Monday, 30 December 2013

Touching adjustment

Thankfully the rain stopped by the time I headed out to Thornhill Crematorium for an early afternoon funeral. Because of the holiday season the bereaved family had to wait seventeen days before they could lay their loved one to rest. Notification of another funeral for next week came in this morning. The death occurred on the same day, but this family will have had to wait twenty six days. How hard it is for anyone, except perhaps the smaller children, to take the usual pleasure in Christmas and New Year while waiting for a final farewell and closure.

Later in the afternoon I went out on another office tech' acquisition trip to Staples and PC World for a smaller more travel portable sized laptop than the one purchased a few days ago for a workstation. Nowhere to be found were any Windows 7 machines, so I had to settle for ordering a Windows 8.1 HP Pavilion with 14" screen which will be home delivered, so that I can set it up without the distractions of work going on around me. It won't be quite the nightmare the last one was, if I've learned from that awful experience, but it will take time to re-trace steps that will give me a setup I can live with. 

This computer will have a touchscreen. Since I started using the Android toting Asus Transformer Infinity with its slick touch interface and keyboard, I've become sufficiently habituated to the basic moves to find myself unwittingly stroking the non-touch screen of my little HP Win 7 laptop. It's going to be interesting to see if I'll get on better with Windows 8.1, designed with touch in mind, than I did on a Windows 8.1 machine that didn't have the touch option. Am I becoming a slower learner, reluctant to change my habits, I wonder?

Sunday, 29 December 2013

A Sunday in Christmastide

After yesterday's computer annoyances, I was glad to attend Canton Benefice united Parish Eucharist at St John's, sit in the congregation with Clare this morning, and just worship. We celebrated the church's Patronal Festival two days late, just right for the occasion.

By the time we got home, Rachel and Jasmine were up and organised to visit Dyffryn Gardens, where we had an al fresco picnic lunch before wandering around house and arbortum. Fortunately the rain stayed away. We used our National Trust Family membership cards to get Jasmine in for free, but her mother had to pay, no longer being classed as a child. Jasmine loved the great open spaces and giant trees, just perfect for climbing, so we enjoyed a very pleasant few hours in the fresh air before sundown. When we returned I cooked paella for supper and Owain came over to eat with us.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Windows woes

Today was a damp day. Rachel, Jasmine and Clare went off to the St Fagan's Folk Museum. I went shopping for new office equipment, meeting up with Ashley in John Lewis', and returning home with a seventeen inch HP Windows 8 'laptop' to set up for use as a dedicated crime data work-station for the CBS office in the coming year.

Thus far I have been deterred by so many negative reviews from considering Windows 8, but now it's getting rarer to find Windows 7 kit on sale, there wasn't much alternative to spending lots of time and energy hunting for something to buy of the specification required before the end of our financial year. Ah well, sooner or later I have to find out more about this, and waste time re-learning how to use a piece of equipment to perform familiar tasks efficiently, just because a user interface has been changed without any reason that's at all relevant to my needs. But this is what commercial companies do to prove that we are their slaves, rather than them serving out best interests. 

I much prefer the superior Linux operating system with its choice of user interfaces, but in the everyday world of users who are just consumers of tools and products, persuading anyone to change their habits is as difficult for them as it is for me. So reluctantly I have a go a learning something new and pretty irrelevant to my working needs, as it's less inconvenient than chasing around after an alternative. 

If you're relatively new to computers, setting up a Windows 8 PC is elegantly simple. If you've spent decades getting Windows or Linux machines to work the way you want them to, it's painful. You feel as if you're not in control. The way the user interface works is different, it's more difficult to get beneath the slick looking surface to the level where there's detailed control. At first encounter, it feels as if you have no control at all. The user interface is designed with touchscreen in mind more than mouse. Touch is all very well, but  mouse control is more accurate in the hands of an experienced user. The chosen machine wasn't touch-screen, and I found this infuriating at first.

Setting up the machine for initial use took four time longer than doing a fresh Linux install, then even longer as I pressed on to upgrade the machine to Windows 8.1 straight away, since this fix promises to address some of the complaints made against Windows 8 from day one. All in all, we're talking five hours finding my way around and then machine minding installation and downloading patches and upgrades. This included half an hour going around in circles trying to find out how to do the upgrade, as links provided pointed to the Windows App store, and this had nothing to show how to get the upgrade. I got the upgrade from the Microsoft website, which was less than user friendly, taking to the bottom of a very long page before you could click on a download link that produced to goods. What a mess!

OK so TalkTalk internet is lousy and slow, but it only crashed the upgrade download once, and after a reboot, picked up where it left off, so that's one up for Microsoft. But, the process took up the whole of a Saturday evening, and at the end I still had to find out how to install my small portfolio of programs to turn into a piece of kit for the office desktop that 'just works'.

