Monday, 29 May 2017

Tech talk with Kath

We all slept in and breakfasted late this morning, then went into town on a shopping expedition - well, it was so for Kath, Anto and Rhiannon, as their usual busy work schedule rarely permits such an outing into nearby Coventry, Leamington, or Birmingham. So, bank holiday Monday shopping is on the to-do list, even if there's no urgency to purchase. It's leisure for those who often shop on-line.

While the others took the bus, Kath and I walked in together through the park, taking the opportunity to talk about future Wiggledance plans. They are putting together a project in which they'll work with a research scientist investigating the nature of touch. Dance is an activity which involves a great deal of physical contact between participants, and touch is such an important element in healthy bonding between parents and children. Wriggledance specialises in working with young children in dance, so all sorts of possibilities will emerge as the project develops.

She also told me about her recent experience of becoming an Apple Mac user with her co-director Lucy, as a result of their 'Colours of Me' show. This made use of video projectors driven by software written only for the Mac, requiring the company to procure Mac Minis, which both of them can now use for administrative purposes, in between times. As a small scale arts enterprise they've acquired free Microsoft Office 365 software for the Mac, as this gives them the scale of on-line storage they need for their work. She's delighted with how it all works, now she's got used to the Apple keyboard layout.

The downside of the Mac is that her physical PC back-up drives aren't compatible with the Mac without paying for additional software patches. She still has to rely upon her Windows 10 Acer laptop when she's out and about, and can back up to that from OneDrive cloud storage. You can't be too careful, when there's so much at stake. Despite being reasonably equipped, Windows 10 on the Acer is still a source of frustration to her, because of the latency of some of its file system read and write operations. This had been my experience too. I'm not surprised so many business users don't want to upgrade from Windows 7. It was quicker.

We met up for coffee and a light lunch at the Queen Street Costa Coffe shop, then went to the clothes shops. I took myself off to hunt for a sun-hat to take to Spain with me, as I left the one I usually wear in the Winzerkeller we visited in Rüdesheim last week. I found a suitable white cotton cap of a design I feel at ease in wearing in TK Maxx, after fruitless visits to several other stores. By this time it was drizzling, so I took a 61 bus home, which arrived conveniently, given the diminished holiday service only minutes after reaching the stop.

The others arrived home a short while after me, then Kath, Anto and Rhiannon left for Kenilworth, leaving us to ponder on a happy family weekend, and start thinking about our next travels. I have some flights to book for locum assignments in Montreux and Mojacar, for later in the year.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Bute Park lockdown

This morning at St German's I celebrated the Solemn Mass and afterwards the baptism of three year old child. There were three times as many people present for the baptism as there were for the Mass, and it was an effort to get everyone to join in with the responses correctly. Some repeated what I said rather than giving the answers, an indication that they were unused to participating in a liturgical act, or unused to having to follow the text from a service sheet. But, they all behaved respectfully. The child seemed less than used to being surrounded by so many people and being the centre of attention. She looked suspiciously at me when I spoke to her, and cried when poured water over her head in the baptismal act. 

It was one of those situations where the mother came to church after Mass one Sunday to fix the date, but as far as I recall, hadn't brought the child with her. Even though we encourage parents to attend ahead of the service with the child and familiarise themselves with the environment, if its unfamiliar to them, it's impossible to insist, as this is interpreted as rejection. St German's tries to be welcoming and unconditionally accepting of families seeking baptism for their children, and develop a pastoral relationship from that starting point. Being a locum priest means this is hardly possible for me to do. The best I can offer is a positive experience and interpretation of the service as it proceeds.

When I arrived home, Kath, Anto and Rhiannon were there, having arrived a short while before me. It was warm and sunny enough for us to have lunch in the garden, making the most of Clare's fresh bread rolls and special cheeses from the Cheese Pantry stall in Cardiff Market. After a brief siesta we walked to Bute Park and returned through Pontcanna Fields, marvelling at the size of the 'tent city' overflow, and speculating about who wuld occupy it.. 

Preparations for next weekend's UEFA Champions' Cup football extravaganza between Real Madrid and Juventus extend right into Bute Park itself, with a three metre metal wall enclosing a large portion of the space where some of the hospitality marquees have been planted. The Castle grounds are also covered with marquees. Sponsorship and other commercial interests in the two sides playing call for the city to provide this, plus a high level of additional security. It like to think of such exclusive areas as 'back-scartching zones'. 

All roads across town are equipped with heavy duty metal gates for planned road closures and there are gates blocking streets affording pedestrian access to the city centre to permit security screening of shoppers and football fans alike. It hasn't been like this since last year's NATO summit meeting came to Cardiff. It's been months in planning, and isn't a reaction to last Monday's bombing in Manchester. Normal life in Cardiff grinds to a halt when global big business or the war machine comes to town. This is profitable city hospitality, always at the expense of the locals.

Disdain for globalised capitalism didn't, however, prevent us from playing a game of Monopoly after a superb pizza supper, washed down with bottles of German and Italian red wines. It was great fun, and I came last in the scoring league, having invested too much in bricks and mortar. 'Woe unto you who have many posessions ..' I hear you say?

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Bank Holiday Weekend - again

I spent much of yesterday, as the previous day, uploading and writing some key captions for the 900+ photos taken on our Rhine cruise, I only discarded a couple of dozen bad pictures. It's a tribute to the reliability, ease of use and responsiveness of the Sony HX50 and HX300 cameras I took with me.

Many photos required no editing at all. A few were taken in situations where conditions confused the camera sensor leading to underexposure, but this could be rectified using the old desktop Picasa, still a versatile easy to use app. For the most part, however, Google Photos on-line editor provided all the tools I needed. With poor connectivity on the cruise, uploading, let alone editing was impossible, so my spare time since arriving home has been taken with making an album for each day's photos.

Encouraged by Clare, I also made a couple of web albums using just a third of the available photos covering the trip in two halves, so as not to exhaust the patience of viewers. You can find the first of these here and the second here.

Owain came over to visit in time for supper after work and stayed the night, returning to Bristol in the afternoon, as he has a gig to prepare for tomorrow.. It was good to see him, and enjoy our evening meal outdoors in the warmth of the evening sun, drinking a bottle of Alsacian Gewurztraminer for a change. Before lunch, he took us to Luffkin's Coffee Roasters a tiny cafe in a King's Road back alley next to the evangelical mission hall calling itself the 'Church of God in Cardiff'. The cafe offers a few select single estate grown filter served coffees from Africa or Latin America, and offers a breakfast featuring several different special kinds of bread. A foodie's paradise. 

Further down the alley is the popular local Pipes micro-brewery, whose beers can be found in several places across the city centre. The alley also boasts a small select farmers' market stalls on weekends - organic veg, bread, cheese and a dried meat and sausage stall. It's the first time we've had occasion to explore this alleyway properly when fully in use. I turns out to be a hidden treasure of our Parish.

In the evening after supper, I walked around Pontcanna fields. The entire north football field area is currently enclosed in Heras fencing, and half of it covered with tents - a hundred four person and a hundred two person tents, plus wigwam shaped marquees and toilets. This is the 'Tent City' which is being prepared to accommodate surplus visitors arriving for the UEFA Cup Winners' cup final in the city centre's Principality Stadium next weekend. Apparently all hotel are already booked, and a large crowd of Spanish fans are expected, as the finalists are the two top Spanish teams. There's an unprecedented high level of extra security measures being taken in town as well, planned for a long time, and not just in response to last Monday's terrorist incident in Manchester.

