue Sky; Messaien's Turangalila; Steve Harley and Cockney rebel singing Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me); In Paradisum from Gabriel Fauré's Requiem; George Harrison's Here Comes The Sun; Jeff Beck singing Hi Ho Silver Lining; Old Crow Medicine Show singing Wagon Wheel; Wonderful World sung by Sam Cooke; and Louis Armstrong singing What A Wonderful World; Jane Russell and Hoagy Carmichael singing My Resistance Is Low; Streets of London sung by Ralph McTell; My Ramblin' Boy (by Tom Paxton) sung by Sandy Denny; and Van Morrison singing Brown Eyed GirlBrand New Day, and the well-known version of Madame George recorded on the album Astral Weeks, the mesmerising version played live at the Holywood Bowl in 2008, and the little-known, wonderfully chaotic version (unavailable on YouTube) recorded on the album T.B.Sheets.

20 June 2016

Greener Grass

When I was 16 or 17 years of age I worked at several part-time jobs, and it became convenient to have a bank account and a cheque book. I knew that I was a bit young to have a bank account, and I am uncertain if any of my friends had a bank account. The reason why I opened the bank account with Lloyds Bank was significantly because that it was the company with which my parents banked, partly because the nearest bank branch was Lloyds Bank, and partly because I had sufficient knowledge or understanding about the different banks to make a well-informed choice. It was not onerous to open the account. In 1985 I set up a small business: Alpha Word Power. I required a business bank account, so I researched my options. I was keen for the account to be at a bank which had a local branch, that claimed to understand the needs of small businesses, and was not closely associated with apartheid. I decided to open a business bank account with the NatWest Bank. It was not especially onerous to open the account, although I did consider the process to be a little more demanding than when I had opened the Lloyds Bank account more than ten years before. Some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s I decided that it would be convenient to have my personal bank account with the same bank as my business bank account, so I closed the bank account at Lloyds Bank, and opened a personal bank account at the NatWest Bank. Whilst opening a new account at the NatWest Bank was straightforward enough, I remember that closing the Lloyds Bank account dragged on interminably for some reason. A year or two later I started trading additionally under business name Authentic Counselling & Training, and straightforwardly opened a second business bank account at the NatWest Bank. Whilst I very seriously considered opening the new business account at the Co-operative Bank, not least because of its much-vaunted ethical policies, the completion of a considerable amount of paperwork in order to do so, as well as the inconvenience of banking at more than one bank, eventually dissuaded me. Several points are worth noting. First, that there is an expectation that a bank account will continue indefinitely, and whilst if not for life, then at least for a long time: one does not have a year's contract on a bank account. Second, a significant part of the administrative burden of opening a new bank account is (I understand) due both to the rise of identity fraud, and to comply with money laundering legislation: it is not the fault of the banks. Third, when I opened my first bank account, there was still a sense of mutual loyalty between a bank branch and its account holders. This loyalty was intentionally eroded by the banks during the 1980s and 1990s, both as banks appeared to become increasingly willing to foreclose on individuals (repossessing their houses) and on small businesses (closing them down) that were in financial difficulty, and contact between account holder and bank shifted from a personal, face-to-face interaction at a branch to an impersonal, telephone interaction with a national or international call centre.

During the earlier years of the 1980s I had no telephone at home, and would walk several hundred metres to a public telephone box. This was, understandably, inconvenient, but I could not afford the monthly fee for a residential telephone line. Part of the Post Office until 1981, British Telecommunications was privatised and sold off in 1984. In 1985 I set up Alpha Word Power, for which I required a telephone line, supplied by British Telecom. In 1988 I moved the business into commercial premises, and again required a telephone line. Unhappy with the privatised British Telecom, I decided to try the (equally private) Mercury Communications (a Hong Kong-based telecommunications company that was invited by the UK government to offer (sham) competition to British Telecom. The service I received from Mercury was worse than I had been receiving from BT, and after two years I cancelled the contract, and 'returned' to British Telecom. I continue to dislike British Telecom (now BT) for a wide variety of reasons, but ever since my experience with Mercury, have stuck rigidly to BT.

In 1990 I had a need for a cellphone. At the time, there were only two networks: BT Cellnet and Vodafone. I had little knowledge or understanding about either company. I cannot remember whether the company from which I obtained the Motorola 8500X offered me a choice between the two networks, but I was comfortable signing up with Cellnet, a successor company to the GPO, rather than the newly-formed Vodafone. However, several years later, when I decided to upgrade to a new handset, the best handset offer (technology and price) available was with Vodafone, so I switched networks. As more networks (Orange, T-Mobile, 3) arrived, I was comfortable continuing with Vodafone as it became a well-established company with good coverage and good roaming agreements overseas. Nearly twenty years later, on moving from County Durham to Kent, I discovered the local Vodafone signal to be extremely poor. Although I had been sufficiently satisfied with the service Vodafone had given me that I had not seen any reason why I should switch networks, staying with Vodafone made little sense, so I decided at this point to switch networks. Apart from wanting a decent cellphone signal, I still wanted to use a network with good national coverage and with good roaming agreements overseas. Whilst price was a factor, as far as I was able to see, all the available networks charged the same sort of price. I felt wary about using any of the virtual networks (such as Giffgaff, Virgin Mobile or Tesco Mobile) about which I understood little. I asked other people in the village to which I had moved which networks they were on, and they were mostly using either O2 or EE. As O2 was a successor company to Cellnet, I switched to O2. I did this by buying a new handset with a new monthly contract, ended the contract with Vodafone, and asked for my cellphone number to be ported over to the new contract. I had bought many cellphones before (mostly through the process of upgrading), so much of what needed to happen was alreadt familiar to me. However, it soon became clear that the not-very-local O2 cellphone masts were often out of action, leaving me with little or no signal for much of the time.  At this point, I decided to re-evaluate my need for a cellphone. My lifestyle had changed significantly, and it was no longer clear what I needed a cellphone to do for me. Moreover, since I first acquired a cellphone, the services on offer, both over the network (SMS text messaging, picture messaging, data streaming), and on the handset (digital camera, recorded music player, FM radio, GPS receiver, games device, handheld computer) had changed out of all recognition: which of these services did I actually need, and which were I willing to pay for? For nearly three years I continued with the O2 contract, all but unable to use my cellphone at home, even though home had become my workplace. Gradually my needs emerged, including the need for more bundled 'minutes', and to pay significantly less per month. I researched the number and precise locations of the local cellphone masts, and to which companies they belonged, found out what services were running on each of those masts, and read up about virtual cellular networks. Then I looked online to see what offers were available. BT were offering a a SIM-only contract (which I had not experienced before), with significantly more minutes than my then-current O2 contract, at half the monthly fee, on a virtual network running on the EE network. With some trepidation I decided to switch to BT Mobile. The switching was not too difficult, especially with the help of customer support staff, although there were layers of necessary complexity which felt a bit daunting, and I have little enthusiasm to go through the procedure again. The cellphone signal remains unreliable, but I am now paying much less than I was. However, should BT decide to increase the price to what I was previously paying O2, then the benefit of switching network will have become marginal, and it would appear that I had simply fallen for the lure of greener grass.