This is is me, performing a few of the functions of a system administrator (most are beyond me) to keep a small team of people active and confident that computers will do what they need, are secure, stable and don't make unintelligible demands of them that get in the way of productive work, or require them to change and re-learn working methods without hindering their work schedule. If the creative and visionary designers of a new generation of operating systems had understood the needs of the 'drones' at the real workfaces of the world, they would not have changed so much at the functional surface level, or at least made adoption of such a change optional. No wonder PC sales have slumped badly over the past year. Bad news travels fast.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Christmastide theatre outing

I needed to get back to work today, to prepare and send documents in good time for a meeting on January 2nd. An outing to a children's show called the 'Two Sleeping Beauties' was booked for two o'clock at the Sherman Theatre, so I had to get to the office mid morning, work for a couple of hours, then start hand delivering document packs and get to the theatre on time. Fortunately the office was deserted, so there was nothing to distract me. By the time I met the family in the new Sherman Foyer I'd completed two thirds of my mission.

The show was an interesting re-write of the folk tale with a feminist slant, pairing the princess with a serving girl, their fates inextricably bound together by their lifelong friendship. It was superbly performed, and richly textured, although the portrayal of male characters as being all foppish, foolish, wicked or ineffectual, I found irritating. I know it's no different from presentations of stereotyped women, but it felt more like vengance than insightful. In reality, women and men are each as complex and diverse and subtle in character as each other. I thought we'd started to outgrow stereotyping, but obviously not. It was, however, better than the usual pantomime.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Boxing Day fever

Having a bad back prevented me from joining the daughters and grand-daughters on the Winter Wonderland ice rink this morning. I stayed behind to re-charge Rachel's phone so she would have it for later when she was out visiting friends, then walked into town to meet up with them all at the end of the session. There was no alternative. The bus stop information panels were operating but were non committal about the nature of the service on offer, just saying that buses were operating on major routes only, without defining what a major route is. The display advised people to look at the Cardiff Bus website. Oops too late - out of the house already. No wifi, dodgy 3G signal, or else no phone/tablet or laptop to hand for a significant number of erstwhile bus travellers. More thought about functional communication on non routine travel days wouldn't go amiss.

We made a foray into the city centre, crowded with shoppers, even though the main attraction, John Lewis' store, was still shut. We had coffee and a bite to eat in M&S instead, sitting in the balcony extension to their first floor restaurant, with blue skies overhead and sun shining during a break in an otherwise rainy day. We then parted in order to head for different shopping destinations. Clare and I wandered aimlessly for a while then returned home. Window shopping in such busy crowds isn't much of a pleasure.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Tracking Santa at peak time

Yesterday morning I finalised sermons for Midnight Mass and Christmas Day services. In the afternoon, I helped Clare with last minute preparations, while Kath and Rachel drove to Newbury to collect Jasmine from her Dad. Anto returned from Kenilworth, Owain came over, and we all sat down to supper together. Rhiannon and Jasmine were so thrilled and excited to be together for Christmas. 

We had some fun visiting the NORAD Santa tracking site but as the evening progressed our TalkTalk internet connection slowed down with global traffic congestion to the point where it became unusable. It's not supposed to happen but it does. The big service providers promote the virtue of faster connectivity, always at a price. That's not unreasonable for it provides extra heavy duty capacity for shifting audio and video files quickly, if this is considered necessary by a user.  

Billions of internet enabled devices are in use at any time, and when the world goes into leisure or crisis management mode, there are bound to be peaks of demand to access particular sites, no matter how much cloud capacity gets expanded. In the physical world, motorways are fine until lots of people are on the move at the same time, converging on particular destination. Having a faster car or bigger lorry makes no difference to the existence of congestion hot-spots. So who do the promoters of faster internet think they are kidding? There's always a gap between the ideal and the reality.

By eight the girls were in bed, and by eight thirty I was on my way out to join former colleague Jenny Wigley for the Midnight Masses at St John's Danescourt and Christchurch Radyr. I preached at both and celebrated as well at Christchurch. There were three dozen at St John's and around ninety at Christchurch at eleven. It doesn't seem long since I was there for Holy Week. 

Driving between churches, I started remembering last year's unique Christmas Eve in Taormina, with a praesepio (nativity scene) in half the shop windows along the town's main street. Then I started thinking about the Andalusian Belen scenes I'd seen just before I returned home from Spain at the beginning of this month. By the time the second service started I decided not to repeat my sermon, but to ad lib a reflection around these experiences instead. I'm always nervous about going on too long or losing my thread, but on this occasion, the outcome was more satisfying than just repeating my earlier effort. By one o'clock, I was home again, enjoying half a glass of Rioja and a slice of cheese in a very calm and quiet household before going to bed.

The little ones were awake at four, and finally up opening their stockings at half six. Clare and I got up at a quarter to eight - she to start cooking Christmas lunch and I to get ready to leave for my nine thirty service at All Saints' Llandaff North. There were fifteen of us there and no organist, so I led unaccompanied singing, and wonderfully, the sun shone in to brighten a chilly church. It was great to be home again just after ten thirty and free of duties for the rest of the day. It meant that I could be kitchen slave and help in various ways to get the Christmas dinner on the table punctually.

