Monday, 2 January 2017

2016 in 3,065 words

Well 2016 has been and gone and most people will feel that it's good riddance to a pretty bad year. Interestingly, this time last year, I was saying much the same about 2015.
In reality, 2016 has been an interesting mixture of good and bad. There were many good things such as the birth of my second grandchild, Arthur; Lucy getting a place at Cambridge to do her PhD and Max achieving a distinction in his Masters (we're still waiting to see if he can secure funding for his PhD).
The bad things were mainly outside my bubble: the UK (extraordinarily) voted to leave the EU, the USA elected Donald Trump as its President and a civil war in Syria reached new horrors with a dreadful siege of its second city Aleppo. Of course, history contains many Aleppos, but modern technology means we are able to watch it almost live via reports posted on social media and by videos taken on smartphones. Just imagine Stalingrad recorded on a thousand iPhones …
Sometimes (well, quite often), I felt that I didn't want to watch the news; it just made me gloomy.
Aleppo was taken by Syrian government forces in December, aided by Russian air power and weapons technology, but the civil war drags on with millions of refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Europe. This country will be a running sore for the next 50 years. It has the remnants of an authoritarian democracy, ethnic groups seeking autonomy, modernists and various extreme religious factions (including one seeking to re-establish a caliphate).
We have no idea how good (or bad) President Trump will be, but few people in the centre or left of politics feel that he will be a general force for good.
Leaving the EU is a tricky one – there was no plan in place for leaving the Union, so we voted on a question with no idea of the consequences of a 'no' vote. We still don't have a plan and the government is refusing to give even a strategic vision of what they want to achieve. Idiotic, meaningless slogans such as “Brexit means Brexit” have been quoted in every attempt at a serious debate and so we're none the wiser about what the country will be seeking to achieve. It's a complete, bloody shambles in honesty.
When we've asked for detail, the answer has been “we want the best deal for Britain” - as if anyone would set out to negotiate the worst deal! With politicians treating us like idiots, I don't step into 2017 with any great optimism.
The good things in the past year have all been within my own bubble and, thankfully, there have been plenty of those.
Arthur Joseph Bertram Rayner arrived on February 22 and we've been able to get across to Jersey to see him quite a few times (Margaret a couple more than me). He's a very happy baby and looked the absolute image of Sam when he was born. He now looks more like Lucy and he's busy learning to crawl. He's got crawling backwards sorted out and it won't be long before he's here, there and everywhere. We are seeing Arthur in mid-January when we head to France for a skiing holiday and very much looking forward to that.
Julia, our other grandchild, celebrated her first birthday on June 26 and now she's walking and chatting away in two languages. Her growth in skills and ability has been lovely to see. We've done a lot of child care, especially since September when Lucy started her PhD and so, of course, I handle her a lot. It has been the most amazing thing has been to feel her change from floppy baby at seven months to suddenly develop a core strength so that she could, at first, sit and turn over; then crawl and walk (start to function like a little human). It's been great to be able to spend so much time with her. Once her PhD is complete, Lucy and Tom will have to live in Ecuador for at least 10 years, so we will see them perhaps once a year. Skype will replace visits and we are going to miss them so much. Of course, that's some way in the future, but all the more reason to enjoy time with Julia while we have it.
Paddling in the sea at Brancaster
One strange thing is that I now feel more aware of my mortality than I did before I was caring for Julia. I have always known that I will die, but I have never worried about it. Once, when I was riding my motorcycle, a car pulled out of a side road directly in front of me. It was impossible to miss him and that's the one time in my left I thought I was about to die. In that split second before impact, I wasn't frightened, just accepting, and I like to think that I'll be ready to die when the time comes (not that I'm in a hurry to do so). I've not worried about death and I've not often thought of death, but since caring for Julia this year, it has been on my mind.
I guess that it's a caring instinct clashing with grim reality. When my own children were small, one of my concerns was: who would look after them in the event that Margaret and I died? It was a question never satisfactorily resolved, but it just lost relevance over the years; although even at 40 years old, I still felt some security and protection from having my father alive and I did have an unpleasant feeling of exposure when he died.
I find myself thinking: how old will Julia be when I die? How much of her life will I be able to be a positive part of? She will be in Ecuador until she is 15 and I will be 77; I will be 80 by the time she is ready to go to university and, if I make it to 90, I might just see her married with children. Actually, most of the time I'm with her, I'm more concerned with getting her to sleep, eat some food, play happily or with keeping her out of the dangerous cupboards. I don't sit there ruminating on life and death, there's not really the time. I would like to see Julia (and all the next generation – Arthur and those still to come - see below) grow up, but I know I have a finite time window.
