Why is it hard to say goodbye?

Despite Scottish Canals running out of water this week, we should finally set out on our adventure on Monday. From Falkirk to Glasgow, and then a week later out of the water to a lorry to take us down to the English canal network for the rest of the season. It is a retirement promise that we have planned for a number of years, and should have started in March, if this pesky pandemic had not happened. But as I write this morning, I am struggling to say goodbye to the marina where we have seen berthed since we bought the boat, and to the comfortable way of life we have had in Scotland, with a house in short driving distance from the boat.

This is particularly strange because throughout our lives, Mandy and I have moved house many times, usually for my work, and have always balanced the excitement of new challenges to be greater than the loss of certainty from where we were already happy. And strange because we do plan to come back to Scotland in the winter, for other adventures, such as a month in Orkney.

I guess I am a little nervous of the trip to England, specifically the short journey from the canals, along the Clyde to the boatyard to be craned out. The Clyde is a wide tidal river, carrying big ships and fast moving craft. We have been getting prepared, including this week borrowing the heaviest anchor and chain I have even seen on a narrowboat – just in case. But it is still scary. I am also a little nervous about what happens when things break down. I have done the training in plumbing, electrics and engine maintenance, but that is not the same as doing it for real.

However, I can feel the positive energy from being nervous, and I am desperate to get back to cruising – to wake up each morning in a different place, to reclaim the relaxation from chugging through the countryside at 3mph. And one thing I have loved this year since retirement is spending most of my time with Mandy. Perhaps surprisingly, given that we have spent much time apart over the years through work, we find we still really enjoy each other’s company – most of the time anyway.

What about you? What is your attitude to major change? Excited by the anticipation or scared of what could go wrong?

Have the jabs made you invincible?

Today marks a milestone for me. Two weeks after my second vaccination means that my immunity to Covid is about as high as it will get. My chance of getting the disease is much lower now, and even more importantly, the chance of me getting seriously ill and dying is very small. It makes me feel invincible.

Yesterday lunchtime Mandy and I felt invincible enough to go across the road for lunch at our local bistro. This new café opened at the start of last year and the owner, Kumar, was immediately faced with months of lockdown, and yet no reduction in costs for things like council tax and licensing. We have really wanted to support this local business but it is a small room and we were honestly scared, so yesterday was the first time. Kumar could not have been more welcoming. I had their oriental vegetarian burger, made with lentils, lemongrass and coriander and it was delicious. And maybe because we have both had two jabs/jags now, we did not feel nervous at all. Thanks Kumar.

I was reading this morning a report from the Bank of England, saying that the UK economy is growing rapidly as we have opened up again. That is good news and I guess we all need to put particular effort into supporting local businesses. Amazon has had quite enough of my trade this past year.

The other thing I should have been be getting excited about this week was our expected trip down to England with our narrowboat. We were meant to be leaving our marina on Tuesday for a little tour of the Scottish lowland canals, before lifting the boat out of the water near Glasgow, and taking it down south. Unfortunately Scottish Canals have a big problem this week with the main water feed into the Forth and Clyde canal, and all boat movements have been stopped. This is immensely frustrating because there is nothing we can do. Even being invincible is no help.

Grrrrrrr.

How are you feeling this week? Invincible? Frustrated? Excited?

Enjoy your weekend, Pete

Of the world population, what percentage lives in low-income countries?

I have been reading a book this week called “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling. It is a fascinating read because it uncovers many of the misconceptions we have about the world. For instance our brains love the simplicity of splitting the world into haves or have nots, rich and poor; while the truth is that most of the world is in the middle. We also tend to have a negative view of the world because we hear many more negative stories than positive ones. As Hans says, a journalist would not last long writing stories such as “plane does not crash” or “child does not die early”. And us slightly older people tend to romanticise our memories of youth, remembering the great days playing out, rather than the nights we went to bed hungry.

The really positive news in the book is that key measures across the world continue to get better. When you read the title of this blog, what percentage did you come up with? Typically people choose a number well over 50%. That was true until about 1990. But it has been decreasing from around 85% in 1800 and the decrease has accelerated. The figure today is around 9%. I have spent a lot of time in India over the past twenty years, and a common comment from me is that alongside the wealth you see so much poverty, But I realise now that comment is based on what I first saw. When I started visiting, around 40% of the Indian population were very poor. The figure today is more like 10%.