It was a great meal, meticulously masterminded by Clare with help from Kath and Rachel in preparation, and Owain in carving and serving. Rhiannon and Jasmine decorated the table. We stretched the eating over several hours taking a break, after the main course and a red wine and cheese interlude, for a short entertainment called 'Red Santa' devised by Rhiannon to introduce the exchange of presents. Then we returned for the pudding, pies and a second round of cheeses with a sweet white wine. A wonderful happy family affair for which I thank God and all the participants.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Belated upgrade

This morning a parcel for me arrived by courier from PC World. On Saturday I ordered a disc copy of Windows 7 in order to upgrade my work Windows Vista laptop. It's a well specified machine, but the flaws of  Vista betrays its potential, and connectivity is often a problem. An operating system refresh is preferable to replacing a reliable serviceable machine with many more years of life in it. 

So, after making a funeral preparation visit in Danescourt for a service the day before New Year's Eve, before lunch, I went to the office mid-afternoon just to do the installation, and was amazed that it should take four hours to complete.

Admittedly, the outcome was satisfactory, with all existing programs, settings and data preserved. It did however, wipe the machine's master boot record, depriving me of access to the secure partition with  an install of KDE Linux on it. That problem shouldn't be too difficult to fix when I have a spare hour. It will inevitably take a while to draw down all the security patches and modifications to Windows 7 that have arrived over the past few years, but never mind. It's worth being patient with because it works well, and is familiar. No need to waste time on learning how to use yet another user interface with the most recent upgrades, Windows 8 and 8.1.

While I waited for the machine to finish the upgrade, Ashley went over the documents we need to send in preparation for the next meeting we have with Council officers on Jan 2nd. The office was quiet with the effective abandonment of inessential regular duties as the festive season takes hold, and it meant we could work without distraction for a change.  Even so, the calm was punctuated by the arrival of a series of Twitter notifications advising that one of mine regarding William Dalrymple's 'Point of View' programme has been re-tweeted half a dozen times. It never happened to me before! 

I didn't get home for supper, until nine o'clock. Just as well I don't have any early duties tomorrow.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Family Sunday

With the longest night of the year behind us, complete with heavy rain storms, it's a relief to think that days will gradually get longer, even if the evidence for this is often obscured by banks of low cloud. I just had one eight thirty service this morning at Llandaff North again, and later went with Clare to St Catherine's where for the second time this month there was a baptism during the Eucharist. It's a reflection of a local population with a significant proportion of young families, and the warm welcome they receive from the church.

After an enjoyable Sunday lunch of swordfish steaks, perfectly cooked brown rice and brussel sprout leaves, followed by apple crumble, Anto drove back to Kenilworth for two more days in the office before he starts his Christmas break. Kath, Rhiannon, Rachel and I went to St John the Baptist City Parish Church for their Nine Lessons and Carols. It was lovely to hear the bells ringing out above the traffic as walked up Quay Street from the bus stop. 

The choir sang well, and we sang along enthusiastically to the usual set of hymns. Interestingly enough there were about eighty people present, much about the same number as it was when I first arrived twelve years ago. Despite all the talk about church in decline, and despite the considerable difficulties for people getting to services inside the pedestrian precinct on a regular basis, the effort made for special occasions remains quite constant, both on the part of the congregation preparing and publicising the service, and those in the wider constituency of visitors and residents wanting to worship in the heart of the city.

It was great to be able to greet all our old friends in the congregation personally afterwards. I love just being there in the congregation with nothing to do except pray and enjoy the building. It still feels like home for me, a place to refer to, to come home to when my locum duty travels are done.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Festive preparations on the shortest day

With the end of term behind them, Kath, Anto and Rhiannon arrived yesterday afternoon, with Anto going straight off to a sound check for this evening's 'Third Uncles' gig at Chapter. I had the pleasure of looking after Rhiannon while the others went to the gig. She drew pictures of the Nativity and a couple of angels and we discussed them as she worked. Earlier she'd put out the family Nativity set in its usual place on the kitchen window sill. It's made of small pottery figures which her mum and her friend Emily had fashioned when they were in primary school over thirty years ago.
Rhiannon, just like Jasmine, has brought her own Advent calendar with her, to add to the one I brought back from Spain. When both children are here we'll have three to display, somehow. The blue LED lights on top of the stable came home with Rachel last night, acquired from the club where she was visiting Owain during his first gig of the weekend. They'd been part of some exotic party balloons which had been popped, leaving the lights in the detritus on the floor.

I heard William Dalrymple speak superbly in the BBC Radio Four 'Point of View' slot last night about the heritage which Islam and Christianity share in reverence for stories about the birth of Jesus. It was a great interfaith Christmas sermon. In passing, he mentioned the eastern tradition of wisdom sayings about or attributed to Jesus, known among Asians of different religious faiths which aren't obviously derived from the Bible or the Qu'ran, but have a life of their own through oral tradition. Whether or not they represent an obscure strand of teaching that has survived two millennia of oral transmission outside scripture is a curiosity compared to the thought that people of different faiths value such sayings and identify them with the word and works of Jesus, regardless of  their origin. There's no getting away from the fact that his influence persists and touches the whole world in surprising ways.

