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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

On the plot

"Your shed roof's collapsing, Simon" said Winnie the other day.
"Not the roof, the veranda. I'll mend it next week"
I took cordless drill, screwdriver, saw, screws and brackets out to the plot and using discarded wood - available in plenty - I cut four lengths to serve as beams attached to the veranda's original supports...
Our shed backs on to Handsworth Park
...dug out another length for a prop; pushed it under a length of the roof, heaved upwards before kicking a brick under the foot of my prop; drilled and screwed brackets on the end of each small beam and fixed them below the sag.

I've still to plant more winter onions, and early peas. This afternoon I pruned the small fruit trees taking out inward pointing branches and buds and, where possible, encouraging a higher central growth. I've got a pear, a plum, a cherry and two apple trees. In the last three years only the apples have borne fruit.

My Brussels sprouts still waiting to be picked would have been fine had I netted them earlier. As it is the harvest is mostly pecked out by pigeons.

That aside. I've got potatoes still to unearth along with Jerusalem artichokes. I'm waiting on a crop of onions planted in early September. I planted winter broad beans a week ago.
I've miles to go before becoming productive but I'm pleased with the work that's been done over the last year on improving the soil and creating paths to access the plot without treading on planting space. I've paid Taj and then Winnie to do digging and weeding when I'm away. Much will depend on what I get into the ground; how well i plant it and cane for it during January, February and March next year. I've accepted that I'm not a working man growing food for my family, but I'm uncomfortable with the notion that I'm 'a middle class hobbyist', rationale for this recent letter from Edinburgh...
Tuesday, 4 November 2014
Dear Editor. No one likes to be confronted with a 300% price hike, which I note as you turn your guns on CEC's proposal to increase the rental on allotments (Issue 235).
I have had the pleasure of being an allotment holder in Warriston for more than 15 years and I, like many others, have wondered at the largesse of the Council for the rock bottom price of the allotment, and the gradual increase of services from rubbish clearance to toilets on the site.
Having an allotment is a hobby. After the proposed price rise the full price of a half-plot would be £155, less than a pint of beer a week. No doubt there are one or two allotment holders for whom the price rise would be too much but, in my experience, the vast majority are in employment or sturdy pensioners, like myself, and quite able to afford the new prices.
Many allotments are still full-size and a holder could halve the expense by switching to a smaller plot, which would also give someone else on the long waiting list a chance.
It is not fair to ask the Council Tax payers of Edinburgh to continue to subsidise a few fortunate allotment holders when so many other amenities, like the park at Scotland Yard which is used by hundreds every day, are crying out for additional expenditure. Yours sincerely, Hugh Lockhart (London Street)

A winter gale's blowing up

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I have just been reading the unclassified version of the report, the Senate Intelligence Committee Study on CIA Detention and Interrogation Program...
United States Senator Dianne Feinstein - a few good men

The study’s 20 findings and conclusions can be grouped into four central themes, each of which is supported extensively in the Executive Summary:
- The CIA’s 'enhanced interrogation techniques' were not effective.
- The CIA provided extensive inaccurate information about the operation of the program and its effectiveness to policymakers and the public.
- The CIA’s management of the program was inadequate and deeply flawed.
- The CIA program was far more brutal than the CIA represented to policymakers and the American public.
Apart from my doubts as to whether torture works in extracting reliable information in a 'ticking bomb' scenario, I do not wish to avoid my own or my family's death or injury through the use of so-called 'enhanced interrogation techniques'. Of course I am fearful of dying or being injured in a terrorist attack and far more fearful that any of my family should be its victims. This statement, like an AND request , is made at a point where my detachment from the reality of my own mortality and moral frailty when frightened is sufficient for me to have no reservations about stating a most personal and vital principle about my country, about democracy, about citizenship and my understanding of civilisation. I honour and respect Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein for oversight that some will consider beyond the call of duty. She can handle the truth.
That last phrase can be too easily said. I approach it as I would a minefield were I trained as a sapper. My training includes an existential tool kit. In the 90s wrote about it as much as anything to equip that tool kit. Writing Internal Polity I was so struck by Joseph Conrad's observation that...
Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd: to the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and of its morals, in the power of its police and of its opinion. (Conrad (1897) An Outpost of Progress in Cosmopolis (London) Vol. 7, No.XVIII (Jun 1897), pp.608-908)
This lies behind Aaron Sorkin's superb scripting of the role of US marine Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in the film A Few Good Men - a fiction created 95 years after Conrad's tale, when Colonel Jessup is goaded by Lt Daniel Kaffee into this courtroom outburst on Conrad's 'crowd', on how most men and women sleep "under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide", in other words 'the power of its police'....
Jessup: You can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives! You don't want the truth, because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like "honor", "code", "loyalty". We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it! I would rather you just said "thank you", and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to!
Weren't we discussing this last night at supper? Anyone - any adult - who thinks we are not at war just because we're sitting fairly pretty round the kitchen table is almost culpably naïve. Says Lin's best friend who lives in Mrs Miniver-land, buys the Daily Mail and makes unembarrassed use of the political pronoun 'we'...
"It's hypocritical. We drop bombs on Iraq and use drones in Afghanistan which do horrendous things most of us don't see while we're going ape about the horrible things ISIS is doing to hostages...and now it's coming out what the CIA were doing..."
"But you have to respect the US for publishing that"
"Of course"
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The balcony of the house on Democracy Street as shown in the estate agent's particulars ~ Nov 2006

