Getting more than you anticipate

It’s the festival season. Not only have Norwich City reached the heights in the Championship, but tonight a man is walking on a high wire across the market place in Norwich, and yesterday I spoke to quite a large number of Swaffham mothers about the Paston family. All kinds of strange things happen in the festival season.

As a sort of prelude to it all, a few days ago I found myself in Orford, which is in Suffolk, beyond the magical Snape. Orford happens to be one of my favourite places, and I would visit it more often if it were not so far away. As Corey Ford said, “I would go away if it wasn’t so far.” Not many people know that.

My excuse on this occasion was a concert by the Prometheus Orchestra, which I had not heard of but was excellent. It featured a gorgeous Fantasia by Vaughan Williams; a flute concerto played brilliantly by a remarkable woman in a shiny gold dress; and a beautiful symphony by Mendelssohn. By chance we got on the front row, among some very upper class accents and only a few feet from a stunning sculpture of Noah.

I felt very much at home, which is surprising, because my home is nothing like that. 

Afterwards the sun came out unexpectedly, and we found ourselves parked on the quay, gazing out toward Orford Ness, past a boat called Regardless, which apparently does river trips when the tide is in. I felt it should carry on.

Anyway, back to the Swaffham mothers. It was the Mothers’ Union, actually, and I felt that I might have some difficulty interesting them in the Pastons, given that the village of Paston is about 50 miles away, and the family had little impact on the town.

But something interesting happened. The faceless audience that I had imagined (or failed to imagine) transformed itself into a series of distinctive and intelligent individuals who were not only interested but had things to say. 

I guess this happens all the time. In our blindness we put people into bland blocks and attribute predictable attitudes and opinions to them, when in fact everyone is different and for the most part fascinating. Even without the tightrope.

What Jesus should have said

Those of you familiar with the Church of England will not be surprised to hear that it has a Legacy Policy. This fits in nicely with its Safeguarding Policy, its Growth in Service Grants, its Mission Strategy Fund and its eagerness to access Lottery funding.

If only Jesus had such ideas he could have laid proper foundations to the Church as a whole.

“And I say unto you, seek out those with lots of money and get them to leave you most of it in their will. Make it living-watertight, and you will not need to bother my Father with prayers about running costs.

“Suffer little children to come unto me, but make sure you have a Safeguarding Officer, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

It has now become clear to me why I have never been more than a practising Christian with little hope of passing the final exams. I was always against taking a collection at church, because it made it look as if we were begging rather than giving. It’s no use offering eternal life with one hand if you’re asking for money with the other. Or is it?

“And lo, I am always with you, but you may prefer Growth in Service Grants, because then you won’t need to worry about disturbing me.

“And I will make a way in the desert and streams of Lottery Funding if you can cope with the paperwork and put all the key posts out to tender.

“And there will arise a Mission Strategy Fund which will enable you to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, unless someone claims you are being intolerant, in which case you will be up before the magistrates. You may then be crucified. In the Press and on TV.”

And the people had no idea what Jesus was talking about, and they went away sadly, because the other things he had said earlier seemed so right.

Pathways, kinks, apples and speed gangs

My wife and I went for a walk in Bacton Wood the other day. In case you want to follow in our footsteps, I should warn you that Bacton Wood is not exactly in Bacton. It is sometimes called Witton Wood. I don’t want to be more precise, in case you have a dog. There are quite enough dogs in Bacton Wood already.

Someone has made an attempt to direct people round two or three marked walks. The one we chose was interesting, but it would not be unfair to say that a totally random placement of the guide posts would have been just about as helpful.

It goes toward confirming my suspicion that there is a law that states that anyone put in charge of a road or track must have no concept of what is needed. For example, the sparkling new Norwich Northern Distributor Road (or Broadland Northway, as it is much less known) has a very large kink in it that can only be explained by the constructors merrily setting off in one direction, realising it’s wrong, putting in a roundabout and coming halfway back again. 

And while we’re on the subject of roundabouts, whose idea was it to design them like an apple, so that it seems obvious that people have already turned left when in fact they are mysteriously still on the roundabout and about to hit you when you pull out? I know anyone within any sense would shift into the middle lane to go straight ahead, but drivers have been so indoctrinated into driving timorously that changing lanes rarely occurs to them. 

Which brings me to speed limits, without which local newspapers would go out of business. Take it from me, nobody walking through a village has the slightest idea how fast passing cars are going. But people of a certain vociferous type know it must be too fast, because it’s a car, and if they can get into a gilet jaune and start a gang of speed watchers, they’ll jump at the chance. 