This morning, I dismantled the ancient crumbling now redundant garden shed and took the remains to the tip. While doing this I pinched a nerve in my back, and will have to cope with the consequences through the next few days.

The Christmas tree came in from the cold. It's the one we dug up out of an allotment patch on Llandaff Fields for a tenner two years ago. It hasn't fared so well in its tub in the alley outside and is a bit thin on needles. As we were away last December, it stayed outdoors, forsaken and neglected. We thought we'd let it see another Christmas, rather than throw it away, as it's still alive. So it looks rather minimalist, but quite effective with lights and candles, thanks to Rhiannon's decorative skills.
We all walked into town together this afternoon and ended up having tea in John Lewis'. We came home on a smart new 61 bus, one of several replacement single deckers making their appearance this week. Our driver said he was none too impressed. I imagine that's how he would feel in the first few weeks, as getting used to driving a new vehicle to the point where it becomes second nature is a bit like getting used to a new pair of shoes. It takes a while before you stop noticing there's a difference.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Clare retires

Rachel and Jasmine returned from Kenilworth on Tuesday, and on Wednesday she went off to spend the week with her Dad, after spending some more time in school, joining in their Advent Spiral celebration. Just a few sessions in class was a lovely experience for her to share, with so much in common from her Steiner school back home in Arizona. Wednesday was Clare's last teaching day, and this morning was her last duty INSET day. Her successor has been appointed, and next term her role will become that of mentor as the new eurythmist settles into her first job. It'll mean that she's free to spend time with me in Spain, and start enjoying a more relaxed lifestyle. 

Monday, 16 December 2013

On not building with sandy foundations

For the past two years CBS has been working towards re-establishing a Board of Management for the Cardiff Business Crime Reduction Partnership. The process has been fraught with misunderstandings and difficulties rather than consensual thinking about what needs to be done and how it should be achieved. 

Often in the past while working on this goal, I looked at the scant documentation Ashley and I inherited when the present business organisation was set up in 2008 and saw only deficiencies in the formation of an agency intended to unite participants in common concern to act in response to business crime issues in the city. Each time there's been a change of office holder responsible in the Council or Police, there's been a change of approach and ideas about how to achieve what had looked like common goals. 

Why this should happen was all the time staring me in the face, but I couldn't see it over the months we were preparing to re-launch the Business Crime Reduction Partnership Board of Management in a meeting at the end of October. The penny finally dropped a few days before the meeting, and after strenuous discussion with Ashley I took responsibility for what was ultimately a unilateral decision by CBS to abort the meeting, then work out how to explain this to invited participants after the event. A huge foolish risk. But better be pronounced a fool if I'm wrong than to let something happen, which if I was right would ultimately perpetuate the cycle of wrangling and mis-interpretations.

We say the devil is in the detail. In this case, the devil I finally glimpsed at work making clarity and consensus just about impossible to achieve, is in the lack of detail. There's no doubt about the good will and high intent of public officials and politicians who agreed and launched the Business Crime Reduction Partnership back there, eight years ago this month. 

The immediate outcome was the set up of a security radio network run for the city centre by contractors, plus a number of minor public initiatives issuing from that.  A constitution was drafted for the Business Crime Reduction Partnership by someone involved in its early activity, but this never seems to have been run past a lawyer, and was not fit for purpose, being unable to survive any change in its original membership. I realised this in my first spell of involvement with CBS when I was still at St John's, and first started work on a draft revision in 2008. I continued this after retirement and worked on it occasionally ever since. It was only in the days before re-launch I belatedly saw plainly what else was missing.

I took it on trust that some original documents relating to the formation of the Partnership were lost in the upheaval following the collapse of the Chamber of Commerce and Cardiff Initiative. We carried on, and I never stopped to question what might have been missing - like formal agreements signed between the various partners, a formal agreement commissioning Cardiff Business Safe to manage the service provision by whatever means approved by the governing body of the Partnership. What about instruments of governance for the Partnership were they any? 

Over thirty years I spent a lot of time serving on school boards of governors. I hated the formality, I hated the strictures and bureaucracy of governance, preferring to work with kids at classroom and playground level. But, due to the loyal and conscientious nature of local government education officers, lots of good things were achieved and often in difficult situations. So I learned respect and patience, and over a long period acquired an understanding of what was needed to make everything work well. If you have a proper organisational framework and the appropriate agreements in place, amazing things can happen.

At the eleventh hour, I realised we had none of this where the Business Crime Reduction Partnership was concerned. If it ever had been, somewhere along the path it got lost and forgotten. Frankly it doesn't matter how or why this is so. Blame and shame is stupid news media entertainment fodder, not the stuff that delivers worthwhile change. Big institutions running society achieve much on the basis of custom and precedent. That's their default position. They can also achieve near miracles with conscious planning and preparation, however. This I witnessed at first hand as Vicar in the city centre when re-development happened while the city continued to do business as usual. Any time something went wrong the only question of value was how to get from here to where we need to be?

