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Thursday, 14 December 2017

Snow

I’d almost forgotten about snow; proper snow with sledging, snowballing, and inconvenience for people who want to go to work. The children rejoice. So far as I know, so does Oscar dog, even when, in the Highlands, there was little to be seen but his tail and a nose, surfacing now and then to check position. 
Oscar in the snow
Birmingham, with the rest of the country south of the borders, gets taken by surprise. Snow comes so infrequently, the airwaves disperse hyperbole about 'weather', it can't be nostalgia that I recall such conditions as normal, to be taken in our stride. This weekend on to Monday, buses didn't run. Schools closed. No trains or trams for 48 hours, No gritting. When salting came, as befits services under 'austerity', only arterial roads got the treatment. 
Oliver was staying with us on Sunday. We ventured out on foot to the allotments. 
At the iron gates I brushed frosted snow off the lock's push buttons.
"We're the only ones to visit" 
"How do you know, grandpa?" 
"What do you notice about the snow, Oliver?"
To my surprise he couldn't work it out. 
We trudged through boot-depth snow to the plot. 

Pristine. From the parks came shouts and laughter. In the distance I could see the smudgy shapes of many Canada geese standing by the pond among the naked trees, oblivious to the stick people cantering about, snowballing, making snowmen, sledging.
"Help me, Oliver"
He'd already made sure to bring a carrot. The snow packed up sticky to make good lumps to pile up for our snowman's body. When he was nearly as high as me I used  a trowel to shape neck and shoulders. Oliver collected chunks with his gloved hands to fill in gaps in the body. 
"Charcoal for eyes! Veg nets for a scarf. Give us the carrot" 
I carved holes for nose and eyes.
"His mouth!"
I went in the greenhouse and found a dried runner bean pod, curved. Perfect. 
Amy rang "come home, Dad. We're all here now. Pasties and mince pies and...
"We'll go sledging in the park?"
"Of course"
I tarried to put out nuts, seeds, water and fat-balls for birds, Garlic stems were poking out through the snow in two beds; winter onions too. But for disturbance around our snowman, the plot lies under the snow, its soil teeming with dormant life. The burgeoning of summer is hardly imaginable. The bees are silent, clustered in winter around the queen; living off honey. The scene is black and white, but for Oliver's warm red coat and flags on the fruit cage.

** ** **
Our park has a special glamour under snow. Amy, Guy, Hannah, Oliver, Oscar dog and I walk over the rail bridge to the other side of the park with its bandstand, and steeper contours, good for sledging. 

We all have a go on our plastic sledges. I slide on my front, the better to steer with my toes. The children are fearless, sitting upright, veering into trees, tipping over. Up we stumble and down we go again - together and in turns dodging trees, the metal fence near the foot of the run, whooping, shouting, laughing with others sharing the slope,...
... until the sky tunes itself to dusk. We head home dragging the children on sledges. 
"I love seeing the street lights through the trees" I said to Amy. We're in a lovely city park remote from feral winter.
Dusk in Handsworth Park



** ** ** **
With many others, we've been helping Jan Kimber campaign against building houses over most of the Lea Hall Allotments. Jan and I evoked Handsworth Allotments Information Group (HAIG) - the small group that I'd set up to campaign against building houses over all the old Victoria Jubilee Allotments, where I now have my plot.
Lea Hall Allotments on Google Maps 

