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February 2012

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As you would expect of a lady, Kickass Canada Girl does not undertake major travel lightly… nor indeed does she travel light! At the risk of offending it has to be said that this is true of many ladies; I myself have known of only one exception, and in that case I suspect that there was witchcraft involved…

When the Girl leaves for Victoria on Sunday she will be accompanied by three large suitcases (in addition to her hand luggage) and will be followed to BC after a week or so by thirteen good sized boxes. She is moving home of course so this is eminently reasonable, but the logistics of it all take some planning.

As an Air Canada Premier customer the Girl can take two cases under her baggage allowance and thus has only to pay an additional charge for the third item. The boxes – which weigh a total of around 180Kg – are more of a problem. Searching the web for helpful suggestions as to economical and effective methods of transportation merely confuses, revealing a plethora of shipping options. Obtaining quotations for many of these requires submission of rather more information than I care to divulge and then waiting for someone to make contact. Whilst doing so I followed up some personal recommendations but in each case the costs seemed to me to be on the high side.

In the end we decided that the best option would be simply to ship the boxes by Air Canada Cargo. As there is no middle man – and because they don’t pick up or deliver – their costs are quite reasonable. Our friends in Saanichton live within 10/15 minutes of Victoria airport and as there is always a pickup to hand (naturally!) the collection part of the operation should be quite straightforward. Getting the boxes to Heathrow will be trickier. We live reasonably close – about half an hour away – but I don’t have a vehicle that will take that many boxes in one go, so it looks as though I will have to hire.

The complication comes – you will not be surprised to hear – in the matter of Customs and Excise. Putting together a manifest for each box is straightforward enough – given the usual difficulty of ascribing a sensible value to personal effects that one may have had for years – but ensuring that the list is comprehensive is not so easy. Everything that the Girl takes back into Canada must be detailed on Canadian Border Services Agency form B4 and handed in to Border Control on her arrival. My understanding is that this list must also cover anything else that she may subsequently want to take back to Canada (remembering that many of her chattels may well stay in the UK until I move there myself in a couple of year’s time) otherwise she will be liable to pay tax on them. This means planning ahead for the next two years to ensure that she doesn’t forget something that she might need. The odds on this part of the operation going entirely smoothly are, I would hazard, slender.

Fortunately there is a wealth of information available online for Canadian nationals who are returning to Canada. This site (Moving Back to Canada) is particularly useful. Hats off to Paul Kurucz for the work that clearly went into it.

 

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Everybody knows ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Most people will have sung it at some point or another – probably on a New Year’s Eve, and most likely whilst crossing arms and linking hands in a circle with a lot of other people that they don’t really know.

In common with a number of other things that ‘everybody knows’, however, most of us probably don’t really know ‘Auld Lang Syne’ that well at all. How many of us can do more than mumble our way through the first verse and chorus? How many know that, though the incomparable Rabbie Burns published it in 1788, he actually based it on a much older ballad – “Old Long Syne” – by one James Watson, printed in 1711 and of which the first verse and the chorus bear a remarkable resemblance to Burns’ later version. Watson himself very probably ‘borrowed’ the ballad from an even earlier – and unrecorded – source.

It may seem that the end of February is an odd time to be pontificating on the origins of the traditional New Year ballad. It might perhaps make more sense if we associate it with Hogmanay, the Scottish equivalent – for Hogmanay is more properly the name given to the last day of the Old Year, and the underlying ethos of the festival is to do with clearing out the vestiges of the year that has gone, to allow a clean break and to welcome in a young, New Year on a happy note.

‘Auld Lang Syne’ is thus more than anything a song of farewell and remembrance. As a result, in addition to its appearance at Hogmanay, it is also frequently sung at funerals, graduations and as a farewell or ending to other occasions.

 

Thus it was that a disparate group of friends and colleagues, sitting round a large wooden table in a pub on Richmond Hill (called – delightfully – ‘The Lass O’ Richmond Hill’) one Sunday lunchtime at the end of February… crossed arms, linked hands in a circle, and mumbled their way through the first verse and chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. We may not have won any prizes or many talent show votes, but we were saying ‘goodbye’ – or rather ‘au revoir’ – to the Kickass Canada Girl, and we mumbled from the heart. BCs gain is, in this case, very much England’s loss – though I will naturally do my best to drag her back at every possible opportunity.

The fourth verse of the ballad is germane (with a translation for the Sassenachs):

“We twa hae paidl’d i’ the burn,
Frae mornin’ sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin auld lang syne”

“We two have paddled in the stream,
From morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
Since long, long ago.”

This time next week – the Girl will be back in Victoria…

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OMG!!

I have been an enthusiastic amateur musician for more than 40 years, and throughout that time I always believed that I was keeping reasonably well abreast of developments on the music scene.