Once I realised, all I could do was risk making a fool of myself and then explain what I perceived to be the problem and what remedy could put us back on track to where everyone was aiming to arrive at. How daft, how arrogant is that? If I'm wrong, then I'm exposed as well intended but ignorant. No fool like an old fool. At least it will prompt others to think harder about getting things back on track an initiative driven by CBS over the past five years. 

It wasn't actually part of what CBS was commissioned to undertake when set up to provide security radio network services. It happened by default as there was no custom and precedent to cater for the task. Maybe the only historic documents give the Partnership a framework for development are a handful of publicity leaflets and the launch press release. I'd be interested to be proved wrong, but so far, no evidence, so I press on with drafting terms of reference and service level agreements - the regles du jeu, that offer certainty and stop new people making it up as they go along.

This morning it was my turn to explain my actions at a top level meeting in County Hall of people committed to make the Partnership work. This was a meeting I prayed about more than I usually do, so that my habitual self doubt and anxiety didn't obscure communication. From a deliberate annoying confrontation I wanted to move towards dialogue, that recognised the need to ensure the Partnership started on a foundation stronger than presumed agreement and precedent. I was aware my action could be regarded as a breach of trust, but truth will come out if truth is recognised.

We came away from the meeting with an agreement to consider anew the question of foundation documents for the Partnership on the basis of the drafting work I've been doing since the day it dawned on me what the problem was. I have little trust in my expertise to provide what's needed. All I've done is devise a tentative answer to the problems caused by perceived deficiencies in the formation process. It's a first step, for proper consideration by real experts. Getting around to asking the right questions proved to be a lot harder than any answer could ever be. Who dares to say life is dull?

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Gaudete Sunday

We woke up at six thirty this morning to the sound of Rhiannon and Jasmine playing in the adjacent bedroom making the most of their cousins' special time together. We got up an hour later and went to the eight o'clock Communion at St Nicholas Parish Church, a rare opportunity for us when staying in Kenilworth was so often we are looking after Rhiannon when her parents are on tour.

After breakfast Anto drove us home to Cardiff, where he was headed for a 'Third Uncles' band rehearsal in preparation for next Friday's gig at Chapter Arts Centre. We were home in time for lunch and a quiet day to ourselves, as Rachel and Jasmine stayed on and will be using our car to get themselves back to Cardiff on Tuesday. The rest of the day I spent relaxing, editing and uploading photos of yesterday's Wriggledance performance and a few dozen of Stamford town. I was impressed with what my Lumix DMC-LX5 was able to make of high contrast low light conditions, even though there are not that many photos that really capture the occasion as well as it merited. I need more experience of shooting indoor performances without flash to do justice to the subject in view.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Wriggledance in Stamford

Rhiannon and Jasmine got to bed in good time last night, and were awake early chatting and even playing well before breakfast. In mercifully decent conditions, we all squeezed into the car and drove northwards to reach Stamford in Lincolnshire by lunchtime for an early afternoon performance of Wriggledance Theatre's 'Once in a Blue Moon', the last of this year's tour. We had plenty of time for a wander around and a bite to eat and some photos beforehand.

Stamford, with the river Welland running through it, is on the route of the ancient Great North Road, and at one time the rive was navigable this far, so it prospered as a mediaeval centre of commerce, with half a dozen substantial churches for a town now numbering 20,000 inhabitants, built between the 12th and 14th centuries. There are lots of 17th-18th century buildings as well, making it an attractive and still prosperous looking town.
Four of the six mediaeval churches are still open for worship and daily for visitors. One dedicated to St John the Baptist is in the care of the the historic churches conservation trust, and was hosting a 'Cards for Good Causes' shop. Another had been sold for redevelopment and converted into six retail units. Two thirds of the space was given over to Vision Express and Boots opticians' shops side by side, and one third to the Nationwide building society.
Stamford is a place that would be a pleasure to visit for a weekend and take time to explore properly, also Market Harborough, which we passed through on our journey. It has small but ancient arcaded market hall in the square next to the church, and was surrounded by stalls with a band playing Christmas carols. Pity we couldn't break our journey there but we had to press on, uncertain how long it would take from there.