I have driven in Norfolk for well over 50 years, and I can tell you that the main problem with Norfolk drivers is that they drive too slowly. They are also incapable of overtaking, but I blame that on the inept road organisers who brainwash them into thinking that speed kills. Slow drivers are far more dangerous, because they don’t concentrate, they do other things at the same time, and all the other drivers get so tired of the endless processions that they doze off. Since almost all accidents are caused by not paying attention, this is a Bad Thing.

Police and councillors trot out all the old misleading statistics, but despite the plague of “safety” measures that afflicts us more and more, road deaths are roughly the same now as they were in 2012. All those speed cameras and ridiculously low limits have never had the desired effect – unless by “desired effect” you mean extracting huge amounts of cash from people who are driving perfectly safely.

Measuring up trees in the wind

It was certainly a mistake to start writing about warm weather, as I did last time. Inevitably it has since turned damp, cold and extremely windy, and made the weather forecasters very happy – or at least enthusiastic.

At the top of our road men in hi-vis jackets (gilets oranges) are measuring up trees as if they intend to cut them down before the wind knocks them over. They taped off a footpath for a while, but as far as I can see nothing else has happened, which is Normal for Norfolk. They are probably waiting for the result of the Brexit vote so that things become clearer. Or they may simply have lost interest.

As has become something of a habit at this time of year, we escaped from Norfolk for a few days to reassure ourselves that roads were just as bad everywhere else, and indeed in many cases worse. No-one, after all, is building smart (aka moronic) motorways in Norfolk, where there are no motorways of any kind. Nor do we, like the otherwise relatively sane county of Derbyshire, have blanket 50mph limits, which make driving tedious and therefore more dangerous.

Buxton, our ultimate destination, remains as stunning as ever. I’m not sure why. It may have something to do with geometry, or the juxtaposition of curves. It may be the way it attracts snow (though not on this occasion), or encourages people to walk.

Coincidentally, one of my local councillors is also keen on people walking. He would like to have a car-free Sunday in our fine city of Norwich, but I’m afraid he just falls into the category of people who are really selfish – not, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, because he wants to do things his way, but because he wants everyone else to do things his way as well.

Cars are not evil. They are quite useful in carrying people and things to places where they might otherwise be unable to go. They also benefit the sick and the elderly, which can hardly be said of bicycles – especially when it’s damp, cold and windy.

I could also point out that if everyone in the UK stopped using a car tomorrow, it would have no effect on global climate whatsoever. But I won’t, because that would make me a climate change denier: any schoolchild could tell you that.

Blooming predictions

It’s been a warm few days, and so all those predictions that would normally be frozen and probably buried at this time of year have come to the surface and sprouted alarmingly.

Because it’s been so warm, and it’s still February (at the time of writing), this means we will have a warm summer, like 1976. Or it could be that we will have a cool, damp summer, so that things even out.

Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, has reminded us that if we are shown a number of high temperatures – preferably accompanied by pictures – and are then asked how warm it will be, our answers will be higher than if we weren’t shown anything.

I am paraphrasing slightly. If you want the full story, buy Deep Thinking, his excellent book on Artificial Intelligence and Human Creativity, in which he also says that weather forecasters are no more likely to affect the weather than economists are to affect the economy.

In a nutshell this more or less summarises my theory of climate change, which is that the climate changes.

This is not a prediction I would make if it were a normal February, but it seems appropriate in the circumstances. What is undeniable is that since I am about to have a weekend away in Derbyshire, it won’t be warm for much longer.

That is by far the most common way that humans influence the climate. For some reason Mr Kasparov doesn’t mention this in his book.

When banter becomes more than a little scrimmage

They tell me that Norwich City have the oldest football song in the world. If not, they almost certainly have the only one with the word “scrimmage” in it.

I suppose you could say I am a supporter of the Canaries. As a schoolboy (in the early 1960s) I stood in the South Stand on a fairly regular basis, and was part of the 40,000 swaying, cheek-by-jowl crowd who watched City play Leicester one memorable Saturday. The capacity for the current, rather larger, seated stadium is around 27,000, and my wife has a season ticket.

I don’t, which is why I wasn’t at the derby match against Ipswich Town recently. I do go to Carrow Road on occasion, but I am not a die-hard fan, slotted into the Barclay End, waving a flag, making up witty topical songs to fit the players’ names and being generally abusive to the opposing fans, especially if they come from Suffolk.

I am not against a bit of banter, such as the chant “You don’t know what you’re doing” directed at the referee. Similarly “Who are you?” or “What’s the score?” directed at the opposing fans or manager.

What I don’t have any truck with is the real abuse, verging on violence, aimed at small groups of individual visiting supporters. Mixed in there is heartfelt hatred, frighteningly close to riot and affray, causing real harm to real people who are just like us.

It’s one small step from calling Ipswich supporters “scum” to punching them in the mouth.