The other night I was at a school production – a contemporary dance re-interpretation of Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’, with an updated score in a style which I can only describe as a jazz/blues/classical crossover. This particular production was largely the brainchild of a young man who is the son of a best-selling novelist and journalist, and who led the five piece onstage band on acoustic guitar.

Alongside him was a pianist, a bassist, a violinist and a percussionist. This latter was seated upon – and was hitting with his bare hands – what looked like a small wooden crate. The great surprise was that the sound produced was not that of a man slapping a wooden box, but rather a pretty good facsimile of a drummer playing a decent sized  kit. The bass was rich and punchy, the snare crisp and tight, and there was a full range of sounds and colours in between.

Amazing!

For those of you who – like me – have never even heard of a Cajon, let alone seen one in action, this video gives some idea of the possibilities, as does this one – though there really is no substitute for actually hearing one live.

Awesome – and not just in the Canadian usage!

As a compulsive tapper of rhythms on anything handy I think I just might need to acquire one…

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My mother died two years ago, on February 24th, 2010. She had been slipping slowly into dementia for much of the previous year and – just at the point in October 2009 at which my sister, brother and I had decided that she could probably no longer take care of herself – she contracted an infection and was taken into hospital. Within a few weeks she had declined to such an extent that she no longer recognised any of us, nor was she aware of where she was or what was happening to her. The four months of hospital visits that followed were amongst the hardest things I have yet had to do.

Had she survived a couple of months longer my Mother would have lived in the same house in Surrey (in the UK) for 50 years. We moved there when I was 6 and it was the house that I grew up in. As well as my mother and father – and the three of us children – my grandmother (on my mother’s side) lived with us in a two roomed ‘suite’ on the first floor. It was not a terribly grand villa, but it was clearly a good size.

My father died some seven years before my mother, after which she lived in the house on her own. She spoke many times about moving into a warden-assisted apartment – which would have made a great deal of sense – but when it came to it she couldn’t face the task of moving. What made this particularly onerous was that both she and my father were great hoarders. She collected books, pictures, calendars and knick-knacks… he never threw away any paperwork.

When my father retired from his job in the City he converted one of the bedrooms at home into an office, so that he could pretty much carry on as before – but without the commuting. His keen sense of duty had led him to volunteer as treasurer or secretary to a number of organisations and he produced mountains of paperwork for each. He steadfastly refused to countenance the purchase of a computer – rejecting all arguments to the effect that such would actually be of great benefit to him – and instead insisting on persevering with his manual typewriter on which he produced multiple copies using carbon paper.

It took 3 months after my mother’s death for the three of us to sort through all of the paperwork and personal effects, before we were in a position to get the house cleared. We found receipts and tickets and copies of letters (Father was a great letter writer – particularly of the complaining variety) dating back to the early 60s.

One particular correspondence tickled me. When Father bought the house in 1960 there was a small easement to be agreed concerning drainage rights for an adjacent property. This correspondence – between Father and a solicitor in one of the City law firms – ran for over two years and the two became sufficiently friendly that much of the substance of what was written concerned personal and family matters. When the issue was finally resolved – sometime in 1962, I believe – Father was paid the outstanding sum of around £3 0s 0p – this being of course in pre-decimal times.

As another example, Mother and Father – who never did really cultivate close friends but rather had a large circle of acquaintances, with many of whom father had struck up conversations on some train journey (neither of them drove!) – met a Dutch couple on a holiday. After this brief encounter the two couples exchanged postcards at regular intervals for the next several decades. We must have found over 1000 postcards stacked away in a bureau!

Why Mother and Father kept these correspondences and artifacts I have no idea. In a way it seemed a terrible shame to break up what would probably have appeared to the social historian as a fascinating snapshot of late twentieth century life, but – practically – there was little else that we could do.

All this makes me very glad that Kickass Canada Girl and I decided to move apartments last year – a process that involved a fair degree of rationalisation and clearing out. We now have less baggage and – however much we like where we are now – less of an emotional attachment to our current home. This should make things considerably easier for us as we make our way- imperceptibly – across the Atlantic.

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Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

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No matter how blessed an existence one leads there are inevitably darker times and occasional moments of sadness. Whilst caught in grip of an emotional squall it can be difficult to maintain perspective – to recognise that the account of one’s life does after all show a positive balance – and that if viewed in the context of the troubles of the wider world these relatively minor afflictions are little more than a passing shower. I don’t believe for a minute that our existence here is but a ‘vale of tears’, but I can see that some are unfortunate enough to lead lives that must make that seem so.

It is no secret that I find this time of year irksome and the long, slow grind towards the aurora of the new spring particularly wearing. Though many wonderful things have happened to Kickass Canada Girl and I over the last few years there have also been difficult times, and it seems to me that most of these have occurred in that dark hour before the dawn.

