March 3, 2010

Of no fixed address

Filed under: Back story,BBC radio addiction,Canal,misc — Duchess @ 4:11 pm

My electrics have, to use slang my New Zealand grandmother favoured, been giving me gyp lately.  I replaced an alternator, disconnected the adverc, and ripped out the split diode thingy (and I barely know what any of this stuff is).  Nevertheless the batteries complain.  They reward my careful evening attention with nothing more grateful than red warning lights each morning.

The Grumpy Mechanic has had it up to here with my batteries.  He says his back has never been the same since he hauled mine out to test them last year and he isn’t doing it again.  I’m not complaining, he says, though he is.  Replace the lot, Girl, is his advice.

Since I usually do what I am told, I have.  That is, I ordered new ones, to be delivered to the pub today, because that’s our boaty poste restante.   Just after eleven o’clock opening time I trundled up the towpath with my computer and my dongle, ordered a latte, and set up camp.

On Twitter I read that Michael Foot, Labour Party leader 1980 – 1983 died this morning, aged 96.  I tweeted that I bet every obituary mentioned his donkey jacket and the longest suicide note in history.

In January 1979 I had just won a scholarship to Oxford, starting the following fall.  The US news was full of the Iranian revolution and what British journalists (an educated lot, on the whole) had dubbed their Winter of Discontent.  The UK Labour government was at war with the unions who had been their backers.  Despite beer and sandwiches at Downing Street, everything was going badly wrong.  

My friends said, You know that country you are going to?  It’s falling apart.

It sure looked like it from the television news.  Rubbish collectors, gravediggers, ambulance drivers and other public sector workers all were out on strike.  I watched films of mounds of garbage on the streets and heard dark reports of dead bodies piled up in morgues.   Inflation was only just down from a peak of 26.9%.

For the first time I took an interest in a UK election, called that spring.  Margaret Thatcher, Conservative, was elected, the first and only woman Prime Minister. 

The following year, 1980, the Labour Party lurched to the left and Michael Foot, a kindly maverick (really a maverick – he lost the party whip for two years because he was an inveterate peacenik) was their candidate for Prime Minister.  I am reluctant to say he was already elderly when he became party leader at 67, but it certainly seemed so to my much younger self.  An intellectual and wholly unworldly Socialist, he reminded me of my grandfather.  Of course, he was also wholly unfit to lead a political party.

He was ridiculed for his scruffy clothes, and particularly for the coat he wore on Remembrance Sunday (Veterans’ Day).  The press called it a “donkey jacket” and were outraged by what they claimed was disrespect to our Glorious Dead.  It was quite in vain that Foot repeatedly pleaded that the Queen Mother herself had admired his jacket as they both waited to lay their wreaths at the Cenotaph.

1983 was my first general election in the UK and I was a little puzzled at first to find that here politicians published election “manifestos”.  My high school history lessons had led me to believe that manifestos were strictly for commies.  I bought the full versions for all three main parties and read them closely.

Michael Foot’s party manifesto went into extraordinary detail.  I laughed out loud when I came to the bit that said “The Labour Party supports the wishes of women in childbirth.”  I was then expecting my second baby.  I adore my children once they exit the birth canal, but my wishes in childbirth generally involved mass murder.

That year the Labour Party suffered the worst general election defeat in 50 years, and the manifesto came to be known as “the longest suicide note in history.”

Meanwhile, back at the pub, I was the only customer, still nursing my latte two hours on.  Stematos, the Greek landlord, and I both had our laptops open on opposite sides of the bar.  I thought of telling Stematos that Michael Foot had died, but I wasn’t sure he would know who I was talking about.  Stematos was googling plant stands. 

There was no sign of the battery delivery, and after a while the punters began to arrive for lunch: the chatter was about pension fund bailouts, bowel cancer, birthdays, and how the Grumpy Mechanic might be getting on in his new flat.  No one mentioned Michael Foot.  I made Stematos happy by ordering feta cheese, olives, bread and a small glass of wine.  He thought I was going to sit there all day on the latte. 

Just as I was about to give up, five spanking new batteries were delivered to the pub porch.  I hauled them in two loads to the boat, a little less than half a mile from the pub, three batteries on the first journey (when I was fresh) and two on the next, when I was tired.  I needed to rest a lot on both trips.  Lifting them inside was pretty hard, and I was afraid I might drop one into the canal, since I was already exhausted from getting them there.

They cost £100 each, and I really did not want to lose any in the water.

3 batteries - the 1st load

Three batteries - the first load

When I got them onboard I put them on my scale, just out of curiosity.  Each battery weighed 62.8 pounds, meaning the load of two was almost exactly as heavy as I am (on a good day), and the load of three was a whole lot heavier.  I felt like one tough Duchess.

Batteries waiting to be installed.

All five batteries safely in the engine room, waiting to be installed.

By the time I had pushed the empty cart back up the tow path it was 5 pm and I thought I deserved a big glass of wine.

I turned on the radio.  It was all about Michael Foot.  I wasn’t wrong.  Every report mentioned the donkey jacket and the suicide note.  You can read the BBC obituary here.

I haven’t quite forgotten that once I get the new batteries installed, I’ll have five old ones to haul up the tow path, but sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof. Or so I am told.

March 2, 2009

Brave new world

Filed under: Canal,Geek world,misc — Duchess @ 4:40 pm

I finally got the world wide web on my boat.

It was my project for this weekend. After two and a half years of a combination of fruitless research and fervent hope that someone would bring mobile broadband to my squatting mooring spot in rural Oxfordshire, one company was suddenly boasting absolutely, totally perfect, best of all possible broadband — at least at the pub. I read it on the internet, so I knew it must be true.