The big news of 2016 was that Lucy is having a second child and we discovered, between Christmas and new year, that it will be a boy. He's due to make an appearance in May and Lucy will be able to take a year out from her PhD as maternity leave. I keep suggesting Eric as a fine name, but no-one is taking the hint.
The PhD is proving to be hard work, even without a second child on the way. Margaret and I have been doing a day of childcare each (I do Wednesdays and Margaret does Fridays) and Margaret is also doing the washing. Tom and Lucy's house in Baldock is very nice, but it doesn't have any outdoor space, so nowhere outside that you can dry clothes. It's OK with a tumble dryer and clothes-horse by the radiator for the two of them, but babies make a lot more washing.
During the first couple of weeks in June, David Jones and I set off to walk the Coast-to-Coast path (the route made famous by Alfred Wainwright) from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood's Bay in North Yorkshire. It's around 190 miles and takes you through three national parks – the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorkshire Moors. There's a full account in my blog, starting at: http://ericsdailydiary.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/coast-to-coast-walk.html. The walk itself is quite an undertaking, but well worth doing. I'd advise anyone to have a couple of rest days during the trip, not so much for recovery, but to enjoy some of the places en route. It's a challenge to walk from one side of England to the other, but also great to be walking through such varied scenery.
Almost halfway
David is eight years older than me and he did have a bit of trouble with his knee. I had some bad blisters at one stage, but was able to walk those off. On the last day, the final three miles were a killer, it felt as if my leg bones were breaking. Someone suggested it might be shin splints. I'm glad it didn't happen earlier because it made the last leg along the coast path a real slog.
The EU referendum (for me) was a real low point in the year. I hadn't expected an 'out' vote and few people did. To be honest. I've still not come to terms with the result.
On the moral level, it makes me so sad to think that my country has turned away from Europe and the anti-foreigner brigade has won the argument. On an economic level, I find it extraordinary that a trading nation such as ours has turned its back on such a big, open market. What the hell are we thinking? I have no faith in the current government or the useless opposition, so I now find myself on the side of the Scottish Nationalists and Sinn Fein (a strange place for a natural Tory to end up). I’ve also resigned from the Conservative Party and joined the Lib-Dems.

Max and Inna perhaps had a better idea: rather than join the Lib-Dems, they have embarked on a round-the-world trip, taking in the USA, New Zealand and India. Perhaps by the time they get back, the country will have regained its senses. You can read about their adventures on https://notesfromourtravels.wordpress.com/. Being a geography teacher, Max is basically taking Inna on a six-month field trip, ticking off all the key GCSE topics on the way. She probably doesn’t get homework, but I bet she does get tested. They left in September and will be back some time in March.
Max did his MSc in Sustainable Management of Natural Resources at Leicester University and gained a distinction, which was great news. His project was all about tree sparrows, which look like slightly smaller house sparrows with brown caps. It’s a real specialist subject, examining the type of habitat needed if this once-common species is to make any kind of meaningful recovery in numbers. With millions of pounds being poured into habitat protection, it's important to fully understand the effectiveness of that spend. It's not just a case of paying farmers to leave 10 metres uncultivated around the field margin and watch all the birds and mammals return.
He has joined a volunteer group of bird ringers at Stanford Reservoir, Leicestershire, and made that the centre of his study because a decent number of tree sparrows breed there and there is data going back a number of years. I went along with him one late spring morning (it was cold and wet and windy) to help with observations. I sat shivering watching a shivering tree sparrow through binoculars. At least he was sat in the hole of a nest-box and had some shelter from the wind.
I have been involved in some survey work myself this year. With Max’s encouragement, I signed up for the British Trust for Ornithology's (BTO) breeding bird survey and was allocated a section taking in Nene Washes and a bit of the North Bank between here and Whittlesey. You have to walk the survey area in sections and record all the birds you can see and hear. There are two sessions, one in April and one in June. I did the survey with Max both times.
On the first pass, we saw lots of swans, shelduck and woodpigeons and discovered a huge colony of house sparrows living at the Dog in a Doublet pub. There was also very distinctive song that we kept hearing on the sections in the Whittlesey Washes – some kind of warbler, but which one? I took a recording on my iPhone and one of Max’s bird-group colleagues identified them as sedge warblers. They had stopped singing on our return survey (too busy bringing up babies, I guess), but some new birds had moved in. These did a really interesting flight dance and had a very distinctive song. We thought they might be woodlarks for a while, but we identified them as meadow pipit and were quite pleased, when I entered the data, to see that they had been recorded there in previous surveys.