At the start of March last year the Girl’s father died – not unexpectedly, but suddenly. He had been in a nursing home for some time and she had flown back from the UK to visit him on a number of occasions. When it came to it we had only a couple of days notice that he was ailing, and by the time we had booked flights he had passed away.

The Girl and her father were very close. She misses him terribly and she will doubtless find the 11th March this year a particularly difficult day. It saddens me that I will be 8,500 miles away and unable to offer much comfort, so I am very glad that she has family at hand to lean on.

I liked Jim enormously. It was a privilege to have met him and to have been able to get to know him – even if only a little.  Oddly though, in a way I feel I know him quite well, as so many people have told me so much about him. There is clearly a lot of him in the Girl and this will keep his memory very much alive for me. One thing for which I am eternally grateful is that he saw the Girl and I married in the summer of 2010. He could see that she was happy and I think that must have meant a great deal.

When we were in BC last summer we flew up to Kamloops (the Girl’s birthplace) and then – with her cousin and his wife – drove on up the North Thompson valley. Above Clearwater we took the ATVs up into the mountains, to the ‘Hole in the Wall’ where Jim and his buddies used to hunt. The logging road has been long abandoned and the forest is growing back. We would not have got through at all had we not been carrying a chainsaw. In a year or so the track will have disappeared completely. The ‘Hole in the Wall’ has reverted to being a beautifully peaceful spot, and a good place to rest.

We buried Jim’s ashes on the hillside – so that he could look out over the mountains that he loved – and raised a small cairn. The Girl and her cousin fixed a plaque to a nearby tree which includes the inscription:

‘Hunter, fisherman, beloved father and loyal friend.’

So much more could be said – and yet maybe that says enough…

 

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You may have noticed that I have a fondness for language – for its depth and richness and for the infinite variety of its textures and meanings. I love how flexible and elastic it can be and the endless tapestries that can be woven from it. I have no issue with language evolving to meet the demands of new ages, but I do despair if it becomes impoverished by reduction – particularly if such occurs simply through laziness or some form of inverse snobbery.

Clearly ‘imperceptible’ is amongst my favourite words and always makes me think of that great – if apocryphal – theatrical anecdote concerning Samuel Beckett. To cover the somewhat unlikely eventuality that there are those who have not yet heard this story I thought I would include it herein.

Beckett was famously exacting when it came to productions of his work, demanding not only that the text be delivered unadulterated but also that stage directions be followed to the letter.

In 1975 Beckett’s TV play – ‘Ghost Trio’ – was filmed for BBC television. According to the anecdote Beckett himself sat in on the filming, sitting unobtrusively in the shadows at the back of the studio.

One of the early shots in the play includes this stage direction:

Cut to close-up of whole door. Smooth grey rectangle 0.1 x 2 m. Imperceptibly ajar.’

When it came to shooting this scene the director and set designer spent some time on set, nervously discussing the exact positioning of the door and experimenting with various degrees of ‘openness’ – all the while casting anxious glances towards the back of the studio trying to guage Beckett’s reaction. Receiving no guidance from that direction they tried ever finer degrees until finally – unable to stand it any longer – the great man leapt from his seat, stormed onto the set and slammed the door shut.

The director gasped. “But it says ‘ajar’…”, he protested.

“It also”, snapped Beckett, “says ‘imperceptibly’!”.

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Aaaaaaargh!!

After what feels like literally days surfing the InterWebNet researching cameras in an attempt to meet my somewhat arcane requirements (see here if you would like to know the background to this particular quest) I thought I had finally found one that came close to what I wanted. The Fujifilm X10 is a retro styled advanced compact with just the sort of features I was looking for.  Almost panting with excitement – my hand twitching over my credit card like a gunfighter itching to draw – I read on…

Then, to my horror, I started to unearth stories of an apparently fatal design flaw that causes the camera to perform poorly in certain low light conditions, unable to deal in a satisfactory manner with specular highlights. As this was the only camera that remotely met my criteria (assuming that I can’t afford a Leica – which I can’t) I was aghast!

Further reading simply confused the issue. Some reviewers were appalled that a £400 camera could exhibit such flaws – others didn’t mention the problems at all. The posters on some of the more excitable photographic blogs were sufficiently apoplectic that they almost seemed to want to storm Fuji HQ, burn it to the ground and to stone the executives. Others either hadn’t suffered from the defect at all, or if they had did not think it sufficient reason to return the cameras and demand their money back.

It is a very pretty little camera – and I have seen online many excellent examples of images captured by it. Should I just ignore the issues and buy the X10 anyway?

What to do? What to do?…..

I saw my brother last night (Kickass Canada Girl was handing over the sexy Civic to youngest son) but he claimed pressure of work as an excuse for not having yet come up with definitive photographic advice. He had also forgotten to bring the M9 with him which he had intended to show me – though that was probably a good thing!