When I lived in County Durham the electricity and gas were latterly supplied on a dual-fuel contract by Eon, formerly Powergen. I have no memory of how I came to have an electricity contract with Powergen, which was wholly owned by the UK government  (about which I will have been entirely happy) until 60% of it was sold off to private investors in 1991 (about which I will not have been happy). I was occasionally irritated by their processes, but felt little inclination to switch to a different electricity provider (such as Npower). Natural gas was supplied by British Gas, again formerly owned by the UK government, but sold off in 1986 ("If you see Sid ... Tell him!"). I found the behaviour of British Gas unpleasant, and when given the opportunity to switch to a dual fuel contract with Powergen, I jumped at the chance of consolidating my energy costs into one bill. On relocating to Kent, I discovered, eventually, that the electricity contract on the property was with British Gas. The attitude of the company towards me was as unpleasant as ever, so I quickly made the decision that I would switch electricity supplier. However, I needed to decide what my criteria for selection were, and researched the matter fairly thoroughly. I decided that although the size of my monthly bills were an important factor, so was the means of electricity generation. I am, and always have been, profoundly anti-nuclear, and I have a strong, long-standing preference for renewable generation. By taking these preferences into account, my choice of electricity supplier became relatively simple, and I selected Good Energy. The process of switching from (the imposed) British Gas contract to Good Energy was somewhat drawn out, but not especially burdensome. I feel happy to know that Good Energy buy their electricity only from non-nuclear, renewable resources, and if I am paying a little more for the electricity I use, then it is for a good cause. However, the electricity that travels through the cables to my house may, in fact, have been generated locally at Dungeness nuclear power station, or at a nuclear power station in France, or in the coal-fired power station at Drax in North Yorkshire. It is a fiction that I am buying renewable energy from Good Energy, although Good Energy does have its own wind farm in Cornwall. I pay my monthly bill in order that the presence of Good Energy in the electricity generation marketplace can influence more electricity generators to generate electricity using non-nuclear renewable resources.

On relocating to a village in Kent not connected to the national natural gas pipeline, I was thrown into having to buy heating oil for the central heating boiler. There are several companies that supply heating oil to the area. However, most oil purchasing locally is not done directly with the delivery company, but in the context of either a local consortium (the Oil Club), or a national purchasing company called Boilerjuice. These organisations identify which local delivery company is offering the cheapest price at any one time, and organise the delivery. By making several deliveries in the same area, the delivery company is able to charge less than were it making a one-off delivery. The down-sides are that I have little say about the date of the delivery, which can be anything up to a month from the date of ordering the oil, and no say about the company supplying the oil.

When I lived in County Durham, mains water and sewerage services were supplied by the Northumbrian Water Authority. Kielder Reservoir has always been popular in north eastern England, partly for its amenity value, but also because it means that, while other parts of the UK are experiencing hose-pipe bans and other drought strategies, north eastern England enjoys plentiful water supplies. However, in 1989, the UK government privatised and sold off the Northumbrian Water Authority, and mains water and sewerage services are now supplied by Northumbrian Water, a company owned by the largest infrastructure holding company in Hong Kong, China. On relocating to Kent, I found that I pay one company, Affinity Water (owned by an investment management company), for mains water, and another company, Southern Water, for sewerage services. I have no say in who supplies, and I pay for, mains water and sewerage services.

In each of the examples outlined above, I am buying a commodity: electricity, gas, oil, water, sewerage services, telephony, mobile telephony or banking. As a domestic consumer, the commodity I am buying is no different from the same commodity bought from a different company. The electricity in my cables is no different whether I pay Eon or Good Energy. The telephone calls I make, whether using a fixed-line telephone or a cellphone, are no different from the calls I could make were I to pay a different company for them instead. For some of these commodities, I have a choice about who I can pay for them, but the reality is that I am mostly choosing only on the basis of the quality of customer service, not for any difference in the quality of the commodity. I have a strong desire to make ethical choices, which I exercise where that is possible. However, I am unhappy that fees that I used to pay to the UK government (whether for water, sewerage services, gas, electricity, telephony) are now paid mostly to commercial, often overseas, corporations. Whereas, once, the infrastructure of the UK was owned by and operated for the benefit of the UK, the infrastructure is now almost entirely owned by people whose interests are solely the maximisation of their profits. We were told and assured, when the infrastructure was being sold off, that putting state assets into private hands would engender competition, and from competition would come cost reductions and improvements in service. Instead, it has been necessary to create, and more importantly, continue to make use of, regulatory and competition authorities, such as Ofcom, Ofwat, Ofgem, FSA, FCA.