The British Airways total IT systems failure has been headline news all day, bringing to a halt all their operations at Heathrow and Gatwick. Every one of the airline's activities is so heavily dependent on use of networked computers and phones, that nobody could communicate with anyone else, and passengers were left stranded in departure lounges and on aircraft, unable to move safely without the appropriate forms of clearance. It's been attributed to power failures at the server farm level, and thankfully, not to cyber attacks. This high level of electronic dependency and reliance on the core of the system never failing is a disaster waiting to happen.

IT workers unions criticised the redundancy imposed on 1,200 BT computer system staff last year, and outsourcing of their jobs to Indian company Tata Consultancy Services. Cardiff Council made the same move several years ago, as a money saver, and on a couple of occasions I know of, the entire system went down for much of a day. The technology is new, state of the art, but this doesn't mean it's been tried and tested to the extreme limit of reliability. This couldn't have happened at a more critical time, Bank Holiday weekend. One can only hope questions are asked and lessons learned about long term sustainability from such disastrous experience.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Ministry in the face of fear and anger

At breakfast aboard ship yesterday morning, a lady with a Mancunian accent told me about the bomb incident at Manchester Arena. It seems she'd been watching late night TV news in her cabin. We had not found a moment of idleness in which either of us wanted to watch TV  throughout the week, or listen to the radio, or scan internet news feeds, so we had no idea of what had happened. Sadly, she was quick to lay the blame at the door of 'them foreigners', and my 'what if the bomber was British?' speculation fell on deaf ears. Away from the ship, it was easier to follow the story from the phone, as signal reception in the Dreieckgebeit is strong, no matter the nationality of the service provider, which switches not infrequently as you travel around.

I woke up early this morning, aware that I'd be facing a class of children attending the midweek Mass I was due to celebrate at St Germans's. It was difficult to know how to prepare for this, especially as they could be any age group between seven and eleven, and there's no way of knowing how much the kids would have taken in at home, let alone in school. For once I wasn't looking forward to taking this service. Thankfully the morning's 'Thought for the Day' by Dr Michael Banner, offered me an insight I could work with, about kindness being essential to peacemaking. And I managed to use the story of Beauty and the Beast to illustrate how loving those we fear can change people. Well, I survived. And probably wittered on too long. As I do.

Fr Phelim arrived at the end of Mass, to meet the wardens and discuss his official arrival in the Parish as he finally has a licensing date, 14th June. It's to take place in the Cathedral, Both St German's and St Saviour's will be free to welcome him in their own way. The previous effort made by the diocese to unite these Parishes was a failure which damaged rather than develop relationships between them. There's no certainty every initiative in renewal or reform of the church for mission will succeed. But, there are unlimited possibilities to learn from failure and grow in wisdom and understanding as a result. Fr Phelim is commissioned to build bridges, re-establish trust and heal divisions, as a first step. I feel confident his background ministry experience, working in Belfast will be a blessing to all in the long run. I'll be praying for him and cheering him on from Malaga by then, thankful for the last couple of years I've be privileged to share at St German's.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Journey's end - Basel to Cardiff

Packed cases left outside cabin doors for collection were swiftly removed from the MV Emily Bronte while we ate breakfast this morning. After correct identification they were loaded on to the coach as their owners climbed on board for the half hour drive across from the quay on the German side of the Dreieck to Basel-Mulhouse-Freibourg airport, across the river on the French side of the Dreieck - the land is leased to the Swiss, who run the place. We had to wait ten minutes for group booking check-in desks to be opened, but were diverted by the sight of several young Asian travellers, struggling to re-close huge suitcases they had to open in order to retrieve some essential item, their scattered goods and chattels seemingly resistant to being rounded up and contained. 

We were through check-in and security two hours before flight departure, and our our way back to Heathrow just after midday. British Airways has now moved over exclusively to card payments for on-board, evidently convenient for flight staff, but maybe not so convenient for those reluctant to adopt new technology, who prefer cash. Currency has long been a symbol of sovereignty. It seems we are surrendering this to the international banking network, in the name of improved efficiency, cost and convenience. Fine, until the next catastrophic system hack, financial melt-down, or collapse of the global electronic network due to an unprecedented huge solar flare. I'm happier to put my faith in God, than I am in the latest electronic/economic fad, however brilliantly designed there are hidden flaws in everything that the Bible calls 'the work of human hands'. This is ignored at our peril.

We had booked on a later coach, two hours after arrival, in case there was a flight delay. We landed on time, however, and were shocked to discover that instead of paying a £5 fee to change our National Express booking we'd have to pay £24 to ride on an earlier coach. I was furious about this as we had not been correctly informed when booking the tickets at Sophia Gardens Coach Station in Cardiff, but Clare insisted that we pay up, so after another four hours coach riding and a local bus we were back home by six o'clock. Thankfully, there as no need to go out and buy food, as we had enough veg to cook an evening meal, remaining from last week. Now there's a big pile of washing to be done, mail to open, grass to be mown and early bed, after ten hours travel time. It's such a relief to return to reliable decent speed internet again. And finally tidy up the mess made to this blog by such an inadequate on-board wi-fi system. 

Apart from this hassle, the cruise itself was an enriching experience, thanks to the professionalism and care of all those who were involved in making it work. A fine example of euro-co-operation, at the domestic consumer level. I wonder what impact brexit will have on this, apart from higher prices?


Monday, 22 May 2017

Alpine excursion

We had another early start for an excursion to Luzern this morning. Clare decided not to come along, and took herself off across Basel on public transport to visit Colette, a colleague from Geneva days who lives in the southern suburbs. As we drove along the eastern ring road past the vast industrial estate of pharmaceutical factories, I remembered how we'd first driven this way in 1976, with the children in a Citroen Dyane, towards the Gottard pass on our way to a group holiday in Palazzola, Rome. Indeed, we stopped overnight in a small hotel in a village near Luzern, to get some rest, after having driven all day from Bristol. The place names along the route are still familiar to me, as I'd rehearsed the route with a map several times before this first experience of driving on the continent.

We made good time to Luzern and the coaches dropped our party conveniently in the town centre and then went to park elsewhere. Each tour group is allowed to do this, booking a drop off time to suit themselves, and a return pick up time. All is expertly marshalled by a man wearing a Securitas branded luminous vest. I enjoyed an hour of brisk walking around taking photos, before returning early to observe the comings and goings at the coach stop. There seemed to be mostly selfie stick wielding Chinese and Japanese visitors in town at the same time as us. Many of our group were toting cameras or smartphones, but not one had a selfie stick that I noticed. From Luzern, we drove on into the Bernese Oberland,  past Lake Brienz, then turning into an climbing up a valley on a narrow winding road, to Lauterbrunnen. 

There, we boarded a mountain railway train cremaillere, similar in design to the one that ascends from Yverdon les bains to Ste Croix in the Jura. It offers great views of spectacular scenery as we climbed to 2060m to stop off for half an hour at the busy station of Kleine Scheidegg, passing Wengen on the way. The station serves two different railway lines that link the pass with Grindlewald in the valley 1500m below. This is a hub for winter sports, skiing, hiking and mountain climbing, situated at the top of a pass from where the still snow clad slopes of the Jungfrau, Moench and Eiger peaks can be seen towering above. At station level, most of the snow had gone, though only recently, we were told. The higher mountain passes are only now starting to open for the summer season.