The plan to build on Lea Hall Allotments

Planning application 2017/08883/PA was submitted, on 25th October 2017, by Countryside Properties to build 110 new homes at the Lea Hall allotments site on Wood Lane, in Handsworth Wood. 'A mixture of detached, semi-detached and terraced, 79 of these 3+4 bed homes will be for sale and the other 31 will be for private rent.' My objection sent, with others, to Birmingham City Council Planning Department:
I wish to express my objection to planning application 2017/08883/PA to build on Lea Hall Allotments.
Allotments have legal protection under the the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908, unless it can be shown there is no demand for plots.
To suppress demand, Lea Hall Allotments Committee have been engaged in a ‘managed’ retreat from responsibility to look after these allotments, turning a statutorily protected green space into a profitable windfall site for housing.
This strategy, to empty allotment sites and suppress demand for plots,  in order to sell them, was criticised in the report of the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Fifth Report ‘The Future For Allotments’ 11 June 1998, which described what’s been happening at Lea Hall Allotments as ‘constructive non-maintenance’.
Members of Lea Hall Allotments Committee have colluded with Countryside Properties (the second developer with whom they have had recent dealings), in ‘constructive non-maintenance’, by:
- not advertising plots and rejecting applications for them
- abandoning all but minimal maintenance, and failing to invest in site infrastructure,
- unnecessarily cutting down some of the site’s mature trees,
- repeatedly telling plot holders that plans to build on the site have already been agreed,
- excluding the contribution of women plot-holders to promoting the site by prohibiting them from committee deliberations, 
The applicant claims suitable substitute plots are available on other allotment sites. This is not a case that has been easy for them to make, as the Lea Hall Allotments site is, or would be if properly managed, uniquely attractive, facing open green space to the north (across a railway line which assists security), with woodlands on its edge, good drainage and an exceptionally well equipped clubhouse with bar, toilets, a bowling green and facilities for meetings and entertainment.
This application by Countryside Properties threatens to remove yet more green space from one of  our city’s finest Victorian suburbs, contrary to guidance in Birmingham City Council’s ‘Mature suburbs: Guidelines to control residential intensification - Feb 2008.
Properly managed  and advertised, Lea Hall Allotments, left as allotments and conservation area, open to the public, would be a most valuable community asset.
There is a significant deficit of open space in Lozells & East Handsworth Ward. The proximity of the application site to Perry Hall playing field, quoted by the applicant as an example of green space availability, is compromised by the railway line between New Street and Walsall that runs along the northern boundary of the neighbourhood.
The new allotments in the applicant’s proposal cover only 24% of the existing site and they are far smaller than the normal average of 200 square metres in other city allotments..
The woodland in the north east corner of the site provides screening and noise protection for residents of Lea Hall Road, serves as a visual amenity for users of Perry Hall Playing Fields, is a habitat for a rich variety of flora and fauna, and contributes to the area’s drainage.
It seems especially unwise to allow this development on greenfield land given the forthcoming analysis by West Midlands Combined Authority on the remediation and development of brownfield land (West Midlands Land Commission - Final Report to the West Midlands Combined Authority Board. 9th February 2017)
A tour around Lea Hall Allotments on 22nd November



Jan Kimber describes Countryside Properties' plans for Lea Hall Allotments at Birchfield Neighbourhood Forum - 30 Nov 2017

Friday, 24 November 2017

First world problems

Arthur Rackham - an illustration from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Magpies leap around inside the frieze of black branches at the bottom of the garden. Unruly wind stirs a medley of orphan leaves; stripping the trees of the few that remain, reminding me of infancy. Some I’ve gathered on our front lawn where a few rainless days will dry them, so I can run the mower over them, bagging their grated remains to join the compost on my allotment or use them for mulch, food for worms.
John comes to the door with Dieter, who rolls, delighted, in wet leaves. Oscar joins him barking welcome to “walk time” in Handsworth Park.
The weather’s mild. Lin complains “it’s cold” so now I start inroads on the logs I cut and split in summer; lighting the wood stove in seconds – top-down – the warmed flue whistling, wind drawing up the first flames, crackling, roaring. I’ve worked through my in-tray since we came home. On recommendation from CS, improver and restorer of houses, I brought in Wayne and Barbara of Genesis to clear all our roof gutters. Booked an eye test to check a small cataract in my left eye, made appointment for a flu jab,  and for the dentist; filled in the form for my 126th blood donation, confirmed an appointment with Mr Martin Sintler at City Hospital to assess me for an operation on the inguinal hernia I developed in August.
On Monday, recruited from the 1000elders, I kept an appointment with Dr Benoit Smeunink at QE Hospital to be briefed, and sign consent forms, for participation in the ‘Bed-Rest Study’ in the New Year – official title Exercise 'prehabilitation': A novel intervention to protect against disuse-induced muscle atrophy and sarcopenia in the old
The drift of government policy is to keep those of us who might otherwise be reliant on the burdened NHS, healthy and fit until we drop painlessly and naturally - what ever that means - dead (like in the movies!). The main killers of the elderly are heart disease, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, strokes, Alzheimers, diabetes, pneumonia, flu, nephritis - a kidney thing, septicemia - and there's another list of illnesses that contribute. The whole population is susceptible to the same dangers, but getting older increases susceptibility, hence so much research on reducing the ill-effects of 'slowing down', and in this case, being confined to a hospital, and worse, to a bed, after a procedure. How can I avoid sarcopenia, or worse, cachexia?  Like an old horse, once I lie down, the chances of getting back on my feet lessen. The vet can gently finish off a horse, but I could be bed-ridden, with occasional wheel-chair forays, for an unpredictable age.