I have also been recording birds in my garden for the BTO garden birdwatch and doing regular recordings (full-species lists) along a section of Toneham. We had some long-tailed tits nesting in the berberis stenophylla in the garden and also some house sparrows in my new sparrow-box, which I put up in spring. Highlights of the year included seeing a sparrowhawk take a greenfinch off the seed feeder and spotting a flock of fieldfare sitting in the hornbeam tree trying to decide which field to try their luck in. Along Toneham, Max saw a kingfisher on one of our recording trips (but I was looking the wrong way and missed it).
The allotment has taken a back seat to a number of more pressing tasks – childcare, walking holidays, Thorney Post and school governors. The best crop was sunflowers, which I grew there for cutting because I don’t like to cut them in the garden, where it’s nice to enjoy them blooming in situ.
We did get some broad beans and runner beans, plus onions and beetroot, but peas were eaten by slugs, pigeons took half my broad beans, frost destroyed one crop of Ecuadorian corn and some other creature stripped the ripe cobs off the replacement crop. Blackcurrants went unpicked, I did get a few raspberries off my new canes and we also had beetroot, courgettes and borlotti beans.
We’ve been to Jersey four times this year, including a couple of weeks spent painting and decorating. Sam and I finished off decorating the two larger bedrooms on the first floor (one blue, one green). We had talked about a ski holiday, but good sense took hold with Lucy only six weeks from giving birth, so we took up paintbrushes instead. Later in the year, I went back and painted the front and helped Sam replace the roof of the playhouse. Margaret and I went across to see Arthur in April and we also had a trip in early December.
My car notched up 200,000 miles this year and it has been the source of much head scratching. BMW certainly makes well-engineered cars, it runs beautifully and uses little oil between servicing despite its mileage. However, the electrics and engine management are a constant nuisance. The car is a BMW 520 Touring and I'd advise anyone to steer well clear of them on the basis that the wiring for the tailgate runs through the hinges and chafes and breaks over time so that power is lost to lock, wiper, lights, etc. This seems to affect almost all cars at some stage of their life and mine started suffering breaks when it was eight years old. Getting it fixed at a BMW garage will cost a couple of thousand pounds and it's annoying to me that such a basic design flaw isn't being put right by the manufacturer.
I keep thinking that I should change the car, especially when warning lights and chimes are going off all the time, but I persist in getting it fixed.
At the moment I also have the Nissan Micra and Max's Ford Fiesta on the drive. I got the Micra back when it lost power and started burning excessive oil. Tom, who had been using it, decided to buy a bigger car and got himself a Ford Mondeo. Andy Bunyan said the Micra was running on three cylinders and it was probably cheaper to source an engine from a scrapped car than try to fix the fault. This is another car which I should probably have scrapped, but instead I told Andy to find an engine and fix it. It took him about three months and cost £600, but we did get it back and it's actually a really nice car to drive. It's 13 years old, so emissions are not as good as a new car and despite it being only 1.2 litres, it costs a fair bit in road tax.
Finally, I've been keeping Max and Inna's car running while they are on their world trip. It was left with a message that it needed an MoT and so first task was to get it MoT'd (plus annual service). It's also needed two new tyres and really ought to have an alloy wheel repaired (the wheel can wait until we're back from skiing and have a little more time). It's not a bad car, but I prefer the Micra. The Fiesta has really low-profile tyres, which are meant to look sporty, but give a really harsh ride. I'm using it to go down to Baldock once a week, so it gets a good run.
I have been enjoying my Probus Club meetings. We have a lunch once a month and a coffee morning (with speaker) once a month. We've had some really good speakers during the year and we've also done a few trips. Margaret and I went to Elgood's brewery in Wisbech and also to the open-air theatre at Tolethorpe Hall to see Alan Bennett's Wind in the Willows. It was a really good night and we all had a picnic in the grounds before the performance started. It's been nice to be able to go to meetings with David and we also had a trip to RAF Wittering, which was a lads-only do. Sometimes it seems hard to find the time to attend meetings, but it has enabled me to meet a lot of new people and make new acquaintances. I knew that would be one of the things I would miss most when leaving work, so it's worth making the effort.