Admittedly, Ipswich is in Suffolk. But to be quite honest and risking personal harm, I have to confess that I quite like Suffolk, despite its nonsensical speed limits. Is there any real reason for Norfolk and Suffolk people to be at odds? How far are we from having a hard border, a backstop, bombing and other atrocities?

Bit extreme, you may say. All this violent talk is just a bit of fun. Maybe it’s a safety valve of some kind. No-one gets hurt.

But they do, don’t they? Words turn into deeds, and all too soon you have a little scrimmage, bones get broken, bodies cut and bruised.

I should emphasise that Norwich fans are not known for this sort of behaviour. But once passions get unleashed, almost anything can happen. It has in the past, and it will again. It stems from repeated insults, mindless abuse, creeps into hatred and without thinking – yes, definitely without thinking – it goes too far.

Just like Brexit, really.


The advantages of optimism

My wife is an optimist. If she weren’t, obviously, she wouldn’t have married me, and things would have been very different. Oh, yes, they would.

I too have always considered myself an optimist in a general sense, but when I say this, she laughs. I guess the sense in which I am an optimist is too general to be of much use in daily life. I believe in life after death, for instance, and while this can and should colour what I am doing every day, you can’t always tell.

My wife’s optimism is sometimes frustrating. She actually believes that you can find a Sent folder in Outlook Mail, for instance, and she almost convinced me that one of the methods described on the web for finding it might actually work. To a realist like me, the fact that there are so many methods described on the web for finding it is an indication that something is basically wrong with Outlook Mail, but of course we all know that.

Why Outlook Mail finds it necessary to hide the Sent folder is beyond me. Possibly because it is designed by technicians, and not people. This is what will happen on a global level if Artificial Intelligence ever gets beyond playing chess. All folders will be hidden, and we will eventually starve.

Happily, I am not worried, because I have a Mac, which works well in adverse weather conditions, especially rain. And you can find the Sent folder.

Sorry, I got a bit distracted there, because my wife raised this problem with Outlook Mail (again) in the optimistic belief that I could fix it. Sometimes I can fix things, but not alien technology.

As a couple we have a few problems with time, but of course that is much akin to alien technology too. I work out how long it will take to get somewhere, my wife sort of agrees on a time to leave and is prepared to leave about ten minutes later than that, while I stand around in the kitchen trying to keep my blood pressure down.

To me, leaving late like this seems to be asking for trouble, because people drive so slowly nowadays that nobody can get anywhere in a reasonable time. But she is never worried, and quite often, against all the odds, we do get there in time, which is pretty annoying.

I am not complaining about my wife’s optimism. It is one of her many endearing features, like her beauty, her compassion and her forgiveness, and her willingness to let me choose a time to leave.

I am not leaving her, of course. I am realistic enough to know that. Why would I? She is optimistic about the whole thing. She also supports Norwich City.

Poetry four times in a week: can it be good for you?

At school I was shy and hated speaking in public. I remember having to give a five-minute talk to my class on railways: the idea of it terrified me, and the execution was even worse. The fact that I knew next to nothing about railways didn’t help. I was on the wrong track from the outset.

A couple of weeks ago and roughly 60 years later, I performed my own poetry four times in a week, to four different audiences. I am not boasting: it just happened like that. But it shows that if you’re born shy, it may not last. This may be good news for someone.

The first performance was on a Friday at Halesworth, at what is known in some quarters as a Poetry Café. Originally this group of mainly Suffolk poets led by Mike Bannister met at an actual cafe – Pinky’s – but it burned down a few months ago. So now we meet upstairs at the White Swan, while pool and darts are played downstairs. So I guess it’s a Poetry Pub.

Yes, I’m a Suffolk poet, though I live in Norwich. The second reading was at the Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft, which is still a Poetry Café, though it’s really a theatre foyer – a smaller gathering run by the genial Ian Fosten, who used to live and work (as a URC minister) in Norwich, which is where I first met him.

At the Seagull I have also been known to sing my own songs, a phenomenon which my teenage self would have viewed with horror.

My third outing in this fearsome week was on the Tuesday at Jurnet’s Club in Norwich, where a Norwich poetry group meets. It’s not a real café either: it’s the ancient undercroft of the Music House, rumoured to be the oldest house in Norwich (it’s on King Street, once called Conesford Street). And it was once owned by the Paston family.

Which is a rather a neat link to my final outing, which was two days later at the Maids Head in Norwich. No poetry café, this, but something much grander. The event was a celebration dinner organised by the Paston Heritage Society, of which I am a trustee, to mark the anniversary of the first mention of the Maydes Hedde in a Paston letter, on 22 November 1472.