After our brief look around and photo opportunity, a different kind of train took us down the eastern side of the pass to Grindlewald, where we were met by our four coaches punctually. From there it was a a two hour return drive past Interlaken, alongside the Thunersee towards Bern, then back to Basel. Despite rush hour traffic, we were back at the ship by six. It can sometimes take an extra hour if there's any  traffic problem.

Then, a final supper, and bag packing, ready for a nine o'clock departure for the Dreieck Flughafen, and our flight back to Heathrow. Four and a half hours in a coach today, and tomorrow another five hours in a coach plus an hour's flight, to get us home. An inevitable surfeit of sitting, I'm afraid, but with delighful memories and photos of all the places we've seen this past week. It will be good to get back to decent speed internet again. Doing anything apart from emailing this week has been a nightmare of delays and dropped links. And this on a new ship. I think the travel industry that caters for 'silver surfers' greatly underestimates their need for connectivity at least as good as at home.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Speyer to Breisach

After passing through a sequence of five locks during the evening and early hours of the morning, the MV Emily Bronte moored outside the historic town of Breisach, in the so called Kaiserstuhl region of the German Rhineland plain which has the mountains of the Black Forest to the east and the Swiss Jura to the south. At the centre of the region is the ancient university city of Freiburg im Breisgau.  It's a highly fertile region with volcanic soil, renowned for its wine and brandy production.

Then, after breakfast, we were taken by coach on a tour through some villages of the Kaiserstuhl, and up into the mountains to visit Titisee, a small lake fed by glacial waters, with the holiday resort town of Neustadt wrapped around its eastern end. The journey took an hour and a half, and we were subjected to a well informed running commentary throughout, delivered by someone whose accent and English grammar were characteristic of someone for whom English was probably their third or fourth language, and wasn't as accurate as it needed to be for a British English only audience. As it was still early in the day, a few pauses to look at the scenery without interruption would have helped data digestion.

Titisee was busy with visitors from all around the world, and our scheduled stay was just an hour and ten minutes. Not just to get us back in time for lunch, I suspect, but because there would be a flow of other scheduled coach parties to maintain in the relatively small car park, throughout sensible visiting hours. We walked around the eastern edge of the lake in two directions, observed the boat traffic on the lake, and then followed the sound of an open air band to the place where it was performing Strauss waltzes in an open air concert arena several hundred metres away. We also briefly visited the Christkoenigkirche, and said a few prayers, mindful of the fact that it's the sixth Sunday of Easter. 

Disappointingly Riviera Travel scheduling does not take into account the worship needs of its clients. There's no information provided about the possibility of attending a Sunday service at any destination. Some opted not to go on the bus trip, but to stay and attend Mass in Breisach. I had a personal reason to visit a place where my mother had been before she had her stroke, and hoped there might be a mid morning service to drop in on, but there wasn't. At least the church was open. Given the number of people we've met on this trip who are churchgoers, and with so many of the travellers senior citizens, more likely to attend church than any other demographic group, I think there's room for improvement here.

Our return trip was half an hour shorter, by a faster route. Two and a half hours in a bus with a one hour stay didn't to me seem the right balance for an outing. Anyway we were back at the ship just after one, and after a couple of short travel briefings about tomorrow's Swiss Alps trip and homegoing, the rest of the afternoon was free for us to spend exploring Breisach.

The town has a fine Minister church on top of a promontory overlooking the Rhine. For centuries this rocky outcrop was an obstacle dividing the river, and most of the area where the present town stands was flood prone meadow or wetland. In the nineteenth century a major engineering project established a huge long barrage covering the main river channels and islands, containing two separate lock systems. The river banks were stabilised, land was drained, and the town built around and on the promontory could then be extended over the reclaimed land.

The Minster church originated in the 11th century but was enlarged in the 14-15 centuries. One tower is Romenesque, the other later one has a Gothic spire. The west end interior walls are covered with frescoes from the expansion period, much faded but well conserved nevertheless. There's a carved stone chancel screen of this period, also in a north aisle side chapel a niche elaborately carved with images of Christ's burial, at one time used as part of the ritual of the Paschal Triduum. The modern nave altar is a glass box, showcasing a reliquary chest to hold the bones of local saints. Amazingly, this fine piece of craftsmanship dates from the 1970s.

The territory on which Breisach stands has been fought over by French and Germans for centuries. The Minster was reduced to ruins towards the end of the second world war, but rebuilt and restored thanks to the leadership of the Parish Priest and an eminent local academic historian. Both had been against the war and nazism, and were imprisoned for their witness in a concentration camp, yet survived to carry out a great work of love and peacemaking.

The Rhine is the Franco German frontier. Because of 19th century alterations in the course of the river, Breisach although a German town is in France, and the frontier line is now just outside the town boundary. In the 1950s, the town took advantage of this unusual situation, declaring itself to be a truly 'european' town where borders no longer matter, a first grassroots step towards building a European Community of nations. What lovely stories to arise from the tragedy of what will hopefully be the last European war, to matter what English nationalists may do to disassociate the UK from this reconciliation project.

Supper this evening was preceded by another Captain's reception to thank the staff and the crew for their work during the cruise, and was followed by a seven course meal. We sat at table with a couple from Telford, we'd not met before. Both are active in their local church, one a church warden, the other an ex-church warden. married in 1966, like us. I think we've met about ten people who are churchgoers during this week. It rather proves my point about the neglected churchgoing demographic among cruise clients.

As we were getting ready for bed, we went through the last of the ten locks on our 500km journey up river. We will dock in Switzerland at Basel Hafen, according to the itinerary, just after midnight. It'll be our first return visit to the country in five years. This time at the opposite northern corner from where we arrived to live and work back in November 1992, just after a Swiss referendum declined participation in the Schengen agreement, like the Brits. Neither country has suffered, and both have prospered since. But Switzerland has the Rhine as its main industrial artery, and a different economic story altogether.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Speyer to Strasbourg

Having cruised through the night, the MV Emily Bronte arrived and was mooring at a river crossing near Plittersdorf by the time I woke up at six thirty this morning. It's hard to find on the map, but the place is about 10km north of the first river lock we encounter on this journey to Switzerland, near a village called Iffezheim. This place is the nearest a long cruise ship like ours can moor and deposit passengers for collection by coach, for visits to Strasbourg, which is three quarters of an hour's drive south, and west across the Rhine in France. It's a demanding exercise in logistic punctuality, as the aim is to give visitors three hours in the city, and get them all back on board in time for a departure during lunch, to meet the Iffezheim lock schedule. 

So, we were obliged to breakfast half an hour early and be on board the coaches - all four of them for 130+ people - by eight thirty. Needless to say, some of us dozed on the coach, there and back. Each coach load had its own guide for a walking tour of Strasbourg's historic World Heritage Site old town centre, ending up with a visit to the amazing Cathedral of our Lady, with its vast exquisite array of huge stained glass windows, its highly ornate and detailed late Gothic west front and 169m high spire, one of Europe's tallest. The array of well preserved houses from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century from the times of both German and French rule, is truly impressive.

By a quarter to twelve, I'd had enough visual amazement for a morning and photos to prove it, so we wandered for a while around street vegetable and flea market stalls, then drank a local beer in a pub, before returning to meet the rest of our party, to be escorted to the coach parking lot in a different place on the edge of the city centre. The city was very busy and crowded with tourists. Managing throughput through narrow streets with millions of visitors a year must be headache for the authorities. I imagine the regulations for handling coach parties has to be very strict, if chaos is to be avoided.