The book was written in 2017 so does not have as clear a view as we do today of climate change and the pandemic. Do they halt the progress in its tracks? No, but they are both catastrophic events. Global warming is too late to reverse and some of the same challenges to how we think stop us paying attention. Newspapers in the UK this week have had headlines about the hot weather, but all in a positive light. And the pandemic continues to cause larger numbers of excess deaths than we have seen for years. But if the stats from the UK and US are to be believed, vaccination can break the link between transmission and death, so I remain optimistic that in 12 months time we will have bounced back. And the underlying improvements in society we have seen will continue – less poverty, less hunger, more gender equality, cleaner and available energy, improved health.

There are a whole range of free online quizzes on this subject available at gapminder.org. Go and have a look. You may well find your view of the world needs an upgrade!

Have a positive weekend, Pete

What should I do with hundreds of old newspapers?

Last weekend I went to stay with my Mum in Salisbury. The main reason was to see her for the first time in eighteen months, but it was also to try to sort out a move of nursing homes for my Dad. He has advanced Alzheimer’s dementia and needs 24 by 7 care. It is a sad situation and it is important for me to remember him how he was, rather than how he is now.

So while I was in Salisbury I went up into the loft and reclaimed eight or nine boxes of my Dad’s old newspapers. Now before you think that my Dad was a slightly strange hoarder, these are not just any old newspapers. It was his hobby to collect papers from many years ago. They are fascinating to read, partly for how the front page headline stories were portrayed, such as when the Titanic was sunk, or when the world wars ended, or when we landed on the moon. But also equally for the inconsequential stories and adverts throughout the paper. Who knew so many corsets were sold a hundred years ago?

Dad has papers from as far back as the seventeenth century, but his biggest collection is from the year of his birth – 1936. They paint a real picture of a year that mixed everyday stories with what we now know was the preparation for a war that changed the lives of everyone across the globe. I wonder if in 90 years time, someone will be reading the newspapers from the start of 2020, fascinated by what was being said about a little virus in Wuhan and how that contrasted with page after page about how we were all so cross about Brexit.

I have brought the newspapers home to Scotland and over the next week I plan to curate them, rebox them and hopefully find time to read a few. I do not have so long before we set off on our summer tour of England on the narrowboat, so much of that reading may have to wait.

As I have begun going through the boxes, I came across a speech my father had given to the local rotary club about his hobby. He tells a story about how he was travelling back on a train from London reading one of his old newspapers about the death of Queen Mary. A fellow traveller asked why he was reading a fifty year old paper. My Dad replied “I guess I am just a slow reader”. I am looking forward through my ongoing retirement also to become a slow reader.

Did your parents have any unusual hobbies? What do you think of them now?

Ten reasons to meet people again

I have been on a bit of a tour this week. From Scotland I drove down to Sheffield for a walk with my son, daughter in law and dog, and then on to Market Harborough for training courses in plumbing and electrics at the Narrowboat Skills Centre, Debdale Wharf, working in a classroom with four other students and an instructor. Since I was in England, I took the opportunity to meet up with a friend from when I was working, and I visited an aunt and her family. Both live relatively close to where I was training. I have eaten in restaurants and pubs. I have even been to a cinema. Then tonight I head on to stay with my Mum for the weekend. We talk most days, but as with my son, it will be the first time I have been with her in eighteen months.