Over the past five or six years the 'big six' energy companies (British Gas, EDF (French), Eon (German), Npower, Scottish Power (Spanish) and SSE) in the UK, selling electricity to consumers, have suffered from an appalling reputation for poor customer service, dodgy selling practices, opaque tariffs and inflated prices. British Gas has also been accused of accepting money from the UK government for the purpose of insulating people's houses (in order to reduce energy bills), but then failing to carry out the work. It looks like a cartel, swims like a cartel, and quacks like a cartel. The response of the government has simply been to exhort customers to switch energy supplier. BT, which in many areas of the country operates in a near monopoly, has been repeatedly criticised, including by Select Committees, for pocketing money from the government but failing to roll out high speed broadband except in the most profitable areas, such as towns and cities. The 'big four' high street banks (Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds, RBS) have variously been implicated in the causes of the financial crash of 2007/2008, in rigging foreign exchange rates, in mis-selling payment protection insurance, as well as attracting public opprobrium for paying hugely inflated bonuses. The response of the UK government is to chastise account holders for not switching banks. Many of the now-private water companies have been criticised for a lack of investment in new infrastructure, and for allowing pollution both on land (including in the Elham Valley) and at the sea shore (there has been a reduction in the number of Blue Flag beaches). There is no opportunity to switch water company, but even if there were, it is hard to see how doing so would actually make any difference.

There are academic studies of consumer switching behaviour. The following paper makes interesting reading: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/268801499_Consumer_Switching_Behaviour_A_Theoretical_Review_and_Research_agenda. It identifies many of the ideas that I have illustrated in my case vignettes. It is to be noted that the switching behaviour under examination in the paper is based on customer self-interest. It is not about the political policy that demands consumer switching behaviour in order to force a market to operate more satisfactorily.

During a recent (mid-June 2016) news report on BBC Radio 4, a government spokesperson was reported saying that the market (whichever market was being referred to) was not working as it should because consumers were too reluctant to switch supplier. It dawned on me that, as a consumer who is reluctant to switch supplier, I was being blamed for high prices and poor customer service. That is, the efficient operation of an artificial market was relying on my compliance to do something I had little wish or interest to do. Surely this is putting the cart before the horse, and then blaming the cart for not pulling the horse along. Since the 1980s, the UK government has privatised and sold off many perfectly good public corporations, making money for a lot of people in the City of London and in other financial centres around the world, but with little or no tangible benefit for the consumer, who is often left to pay higher charges, and certainly in the case of the banks, a significantly inferior service. The railways appear to be in a similar state: very high prices and a poor quality of service. The supermarkets, which have now taken over almost all grocery retail in the UK, appear to be in a race to the bottom as far as prices go, but in this case small suppliers instead of consumers suffering, sometimes grievously,. 

In my opinion, the provision of basic commodities to consumers, for which the commodity is identical regardless of the supplier, should be in the hands of publicly-owned bodies, as is the NHS, so that the consumer is buying that commodity from a supplier whose only interests are to serve the customer as well as possible, and to save the customer money when desirable. This would then do away with exhortations to switch energy supplier, to switch bank, to switch cellphone network provider. A simple, basic bank account which allows an account holder to pay in money, take out money and occasionally borrow money at reasonable rates, is all that most people want or require of a bank. Clean water that comes out of the taps, and the removal of their sewerage is all that people want of their water company. Electricity and gas / oil at a reasonable price, coupled with help to reduce consumption is all that energy consumers want of an energy company. Telephones calls with simple, transparent tariffs that don't cost the earth is all that residential customers want from their fixed line telephone. An adequate cellphone signal, using whatever mast is in the locality; simple, transparent tariffs; and a promise that they will not be ripped off with unexpected, astronomical bills, is what cellphone users want from a cellphone network. Let the market squabble over those things that are not commodities.

Instead, we are offered an oligopoly. This does not feel like a stable situation that will end well. 

19 November 2015

The Chess Valley

This is one of three weblog postings about the events of one day: Friday 6 November 2015. The other two postings are À la recherche du temps perdu and Friday 6 November 2015.

The River Chess is a chalk stream rising in the Chiltern Hills, Buckinghamshire, in southern England, running south eastwards into Hertfordshire. Its sources are some springs in Chesham, and the river ends just south east of Rickmansworth at its confluence with the River Colne. Over its short 18 km (11 miles) length, it falls only 60 metres. (In contrast, the River Thames falls 110 metres, the River Wear: 340 metres; and the River Severn: 610 metres.) The River Chess is fed by groundwater held in the chalk aquifer over which the river runs: when the water table is very low, the river can disappear in places, and not reappear until the groundwater has been adequately replenished. For much of its length the River Chess runs through or close to the Chiltern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The valley through which the River Chess runs seems to me to be far too wide and deep to have been created by the existing river, and my guess would be that it was carved by glacial run-off towards  the end of the most recent ‘ice age’ about ten thousand years ago. An undemanding extended walking route, called the Chess Valley Walk, mostly utilising footpaths and lanes, roughly follows the line of the river through the valley from the source of the river in Chesham to its confluence with the Colne.

It wasn't cold, but the sky was leaden, and a light drizzle was lubricating ground, grass and leaf, when I joined the Walk from a network of paths crisscrossing Chorleywood Common. The approach involved a descent into the Chess valley through an autumnal beech wood. The browns, golds, yellows and pale greens, mostly leaf litter, were a riot familiar to Gerard Manley Hopkins. Being the fag-end of the year, much of the vegetation, weeds such as coarse grasses and nettles, was already rank and overblown, some of it yellowing or turning grey. Perhaps there was the smell of leaf mould. A grey squirrel was noisily ferreting around among the leaves. A rabbit skipped silently out of sight. An untidy snap and clatter of feathers on twigs signalled the panicked flight of a wood pigeon. Rooks, magpies and jays called obscenities at each other. However, behind the alarm calls of blackbird, blue tit and robin, and not entirely unlike my tinnitus, was the constant sibilant roar of traffic on the M25 that was finally stilled only later, at the furthest extent of my walk.