Other things, vexing in their banality; long spells sitting in our kitchen half-heeding recorded phone messages, pressing handset keys between sales talk, wrestling gently with human respondents working to a script, striving to sort confusion between energy company Npower, who we’ve left, and energy company Solarplicity, who we’ve joined, about gas and electricity supplied to Rock Cottage during what appears to be a difference between the two companies’ switch-over dates and their use of estimated meter readings as against the actual readings they were sent by me - an issue also described as 'cross metering' or 'erroneous transfers'. Solarplicity says switch over was 3rd Aug for gas and electricity. Npower says it was 2nd Aug for electricity and 17th Aug for gas, and insist this is confirmed on the 'national data base', an entity I can't even find on the web, but which may be the National Meter Data Base or could it be the Meter Point Administration Service (MPAS)? I'm being mailed court order threats from Npower – on and off the most complained-about of all energy companies in Europe -  in pursuit of gas and electricity bills for whose payment I have dated receipts. The sums involved are under £5. The transfer process began mid-July 2017. Over these four months consider the cost of our time and their time pursuing this ageing company-made error. Result of our time (Lin and I share this sort of chore) on the phone so far? Agreement by Npower to stop phoning (they even phoned us in Greece) and mailing demands – until the dispute is resolved.
24/11/17 Your reply from npower. Your account number:12601** Code: E1*T. Hello Mr Baddeley. Thank you for contacting us about your account. I am sorry to learn that you have not received a resolution for your complaint. I am aware from reviewing your account that this is still ongoing. Our Complaints team is working on resolving this for you and I have made them aware that you have contacted us again about this issue. Rest assured, Mr Simon Baddeley, we will be in touch soon. Your unique reference number for the complaint is 12601**47, please quote this should you wish to speak to our Complaints team directly on 0800 316 9328. They are available from 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday and 8am to 2pm Saturday. If you prefer, you can email complaints@npower.com. Thank you for your patience in this matter, Mr Simon Baddeley. I am confident that this will be resolved for you shortly. Kind regards Chris Thewlis, Customer Services Director, Customer Services
‘Our’ (No! ‘your’) problem according to Solarplicity - another 25 minutes on the phone - is that the sums involved are too small to ‘raise a dispute’, which means we can’t recruit them in stopping Npower in their system’s automated tracks. Fascinating as a symptom of the times, this tiresome ‘first world problem’ vexes but doesn’t worry me. If it ends up in court – unlikely - I shall, as both of us have in the past, enjoy telling this well documented fiasco to a court. (We’ve never lost a case). There are places where, in a different world, I might be trying to get Linda out of solitary confinement based on mistaken identity, or travelling to the Hague to bear witness against Ratko Mladić for the murder of our child.

29/11/17 Email from npower, to back up a phone call from the company, that looks to have sorted 'our' problem:
Unique Reference Number: 10157***   Dear Mr Baddeley. Further to our telephone conversation this afternoon, I can confirm that in line with our agreement, I have now removed the outstanding gas balance of £28.47.
As I have been unable to contact Solarplicity directly with regards to the closing meter readings, I have confirmed that we could either continue to contact your new supplier and re-agree a new final meter reading. Alternatively, we could remove the balance however, no further amendments would be made to the final meter readings.
You have confirmed that you would be happy for me to remove the outstanding balance without agreeing a new meter reading with your supplier. Therefore, I have applied a credit balance to your account today and this leaves nothing to pay. 
I can confirm both your gas and electricity accounts have now been closed to a £0.00 balance.
If you’d like to discuss this with me, please call me direct on ****etc Kind Regards, Bev Young, Specialist Advisor, Executive Liaison Team
* * *  * * *
A meeting was held at Dot’s care home the other day. Anticipated this last fortnight, it was to determine whether Staffordshire NHS Trust could continue to pay for my dear mother-in-law’s care, or whether this should be handled by Staffordshire County Council’s Social Services who would seek funding from the family. Amy, our daughter was at the meeting at the care home, attended by an NHS manager and nurses who look after Dot. She phoned us to say the NHS, after 17 months at the care home,  would no longer pay for Dot’s care. We await a rubber stamp to this decision after which we have about 6 weeks to continue paying the care home out of Dot’s inheritance, such as it is, or make alternative arrangements.
“I can build ramps” I said to Lin
“Yes” said Lin "and we can clear the sitting room at our house, put in a bed and all that’s needed, and have a visiting and occasional live-in carer service.”
Dot can hardly stand, let alone get about, but she can be gently moved from bed to wheelchair. She can feed herself but her care must involve washing and therapy to deal with the risk of sores from spending most of the time bed-ridden, as well as “going to the loo and all that”. Now should be payback for all the National Insurance Dot's paid through her long life but what’s been paid out so far, for her care in old age and disability, can no longer be paid, and the state wants, now, to dip into her savings. Arthur, her husband of 70 years, died in April 2016 at 98. She’s regularly visited by her grandchildren, her niece Janice, and Lin and I and the grandchildren, and also Oscar dog, who is welcome at the care home.
“I knew the NHS wouldn’t continue funding” said Lin, “Mum’s situation didn’t meet their criteria”
Just before we left Corfu, there came a message from Epirus asking if it was true that XX, a mutual friend we knew had been ill, was confined to a care home in Perama. We made some enquiries, located the place and visited - a 15 minute walk across the causeway from below Kanoni. I promised after our visit to write to him, care of another friend, he being without phone, radio, tape player, books or computer (not wanting them even when offered)...adding that I'd put the letter on the internet to ensure that, one way or another, he'd get to read it, or, at least, have it read to him:

xxxxx
House of Elderly Care
Perama Gastouriou,

Dear Xx

I’m sending this via our friend Yy, who promised to bring you and, if necessary, read you this letter. I’d prefer to hand write, but the letter may be easier to read, typed. I’ve used larger than normal font; your description of me as ‘distinguished’, as I sat at your bedside, being a measure of your disability.
I’m so glad we met you again just before we headed back to England.  Despite your circumstances, you entertained us for two hours with the same thoughts and words that marked our first acquaintance.
We’re back in Birmingham after three days in Venice, chased up the Adriatic, from Igoumenitsa, by a gusting gale. 
Passing the Karaburun Peninsula, on Anek Line's F/B Asterion, before a southerly gale

Those big ferries are floating warehouses with noisy accommodation. They clang, echo and rumble, almost ignoring the sea. We snoozed in armchairs, among truck drivers.
As our ship approached Fustina, the clouds pealed back, revealing distant peaks across the horizon – snow-topped Dolomites. Lin and I roamed the lagoon by water-bus. On Torcello we ascended the restored campanile of the island’s Byzantine cathedral. 
Up the campanile of Santa Maria Assunta 
A young man at the ticket office said we could ascend the tower, but its belfry was open only “to priests and children under 6”. Only at the top, having breached this rule, and admired a sunlight panorama of marsh and water from the vertiginous belfry, did we grasp the Italian leg-pull. “Only priests and small children! Ha!”
Venice sparkled. One afternoon, we sat in the sun at Pellestrina, a village on the narrow lagoon spit, sipping coffee and local wine, hearing the sound of Adriatic surf from over the mighty sea wall that protects the city and its islands.
Back in England we’re working through in-trays; the largest challenge - arranging to move my bed-ridden mum-in-law from her care home, for which the NHS will no longer pay, to a room in our house, which will be equipped with kit and care brought in to help us out, leaving Lin, when I ask her if we can be in Corfu for next Easter, saying, of our next flight, already paid, “I hope so”.  Lin’s mum has been a wonderful grandma. Like you, it’s not good to see her bedridden. She’s without her husband of 70 years, who died 17 months ago. These things are tests of character. Mine not hers.
There’s junk mail, bills to be paid, and jobs to be done – like cleaning out house gutters. The wood I collected, sawed and split last August is feeding a wood stove in the kitchen....Lin and I are working on your escape plan. We’ve got you faked papers, cunning disguises and skeleton keys, and a scooter that will be left near the end of the causeway to Kanoni, where you will be met - password ‘λοιπόν’ - and escorted to a safe house until the hue and cry has died down. Love, Simon & Lin XX
Ernest Hemingway with the sculptor Toni Lucarda on Torcello 1948 (Archivo Cameraphoto Epoche. NYRB Oct 2017)


On Torcello - we crossed the ditch on the planks


The other side of the sea-wall at Pellestrina


On Pellestrina - a long narrow strip of an island at the edge of the Lagoon of Venice

Thursday, 9 November 2017

«Ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή»

1943 - 'So was it when my life began'

In my childhood, lines were planted by their case officers – teachers, parents – introduced as suitable friends, even mentors to be trusted, but in truth, secret agents, sleepers to be activated far in my future.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.  
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
I knew these words, enjoyed and cherished them as companions and close neighbours; recalled them every day in mused fragments. I listened to Eliot's dry monotones on a 78 record in English class at school. These were trusted lines; taken for granted even. I wrote English essays on Wordsworth's maxim - extracted - 'The Child is father of the Man. Discuss'
My age stretches my recollection of times past into what younger people think of as history, but instead of studying history like them, as something taught - a subject detached - I am history, an inhabitant of times before theirs.
Only now have those sleeping lines come out - replete with meaning; truly here;  tumbling over themselves to fulfil their creators' spells.
2017 - 'So be it when I shall grow old'


 'The same road that leads upwards, leads downwards' Heraclitus. The road between upper and lower Korakiana from our balcony, after 2 days of heavy rain - the first on beloved Corfu since May

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