We were both ready for a hearty lunch by two, when we got back, after an earlier than usual breakfast. By quarter past, the ship was under way again, and an hour later we passed through the first and largest lock on the ascent to Basle. There are several more to come, and for this reason we'll be cruising from this afternoon until early tomorrow morning, when we will disembark once more for an excursion into the Black Forest town of Breisach and a visit to the Titisee. 

We last visited the Black Forest region as young back packing hitch-hikers in 1965, for a brief meeting with my parents who were staying at Lahr im Schwarzwald on their first ever and only package holiday. After this brief encounter, we travelled on to Taize for the first time and stayed the weekend. As we were getting ready to depart we received a message to say that my mother was in hospital with a serious stroke, which for her was the end of fully active and hardworking life, and five years of infirmity until her death. It has never occurred to us to return there since then.

Friday, 19 May 2017

From Ruedesheim to Speyer

There were no fewer than eight cruise ships parked along a kilometer of river bank at Ruedesheim, some of them side by side. Ours was fortunate enough to be moored on its own. I woke up as it started to move away from the shore just after four and drifted off to sleep until half past five. The first two mornings, it was first light by half past four, but this morning, it stayed dark until I finally woke up, as the sky was heavily overcast with cloud, and it was raining. Such a contrast. To judge by the buildings, we were passing through an industrial zone. I checked the Blackberry's GPS mapping device and learned that we were close to Mainz, just over 300km from our final destination with two more overnight stops to come.

We sailed south for seven hours in continued rain, until we docked outside Speyer just after lunch. It was too wet to go out on deck, and difficult to take photos from the relative shelter of our little cabin balcony. Nevertheless, Stuart treated us to an interesting and highly appropriate commentary about the history of the Reformation over the tannoy, as we travelled past Worms to reach Speyer. Both cities are key places of pilgrimage for protestant Christianity due to the story of controversy awakened by Martin Luther's publication of the 95 Theses, and how this was dealt with by Church and State. Speyer was the place where German princes signalled support for church reform to the Holy Roman Emperor, and won the freedom for each to determine the state religion of the populace they rule. It was where the term 'protestant' was adopted for advocates of church reform. 

Speyer is quite an appropriate tour destination given this year's 500th anniversary of the publication of the 95 theses, and Stuart's account of the social and economic background of the Rhineland contributing to this major paradigm shift in European religious and social thinking was most helpful in reminding me of church history I once covered in theological college for exam purposes, but had never properly absorbed. It more than made up for a very rainy day spent indoors. As for the city, it was a place of royal importance, in mediaeval times, and several kings are buried in a Cathedral crypt dating back to the eleventh century.

The rain slowed to a drizzle and then stopped and started intermittently after we disembarked. A twenty minute walk took us through an extensive park to the Cathedral, a huge Romanesque building with four tall towers and a dome covering the crossing. It's a very tall building internally with massive rounded arches, constructed in pale coloured, durable Old Red Sandstone. It seems sparsely furnished, although it contains all the liturgical essentials, simply because of the vast spaces enclosed. It has probably benefited from twentieth century reforms in terms of its layout for contemporary usage, and its very simplicity would make it acceptable as a house of prayer for Catholics and Protestants alike as long as they don't mind worshipping in such a huge building, with few intimate spaces.

Curiously enough, the neighbouring Protestant church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity is a seventeenth century baroque edifice. We couldn't visit, however, as it was closed for renovation. At the end of the main high street is the last remaining mediaeval town gateway. Walls and towers of the old fortified city long ago disappeared. The city has been reduced to ruin several times in the wars between French and German, Catholic and Protestant over the centuries. The original town gateway and walls would have been 5-6 metres high, but the remaining one acquired a very tall ornate superstructure containing suits of rooms and a tall steep pitched roof, perhaps as a civic status symbol of sorts. 

There is in the city, a large and very ornate early twentieth century Protestant church in the Florissant Gothic style, with coloured tiled roof and a spire whose ring of bells were visible through the stone tracery at the base of its conical section. This was built to commemorate the fourth centenary of the reformation. Sadly, it too was closed by the time I reached it. Not so, another large Catholic parish church the opposite side of the road, constructed in 14-15th century Gothic style. I was unable to determine its age, but as it was almost a kilometre away from the Cathedral, so could well have been built to serve population expansion as the town grew in the nineteenth century.

We also found a small Jewish quarter with the remains of a mediaeval synagogue with a mikvah, ritual bath next to it. The seventeenth century house adjacent is the town's Jewish museum. It's a reminder that Speyer, like so many other big towns had substantial Jewish communities, since ancient times. There wasn't enough time to visit the large and popular museum of transport, but we did have tea and cheese cake in a conditorei, and Clare visited some clothes shops while I went church crawling. All in all despite the damp weather, it was an interesting afternoon, involving quite a lot of walking, so we were glad to return to the ship for supper, and a guitar recital before turning in, tired out, aware that just after midnight, the ship would slip her moorings and continue heading up-river overnight. 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Koblenz to Ruedesheim

I woke up in time to see the sunrise at twenty to six. The MV Emily Bronte was still moored, but three ships along the quay behind us had already left. By six we reversed away from our mooring in the river Mosel, all the way into the Rhine, about a kilometer away. As there was no other river traffic about at the time, I presume this was safer to do than blocking the mouth of the Mosel by turning full circle.

We progressed up-river at just over talking pace through a broad landscape of rising hills, forested ar first, but then increasingly covered with a patchwork of vineyards. Here and there there was evidence that new patches of forest were being cleared to develop terrain as new vineyards.. This is no doubt more profitable than forest, but one has to wonder about the long term impact of the loss of trees.

The river bank on both sides contains a succession of beautiful villages, almost all overlooked from the south by castles, only occasionally castle ruins. Many Rhineland castles had originally been taken out of military use in late mediaeval efforts at law enforcement against robber barons, and fallen into ruin, and been only partly occupied. The nineteenth German Romantic movement, on the back of industrially created wealth, saw many of these restored and developed as stately homes, very much in the same way that Cardiff Castle was redeveloped and greatly enhanced. Some are still home to wealthy people who want an apartment with ancient character, but most serve as hotels or conference centres.

During the morning we were accompanied on deck and in the main lounge by the voice of Stuart, our tour guide, who spoke, often with historical anecdotes, not only about the towns and villages we were approaching, but also about the history of the river itself as Western Europe's main industrial artery. The story of how it has become one of the world's largest commercial waterways since Napoleonic times, is quite fascinating, and is still unfolding as work continues on improving river channels and managing traffic flow. Hundred metre long barges carrying fuel and raw materials are a frequent sight, and amazingly now there are even larger vessels carrying fifty to a hundred standard containers to and from Switzerland to Rotterdam, one of the world's largest ports. An impressive amount of homework will have gone into making such an interesting presentation over a four hour period.

The highlight of the morning was passing the legendary Loreley rock outcrop, the narrowest and most dangerous point in the Rhine, with legends of its own, and much photgraphed bronze statue of a siren maiden whose voice was once said to lure sailors to their room. Just as interesting to me was to learn how millions of tons of hard quarzite rock outcropping from the river bed had to be excavated to make it deeper and safer for navigation, achieved in the second half of the twentieth century.

One through the gorge that distinguishes the Mddle Rhine region, the river widens and opens up into a flatter more rolling rural landscape. As we were finishing lunch, we arrived for on overnight stay at the small wine producing town of Ruedesheim, home to the famous Ansbach Uralt brandy distillery, with a beautiful 15th-18th century heart to it, with shops guest houses and bars, with Weinstuben, showcasing local winemakers' offerings as well as meals.