He has, however, promised to look into it. Watch this space…

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Kickass Canada Girl now has an iPad – to go with her iPhone and her iPod. I had intended to suggest that this made her into a fully fledged ‘iGirl’, but I discover that this soubriquet has already been appropriated for an iPhone ‘app’ of dubious merit. I will leave the exact nature of the ‘app’ to your imagination, but the fact that the original tagline seems to have been “She obeys!” clearly renders it inappropriate for Kickass Canada Girl. Maybe she’s just ‘TechnoGirl’ instead…

The iPad was a combined Valentine’s Day/going away present for the Girl. My motives are not, however, entirely altruistic since its chief purpose is to enable us to stay in touch using Skype. The time difference between the UK and Victoria is eight hours, which means that during the working day opportunities to talk will be limited. The iPad is a great deal more versatile than a conventional laptop since it can be carried easily to appointments and meetings wherever they may be.

That said, purchase of the aforementioned device did demand some not inconsiderable sacrifice on my part. Needing – for a variety of reasons – to complete the purchase in a hurry I was compelled to visit the Apple store in the Westfield London shopping mall. This accretion of retail outlets is apparently the third largest in the UK – the mind boggles at the thought of there being anything bigger – and I am so obviously not a constituent of its target audience that on the rare occasions that I have been obliged to visit the place doing so has felt like entering a foreign country. Considering the square footage of floor space therein it amazes me that there is so little of any utility on offer, this being apparently purely a pantheon to the superfluous.

The Apple temple is, of course, beautifully designed in a minimalist sort of way, in keeping with the devices celebrated therein – with white being the predominant colour (or lack thereof). The store was, naturally, packed with spellbound punters being eagerly serviced by a cloud (should that be an iCloud?) of blue-shirted Apple ants. Here was the iPad appreciation section – there the iPhone zone – to the left the racks of exquisite accessories… and up at the back – the Genius Bar!

Now – I am not a genius, but I did know exactly what I wanted. The problem was that the one thing I couldn’t see was a place to actually buy the things. There was no obvious counter – no checkout. Worst of all, there was no signage.  I wandered around looking lost, whilst the blue worker ants – having clearly marked me out as a troublemaker – carefully avoided catching my eye. Eventually I found a sparse wooden table, much like all the others in the store, but with a small wooden plaque on it which read ‘Purchases’. A bearded genius homed in on me, head throbbing with iKnowledge, eager to demonstrate the extent of his technical know-how. Was there something he could help me with?

“Yes”, I said, indicating the sign. “I would like to purchase something!”

It is – when all is said and done – just a shop…

 

 

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I find that my enthusiasm for Valentine’s Day has been greatly rekindled over the last few years – not least because it was on the 14th February, three years ago, that I asked Kickass Canada Girl to marry me. As should be readily apparent by now she did me the the very great honour of accepting me.

It did not take me long after meeting the Girl to reach the conclusion that she must surely be most chaps’ idea of the dream woman. Yes – she is ‘preposterously pretty’ (and that compliment came from another woman!) but consider also the following:

  • The Girl managed the (male) rugby team at college
  • She likes classic sports cars (and drives pretty damned fast herself)
  • She drinks single malts

This much I discovered on our first date. Before long I had also established that in Canada she had turned out on a regular basis for her local softball and darts teams and I have since seen for myself how competitive she can be on an ATV or a Skidoo. Now – should this give the impression that the Girl is a bit of a tomboy let me reassure you that she is all woman, not to mention whip-smart and funny to boot.

She also sets high standards, so I knew that a proposal would need to score pretty highly if I hoped for a quick answer in the affirmative.

I like to think that I am something of a romantic, and I now thought back to our first date. We met at the National Theatre – a favourite haunt of mine – before walking along the South Bank to Bankside and crossing the wobbly bridge (which, naturally, doesn’t… any more) to St Paul’s Cathedral. There we climbed to the top of the dome and looked out over the capital together.

I decided that for Valentine’s Day 2009 we would recreate that first walk, but with an additional stop at a rather good restaurant overlooking the river just north of the bridge. We had already talked about getting married and I think the Girl was half-expecting a proposal. She certainly seemed a little put out when we were seated at a table by the picture windows rather than in one of the more intimate booths at the back. We had a splendid meal and a good bottle of wine, but the conversation steered clear of matters of the heart.

After lunch I suggested that for old times’ sake we might perhaps visit the cathedral. Kickass Canada Girl didn’t seem entirely keen but agreed to go along with the idea. When we reached the spot immediately under the centre of the dome – in front of various clerics and a crowd of Japanese tourists – I made a brief speech and went down on one knee to propose in time-honoured fashion. From her reaction – the Girl didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – I took it that things had gone reasonably well.

Since then, of course, they have gone exceedingly well and I am deeply in her debt… a debt that I shall do my best to repay over the years ahead.

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