On reaching the valley floor, I turned north. I could not yet see the river. Whilst the path ran fairly straight, with such a slight gradient, the river meandered around the valley floor, sometimes dividing into several channels, and so wandered away from the footpath. An interpretation board described some of the flora and fauna of the valley, including about the water voles (Ratty, from The Wind in the Willows).

As I walked on, still unable to see the actual river, I noticed a footbridge, almost completely obscured from view by vegetation. I experienced what I often experience when walking in the countryside: a desire to 'learn the landscape' by following every path. Discovery and the possibility of adventure beckoned. I was reminded of Robert Frost’s yellow wood. Unlike Frost, however, I chose the path muddy with the imprint of boot and paw.

Immediately before the next footbridge, the footpath finally approached the riverbank and showed me the river for the first time. The place was not especially pretty, but could have been a delightfully peaceful place to sit for a while, reading, writing or simply contemplating. A meander had carved out a broad shallow bay that formed a natural paddling pool. Out in mid-stream, river weed quivered inviting fingers and hands to explore its texture and movement. Had the weather been an order or two of magnitude more pleasant, I should not have hesitated to unlace my boots, peel off three pairs of socks, roll up my trouser legs, and paddle on the flinty gravel in the flow of the water as though I were four or five years old once again. Two aspects of the scene did not match the visual memory from my childhood: there was no backdrop of trees, and there was no road bridge a short distance downstream. However, the obviousness of this as a safe place for young children to paddle suggested that I had indeed found the place that I sought.

A woman and her dog arrived, and in my mind's eye I put back on my socks and boots. The dog was in the water without hesitation. I went to stand on the footbridge, over the middle of the river. The water was so intensely clear that had it not been for the surface reflection of lowering clouds, one might have been forgiven for being uncertain that an alternative dimension existed beneath that surface. As though disturbed by an eddy of moving air, the water rippled: a brown trout glided by silently heading downstream. My eye was then caught by a flash of movement upstream. The iridescent turquoise of a kingfisher darted up from the water to sit on the branch of a willow. The action was happening a hundred metres upstream, but by the time I had relocated myself for a better view, the kingfisher was gone. I began to have a sense that the valley, its river and its inhabitants might be willing to reveal something of themselves to those who trod lightly.

The rain subsided as I walked on. Initially close to the banks of the river, but getting gradually further away again, the footpaths crossed soggy fields, ran through woods, and at one point skirted a substantial marsh or bog. The path seemed to be heading out of the valley. What I had missed, it transpires, was the sign to cross the river on that first footbridge, and to follow the Chess Valley Walk along lanes to the east of the river. It was this latter route that I adopted on the return leg.

I was utterly delighted to discover a watercress farm at Moor Lane, Sarratt Bottom. There is something wonderful for me about watercress beds with sparkling water flowing over biscuit-coloured flinty gravel, contrasting with bright, chlorophyll-green leaves. I felt a sense of peace in proximity to its freshness and cleanness, not unlike proximity to a waterfall. I crossed the footbridge to the east/north side of the river. A sign read "Fresh Watercress", so I felt authorised to approach the farm buildings. Just before the first building was a metal cabinet with sliding glass doors, sellotaped to the front of which was a notice that read "Bags of watercress £2. Put the money in the blue box." Relieved to discover that I had £2.00 in change, I popped four 50p coins in the blue box and helped myself to a bag of watercress. The bag was river water cool, and the watercress it contained felt firm and substantial, not like the bags one buys from a supermarket. Considerately, the farm owners had placed two garden benches on the bank overlooking the river. It had started to rain again, albeit lightly. I retrieved the heavy duty carrier bag I had packed in my knapsack for this purpose, spread it out on a seat, and sat on the bench in the drizzle, eating my sandwiches while listening to the bubble and rush of the water. A small weir created a tiny waterfall downstream, although nothing that would trouble a trout. Upstream the river ran over a gravel cascade, producing a gentle sibilance. I wondered whether to get out my umbrella. An aeroplane from a different world moaned overhead, and a chainsaw whined somewhere in the distance. I realised that I could no longer hear the M25.

While gazing abstractedly upstream, I saw the flicker of movement, and the tell-tale iridescence of another kingfisher. I was watching it sitting on the handrail of the footbridge. Every so often it would about-face and I could see a blob of dark red plumage, then it would turn back and become a sliver of turquoise once more. From time-to-time it would dart into the river, and quickly return, but each time to a different place on the bridge. I realised that I was being permitted to witness the quiet charm of the Chess Valley and one of its residents.

I walked a little way further upstream along a footpath that was partially board-walked. This was the Chess Valley Walk proper. At a place where the river bent sharply away I stopped to survey the view. With its woods and fields, a valley and a river, footpaths and footbridges, its birds and mammals, this was an environment in which I should be happy to linger and to revisit. However, it was time to turn back towards Chorleywood Common.

I became aware of a disturbance of rooks. Where I live in eastern Kent, such a disturbance is typical when a buzzard is wheeling overhead. I looked up, and there was indeed a raptor, in fact several. However, unlike a buzzard with its rounded, owl-like wings and convex tail, these birds were leaner, more angular and with a pronouncedly forked tail: red kites. There were at least two adults and several juveniles. Although flying immediately above me, as well as over the neighbouring field, settling in a tree, one even landing on the grass, I was not certain that they were aware of my presence. I was treated to a remarkable display of aerial acrobatics. Their agility was stunning and mesmerising, and I was captivated. I rued not bringing my video camera.

The muddy lanes that speeded me back to Chorleywood were sparsely populated with pleasant rural houses. They were neither country palaces of the nouveau riche, nor tumbledown cottages, just ordinary nineteenth century and twentieth century houses in a delightful location. No doubt too remote for the taste of most people, and maybe considered impractical for full engagement in modern life, these properties spoke of a quieter way of being not unlike life in parts of the North Downs of eastern Kent.