It's a delightful place. We spent much of the afternoon wandering the streets among crowds of elderly tourists like ourselves, German as well as English. It was inevitable we should end up in a Weinstube, enjoying glasses of Herr Philipp's Trocken Reisling and Spatburgunder, not to mention delicious white and red Traubensaft.  Equally pleasurable was to hear German spoken all around us, and enjoy using the language again. It's been quite a while since we spent proper time in Germany.

After supper on board, we were both tired enough for another early night, so we missed the evening's music quiz in the main lounge, and settled in our cabin. Unfortunately the free on-board internet link is under-powered and over-used, often taking five minutes to log on, as the evening is peak usage demand for many wanting to stay in touch with home. I'm glad to have my trusty Blackberry to fall back on once more. I can't believe I've taken over 200 photos again today. Processing and uploading them all will have to wait until we return home, however.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Cologne to Koblenz

I was awakened by the sound of the ship's engines starting up just after four this morning. By twenty past four the MV Emily Bronte was heading south, travelling up river towards Switzerland, 500km and five days journey away. Bearing in mind that this would be half past three in the morning at home, I was surprised there was enough light to take photographs of places we passed through, well before sunrise at twenty to six. Each side of the Rhine, motorways and railways run. There are also paths along which cyclists ride and pedestrians walk their dogs. By five I watched cyclists, presumably headed for work, or fitness training overtaking the boat. I estimate the boat speed to be eight to ten kilometres an hour, so this is not surprising. What is surprising is how many people were out and about purposefully at five in the morning, four in UK time. We are a nation of late risers.

I couldn't get back to sleep, so I sat outside on our little balcony taking photographs until the top deck was opened up for the day. We went for breakfast at eight and lunched at one, and as we were finishing this meal, we moored in Koblenz, at a quay which is on the river Mosel. It joins the Rhine here. Clare was a teenager when she last took a trip up the river which took her from Cologne to Bonn. Place names were familiar if nothing else. There's been so much development in the past fifty years, but there are many riverside resorts of long standing with fine hotel buildings, either along the shore or perched on neighbouring hilltops. 

Passing Konigswinter and the Siebengebirge range of hills, brought to mind the story of Seigrfrid slaying the dragon at the beginning of Wagner's 'Das Rheingold'. It would have been nice to have some opera over the tannoy at that stage. We were treated to a little martial music, however, as we passed by Remagen, one of the epic battle sites of the Second World War. Our tour manager Leslie told us over the tannoy about how the Allied victory was achieved on the back of German incompetence over the supply of explosives to destroy the bridge before the allied advance. The bridge entrance portals on either side are all that remain today. The one on the Remagen side now serves as a Peace museum.

This them re-emerged in Koblenz. Before the borders changed it was a French town. Kaiser Wilhelm built a huge monument in 1897 to celebrate the political unification of German speaking people and territories in 1853. It's on the town river bank shared by the Mosel and the Rhine. It's known as 'die Deutsche Ecke', the German Corner. It was the place where in 1953 Chancellor Adenauer pledged to work for the post war re-unification of Germany, achieved finally after the surprise fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The monument is huge, dark and triumphalistic, and in its shadow three concrete slabs, relics of the Wall have been erected, each bearing in bronze letters, one of these dates. It is such a simple statement covering 130 years of European history, and very moving to someone who travelled to East Germany, as I did, just before the last political division of Germany ended.

There are some fine mediaeval churches in the town centre. The oldest site had a late Roman empire municipal building on it which was converted for church use in the fourth century, and rebuilt several times since. Clare reckons this is where Charlemagne's sons met to divide up the Holy Roman Empire in the ninth century. The point of interest for me is a liturgical one. Koblenz is in the Catholic diocese of Trier, which played an  important role in the scholarship and practice of reforming worship and introducing German into the liturgy a generation before Vatican II. I remembered this from my studies at St Mike's, which happened just after Vatican II happened. 

The old mediaeval town centre has many beautiful 15th to 18th century buildings, mostly in a pedestrianised zone. Beyond this to the south is the modern city and shopping centre, with all the usual global retail brands in attendance, and some large recently built stores whose modern design is utterly unappealing. The riverside promenades and the old town provide more than enough for passing visitors, unless one is desperate for fashionable consumer goods to add to on-board luggage.

Before supper there was a drinks reception, during which key members of crew and hospitality team were introduced to travellers. By the end of the meal we were both very tired and headed for our cabin immediately, rather than socialise. I'd been on my feet for the best part of seventeen hours apart from meal times, and there's this posting to make and Due Lingo practice to complete before sliding under the duvet for a long night's slumber, hopefully.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Journey to the Rhineland

Finally, a day free of duties, except packing for tomorrow's flight to Cologne to join the Rhine cruise. Both Clare and I visited our hairdressers, checked our belongings several times, and used up all the fresh food in meals for the day and breakfast sandwich packs. I'm taking the HX30 and HX300 cameras again, plus the Chromebook, and two phones. I have my Blackberry work phone operational again, as I've been asked to continue in an advisory role to the CBS Ltd directors for a while longer. I am happy to do this and take my time doing so. I'm not attuned to the pressures of office life these days. Besides, dealing with people pastorally as much as I do these days is what I do best, and seems most needed. 

With a taxi booked to take us for the six o'clock Heathrow coach, early bed seemed obligatory. We were both up and about before five, and at the coach station by twenty to six. The coach delivered us to Heathrow terminal five twenty minutes early for check-in and security clearance. The Dusseldorf flight was full, with a mix of business and domestic travellers, and couple of dozen people like ourselves from all over the country, headed for the Rhine cruise ship in Cologne. Our coach from airport to ship had to weave its way through 50km of rush hour traffic, nearly doubling our transit time.

On a quay one kilometer south and over the Rhine from Cologne's majestic mediaeval cathedral, the MV Emily Bronte our ship for the week, was moored. It's the newest of the Riviera line. Soon we met several of the team who looked after us on the Danube cruise last May, experienced staff transferred, presumably to help train a new team for a new ship.

Interesting to me, the ship has new generation hotel security technology to keep track of passengers comings and goings. The RFID room key card is registered with a photo of the key-holder, taken in situ, matching everyone on the passengers and crew database. A contactless scanner, like those used for card payments, is located on the reception desk, and everyone is required to scan themselves off and on the ship. Reception staff can check against misuse as the network displays a photo of the keyholder scanned. Passwordless WiFi logs one in to a web page which displays a custom QR code giving the device MAC address, presumably. Scanning the code clears it for internet attachment. Clever!

Our upper deck cabin is one of a handful of one room bed-sits with a small external balcony, so it's possible to sit outside during the day. We must have been among the last to book. There's a full complement of passengers, and this was the only one left. So luxurious, and more than I'd usually want to pay, but we both felt we didn't want to wait another year, after quite a busy and demanding six months of autumn and winter.

The standard of cuisine on these ships is very high and we enjoyed an excellent supper, chatting with a couple from Southampton, a retired mathematician who spent two years at CERN and his wife, a retired teacher. Clare was ready for bed after this, so I attended the safety briefing on my own. Being less tired, after dozing fitfully throughout much of the day's travel, I have time to collect my thoughts and ponder a little before turning in, delighted for a respite from British electioneering for a week.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Ministry joys and Linux Legacy

Yesterday afternoon in beautiful sunny weather, I caught the bus into town, took photos of the Central Square construction site, then walked down the Taff Embankment to the Bay Wetland Area. There was a couple of Coots with some young chicks swimming on one of the ponds.
I also got glimpses of what I think was another pair of chicks hiding in a reed bed, but they seemed different from the Coot chicks, as their heads were red/orange. Were they moorhen offspring, I wonder? I've seen both kinds of bird down there in the past. With most things ready for our Rhine cruise journey and a sermon prepared, I watched a couple of episodes of NCIS season 13 which I've not seen before. One was about an agent suffering from the theft of his identity multiple times. Quite timely really, given the on-going global ransomware crisis.