With Simon at Hambleton, Rutland Water

I have to confess that after so long being generally isolated, it has felt very strange to be with people again – strange and a little scary. In some ways I would like to retreat back into my safe bubble at home. News from countries like India continues to be frightening. But there are good reasons to start meeting people again:

  1. Isolation is not great for my mental health. I know that everyone has reacted differently, but now is the time for me to come back blinking into the light.
  2. The economy needs growth. Forecasts are for a huge “bounce” in the second half of this year, but that will only happen if we get back to work and back to leisure activities.
  3. I need to relearn social skills. I have written in a previous blog that I have introvert and extravert traits. This last year has made me more introvert and now I need to get out there, or hide in a corner.
  4. There are many things I want to do in my retirement and I can’t do them if I am scared of being with other people.
  5. The vaccines work. Even where the faster spreading variants are prevalent, vaccinated people seem to be relatively safe from severe symptoms.
  6. Gossip is fun. I am not sure if you have found the same, but remote conversations lack nuance and body language, and so the “water cooler” gossip doesn’t happen the same way. I know it is naughty but we all like it!
  7. If not now, then when? I can’t wait for everything to get fully back to normal, because I think that may take decades.
  8. Teams work. Next week I am meeting a couple of fellow narrowboaters to see if we can travel the river Clyde together late in June. It is a big tidal river and frightening alone on a flat bottomed boat, but as a team we will all feel safer and can help each other.
  9. People are interesting. I have always been a people watcher. I love the ways we are all different and can learn from each other.
  10. I have really missed my friends and family. Zoom, FaceTime and Teams are great, but are not the same as being with people.

What about you? Have you sneaked out of lockdown to meet people, are you still prohibited, or like me are you now just beginning again?

What day is it?

I was out walking along the coast in Fife yesterday with one of my sons and my sister in law. I realised that I was not sure what day it was. One of the benefits of retirement is that I can do anything on any day. No longer do I need to wait till the weekend to go for a long walk, or go shopping, or fix the crack in the bathroom tiling, or visit my new great nephew for a cuddle, all of which I did yesterday. Rather I have the flexibility to avoid crowds and do what I want when I want.

The wonderful coastline of Fife in Scotland

But the downside can be that every day is like another. I chatted to my sister in law, who has been retired for seven years. She deliberately builds routine into her weeks to help provide some structure. She eats fish on a Friday. She cooks a roast Sunday lunch. She tries to make Friday evening as relaxing as it was when she was working. Maybe I should do the same. But I am in that honeymoon period of retirement when the freedom to do anything on any day feels simply wonderful.

I know when people say “they have no idea what day it is” they often mean that the person is losing it. Sadly, my father has advanced Alzheimer’s dementia and really does not understand the world any more. And I am wary of the naysayers in my old work, who told me not to retire because my brain would turn to mush. And I am aware that even though my life now has few meetings and appointments, I recently missed a meeting with my financial adviser, not because I was too busy, but because I was not busy enough. But it honestly feels great to wake up in a morning and know that today I can do pretty much anything I want.

Especially now lockdown is easing in the UK, those freedoms are widening. On Sunday I head down to England for some narrowboat training. I had better not miss the course because I forget what day it is!

What about you? If you are retired do you always remember the day? If you are working, do you long to be freed from the constraints of routine?

Have a great weekend, Pete

Nice weather for the time of year?

On Thursday morning I woke up to sprinkling of snow on the ground. Snow in mid May is weird even for our very variable weather in the UK. This time last year we were in a heatwave and I was sitting outside in my shorts. I have a friend who insists on wearing shorts from April to October. He also will not turn the central heating on during this period. For me, short wearing is only for the hottest of weather. We have had the central heating on all year, and we even had a proper fire in our wood burning stove twice this week.

When we are in our narrowboat, cold mornings are a treat for me. It is a admittedly a shock to get out of a cozy bed, but a dash to the stern of the boat to turn the heating on, and within 40 minutes we are warm again. In mid-winter I love the sound of the ice cracking around the boat. Throughout the year, I love the mist rising from a cold canal as the morning sun’s rays first begin to warm the day.

I am missing the sun. In previous years I could travel to warmer countries, either with work, or for holidays. Since the first lockdown, that has all gone, and we are down to the vagaries of the British weather. I saw a post this week from a fellow Scottish retiree, who lives in Crete and was complaining about 38 degrees of heat. She got a lot of responses from here saying we could all do with a few days of that.

Ah well. It is the most British of past times to complain about the weather. I know there are more important things going on in the world. But snow in mid May?

How is the weather wherever you are?

Last night I had the strangest dream

It was nothing to do with boats to China (80s pop reference). Rather it was about cricket. I was playing with a group of colleagues in India from my old job. And I made the most amazing catch – diving, rolling, clutching. This is a strange dream for many reasons, not least of which is I am genuinely terrible at catching!