The Wriggledance performance was wonderful, with around thirty children and even more adults. Our girls were thoroughly enchanted and joined in the playful elements enthusiastically. 
I'm so proud to have a dancing daughter and a musician son-in-law with such creative gifts and innovative drive to bring to the small team of four dancers, plus the technical crew that made up the roadshow.
The performance only lasted an hour, so we were back on the road to Kenilworth by four, and only the last part of the journey was in the dark. Kath and Anto were an hour behind us and we celebrated the day with a family meal, then watching the X Factor semi-final together. This felt rather artificial and bizarre after the joyous fiesta of child's play in the afternoon's performance.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Cousins re-united

We drove up to Kenilworth this morning, to meet and eat with Kath and Anto before they left for the final Wriggledance performance in this season's tour of 'Once in a Blue Moon' in Stamford Lincolnshire tomorrow afternoon. Clare, Rachel, Jasmine and I went to collect Rhiannon at home-time in the rain. Thank goodness Kath and Anto don't live far away from the school..
The reunion, after two years separation of our two grand-daughters Rhiannon and Jasmine was a joy to behold. Clare brought a set of nativity figures for the girls to arrange together at home. They ended up surrounded by Santas in a former fireplace. What more could grandparents ask? 
While all these important engagements were happening, I was dealing with a succession of emails and calls to do with outstanding issues between Cardiff Business Safe and the City Council, which were arriving by mobile phone, needing urgent attention. Juggling between these two tugs on my life was quite a challenge.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013


Yesterday afternoon I drove to Newbury to meet Rachel from her train out of Paddington. It's probably forty years since I last came to this town. It's now so busy and congested. Finding the railway station was a challenge. I arrived on time, however, and  we went from there to neighbouring Thatcham to collect Jasmine from her Dad and other grandparents for the journey to Wales. The drive back in the dark was uneventful but very tiring, and Clare had an evening meal waiting for us, complete with Advent candles and calendar window openings (we have two - one from Fuengirola and one Jasmine brought with her). Owain came to join us for this first part of the family reunion.

Today, Jasmine went into the Steiner school to have lunch with the children there and join in class activities for the afternoon session. As she goes to a Steiner school in Arizona, attending classes in Grandma's school for the few days while she's here is a welcome and a beneficial experience. After all, when Grandma went to Arizona, she went to Jasmine's school and told a story there at circle time. World citizenship training starts as young as you like these days. 

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Experiment in another era

This Sunday morning's assignment involved a short trip to All Saints Parish Church in Llandaff North to celebrate the eight thirty Eucharist for eight people, who all sat at the back of a nave that can accommodate two hundred and fifty. There was at least a decent public address system, so I figured there wasn't much point in getting them to move against their wills, after all they were friendly and welcoming enough when I arrived as the stranger in their midst.

The last time I was in this church was during my diaconal year in 1969 to attend the funeral of the Vicar, Fr Gerry Oeppen, who'd died in office, and it was standing room only there. During my ordination training at St Mike's, I'd worked briefly in the Parish with a small lay group, keen on liturgical experiment with modern hymnody, because I played the guitar and had done similar things in the Bristol University Chaplaincy a few years earlier. The guitar played quite a part in the first half of my ministerial life. Our efforts to bring worship credibly into the second half of the twentieth century and make it popular proved unfruitful. It's years since I last took a guitar with me to lead worship, even playing traditional hymns and carols.

After a second breakfast at home, Clare and I attended St Catherine's for the Parish Eucharist with the baptism of a toddler. We then walked to Riverside Market to check our Christmas organic veg order had been received, and stocked up on the special cheeses we enjoy. The sun was shining and stalls were busy. I treated myself to a piece of Christmas cake to eat al fresco, and we caught a convenient bus back home for lunch. In the afternoon, Clare went off to her studies in Bristol, leaving me to work on uploading recent crime data to the DISC intranet. It's a task I prefer to do in peace and quiet, away from the hustle and bustle of a busy office and this was just the right opportunity.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Catch up visits

This morning I drove out to Abersychan up in the valley between Pontypool and Blaenafon to visit Rufus one of my St Mike's students and his wife Daria. Our venerable VW Golf felt quite heavy to handle after the lightness and power of the Citroen C4 in Spain, and took my quite a while to get used to, more so than changing to driving on the 'wrong' side of the road.

Rufus is now happily installed as Curate in his diaconal year and enjoying life and ministry in a place that's gone from mining community to commuter dormitory in the past two decades. It's now a quiet rural backwater with a variety of prestige houses being constructed to attract the right kind of people to contribute to local economic 'uplift'. It's something of a challenge to know how to re-generate neighbourly relationships in a place occupied more and more by incoming strangers. It was lovely to catch up with them and share their joy at the new life they've  started there.

I then drove down to Newport to eat succulent roast duck with plum sauce and cucumber for lunch and catch up with my old friend Martin before heading home for tea. As I was leaving his place a red light started flashing on the car dashboard. It's never happened before and I didn't know whether it symbolised oil or water deficit. A radiator system check revealed that the header reservoir needed a litre and a half of water to top it up. Then I noticed for the first time that there was an electrical sensor attached to the reservoir rim. Hence the flashing light. Once it was filled up, no more flashing light. Thank goodness.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Cyber & street crime in contention.

Wednesday and Thursday I slipped back into usual routine and went to the CBS office in the afternoon. Then I had a call from Father Graham Francis in a panic because he's downloaded an unusual email offering a voicemail attachment to the message. Curiosity led him to forsake his usual caution. He hit on the attachment and released a package which hijacked his desktop PC. 

