Social media, communication and me

The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn. – Alvin Toffler
My last academic contribution was a chapter in a book where I looked at the ways I had sought to communicate probation over a 40 year period. I have always believed that effective communication is vital to getting your point across but, vitally, must enable two-way communication so listening and learning from others is just as vital in the communication cycle. In recent years the use of blogs, twitter and other social media have potentially extended the modes of communication as a complement to traditional forms. Some of these new modes increase the possibility though of one-way communication where meanings can be misconstrued without the interactive element of conversation. Email has been particularly problematic creating arguments often simply out of poor written English and misinterpretation. There may also be a tendency to be more extreme in the written word without the immediate comeback and of course this risks a breakdown in communication if it is simply used as a tool to inflame debate rather than engage in a genuine learning process. But how can all this learning help me in retirement? How and with whom should I communicate?
Once my children left home around the millennium I spent my time up to retirement so focused on work-related communications I neglected the domestic sphere. This work dynamic drove me, no work, no communication. Home was simply a refuge from work and whilst I had plenty of friends and family with whom communication was rich and still is, the house did (does) not have casual callers as I was never reliably here. Upon retirement I have worried that isolation could easily result if I got stuck at home.
I have of course the potential benefit of newer communicative modes mentioned above. Social media has the potential to transform communication patterns and can offer a buttress against social isolation. Take texting for instance. I can be at home and my son or daughter or other friends will text. It’s a contact and can lead to more communication depending on how you answer. I have engaged with the full range of social media – Facebook, twitter, blogging, Skype, messenger, texting, what’s app, through to the now old hat, emailing. I need to remind myself that good communication should be two way and there is a risk in social media that it becomes a one way mode, a way of asserting stuff but lacking the engagement in conversation. I think on the whole social media creates new opportunities for communication, though this has to be worked at, they are distinctive and not to be dismissed simply because they are new. I have many friends of my age who remain somewhat agnostic about these new forms of communication, indeed at times hostile. There will always be sceptics and luddites. I am old enough to remember when having home phones was a novelty and resisted so change can be difficult. But it is frustrating that some of my age group have such a dismissive attitude to social media, not all but sufficient that I have to consider how I communicate to each individual after I have recalled their (non)use of social media. I try to encourage this new media but do understand the limitations in communication in these new forms but I think they all have a part to play. Let me give three examples – tablets, blogging and blipfoto.
In 2011 I spent my first Christmas out of the UK. I reached Christmas lunch with my daughter 8 hours before the UK. As our day began to wind down around 5 pm, UK was waking up. I chatted on FB to many who I would simply not have spoken to that day. It was a bit of home which linked me to the UK. Through Skype (another new communicative mode) I spoke with family and got to share for a few moments their day. I felt linked and connected, though the communications were a bit halting, it gave me a link across 7500 miles to family and friends. My daughter talked endlessly to friends on FaceTime and Skype. We enjoyed our Christmas enriched by these communications.
My second example is blogging. I believe that my thoughts and ideas get to more people through this medium than would be the case in more traditional diaries or reflections in magazines. I recognise it is an example of a one way mode of communication and so do relish feedback and debate. If I have hit a chord or made someone think I have communicated. It is feedback that enables my own learning and that must be the main point of communicating at all. I am getting about 60-70 visitors each week which is great and remember it is easy to set it up so you get an email reminder when each blog comes out!
I talked about blipfoto last week. I have learnt so much from this photo-a-day site. I have learnt to communicate better visually and ‘seen’ more by observing and capturing scenes I previously missed. The diary element gives me an important log of my day and reading the diaries of others I can appreciate the rich and varied lives we all lead. I have ‘friends’ from these interactions even though I have not met any at all. The site was under threat a year ago and was saved by the community itself. Yesterday’s picture below was my thanks for this community crowd funding. 

So I have no doubt that social media has helped my connectedness in the world as I live in my home in splendid isolation. I do not get casual callers, i don’t really know my neighbours and with a tinge of regret, as I don’t really drink beer any more, the pub is not my alternative lounge. So the new media helps but I do need to work to get beyond the slightly fractured nature of communications on FB or twitter. It is a complement not an alternative and thus I must make sure as the wider world restricts for me my inner world around the home is open to expansion and communication, after all if I stop learning and developing I lose an essence of me that has driven my adulthood. So please call if passing I like communicating face to face!

This week’s key photos.

Learning to retire gracefully

This week I went to a day conference for the launch of a new research report. This sort of event has been the bread and butter of my working life and was often something I approached with much enthusiasm. Often the issues themselves were relevant to my own work and thus I would be speaking or running a workshop or challenging others. I got a buzz coming together with colleagues who I did not meet day-to-day but shared the same policy space. Networking it was called and I loved it. It gave me links and avenues to pursue, invites to other events and an increase in knowledge and ideas. It got me out of bed in the morning.