As I climbed up out of the valley through the beech woods back onto the Common, I could feel green tendrils tugging gently at my wrists and ankles. I was already yearning to return.

Friday 6 November 2015

This is one of three weblog postings about the events of one day: Friday 6 November 2015. The other two postings are  À la recherche du temps perdu and The Chess Valley.

The day began about ten days before. It came about due to my daughter being invited to attend a meeting at Pinewood Studios. I told her that I was considering offering to drive her there, guessing that I could probably find some interesting place in which to occupy myself until it was time to collect her: Hampton Court Palace, Kew Gardens, Cliveden and the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Wisley were some of the many places I considered but then rejected on the grounds of expensive entrance fees that I was unwilling to afford. Examining the map closely, I saw that an area named Chorleywood Common was not too far away, and as though some distant echo, I recalled that I had been taken there as an infant. Moreover, a quick online search revealed a walking route along the Chess Valley, and I was feeling ready for a walk. The weather forecast looked promising, so I resolved to go. My resolve wobbled a little when the meeting venue was changed to Shepperton Studios, some twenty five miles from Chorleywood, hardly close by. However, recognising that I felt disappointment at the prospect of not undertaking the trip, I recommitted myself to the adventure.

I do not use a satellite navigation system. Whilst I have in fact done so on several occasions, it has only ever been with mixed success, and I have on each occasion found myself disputing, or even arguing with, its robotic instructions, and become extremely fed up with being exhorted repeatedly to make an immediate U-turn. I prefer to use maps with which to plan my route, from which I write detailed lists of abbreviated instructions and observations. Several features make my lists superior to those of the Google Maps route planner: I include visual way-points (turn right at the traffic lights with a BP petrol station on the corner); I carefully detail how to handle particularly confusing junctions; I insert means of realising when something has gone wrong, and I devise instructions for getting myself back on track. My care stems partly from the frequency with which road signs in built-up areas do not show the road number, and partly from the fact that street name signs are too often obscured, located in places not visible to a passing car driver, or simply absent. I do use Google Maps street view to examine road signs and lane markings. Preparation of my in-car instruction sheets effectively rehearses sections of the journey which means that, as I drive along a road for the first time, I am recognising various features as though I had driven that way before.

Car parking is important: parking somewhere safe is paramount; parking somewhere for free is better than having to pay; parking somewhere convenient is helpful. Searching online I found several car parks listed for Chorleywood. I noted, however, that the railway station car park charges a substantial fee; a free shoppers' car park has a two hour limit; but a somewhat less-convenient shoppers' car park offers four hours parking without charge. I decided that four hours of parking would be sufficient, so used Google Maps street view to see how I would recognise the car park entrance, which was not especially obvious. While using Google Maps satellite view, I noticed that there is also a car park not listed on the web, eating into the southern edge of Chorleywood Common. The satellite photograph revealed a less formal looking shape, as though there would be no charge, and showed the car park full with parked cars. Provided there were space on the day, this car park would be most convenient.

As I intended to be walking in the countryside for three or four hours, and driving in the car for several hours either side of that, I would need a toilet before setting off on my walk. I am not a fan of attending to my bodily functions en pleine nature, public conveniences are seldom adequately clean, and I prefer not to have to ask to use a toilet in a pub when I have no intention of buying a drink. On the other hand, superstores usually have toilets, and it is possible to check online the availability of this facility. The Sainsbury's superstore closest to my route from Shepperton to Chorleywood would be at Staines.

My sister and her partner live in Maidenhead, over a hundred miles from the village in which I live, so we do not get to meet very often. The trip to Shepperton would take us within twenty five miles of Maidenhead, so the occasion seemed like too good an opportunity to miss a visit.

On ruled paper I wrote myself detailed lists of directions from home to Shepperton Studios, from Shepperton Studios to the Sainbury's superstore in Staines, from Staines to the car park on the edge of Chorleywood Common, from that car park (if full) to the shoppers' car park in Chorleywood, from Chorleywood back to Shepperton (avoiding Staines), and from Shepperton Studios to Maidenhead. Using Google Maps route planner I was able estimate how long each leg of the journey would take, and thereby calculate the required start time for each leg. The two fixed times were the start and the end of the meeting at Shepperton studios. Anyone who knows the M25 will be aware that, despite an American number of lanes along stretches that are often congested, during 'rush' hour, the traffic can slow to a standstill: a journey typically taking 35 minutes can be expected to take twice as long, and can in practice take much longer, depending on traffic density. Arriving on time when using the M25 requires planning and a following wind.

Over the days between my decision to go and the day itself, the weather forecast deteriorated until it became set to drizzle for most of the day. In a knapsack I packed some waterproof trousers and an umbrella, along with a heavy duty plastic carrier bag on which to sit. I charged my digital camera, and ensured that its memory card was empty. Never before having visited the area, at least not as an adult, I have no Ordnance Survey map of the area. I feel more comfortable when out walking if I can follow the route on a map, so I downloaded a pdf brochure of the Chess Valley Walk that I found online. Of particular significance was that it gave instructions about how best to join the Walk from Chorleywood Common. I printed the relevant page of the brochure and popped it into a punched plastic pocket. With optimism comparable to that of a compulsive gambler, I included with my gear for the day a small towel, just in case I got the opportunity to paddle in the River Chess. For once I remembered to pack a hair brush: I guessed that, come late afternoon, having being out walking for several hours, I would probably look like a wild man of the woods. I topped up the car engine with oil and checked the tyres. Late on Thursday evening I set up the bread-making machine so that I could make and take fresh sandwiches. First thing on Friday morning I prepared a flask of a herbal infusion.