Saturday’s task was to go to the shop and buy the magic bit of kit that would connect me. But because Friday was my ex husband’s birthday and today would be my Baby’s birthday, I had first promised to make a cake (in my brand new cooker) for a joint celebration.

I am well known for my cakes. This is not because I am good at baking – I am not – but because a very long time ago in England if you weren’t good at baking everyone soon discovered it. If you were a woman over 21, certainly if you had a child at school, cakes were required. The only mixes available, a fine powder to which you added water, yielded an object designed to humiliate you, flat and tasteless with a cardboard like texture.

Proper women, women whose minor children weren’t on Social Services lists, produced something called a Victoria Sponge. It was plain and yellow and sort of vanillish in flavour and had jam in the middle and, if you were very profligate or very rich, cream or buttercream on top. Though it might be lopsided, it was homemade, and your children would therefore probably not be Taken into Care.

The skill I brought to this market was discovering which over priced specialist groceries in Oxford stocked devil’s food chocolate Betty Crocker mixes in the exotic foreign foods section. Don’t knock them till you’ve tried them. I’ve heard whole classes of children, reared on homemade, smack their lips and sigh longingly at my kids, Your Mum makes lovely cakes!

Saturday I whisked up the usual courtesy of Betty Crocker and rummaged in the cupboard for extras. There were some rather jolly decorative sugar balls in gold, silver, fluorescent green and shocking pink (best before July 06, but believe me, no germ would go near anything quite that metallic) and eight candles. One and seven make eight, so that means eight candles are just right for the Baby, who turned 17 today. And six and one make seven, plus one to grow on, makes eight. So eight is equally appropriate for the Ex, sixty one last Friday.

Sorted, as the Brits say, and I thought the cake looked very pretty.

My children were sceptical about the candle calculations, but the Ex, an economist, was impressed that I had finally acquired the important life skill of making any number mean anything I liked. If I could make 8 candles work for a birthday celebration for a 17 year old and a 61 year old I could definitely be due for a million pound banker bonus.

We planned to meet for brunch, once I arrived with the cakes and the Elder Daughter caught the bus from London. But the Elder Daughter is always a bit of a wild card, and like the Lawyer Sis, invariably has an interesting reason for being late.

This one involved emergency stops, ambulances, evacuation of elderly passengers, and replacement busses. Brunch became early dinner.

We decided on a new restaurant in Oxford so I could do my errands. Even at half past four and even in a recession, there was a twenty minute wait for a table. Meanwhile, since by Act of Parliament shops can only be open for 6 hours on Sundays I was running out of time. I grabbed a takeaway menu to phone in my selection, left the family queuing for a table, and raced around the corner to the mobile phone shop to sign up for technology afloat.

That took a bit of a while and the shop might just have traded over time, what with the Angry Man screaming that his phone didn’t work and it wasn’t his fault that his phone didn’t work and the shop assistant shouting back that it wasn’t his fault either and the customer replying what about his bus fare? and then several more shop assistants plus the manager getting involved and everyone shouting, You are not listening!

It turned out that though I was requesting only a 30 day contract they had to run a full credit check on me and besides had to prove that I wasn’t someone pretending to be me asking for a full credit check for a 30 day contract. In order to prove this they had to ask me some important security questions to establish my identity. Unfortunately I hadn’t the slightest notion of the answer to any of the questions. Although I am me, I promise.

Meanwhile, the police arrived to deal with the man whose phone didn’t work and though I was worried they might possibly arrest me as well for theft of my own identity, in the end neither of us was arrested. He eventually walked out with a new handset (= telephone) and I with a dongle (= expensive thing I stick into my computer that supposedly makes the internet work on my boat).

On the boat it didn’t work. Not at all. Not even a tiny bit. So I trundled up the tow path with my laptop and my brand new dongle and my mobile (=cell) phone to see if it worked at the pub.  Nothing at all.

The whole pub took an interest while I telephoned for help and was connected to India and I argued with several helpdesk employees about whether or not a dongle could have a phone number. I maintained it could not. If it had a phone number, I could telephone it. What would that mean? Would it answer? How could it answer? What is the sound of one hand clapping?

They won. A very polite person simply asserted that a dongle must have a phone number and she would go ask her supervisor what mine was. When she came back she suggested I might like to make a note of the dongle’s number.  And then, though I did make a note of it, I never made any use of that phone number or entered it anywhere in the computer.  Nevertheless, once my dongle was allocated a phone number, it seemed it was happy and fulfilled, and I got connected, first at the pub, to everyone’s entertainment, and then on the boat too. 

In the early 90s, when the internet was pretty new, I first managed to get a computer online in the company I ran with my husband (I was always the geek in the family). Those days were before google and even before Internet Explorer. The brand new browser we used was called Mosaic. I don’t even know how we did it, but somehow we, in Oxford England, got connected to an archaeological museum in the University of California. There weren’t any pictures – God knows I didn’t expect any – just a list of what was in their collections.

It was one of the moments when I remember all the details – the time of day, the room, who was there. It seemed so extraordinary to me that I could be connected to a computer 8000 miles away.

These days I  am grumpy if I cannot buy a small toy on a Sunday afternoon without the intervention of Her Majesty’s constabulary, or the Indian sub continent, that will allow me to see, hear, and read information, or just chat, all over the world, while I float on the south Oxfordshire Canal, monument to nineteenth century engineering.

When did I become an unreasonable person?


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