I celebrated the Solemn Mass at St German's this morning as usual. Priest in charge designate Fr Phelim O'Hare came with his wife Annette and two sons to meet people and sit in the congregation. We're still waiting for an induction date, however. It now looks certain that it will take place while I'm out in Malaga, Although I won't be at St German's for the final few Sundays of the interregnum, I will take much pleasure in seeing photos of the event, content to have worked myself out of a job at St German's, for a second time in five years.

After the service, the church filled again with a congregation double the numbers for the Mass, there for the baptism of Michelle and her baby daughter Millie. For me it was a great pleasure to complete something which started last year when I officiated at Andy Michelle's wedding in St German's. Out of curiosity, I checked the baptism register, and discovered, much to my surprise, that over past five years of locum duties at St German's, I have performed 23 baptisms, double the number I did in the eight years of my last job as Vicar of St John's City Parish Church.

By the time I got home, after attending the Christening party in the church hall, Clare had already left for a final rehearsal for the afternoon Community Choir Concert at the Fountain Steiner School, but she'd left lunch for me. Once I'd eaten, I sat down to do my daily Duo Lingo Spanish drill, and when I reached the end of it, I nodded off, waking up only just in time to drive to the school for the start of the concert. The programme was an unusual mix of mediaeval secular and sacred music, technically a challenge for the singers. I've been listening to Clare rehearse for weeks, but only hearing everything sung in performance made sense of what I'd been listening to at home, as some of the pieces involved part singing which was dissonant to modern ears. It was an ear opening success, for the audience and for the singers.

After supper, a quiet evening without telly, making sure computers were all up to date, trying to find some files of photographs I'd digitized for my sister three years ago, which she said she couldn't find. It took me a while to locate them, as they weren't in any of my archives. Then I remembered that I'd done the original job on my previous desktop PC, which I left in its usual position on the floor to the left of my desk, rather than decommission and dispose of it. Once re-connected to peripherals, it powered up into Linux Mint perfectly, and within a couple of minutes I'd found the files and copied them to a backup drive. Later, I discovered that I had already uploaded the missing photos to the web, as well as putting them on June's PC hard drive. They weren't missing. Finding them in either place was her problem. Just as well I had an evening with nothing better to do.

When I next have an idle moment, I'll to a timed comparison of booting the machine to a functioning desktop using the now defunct original Windows Vista operating system and Linux Mint. Vista was less dependent on internet connectivity and than its successors, except for anti-virus updating. Mint works just as well with or without internet. When connected and ready to update, it does so unobtrusively and without interfering with one's workflow. So much better than Windows, once you've learned it and made the switch. Time I switched a couple of my machines over permanently to Linux, and retain Windows only where necessary for working with outsiders.

Friday, 12 May 2017

NHS ransomed and not by politicians

Another surgery visit this morning for a further attempt to take blood samples for testing, this time with success. I was asked to take my blood pressure measuring device in for calibration, which I did. I was surprised to find that 'calibration' meant taking a couple of readings from the surgery's device and mine in turn and comparing them. Rather a misuse of such a technical term. As I'm sure I've said before, both at home and in the surgery, my first 3-4 readings start high, then drop down to a fairly consistent level. It is rare for any medic to take more than a couple of readings, so I've come to the conclusion that their practical observation is of a more general that specific kind, i.e. 'high' or 'low', and accurate data is of concern mostly for those compiling epidemiological statistics. Well, what else have they time for?

After an early lunch, I was collected to go to St German's to take a funeral. It was my third in a row for someone who'd died in their early sixties, and once again the church was full with mourners belonging to a large extended family. It was an unusual occasion, using a hearse of antique appearance drawn by two young purple plumed black stallions to take the coffin of the deceased from home to church and then to the crematorium - during the 'school run' phase of the evening rush hour. Even so, it arrived only five minutes late at Thornhill, after an hour's journey. I was taken ahead by car and had time to spare before the committal.

I was home again just after four, and was pleased to receive another call from my GP, with whom I had a reassuring discussion. I'll see her again after the blood test results have been returned, and find out if any further intervention is needed. Meanwhile I continue with well established medication, and keep an eye on my blood pressure in case it suddenly escalates.

Then my sister June rang to tell me worriedly about breaking news of cyber attacks on the NHS. I asked her if this was about ransomware lockdowns and she confirmed it. I said this was old news, as there's been a spate of this worldwide this past year, but that it may have come into focus if there's been some attacks on London hospitals, which she confirmed. News mostly seems to happen in London according to the mass media. What surprised me, when I checked on the web, was the scale of the outbreak. 

Given these have been happening sporadically over the past year around the globe, the serious news behind the news is that not enough precautionary training has been given to NHS staff at all levels to avoid such attacks, which generally occur because malware infected files are unwittingly opened. The situation is exacerbated because too many NHS computers are running on out of date Windows systems and equipment, and Windows systems across the board contain vulnerabilities due to their basic design, which attackers can readily exploit. If only more use was made of Linux systems which are less susceptible to attacks of this kind. Interestingly enough, I read news earlier today of a version of Ubuntu Linux running medical information management software called NHSbuntu. There used to be a version called Medibuntu with a similar aim, but that closed down four years ago. 

After phone calls, I still had enough time to go shopping before preparing supper. Clare had earlier decided to cook some fava beans using the pressure cooker, and I prepared a dish that could make use of them. Without warning, the valve of the pressure cooker discharged explosively, spraying a fine mist of liquidised beans over the stove and working surfaces. Fava beans cook quickly and when overcooked, dissolve into the liquid used to cook them in, creating a puree. The valve had stuck and the puree overheated until it finally blew. What a mess! It took us ages to clean up. The puree, however wasn't burned and added a pleasant flavour to the vegetables I'd prepared. 

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Medical tensions

Before I went to St John's to celebrate the mid-week Eucharist this morning, I had a GP appointment as part of reviewing my blood pressure medication. It's a bit difficult really, as our local practice is very busy, so over the course of a month I have seen all three of the practice doctors, all of whom approach the issue from their own angle. Recently I've been trialling a supplementary medication, with a view to observing negative side effects. After discussion with Clare, I concluded the new medication made me feel more physically stiff and tired, with little impact on the symptom it was meant to correct. I ran out of the supplement last weekend. Since then, I've had more energy, felt years younger and regained the spring in my step.

I'm instinctively critical about insisting on tackling perceived symptoms with new drugs rather than first considering systematically what the underlying cause might be. Hypertension accompanies ageing. Both my mother and her mother had chronic hypertension, couple with poor diet. Both of them died younger than I am now. I may have genetically inherited a vulnerability, but this needs testing. I feel somewhat guilty for taking up unnecessary doctor time when the NHS is under such strain, as I am well, healthy and active, for the most part. But, I feel that doctors unintentionally project their anxiety on to me about the risk of a stroke or heart attack, on the basis of statistical presumptions, and don't look at the whole life picture.