Friday morning did not dawn well. Not only was it raining hard, but I had slept, when I had slept at all, remarkably badly. I felt thick-headed with a mild but intrusive migraine headache that subsequently lasted for several days. As usual in such circumstances my tinnitus was also quite pronounced. However, we managed to leave precisely on time, which is unusual. Traffic on both the M20 and M26 was busy but moving fast. Traffic on the M25 was busier, but there were remarkably few queues. By the time we left the M25 I was feeling too travel sick to be able to read my list of directions, so I had to have them read to me, but having researched the route thoroughly, I was able to recognise most of the route as we arrived at each way-point or junction. We arrived forty five minutes before the meeting start time (which I am informed was valuable).

The journey into the centre of Staines was more confusing than I had envisaged, and would have been more comfortable had I researched it better. The toilets in Sainsbury's were adequate but nothing more, and despite a quick look round several departments of the shop, I was unable to find anything I wanted to buy. Entry onto the M25 was via a highly complex road junction, and the northbound traffic was heavier than before. I had no choice but to read for myself my written directions.

An arrow flies straight from the bow to the target. Okay, it travels in a gravity-induced parabola, and in the open air its flight may be influenced by the wind. What an arrow does not do is swing round objects, hug contours, or travel in the wrong direction in order to find a faster path to the target. I have often felt fascinated with the concept of travelling from one point in space and arriving at another. Journeys rarely involve a single straight line, and a journey in a city often requires one to zig-zag this way and that, like a sailing boat tacking in order to travel upwind. Longer, more complex journeys may even demand, unintuitively, that one travels south when the destination is north, and west when the destination is east. Sometimes the two places are already well known to us, and like the sequential memory involved in reciting a poem or singing a song, what happens next on the journey comes into view as we approach it. However, when the destination is unfamiliar, the journey inevitably involves performing a precisely-designated sequence of unconnected actions, like when following the instructions for performing a complex operation on a computer: miss out or change a step and one ends up somewhere completely different, such as Watford, St. Albans or Luton. Sometimes the journey involves trusting to an intuitive sense of direction, and whilst this has worked spectacularly well for me on foot on many occasions, it has also led to some spectacular failures when driving (such as trying for an hour to free myself from the ring of hell that is the one-way system in Milan, Italy). Junction 17 on the M25, it turns out, is signposted to Chorleywood. On seeing this, I immediately wondered whether I had been mistaken in writing J18 on my list. I knew from the map that Chorleywood is only a very small town, and it seemed unlikely that it would warrant the attention of two junctions of the M25. Had I exited the motorway at Junction 17, I should have found that the sequence of right and left turns recorded on my sheet of paper had failed to bring me to the car park on the edge of Chorleywood Common, and I could have been driving around for a quite while trying to work out how best to rectify my error (which is what happened to me in Rhayader, Powys; in Hannover, Germany; and at Olomouc, Czech Republic). It is on those occasions when one is confronted by the fact that roads signs, for all that they look like they are pointing the way, are more reliably an aide-memoire. One of the reasons why I include way-points in my route list instructions is to bolster my confidence that I am still on the correct route. Doubt comes easily to me. All that is required to throw me off course at a road junction is ask whether I ought be heading in a different direction. I very nearly left the motorway at Junction 17 because what was written on the road sign was the name of the place to which I was travelling. Although very much in two minds, I chose to adhere to my instructions and drove on to exit the motorway at Junction 18. Once off the M25 and back onto better-rehearsed smaller roads, I found my way without hesitation. I arrived at the car park I had identified on the edge of Chorleywood Common where it seemed that a single vacant parking space was waiting for me. Somewhat frazzled and distinctly thick-headed, I had arrived.

The car park looked as though it was and ought to be free of charge, and the cars parked either side of mine were unadorned with parking ticket machine tickets. No parking ticket machine was visible. Ever wary, I walked over to read a small but official-looking notice that, from its appearance could just as easily have been making explicit some by-laws about the use of the Common, such as restrictions on the public use of alcohol, and that all dogs should be kept on a lead. In a sentiment reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, the notice in fact indicated that between 11.00 am and 3.00 pm (what is wrong with using the twenty four hour clock?) parking in the car park was free provided that one displays a parking ticket machine ticket, and that failing to display a ticket would be considered a contravention for which punishment would be meted out. A parking ticket machine remaining stubbornly elusive, I walked towards the other end of the car park and accosted a dog owner who was just returning to her car. She pointed to a hitherto hidden machine, but then added that it wasn't working. Not entirely reassured, I went to investigate and found it perfectly operational. Clutching my ticket (no charge), I returned to the woman and her dog who were on the point of driving away. She observed that as she had arrived well before 11:00, maybe the machine had simply refused to issue her with a ticket. Lewis Carroll or Franz Kafka?

Boots laced, knapsack strapped, and clutching my plastic-pocketed map, as soon as I set off walking across Chorleywood Common two things became evident: one, that although I have no specific memory of the place, it felt so natural to be there, that I was certain that I had visited long ago. It is precisely the sort of place that a young couple would take their two young sons for a day out from the grime of poor city suburbs. Acre upon acre of grass on which to run like the wind; stands of tall trees hundreds of years old amongst which to hide. Surely that is where we learned to play 'hide and seek'. Second, the entire Common was speckled with polite-looking women walking polite-looking dogs. Frequently in pairs, their dogs mostly on the lead, the women were out for their morning walk to encounter and talk with their friends. I wonder if their stockbroker husbands take their turn to walk the dog in the evening and at weekends. (I apologise for stereotyping.) I encountered a group of women who had found a quiet corner in which to do some dog training together - reminding me of the many ways in which New Yorkers use Central Park in Manhattan. Elsewhere a woman was training her dog alone. It was only down beside the River Chess that I began encountering men with their dogs, and couples with their dogs, as well as more women with their dogs. There are plenty of dogs where I live in eastern Kent, but Chorleywood appears to take dog ownership to an entirely new level.