Nov 2014
Mark's written after a few rainy days about our 'new' balcony as he gets closer to our plan for recovering the increasingly unstable construction, by adding new tantalised beams, turning the old beams 180° after sanding and treating them with Resolcoat, removing all the previous decking - made up of thick heavy deal beams - and storing them for firewood, and replacing them with treated hardwood grooved decking.
Hi Simon and Lin. As you can see from the photo's the decking is nearly complete. I had to go back up to Sidari for more screws, if those boxes do truly hold 200 in each box, then I have used 2 full boxes and am half way through the 3rd with a few more lengths to go down and that is without putting screws down on every beam, its nice and firm. Sally has been by today for a look and thinks it looks really nice.
Decking in place, now the railings

I now need to do the railing posts before I finish the last few lengths of decking. I bought some 8mm galvanised studded bar for securing the posts as I couldn't find bolts long enough, also because of how bad the rot is on the posts I will be putting a pad on one side to act like a new piece of wood and then the other end of the bar will have the new or refurbished beam to go against. It's going to be a bit of a mission to get it pretty secure but we shall do our best...That's it for now really the weather is on and off rain just now so I work when I can between showers if needs be. Hope all is well. Mark
...and hardly a day later...
Hi Simon and Lin. I have attached a couple of photo's of the finished you can see the railings are all up and together as best I can do as they are in a very poor state and may need to be replaced in a year or two. I have put on, but not attached to any of the wooden upright posts, some of the brackets to show you what I think should be done on the house side of the balcony but this would mean then I would have to screw a dome head coach bolt through the decking and on the other side of the railings. it would be the same as now there is one balcony's length of  decking there also...For aesthetic reasons all except the two front corner posts would be done and also they will give all of them a very strong feel. The one post certainly needs it. I think you know the one I mean on the outside front edge on the right. It had nothing below it, so could not be attached to any of the beams. I think you have enough brackets at the house to do this so I wouldn't have to buy any more just the dome head coach bolts...I think you have enough brackets at the house to do this so I wouldn't have to buy any more  just the dome head coach bolts...Sally came up with the idea and she actually likes them on there and says it finishes the job off, but I thought I would let you decide what you would prefer. Weather here just now is fab, cold clear. I wonder when the UK weather bomb will hit us. Never heard of that before.  Hope all is well with you both. Cheerio. Mark
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First 2014 Christmas card - 'wishing you every happiness' Simon and Lin from Martin, Sandra and Adam