The trouble we now have with all these competing user interfaces on Windows, Mac, Android and Linux systems is all kinds of messaging options with different names - is it a text or a hangout, or an email, or an IM or a tweet message? What is a voicemail? In reality it could be a vocalised text or email, or a plain audio message file or a robotic spam message relayed to either your phone your tablet or your PC. 

It's a confusing mess, especially if you haven't pared down your systems to exclude every gizmo except the ones that actually work best for you. It's like walking through a street market with lots of different voices competing for your attention. Will you notice which voice belongs to the thief after your wallet? The lack of consensus and consistency about these things on the part of system designers, and the lack of clarity about managing the options presented does the user no favours whatsoever.

Anyway, I hunted out a couple of anti-virus rescue CDs from my collection of emergency tools and went over to St Mary's Vicarage after work. When I booted up his nine year old Compaq with Windows XP, it quickly revealed that the malicious payload belonged to the 'Ransomware' category, blocking internet access, flagging up every system call as a malware threat and urging the user to place an order through a nag screen for the Anti-Virus Scrutiny product that would banish the ills it had introduced, for a hundred quid. Graham said there had been a news article during the week in the local paper about a business which had fallen prey to this, or a similar scam. 

Well, that evening, I tried live rescue CDs from top security providers F-Secure and AVG. With over a half a million files to scan, each took two hours to run on such ancient hardware. Both detected a couple of infected files, but failed to remove them. I went home by taxi at half past eleven, pondering my next move. I still had a CD with the latest monthly Windows Malware removal tool to try, if but I'd have to find out how to get into 'Safe Mode' on such an old piece of kit.

Friday morning I attended the press briefing for the city centre Christmas policing initiative 'Operation Mistletoe' in St David's Hall. It was an odd sort of gathering with separate huddles of police and council officers, and politicians, and just a handful of people moving between them. The local sector Inspector gave a brief presentation. She should have been followed by a speech from the boss of the St David shopping centre but he stood them up, so the meeting was mercifully brief and pretty pointless, as there was only one junior reporter present. 

One local security professional remarked last week that to launch 'Operation Mistletoe' in the first week of December was too little too late, as the thieves had already been out in force throughout November, collecting merchandise to sell on eBay or in pubs. By now they were ready for Christmas, so the only value of enhanced policing in December was to curb alcohol induced anti-social behaviour during party hours. That's not to be sniffed at, but it's an indication of the lack of serious interest shown by the police when it comes to acting on business crime intelligence provided by people working in store security day by day. There is, so say, a reduction in retail crime and we're supposed to be grateful for that. The sad thing is that unreported retail crime has increased because the store security teams are not getting the consistent and speedy level of support from the police they need to be effective.

After the meeting and a brief visit to the office, I returned to the afflicted PC, ran the Windows Malware removal tool, which found several more infected files, but appeared unable to remove them as there was no change in state of the machine after reboot. Meanwhile Graham had tracked down another  Microsoft free malware removal tool called Microsoft Safety Scanner. We downloaded it and burned it to a CD, booted the machine into safe mode and ran it with complete success. It still took two hours, making a total of eight hours machine minding over two days.  I thoroughly recommend a visit to the on-line Microsoft Malware Protection Centre, given the variety of clear explanations, tools and strategies it offers beleaguered users with hijacked PCs.

While scans were running, I help Graham install his first powerline network plug set and hook them up to his Sky On Demand box. The former I'm familiar with, but the latter's a complete mystery to me, as we're still on our first digital TV with free to air channels. For the rest iPlayer suffices. Not that much time for entertainment these days. Glad to be retired.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Homeward bound

When I got up this morning, the temperature in Fuengirola was much the same as that in Cardiff, but sunnier. Having packed and cleaned the apartment, I drove to St Andrew's where I met Ian and handed over all my keys and the chaplain's mobile phone. He took me for a parting glass  to a restaurant above the covered market, a short walk from the church. Above the restaurant, I discovered is the local public library and above that several rooms for community use. It's an impressively useful piece of municipal social architecture, and apparently, well used. As Ian lives a few stops up the railway line to Malaga via the airport, we travelled together and chatted about the way of life in these parts which both of us appreciate so much.

My tarjeta dorada railcard gave me a discount fare of €1.55 for a forty minute journey. I'd over-anticipated the time I'd need to check in and go through security by an hour, and had to wait half an hour for the bag drop counter to open. By the time I was air-side I had two hours to wait, which passed by quickly enough, nosing around the shops, and walking the considerable distance to the Vueling departure zone. Flying past the snow capped Pyrenees lit by late afternoon sun was a pleasant experience. The couple occupying the seats next to me were returning from a three month spell of mission supporting the Ark evangelical church in Fuengirola. Through the good offices of a friend they were introduced to the mission among Andalusian gypsies which has seen significant growth in Pentecostal churches serving gypsies in Spain, a group that has become alienated from Catholic tradition. So, the conversation on my return trip was just as interesting as that on the outward journey.

We arrived in the dark at five thirty and I was soon on the airport shuttle bus to Cardiff, and quickly on to a sixty-one, reaching home in time for the Archers, and a welcome home supper with Clare. And now, a month's mail to read!