The descent off the Common was through beech woods. Despite a gentle drizzle, it was a delightful place to be walking. In order to try to avoid arriving back at Shepperton late, I calculated that I needed to be driving away from the car park no later than 15:00. I had set off at 11:40, giving me three hours and twenty minutes, or an hour and a half outbound, plus twenty minutes to eat my sandwiches. I knew that I could not hang around, although it would have been lovely to have lingered.

On reaching the valley floor I arrived at the signposted Chess Valley Walk. Although I had printed the documentation I found online, it would appear that the font size had been chosen by Lilliputians. Consequently I was unable to make out clearly that the Chess Valley Walk crosses the river in a number of places. A footpath spurred off to a just-visible footbridge. Tempting though it felt to cross that bridge, I decided to press on, following signposted footpaths running along the west side of the valley. Initially close to the banks of the river, but getting gradually further away, the footpaths crossed soggy fields, ran through woods, and at one point skirted a substantial marsh or bog. What I had missed was the sign to cross the river on that footbridge and to follow the Chess Valley Walk along lanes to the east of the river. It was this latter route that I adopted on the return leg. I describe elsewhere the delights of the Chess Valley because tonally it was an experience very different from the logistics associated with the day.

Ever anxious to remain on time, and mindful that my return drive along the M25 could coincide with an early exodus for the weekend from London's shops, offices and factories, I strode along the valley floor at a pace that would have a Chihuahua trotting, and might even have had a Dachshund a little out of breath. Certainly I was dizzily gasping for breath as I climbed up out of the valley through the beech woods back onto the Common. It took an age to cross the A404: it would appear that Hertfordshire car drivers may be a little less courteous than those in the corner of eastern Kent where I live. The car was in the place where I had left it, which is always a relief, but not, in my experience, always to be relied on. I had time to drink some herbal infusion from my flask before setting off exactly on schedule. The drive back to Shepperton, by-passing Staines, was mercifully uncongested (the stationary traffic queue on the M25 began from the junction at which I exited) and uneventful, but did require that I navigate a nightmare traffic junction. Although I had encountered the junction some hours earlier that day, traffic bound for Staines used a left-hand filter lane, so I did not have to take too much notice. No such luck this time. The issue is that whilst traffic turning sharp left is predictably required to be in the left-hand lane; traffic merely bearing left is required to use the three right hand lanes; whereas traffic bearing right (along with traffic turning right towards Staines) is required to use either of the two left-hand lanes. At root is the idea that left-turners and right-bearers / turners should use the junction as though it is a roundabout, but those bearing left should drive straight across roundabout's island. It would be reasonable to propose that this arrangement lacks intuitiveness for the uninitiated, and although it has a rationale that makes intellectual sense, it sent my quick-to-doubt driving-self into a tail-spin. I wonder how many other motorists quail the first time they encounter this road junction from the west. I wonder how many road traffic accidents have resulted. Maybe this road layout was devised to reduce the number of accidents. My gut sense is that a flyover would eliminate the complication, confusion and congestion. (Of the six so-called 'magic roundabouts' in the UK, I am unhappily familiar with that in Hemel Hempstead.)

I arrived at Shepperton Studios half an hour early, and my daughter was 37 minutes late from her meeting. Looking for all the world like an industrial estate, which is effectively what the place is, the Studios was not an inspiring place to wait for over an hour. There was little to see but industrial units, no sets at which to marvel, no actors to accost for their autographs, no sense that this is a village in which dreams and illusions are created. The only minor note of interest was seeing a youngish man using a so-called hoverboard (in reality a cross between a skateboard and a Segway Personal Transporter) to travel from one building to another. I wished that I had been able to spend the time walking further along the Chess Valley.

The trip to Maidenhead delivered me back to the nightmare road junction near Staines, but approaching from the east was somewhat easier. Traffic on the M25 was now at a constipated standstill so I immediately filtered off to the left onto Plan B. However, towards Windsor the congestion became so bad that many motorists were turning round to find another route. Although tempted to follow suit, I was unwilling to return to the motorway, and therefore we had little choice but to wait patiently. The sun having set while I was waiting, at Shepperton, the world was all bright headlights and yellow streetlights. We were all in need of a nice hot drink, and we were running late. Once the traffic got moving we were disgorged onto a roundabout for which I was unprepared. I ought to have identified this as a junction at which we might stray from our route. Suddenly we were on a fast dual carriageway heading in the wrong direction. "At the next junction, make a u-turn." I knew enough to feel confident that we would soon reach the M4, on which I could travel west to Maidenhead, after which the remainder of the journey was uneventful.

It was lovely to see my sister, her partner and their dog, Crosby. The Friday being sandwiched between Guy Fawkes Night and Diwali, firework detonations were frequent. Crosby was seriously alarmed by each explosion, at which he would bark loudly, and constant attention was necessary to keep him calm. It quickly became obvious that Crosby was incapable of becoming inured to the sound. However, if offered a dog treat as soon as he barked, he would immediately forget about the firework. A cynic might have imagined that he was simply 'onto a good thing', but the degree of his distress at every explosion was evident. My sister and I talked about family-tree matters while my daughter ate chocolate cake. All too soon it was time to leave and begin the long drive home.

Being nearly 22:00 when we arrived back, it was too late to be cooking and eating a full evening meal. Instead, I chopped the fresh watercress I had bought beside the River Chess, and prepared easily the best watercress soup I have ever made. In both a somatic and symbolic way it felt as though I had internalised an authentic aspect of the Chess Valley: a fitting end to a long, intense and meaningful day.

À la recherche du temps perdu

This is one of three weblog postings about the events of one day: Friday 6 November 2015. The other two postings are Friday 6 November 2015 and The Chess Valley.