Well indeed! There's a place in Dr Zhivago called Varykino not far from Yuriatin. Evocative names lodged in imagination. Our Varykino has been for twenty years Rock Cottage in Lydbrook which we've allowed to fall into damp disrepair. Trying to recover it we allowed a bad builder to make it even worse. I entertained the idea of just putting this place - 150yards up a steep path on the edge of the Forest of Dean - up for auction. Our friend Steve Outram, who lives in an old converted chapel across the narrow valley from Rock Cottage on the west side of the village, has captured - always indirectly - the feel of this place...somewhere near
Steven Outram Somewhere Near
A few weeks ago, just returned from Greece, Lin and I went to Lydbrook to have a look at the work that's been going on at Rock Cottage since, in an act of special friendship, 'Team Ward' - Martin, Sandra, Adam (and his workmate Jack) took over the restoration of our precious home in the forest. A few months earlier Evolution Trees had cleared an abundance of trees growing almost up to the house endangering our connecting electric cable. One weekend in spring Lin and I cleared a few smaller trees and enveloping shrubs. Adam and Jack started work in August clearing a load of rubbish left in the garden; filling a skip at the foot of Bell Hill...
Adam and Jack in Lydbrook at the foot of Bell Hill - skip half full
...thereafter, over weekends, 'Team Ward' went down to Lydbrook, ascended the hill, and began working on the interior of the house, sending us photos and reporting on the detail of the task as it emerged. First - a renewed kitchen and bathroom. Amy and Guy have been extending their house in Birmingham. Instead of throwing away their old kitchen they gave its furnishings to us for the cottage. The iron bath was sitting in the garden needing a good scrub, but this time there would be a shower and other improvements. Each time they went down the team as well as doing redecoration also tidied, scrubbed and polished; cleaning windows, clearing cobwebs, re-plastering, removing furniture damp and mildew had rendered beyond repair. Lin and I collected a car-load of bedding to wash and dry back in Birmingham. The problem of damp upstairs seemed intractable. The team replaced guttering, riddled out compacted rotting leaves from a roof drain leading to the soak-away, moved damp logs and other debris that had piled against an end wall and left the boiler - serviced along with drained and cleaned radiators - heating the house, supported at weekends with a roaring log fire. Gradually the place has dried out, damp driven slowly away and kept at bay.
"Lots of the problem is condensation" said Martin. "Your builder applied a plastic exterior paint that locks in damp. The new windows have no vents"
We'd had windows installed that wouldn't open properly. One pane in each unit sliding out sideways. Jack, who also works for a double glazing company in the week, found us sets of hinges costing £35 the lot, that, once installed, allowed all windows to open fully. Martin made use of a ventilation latch to leave a tiny gap reducing condensation dramatically.
Third week of November; Lin and I drove south on the M5 - the old journey we'd been so used to making..
Down the M5 to Gloucestershire


...turning west onto the M50 to Ross, then four miles onto the turning into Goodrich, and three more miles beside the River Wye to Lydbrook - 71 miles in under an hour and a half.
Seeing the cottage since work started in August was a joy. Exciting. There's still lots to be done but the feel of spreading dereliction is gone, replaced by the smell of new materials, of paint and plaster and dry stone. The windows are clean top to bottom - a new one with a ventilator on the bathroom where all the plumbing has been replaced; cobwebs swept, mildew disappeared, dust removed.
Linda and Martin at Rock Cottage in November
The view through the window of Rock Cottage looking down the village towards Courtfield beyond the Wye
Sandra painting in the hall
Lin and I wandered about admiring everything, then we headed for the Inn on the Wye by Kerne Bridge and happily bought lunch.
Next steps?
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As one of the QE Medical School's 1000 Elders I'm a small cog in part of their Healthy Ageing work. I've now taken part in four sessions for Rehan Junejo, who's researching the role of oxygen in the muscle blood flow changes which occur with exercise. His original request:
Can anyone help Rehan, PhD student in Medical Sciences? He is looking for 18-25 and 60-70 year-old recreationally active, healthy male volunteers for a research study on the increase in forearm blood flow that occurs with handgrip exercise. The study is being carried out within the University's Medical School under the supervision of Professor Janice Marshall and Dr Clare Ray. If you would like to participate and find out how cardiovascular measurements are made for scientific research, please contact Rehan Junejo:
With Rehan Junejo

What's been required...
• Performing a maintained handgrip contraction until exhaustion with your dominant hand at 100% of your maximum on 2 occasions on each experiment visit.
• Recording of Heart Rate and Blood Pressure via a small cuff on a finger of your non exercising hand (non invasive procedure).
• Recording of Oxygen uptake at muscular level in your exercising arm (non invasive procedure).
• Recording blood oxygen concentrations from the skin in some of the experiments (non invasive procedure).
• Blood flow recording in the exercising arm – this involves inflating two blood pressure cuffs at roughly the same time.  A smaller (child size) cuff will be inflated around your wrist and a regular (adult size) cuff will be inflated around your upper arm. Each inflation lasts for a few seconds.  The middle part of your forearm will have a light, thin tube wrapped around it to record blood flow to the arm (non invasive procedure).
All visits last approximately 1 hour.
An additional aspect of the experiment is that for each of the four sessions I get to drink, 10 minutes before doing the handgrip exercise,  a small bottle of orange flavoured juice that may be a placebo or may contain vitamin C and, during the exercise, to breath, through a face mask, either placebo air or oxygen. While all this is going on - over an hour - Rehan has a number of films I can choose to watch, switched off during the contraction exercise - a slightly uncomfortable test of my will-power. I chose the new film The Lone Ranger, a more or less plotless sequence of impossible special effects with a more or less correct White man-Native American relationship 
Despite the producers citing the presence of an adviser from the Comanche Nation, some debated the advisability of casting of Depp as a Native American and whether the film would present a positive and accurate representation of the Comanche. Depp has stated he believes he has Native American ancestry, possibly from a great-grandmother. He has said that he considered the role a personal attempt "to try to right the wrongs of the past", in reference to portrayals of Native American culture in the media. Todd McDaniels, a linguist at the Comanche Nation College, commented favorably on Depp's attempts to speak the Comanche language, which has 25 to 30 living native speakers. “The words were there, the pronunciation was shaky, but adequate.
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A few days back I had one of my regular meetings devoted to putting the world to rights. Dave Church sometimes comes to have a pint with me at the Old Joint Stock in St Phillips Square, Birmingham, or I go to Walsall to have pint with him at the old Court House, St Matthew's Hall. Many years ago - around 1975 - when he was a left wing councillor Dave and fellow councillors from Walsall listened to a lecture I gave on 'corporate management in local government'. It was a convivial occasion but after my talk was over and we were having a drink at the bar Dave and I were chatting
"Good lecture, Simon. Very interesting. But come the revolution it's up against the wall for you"
Dave and Simon at St Matthew's Hall, Walsall (photo: Dave Yates)