Anyway, I had a good conversation with one of the GP team today, who has registered my concern and ordered blood tests, yet to be completed, as the practice nurse failed to get blood out of me on my last visit. Having completed a month of blood pressure monitoring, I delivered a chart of readings to the surgery for evaluation last Friday, but it wasn't to be found, having ended up in someone else's in-tray. Thinking it was lost, I made a copy and took it to the surgery, but was told it wasn't required, as the location of the unavailable chart was known. So I tucked it into my pocket and forgot about it. This was of no help when discussing monitoring results without evidence to consider today. At the end of the St John's service, I found the chart tucked in with my specs, and walked home via the surgery to drop it off with a note for the GP I'd seen, giving my mobile phone number, since I was out of the house the rest of the afternoon.

After lunch, I drove Ashley to Chepstow again to visit the CBS radio suppliers. There was a sudden heavy downpour as we sped along the A48, and my mobile started ringing. I grabbed it and handed it to Ashley to answer. It was the GP I'd spoken to earlier. He apologised for my current indisposition, and was given a message to relay to me, to say all was in order, and that she'd ring me tomorrow to discuss! We laughed, as old men do, when confronted with ailments to contend with while striving to continue business as usual. As long as the spirit is willing, there need to be workarounds for the weaknesses of the flesh.

After supper on return from Chepstow, I had a funeral service to prepare for tomorrow and a sermon to write. No time to languish in front of the telly.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Herons in view - again

A visit to St German's this morning to celebrate the Wednesday 'class Mass', with a bunch of 7-8 year olds, some of whom looked bored or half asleep, others of whom were bright eyed and placed to sing. I spoke a little about generosity towards the poor and needy, referring to the work of Islamic Relief as well as Christian Aid, as many of the children in this, as in all other classes of the school, are Muslim. Half the kids come up for a blessing, and some of these are Muslim. Other kids don't come up. None are forced to. 

It's not easy to make a simple liturgy in church fully participatory, especially when it's a Mass, which is by nature, overtly Christian. I have more misgivings about the potentially divisive nature of doing this than I did when I was the incumbent, regularly visiting the school. I was reluctant to go against established expectations then, and make an effort to create an act of God centred meditative worship in which all present might find something to identify with. Kids need to learn how to pray and how to participate in public worship in a non-alienating way. Now, I'm no longer in a position where I have any business experimenting with or changing the status quo, this avenue is no longer open to me. I do get the kids singing simple choruses each time, however. Sometimes they join in enthusiastically, other times it's hard work.

After lunch, I walked along the Taff to the city centre, to search for some clip-on polaroid sunglasses to go over my driving specs, and was delighted to find just the right thing in Boots. Clare had tried to find the same thing for herself in the same store recently and not been successful, perhaps because they were tucked away in an obscure corner of the sunspecs rack. I find my eyes don't work as well in high contrast lighting situations as I get older, they seem to struggle to adjust. Having special specs for driving and computer usage makes some difference, but not enough. I'm hoping a polaroid filter will cut some of the glare and reduce the strain somewhat. It's worth a try anyway.

Today, I seemed to have a bit more energy that recently, more of a spring in my step, so instead of getting the bus home, I walked back across Bute Park to Blackweir, where the resident heron was to be seen at the foot of the weir. I positioned myself about seven metres above on the footpath, and the bird just seemed indifferent to my presence, so I stayed for ten minutes or more, taking some of my best ever close-up heron photos with my Sony HX300. It took most of the evening to sort them out and upload them to a new album. Pleasing stuff indeed. Here's my album of bird shots so far this year. 

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Homeland revisited

This afternoon I drove up to my home town of Ystrad Mynach to visit Michelle and her baby daughter Millie, who are both to be baptized Sunday next. They live in a new house in Cwm Calon, Penallta, the new private housing estate built on the site of Penallta Colliery where my faith spent much of his working life. Michelle and Andy's home is so new, the street doesn't yet appear on Google Maps. My phone's geo-location device showed me to be in the correct area, but in between streets, rather than in a street. I stopped to ask a couple of people, outside washing their cars, but nobody had heard of the street name, and reached for their phones, equipped with the same street map app, and came to the same conclusion. I drove around the block a second time and spotted the street name plate, partly obscured by an ornamental bush. The house I was looking for was opposite.

Michelle and I chatted for an hour, and before setting out for home, I stopped to take some photographs of the new housing estate, complete with its own new Welsh language Primary School, and the industrial remains of the colliery, majestic Edwardian brick and stone buildings, due for eventual conservation, if ever the funding can be found. Some buildings have already been converted into small business premises and offices, but progress has been slow in the years of recession during which the new housing has been built. The Cylla brook, running down this side valley into the river Rhymney in Ystrad Mynach, is now accompanied by a cycle and footpath. Since the removal of mining spoil heaps, native woodland has re-grown beautifully. Such a difference from when I was a child. You can find the photos here.

At the bottom end of the estate, where once spoil heaps and railway sidings gave way to several green paddocks, two streets of well appointed terraced houses, were built for pit officials. Here my grand parents, aunt, uncle and cousins lived. Pit ponies grazed during the miners' annual fortnight holiday in the paddocks. Nowadays these fields are built over with houses, and the grassy open space in front of the terrace back entrances is a drab tarmac'd play area enclosed by a chain link fence. Do any local children ever play there? I wondered, given the proximity of woodland and a cycle trail. 

On the drive up there was a serious car crash in the southbound lane of the A470 north of Pontypridd, and the tail back of traffic an hour and a half later stretched up the highway beyond the next junction and roundabout, so the half hour journey took me forty five minutes. On the return trip, I took the A469 road straight down the Rhymney Valley, but this was congested all the way, especially around Caerphilly. Only on the approach to Nantgarw did traffic began to flow freely again. It took me an hour and a half to get home, and as a result I was too late to go to my Tai Chi class. 

I've heard from others whose regular commute takes them through Caerphilly, that it's like this every day, since the town's population expanded with new houses into outlying areas in the past fifteen years. With so many driving from the Valleys to work in Cardiff, traffic growth has impacted life significantly. It used to be pollution from mining that ruined the environment and quality of life in the South Wales coalfield. The Valleys are beautifully green again, and much better cared for, offering attractive places to live at lower house prices than Cardiff, but vehicle emissions here as in Cardiff are damaging to health and frustrating to lifestyle, when people have to spend so much time in cars for shopping and leisure as well as work. 

I fear that the revitalisation of a still extensive Valleys rail network will come too little and too late. I often think about us moving out of Cardiff, because of the health impact of pollution locally. But where to? Anywhere near the sea is going to be too expensive, anywhere too far inland has disadvantages associated with being too remote from social, cultural and medical resources necessary for life in old age. Probably too late for us to move anyway, until we get really decrepit and need looking after.

Sunday, 7 May 2017


Clare's choir conductor Anna and her husband Klaus came to join us for lunch yesterday. We talked of our shared passion for sacred music and things European. Anna is Italian and Klaus German. We heard how both of them had made the effort to obtain UK nationality well before the brexit vote, sensing the wind of euro-skepticism chilling the climate of openness which has prevailed for the past forty years. We heard how lengthy and expensive a process it was, and how intricate legislation makes it hard for some long standing European residents to prove to the satisfaction of the Home Office, that they have been here living and contributing to society through work and taxes for decades. The system is loaded against the poor and not so well informed, who nevertheless play a full part in making Britain the place it is, or should I say was. I am unhappy about the movement of the country away from moderation and fairness, toward right wing elitist dominance. 