When I was young in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I lived with my parents and brother on the ground floor of a modest two-storey terraced house in Willesden, a grimy, working-class suburb in north-west London. My parents were poor, and the rent was cheap. At the back of the house were railway lines including what was then the Stanmore branch of the Bakerloo line (now Jubilee line), a non-stop section of the Metropolitan line, and what was the Great Central Main Line (most of which fell under the Beeching axe) and is now the London to Aylesbury Line operated by Chiltern Railways. Whilst I remember the soot-blackened wall at the boundary of the tiny garden, and have some sense both of the clickety-clack of iron wheels running over fish-plated joints, and of the hum of industrial-sized electric motors, I have no visual memory of seeing a train on the lines. I wish that I had. Maybe the wall was too high to permit a small child sight of the trains.

That trains ran along the tracks I was in no doubt, both then and now, for we would catch Bakerloo line trains both from Dollis Hill tube station to the north west, and from Willesden Green tube station to the south east. From Willesden Green we would travel into central London, often changing trains either at Finchley Road tube station onto the more-limited-stop Metropolitan line, or at Baker Street tube station, a station so complex for a young child that it has appeared in my night-time dreams, often nightmares, ever since. From Dollis Hill (a name with which I have been proud to be associated ever since I discovered in the 1970s that it was the home of the Post Office Research Station, where Tommy Flowers designed and built the Collosus machines, the world's first ever programmable computers, for and in collaboration with Alan Turing) we would travel out of London, most often to Aylesbury, where, every-so-often, always on a Sunday it would seem, the four of us would visit my maternal grandmother, appropriately referred to by my brother and me as “Nana Train”. Apart from the delights of a television (my parents could not afford one) on which it was possible to watch Gerry Anderson’s exciting marionette shows, Supercar, Fireball XL5 (my favourite) and Stingray ("Standby for action! ... Anything can happen in the next half hour!" Thunderbirds came later, and I was too old for Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons), and an upright piano at which my grandmother was accomplished and would often play for us, even the journey was a refreshing break from the humdrum routine of pre-school, and later nursery school, home life. We would catch the Bakerloo line train to Wembley Park tube station where we would change onto the Metropolitan line. We would take this through to Amersham where we would disembark and wait for a “green diesel”. I believe that these diesel multiple units (as I now know to call them) would simply ply the route between Amersham and Aylesbury, although their journey might have begun at Marylebone station. I have neither memory nor knowledge of how we travelled from Aylesbury railway station to my grandmother’s flat. Imprinted on my memory, however, are the names of the final stations on the Metropolitan line. Almost a litany, the names were rich in promise, and the places pregnant with potential: Rickmansworth, Chorleywood, Chalfont and Latimer, and Amersham, the terminus. Intriguingly, there was an alternative  terminus: Chesham. Little did I understand quite how rich in promise those places are, lying in and on the edge of the Chiltern Hills.

There were occasions, however, when we did visit Chorleywood. I have this abiding memory from when I was either four or five years of age, right at the beginning of the 1960s, paddling in a shallow gravel-bedded river at a place named Chorleywood Common. Leaves dappled golden sunshine. Emerald-coloured river weed quivered in the burbling and sibilant flow of the water. It was a magical place, like a little bit of heaven. I may have been taken there only once, and we moved away up north not too long after. The occasion has been secreted away in my memory ever since. The memory is a single, albeit multi-layered, image. I have no memory of travelling there, although I am in no doubt that we travelled by the route outlined above.

I am reasonably confident that we visited Chorleywood Common, although not that river, on several occasions. I can imagine young parents in their early to mid twenties, taking their young sons to run free in the open air, to shout without being hushed, and to burn off energy bottled-up by life spent in a contained urban environment. As I walked over Chorleywood Common recently, I could feel my feet wishing to take flight, taking me to hide behind tall trees, and to explore bracken thickets. Apart from that sole image of paddling in a river, I have no explicit memory of any one occasion in the past, but simply being there recently whispered to me that this was all familiar from a very long time ago. Moreover, commons and heathland with copses, spinneys, avenues and rides, whilst admittedly far from an acquired taste, was not the kind of terrain with which I subsequently became remotely familiar, and I am guessing that the pleasure I experience now when encountering such terrain arises from those occasions before the formalisation of my memories.

I am getting a little ahead of myself. To backtrack, I was recently offered the opportunity to visit the area to the north west of London. On examining a map I happened to notice the small town of Chorleywood, and from deep in my memory I remembered the name and the promise that it carried. To be precise, the name that I remembered was Chorleywood Common. A different kind of image with which I associate the place name is an E.H.Shepard illustration of a verse by A.A.Milne in When We Were Very Young, called 'Market Place':
I had nuffin',
No, I hadn't got nuffin',
So I didn't go down
to the market square;
But I walked on the common
The old gold common ..."

Then I saw on the map that that there is a river that, by all accounts, has a gravel bed. I am in no doubt that somewhere along the River Chess (I never knew the name of the river when I was a child), between the M25 and Chenies, is that magical place from my childhood, and as though rising out of the mist of my past, the idea of visiting Chorleywood Common, of walking along the river, and of searching for that place in the river where I paddled when I was very young, slowly clarified in my mind. Almost immediately I could hear the voice of Alan Bennett reading Wind in the Willows.

I turned my attention to an online search. This revealed photographs of the River Chess, a Chess Valley Walk, and a delightful weblog posting about how the place was magical in the childhood of other people too. I determined that I would drive there and walk the stretch of the River Chess in search of the paddling place of my memory. In planning the trip, I also hoped to create some new gentle memories, including looking for the footbridge that was mentioned in the weblog posting, seeing some of the less common flora, and perhaps some bird-life, and maybe even once again paddling in the gravel-bedded river.

Tempering mounting excitement, and reining in my expectations, however, I considered it possible that the image in my memory may be inaccurate in some way, or has been distorted by subsequent experience. I also wondered whether I might pass the spot and not recognise it, for much can change in fifty years. Indeed, Google Maps coldly informed me of the distinct possibility that the place for which I intended to search was brutally obliterated many years ago beneath concrete and tarmac that is now the M25.

It is a long journey from the North Downs of eastern Kent to playing in a gravel-bedded river, watched over by parents who have both since died, on a summer's day in the Chilterns.