We were there with Cllr Pete Smith, current Mayor of Walsall and also with a veteran from Dave's days as a Labour councillor, Bryan Powell, both, with 15 others, expelled for their break-away radicalism from the ranks of Walsall's Labour party in the mid-90s. I value and enjoy Dave's table talk on current issues, the new West Midland combined authority, the forthcoming Kerslake Review of Birmingham City Council, the de-politicisation of everything and the intimate seduction of consumerism.  I talked about the view that allotments had become an increasingly middle class activity. Dave was interested in my overview of the events of the Greek Civil War...
A pamphlet from KKE
...I showed him a booklet and how I had got it. Some years ago I'd enquired over the internet about a leaflet published by the Communist Party of Greece. Back from their Central Committee's address in Athens, in just three days, came an envelope with postage stamps bearing the words ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΗ ΔΗΜΟΚΡΑΤΙΑ beside rich colours like the ones Dad used in 1949, when he wrote from Greece to me at school, 'Notes on the Greek Civil War (1946-1949) 60th Anniversary of the formation of the Democratic Army of Greece', with the logo of a red hammer and sickle and a greeting card with a striking painting by Maria Pesmatzoglou 'Best wishes for the new year. 90 years since the foundation of KKE. Central Committee, Communist Party of Greece.'
My Christmas card from Chris and Dave Church

The theme of trying to understand the Greek Civil War runs through my blog.
'The mainland stretched north to south in a tableau of varying greys in the damp air this morning. The shores are distinct and darker but beyond are the lighter and more distant peaks of the Grammos in Epirus - site of campaigns that 58 years ago concluded a catastrophe so terrible that even now it starts a lump in my throat to think of such happenings in a land we English have found so kind to us and of whose civility we hold such confident illusions.'
Since I wrote that in early 2007 I have been doing much reading, for example:
Thanasis D. Sfikas' book 'The British Labour Government and the Greek Civil War: The Imperialism of 'Non-Intervention' Keele University Press. 1994. Thanasis D. Sfikas, who teaches European political history at the University of Central Lancashire decribes how Britain continued to play a key role in Greek developments even after the Truman Doctrine of March 1947 had brought the Americans on the scene.
I have also been reading the work of Professor Mark Mazower who quotes a primary source for a series of formative events that were, in his scholarly view, ‘more traumatic’ for Greece than the Occupation – the British Civil Police Liaison log book in WO 170/4049 and the subsequent account of events in Syntagma Square on Sunday 3 December 1944 by 23rd Armoured Brigade in WO 204/8312 – ta dekemvriana. On that day an icon of our fight against the Nazis, the Spitfire, was strafing parts of Athens and Englishmen in English khaki were sniping at Greeks from the Acropolis and, something few knew about, ‘the percentages agreement’, informed the fate of the wondrous land. After the occupation came five years of Civil War already metastasizing inside occupied Greece, with the carcinogens of human weakness and constant fear brought on by starvation, brutalisation, grief and fear to add to the intensity of human division. And Greeks had yet to endure 'the stone years' and the armoured democracy that lasted until 1974. This has been uncomfortable reading for me and I am not giving up now. I left Dave with these reflections, to discuss when we meet again in The Old Joint Stock.
5th (Scots) Parachute Battalion, 2nd Parachute Brigade, fighting ELAS in Athens, 18 December 1944 (photo: Powell-Davies (Lt), No 2 Army Film & Photographic Unit)

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Simon Baddeley