This morning drove to St John's Canton to celebrate and preach at the Parish Eucharist this morning before going on to St German's for the Solemn Mass. This morning in worship we used incense that I'd been given by Dr Laura Ciobanu on her visits, as I had enough to use for a full service in small packs of the same kind, originating from Mount Athos in Greece. It had the characteristic aroma of roses, ad a few people with sensitive noses noticed and commented favourably on the change.

After lunch and a siesta, we walked both banks of the river Taff as far as the Millennium footbridge, enjoying the birds and wild flowers in Bute Park arboretum. Bluebells are starting to diminish now, but alium (wild garlic) is flourishing, carpeting the grass under the trees with vivid white blooms. 
No sign of Mallard ducklings today, just an assortment of adult couples and same sex pairs. A bit like the human leisure seekers, out enjoying the sun in great numbers.

In the evening I watched the second episode of 'Lanester' on the tablet's All Four app.  It was just a two part drama not a series, adapted from a single novel - disappointing, as the main characters were potentially worth exploring further. Interestingly enough the German 'Inspector Borowski' series and 'Lanester' portray a gifted senior detective, workaholic, single and 50+. Both find themselves working with and needing to relate to a capable and highly intelligent woman, old enough to be a daughter. In the former the woman is a detective. In the latter, a Parisienne cabbie. Gender and generation differences are the underlying relationship issues not sexuality, for a change. 

Perhaps French TV moguls felt their thunder had been stolen by the German series, and didn't bother to pursue the theme further. Although, come to think of it, there was another French crime drama series in 2015 called 'Disparue' set in Lyon, which also has another workaholic middle aged detective, Bertrand Morel, divorced, and obliged to relate to his feisty teenage daughter who prefers to live with papa, who's more laid back than maman. All these story lines portray men who, despite being lonely, obsessed with solving hard and complex cases, are superb team leaders, yet with messed up personal lives. The role of these different confident modern women portrayed challenges the men with positive outcomes in the crime stories, and humanises the solitary male. It's not the romantic tale of heroic knights of old with an admiring lady gazing nobly from afar. It's more like a real world contradiction of this theme.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Smart meter day #1

I celebrated the Eucharist at St John's Canton yesterday morning for a congregation that we half the usual size, as many regulars were attending a funeral elsewhere. Then, after lunch I walked along the Taff on my usual route around Pontcanna Fields, this time accompanied by the Sony Alpha 55 DSLR that I haven't used for a while. Although the zoom lens I use isn't as long as that of the HX300, the cropped photos resulting can be just as good, although it's more challenging to use, being heavier to hold.

The trouble with using almost full zoom length is that camera shake intrudes, even when the lens and camera are equipped with optical image stabilisation. High shutter speeds compensate to some extent. It's something of a gamble to shoot the camera at just the right moment. I could use the facility all good digital cameras have to set the shutter for multiple shots, much loved by news and sports reporters, and then select the best one when editing later, but trying my luck, and being surprised (or disappointed) by the result still has its appeal for me.

This morning, I wrote a sermon for Sunday while waiting for the arrival of the installation team from SSE our energy suppliers, who are going to fit new 'smart' electricity meters. They came a hour earlier than expected due to a cancellation, and left half an hour earlier than anticipated, as they were only able to fit a new electricity meter. There wasn't room in the gas meter enclosure in the hall to fit the extra monitoring device, because of legacy redundant lead piping which had been left in place decades ago. It will involve a further visit by a specialist to get rid of this and re-position the meter atop the monitoring device. 

I had an interesting conversation with one of the engineers about how the new meter monitoring system works. It makes a 4G wireless connection to the suppliers' data network using frequency extensions to phone band-width made available by the government ending the lease of the broadcast frequencies used by secure radio systems like Cardiff RadioNet, the Prison Service and other public bodies, until this time last year. All now have a different set of frequencies leased to them, and the old ones will provide secure encrypted data channels to the entire country. In theory they are un-hackable, and won't overload in the way phone networks do, as the volume of digital monitoring data over a year is a minute fraction of the digital data stream of any ordinary voice call. 

SSE's network service providor, Vodaphone, gave sufficient coverage for the workers to use their mobile phones inside our hours, where with EE cover this isn't possible without a signal booster, and this meant the monitoring box could remain always in contact with the area network. Clever, as long as there's power enough to run every component of the system. SSE also provides a dedicated device that feeds the monitoring data to a smart display which tells you how much electricity you've used and how much it cost you. It's a re-chargeable device, not as powerful as normal wi-fi, with much smaller data requirements. But it only works within a short range of the smart meter cupboard, and if moved away, it starts bleeping a distress signal. Not such a good idea. Do we really need or want it?

After lunch, I drove Ashley to Chepstow for another trip to CBS equipment suppliers. Traffic was very heavy and we arrived too near the end of the working day for more than the basic business we'd come for. Still, it was a pleasant drive, with plenty to talk about, and it helps to keep things running smoothly. After that, another quiet evening, this time watching a French crimmie on the 'All Four' tablet app. A nice change to listen to good clear spoken French, and understand most of it.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

A two Mass Wednesday

How nice, a Bank Holiday Monday, with nothing to do apart from a walk around Pontcanna Fields, and look for the Mallard family out and about on the Taff. Even better, another two Mallard families were to be seen out on the river. Apart from this, an unremarkable day.

Nothing to say about Tuesday either, except I made the effort to get to this week's Tai Chi class, despite having done little apart from occasional Chi Gung during the past few weeks, while nursing a shoulder complaining of mis-treatment after sleeping awkwardly. I came away feeling guilty of indolence, failing to memorise moves that I already knew.

Today's midweek Mass at St German's was in the quietness of the Lady Chapel. A late night email from Emma, head teacher of Tredegarville, advised us that the children were doing their SATS tests all day, so we contented ourselves with praying for kids, abused by governmental obsession with academic performance, manipulating the anxieties of parents as well as children into thinking that such results really matter in relation to eternity, let alone eventual adulthood. 

Before the world gets to be run by artificial intelligence, children get to be turned into organic robots by an education system which puts faith in achieving performance above the development of the gifts of the whole person. It's awful that dedicated teachers are no longer trusted to educate children without this horrible intrusion, which so distorts the formative process, and doesn't readily enable children to develop in their own way and at their own pace. We'll be sorry in the long run.

After the Mass, I stayed in the hall long enough to drink a cup of coffee, then walked into the city centre to celebrate the Eucharist for a dozen worshippers a second time at St John's city Parish Church, at the request of Vicar, Sarah Rowland Jones, who's away this week, as is Rhian her part time curate. There were several in the congregation who were there when I was Vicar. It's always a pleasure to worship with them again. It was also a delight to meet Randa, a Lebanese Maronite Christian, who assisted at the altar. She came and made her home here in Cardiff as a refugee many years ago, and eventually she found St John's. 

I met another Sarah too, an asylum seeker belonging to the Church of Pakistan, part of the Anglican Communion, who'd fled Pashawar because of hostility towards Christians there, and the indifference of the the state towards the implementation of its own secular constitution. It gave me such pleasure to find the church which gave so much to me in my eight years there as Vicar, still fulfilling its vocation as a community and a sacred place where all the world is warmly welcomed.

Before returning to St German's to get the car and drive home, I had lunch with Norma in the church tearoom, looking bright and spruce, and now returned to being run by a rota of church volunteers after a break of several years. I'm tempted to offer my services again as table clearer and dish washer, to help rebuild the volunteer team!