Monday, 2 December 2013

Belén de Mijas

I was again up early enough to see another gorgeous early dawn, and after completing routine chores, the only question left was what to do with my final day? I settled on a trip up to Mijas Pueblo curious to see if the Belén nativity scene was in place in the Parish Church, as on my last visit, the scenery was in the first stages of preparation. I guessed that Advent Sunday might be the launch date, and I was correct. The shepherds visiting the manger scene was nearest the high altar. The three kings were spread out down the bays of the nave, and at the West end was a palace with Herod ordering the slaughter of the innocents.
I strolled around the streets, enjoying the village atmosphere. On my last visit it was just waking up from siesta. This time I arrived at ten and all the shops were open, visitors arriving and locals out meeting and greeting if not shopping. It so reminded me of my time in Taormina last December, and that gave me great cheer. I found the town's small modern covered market building in a side street.
  I took a look around. Half of the two dozen stalls had their shutters down, so my stay was very brief.
The local cofrida has a street chapel dedicated to San Sebastian, and a few hundred metres further along is their confraternity house, where processional equipment is stored and their historical archives kept. The cofrida is dedicated to Cristo de La Paz - the Christ of peace, and the Virgen de la Peña. 

A notice at the chapel indicated their Belén had been blessed and inaugurated yesterday, at this address so I went along to see what they had created. A recording of children singing Andalusian folk carols played over a public address system helped me to identify the place I was looking for. Above it, on the next street, judging by the background noise of children playing, was a school yard. 
Just to the left of the front door is a vestibule about seven metres by five, containing a substantial model village, depicting hundreds of animated figures of its rural population about their daily activities, herding sheep, milking goats and cows,  chopping wood, beating olives from tree branches. There's a water-mill, also a fisherman unloading his catch - all the normality of rural life. Embedded within this setting are scenes that represent all the biblical nativity stories. Charming certainly, but more than that.

It's profound in the way it allows the visitor to discover and re-discover the threads of narrative in any order or fashion they wish, but here is the Unique in the midst of the ordinary. The Wise men are out in the streets searching. In one corner Jesus being presented in the temple. In another the Holy Family is fleeing off to Egypt, in another, Mary is visited by Archangel Gabriel, and in another Elizabeth being visited by Mary.  So much to see, so much to ask questions about. But, the biggest, boldest non-literary statement however, is in the landscape design.

Herod's armed camp and his evil deeds are at the highest point, dominating the temple and everyday life. You have to look for the birthplace of the Christ-child. The cave is hidden deep beneath the fortress hill. The light of the Christ of Peace is making space in the bedrock at the heart of a world overshadowed by violence. Mary and Joseph are there with ox and ass, and there are a couple of angels too, but the surprise comes from the presence of an unidentified woman visitor, who has just placed what looks like a picnic basket before the Holy Family. A figure of hospitality. No words needed.

A great deal of thought has gone into making this traditional work of religious art so much more than a feast of folk craft modelling. Our nativity scenes back in Northern Europe don't go nearly as far as those in the south in giving witness to the wealth of meaning to be found in the story of the incarnation. To be fair we do very creative things (for better or for worse) with nativity plays of all kinds, but there is ever a risk that these will be little more than seasonal entertainment for nostalgic sentiment. There's something to be learned and maybe emulated in this tradition.

There was so much detail to see that no photograph could do justice to this scene. I just have to leave the rest to your imagination.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Winds of Advent

I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of neighbours in the apartment above returning somewhat noisily. The walls and floors are so thin that the sound of high heels, laughter, gas boilers switching on and water running penetrated into what has been my haven of silence over the past month. Until now, upstairs has been unoccupied. Then the wind picked up in high gusts, rattling doors and windows and howling through the gap between apartment blocks. I lost a couple of hours sleep I really needed as a result. But the wind did seem to blow the clouds away.

So, it was another bright blue sky Sunday for my early visit to Benalmádena to celebrate the first Eucharist of Advent. I was given a couple of bags with five kilos worth of oranges to take back to St Andrew's for marmalade making. The season is upon us once more! At the little social gathering following Friday evening's Patronal Eucharist, I was given some bitter orange chutney to taste - it was superb! Something to try back home, if suitable oranges can be acquired from Cardiff Market.

It's interesting that congregation numbers in both churches have stayed roughly the same during my stay. It's around twenty at Benalmádena, and mid thirties at Los Boliches, but the faces change. Some have returned (mostly) to Britain for Christmas, while others are arriving here to over-winter. In honour of my departure for the month, we finished the Eucharist at Los Boliches with an enthusiastic rendering of Cwm Rhondda. I am certainly looking forwards to a family month at home, but also looking forward to returning here in January for another spell of locum duty.

Jim and Della invited me to their house for lunch. We sat out on their top floor balcony in the sun, so bright I had to borrow a hat to avoid roasting on top. It was lovely to hear about their recent coach and train trip to Morocco. It's not that far by ferry. One tends to forget quite how near Africa is from here.