Ben Stokes – sportskeeda.com

What caused the dream? Probably a combination of things. I had made and eaten a rather spicy curry. I have been listening to a lot of cricket matches from the Indian Premier League (IPL). I have been talking to my old employer about a tax issue.

But it was a nice dream. I woke with a smile and felt good. I wish I was better at sport but my hand-eye co-ordination is rubbish. Instead I have always espoused the mantra “It is not about the winning. It is about the taking part”. The dream last night reminded me that just as with so may other parts of life, that winning is good too.

I am lucky to have had many wins in my life and have many more to look forward to. Plans are now firming up for our narrowboat summer in England. Hopefully we will be moving the boat from Scotland in the first week of July. It is all very exciting.

But I still feel happy that I caught the ball last night. Even if it was a dream.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel, or is that a narrowboat coming towards you?

I have been walking through a couple of canal tunnels this week. Some of the most exciting and scary times on a narrowboat are travelling through tunnels. Most canal tunnels have very little space around the boat profile. This is deliberate because when the canals were designed, the boats were pulled by horses, and the horses would not go through tunnels, so the boats were “legged” through by two strong men, lying on either side of the barge roof and using their legs to “walk” along the tunnel. These days we have engines and we have to steer 50-60 foot long boats through the tunnel with often less than a foot space on either side.

Falkirk Tunnel

There are two keys to success. Don’t be overconfident and don’t panic. Fluid mechanics give us a big advantage because the water being pushed either side of the boat as you travel through the tunnel, gives pressure to keep the boat away from the walls. But if you are overconfident and drive too fast, or if you panic and over-react to each boat movement, then before you know it, you are bouncing the boat off the walls side to side.

I wonder of there is an analogy. Here in the UK the Covid numbers have fallen right back. Deaths and hospitalisations are very low, since so many of the population are now vaccinated. Society is reopening, with shops, bars, gyms, cinemas now back or soon to be back. In a month or so we will be nearly normal. There is talk about Coronavirus treatment in pills taken at home next winter. It really feels that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

But two things could get in the way. One would be overconfidence. If we relax the rules too fast, give up on social distancing, refuse to self isolate, then it will be back. The other would be to panic. There are some horrible new variants out there, but the science is working and we can steer our way through this perilous tunnel.

Have wonderful weekend. Let me know hat you think.

How close are genius and madness?

This week I watched the 2014 film about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys – “Love and Mercy”. I had only been peripherally aware of the story and found it fascinating. Wilson was the creative leader of the band behind such great pop tunes as “Surfin’ USA”, “California Girls” and “Fun, Fun, Fun”. Then in 1964 he had a nervous breakdown and stopped touring. He concentrated on working in the studio and wrote & produced the “Pet Sounds” album, generally recognised as one of the greatest records ever made. He then started on what he saw as his legacy – “Smile”. It was never finished as a Beach Boys album. His mental illnesses and use of drugs had caught up with him and his genius had turned to madness.

Wilson is now diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, an illness that amongst other things, gives him auditory hallucinations (voices in his head) . He also used a great deal of psychoactive drugs. He credits his illness and these drugs for helping him write great music. He is famous for long, complex sessions in the studio where he would bring together arrays of musicians to build the layered sound that became his trademark. If you listen to “God Only Knows” for instance, you can hear such weird instruments as orange juice containers, and Wilson uses two different musical keys at the same time. Without much doubt he is a musical genius.

But I also listened this week to his 2004 version of the “Smile” album he never finished with the Beach Boys. It received great critical acclaim, but I found it hard to listen to. Lots of great musical ideas mashed together. Like eating ice cream, a curry and pasta all at the same time.

During my life I have only a few times worked with creative geniuses. And each time I have found their strong emotions to be unnerving. Perhaps because as a white middle class Brit, my own emotions are so stunted. I could never allow myself to get that close to mental fragility to release the best of my creativity. That is certainly a gain for me. I wonder if it is also a loss.

What do you think? Do you need to be at least a little mentally unstable to create great beauty?