For this I not only had to perform but also dress up and, truth to tell, I still don’t like doing that. Between courses we performed a number of poems and some excerpts from the famous Letters – and enjoyed some excellent food and wine.

In all this I steered clear of railways. I don’t know why.

What’s so fascinating about Cley? We pronounce…

Until quite recently I thought the most fascinating thing about Cley, a small village on the North Norfolk coast, was whether you pronounced it Cl-eye or Clay. Even locals disagree about this, and they are all sure they’re right. So they probably are.

However, I recently spent a week living in a house fronting on to the narrow street that twists through the village and forms part of the coast road. This particular street is a Coasthopper and HGV challenge second only to Stiffkey – and don’t get me started on how you pronounce that. But there is much more to Cley than traffic jams.

I already knew about the stunning coastal walk leading from Cley to Blakeney and on to Morston and points west. I also knew about the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s lovely nature reserve and visitor centre just down the road – marsh harrier, anyone? – and the long, beautiful trudge out to Blakeney Point starting at Cley beach. Ladies and gentlemen, I had tried them all, and they were all good.

But I was less familiar with the village itself: the tiny harbour by the windmill and the intricate and cunningly crafted little brick paths that snake round the back of the 3D jigsaw of beautiful old houses and keep you away from the traffic. The paths on the edge of the marsh and out to the beach road. The “inland” way to Blakeney through Wiveton Hall farm.

I was also unaware of  the delicious smoked fish obtainable from the Cley Smokehouse almost next door. And although I knew of the strangely named Picnic Fayre deli, I had forgotten the delicious range of pies, cakes and Pastonacres bread that can be purchased there – among many other delights. It was close by, and we were in and out. Who cares that you can’t buy a daily paper anywhere in the village? You can buy Sunday papers, but that’s another story. Several other stories, in fact

There’s also the George (no Dragon), the Crabpot Bookshop and the church – safely positioned way above sea level and a home for the Cley Contemporary Art Exhibition. And if you’re into art there’s the Pinkfoot Gallery and the Wildlife Trust’s visitor centre – at the time of our visit home to a series of stunning photographs.

The views in and around the village are classic and irresistible, as many a camera fiend will tell you. But if you still think the most fascinating thing about Cley is how to pronounce it, my preference is for Cl-eye, because I rather like the establishment that sells binoculars and telescopes and calls itself Cley Spy.

My friend Dave “Swacking” Cuckoo claims that a Broad Norfolk pronunciation of Clay  comes out pretty close to Cleye anyway. But then he would.

Hard to sleep and hard to stay awake? You’re not alone

Erich Fromm, who described himself among other things as a “nontheistic mystic” (I wish I could come up with snappy phrases like that), had some interesting things to say about being awake. Possibly the most immediately accessible was this: “The paradoxical situation with a vast number of people today is that they are half asleep when awake, and half awake when asleep, or when they want to sleep.”

I can identify with this. My wife has been suffering with a virus which, among its many joys, features a persistent cough. The result of course is that she finds it hard to sleep and, being of one flesh and usually one bed, I find it hard to sleep too.

But there are other times when for no good reason sleep eludes me. I know many people are worse off: I have no wish to make you feel particularly sorry for me. I do sleep, quite often.

In any case I am more interested in the other half of Herr Fromm’s pronouncement – that we are often half asleep when awake. You can take this at different levels: some people are so dozy that they rarely have much idea what’s going on, for instance. This is probably the only thing that makes democracy work.

As I get older, however, I find it easier and easier to doze off at embarrassing times – during a sermon, for instance, or silent meditation. Indeed, I spend most of any meditation session that I happen to get involved in trying not to go to sleep, which is annoying because I’m supposed to be tuning into God. If I can sleep at such a time, what hope is there for me? It’s like dozing off while making love. No, I haven’t done that. As far as I can remember.

Even more surprisingly (perhaps) I often go to sleep while watching television. This happens even during programmes that I enjoy and which to other people are gripping. Dr Who,  for instance. Last Sunday I surfaced towards the end of the programme, slightly puzzled and thinking I had missed a crucial moment or two. But hey, the Tardis was back,  and the sonic screwdriver; so I got over it.

Later I re-ran the programme and discovered I had slept through a good half of it.

Falling asleep during TV dramas can be quite interesting. I have noticed on several occasions that my mind continues the drama after I have lost touch with it, and all kinds of things happen in my mind that never happen on screen. So I wake up thinking I’m at a certain point in the  narrative and find that not only am I somewhere else, but the bit of narrative I thought I was watching never happened.

If I was Erich Fromm, of course, I would see this as a valuable area of study – possibly source material for several books. As I haven’t read his books, he may already have sorted it all out.

But I have to do my tax return now; so I’ll leave it at that. Wake me up when it’s all over.