Such events are a rarity for me today and after this week I can see that that buzz is no longer there. The event went well and I got plenty of ideas from it but my energy was low. At the end of the day it does not contribute to my well being in ways it used to do. Perhaps, at last, retirement is beginning to re-focus my thinking and my actions. It was not the subject matter, something deeper I think, more of a question – did I want to be there at all? It’s less than a year since I retired so I should not be surprised but gradually getting myself up for more policy change, which has probably happened ten times previously in my working life, gets more difficult. I am happy with my involvement in the Probation Institute but I balance this with increasing attention to my personal pursuits, these are the things which matter. So if work is no longer necessary to my well being what is? I think I am beginning to get my well being in different ways and this week I have engaged in three things illustrative of the change of pace and direction. 
Firstly I started to collate the one-a-day pics I have taken since Jan 1 2014. I am preparing a yearbook for 2014 using photobox. It’s slow and rather painstaking but will give me a permanent record of this journey. I wanted to include the text which accompanies each entry as it acts as a diary of what I have done, all the ups and downs and thus the oral and pictorial history may interest someone in years to come. In fact given the thousands that are on the blipfoto website ( there is a hidden oral and pictorial history that in some cases goes back over ten years. The rules are simple, you have to take a picture within the 24 hours of each day and post it on the site. There are some days (like today when it’s dull, rainy and there is little inspiration) that it can be hard but I began to notice the world around me in ways I have never really done before. One example below. I took this picture having spotted it walking from my office to the main building, a journey I did loads of times. I have never ‘seen’ it before. Suddenly in searching for a ‘blip’ (photo) I was noticing the world around me, this was such an unexpected joy and has led to my interest in birds, again something I was only vaguely aware of before, and an ancillary consequential intention has followed, improving my photography to capture birds in as sharp a relief as possible. I have just entered year 4 of this journey and not yet missed a day though it’s been last minute a few times. 

How could you walk past this mural…but I used to

My second motivation is a resurgence of interest in writing a novel. I started in earnest in 2012 having had this idea for a novel but had put on the back burner until retirement. Suddenly my ill health threatened my very existence and it sharpened the mind. I started writing earnestly getting 60000 words on paper in six months, not a bad start. Then the dreaded axe did not fall and treatments have extended my lifespan and I lost direction as I felt the relief. Tiredness and bouts of ill health did not help and whilst I was aware of this drift I could not get going. This week I sat down to convert the words already written into a first draft, target mid-May to complete. I put 14000 words on paper and was relieved to find what I had written four years ago was ok. So up and going again. Don’t know yet if it is just the ramblings of someone who wants to write a novel but who can’t or whether it has the slightest possibility of finding some literary merit when friends read a first draft in mid-May. I have a deadline, I will make it.

Last night I travelled to the little known culinary delights of Barton upon Humber, for a meal with my son and daughter at Elio’s Italian Restaurant. This is our sixth gathering over the past five years. Why there and what is the significance? Well today, 12 Feb 2016 is exactly five years since my consultant told me my cancer was incurable. My daughter came up from London that evening. The following day I was due to take my son to a wedding reception which happened to be near Scunthorpe. We decided to find somewhere to have some food and then pick up my son from the reception. We found Elio’s. It was a good restaurant and we sat and chatted, with quite a few tears, what might happen next. It was a difficult evening but I was determined to remain positive. I said we should mark each year with a return visit to the restaurant so we could celebrate survival for as long as it lasts. Yesterday evening marked our sixth visit and another meal was enjoyed. So we keep going as I’m Still Here (title of my blipfoto site) and there is more to do! My ‘blips’ this week follow.

Another conference



About 17 years ago just after new year I was invited to the Long Eaton home of a Midlands academic colleague to chat about a new journal opportunity. It started an annual meet which has continued to this day as, earlier this week, I made the journey to his wonderful penthouse flat set in the centre of Nottingham for our annual rendezvous. These annual meetings soon became less business and more mutual mentoring (or less pretentiously a ‘reight good natter’). As a footnote, the Journal, the essence of which was thrashed out at that first meeting, did start three years later and has now had 14 successful years in which we both retained key editorial roles.

I often met D in work related conferences or other formal events but we rarely had the chance to sit back and reflect without the pressure of a deadline. This was the true value of our gatherings. It gave us both a chance to reflect on the previous year, the highs and the lows and to just unload on our gripes, our puzzles and our aspirations. We challenged each other, we supported each other, we developed ideas, we reviewed our personal and professional directions as we have moved year on year from busy professionals towards semi-retirement and beyond. D published a lot more than me and tried to get me to write more though I was too busy trying to influence the policy world and I know I have never written enough. But we worked through that too. It was a recurring debate and even this time we chatted about a chapter I had written reflecting on my career, it gave us new ideas to play with. But the beauty of it all was it was impromptu and subjects under discussion changed constantly in a free flowing discussion and we also got to focus as much on personal issues as professional concerns. We made the space what we wanted it to be and it has just worked, at least it has for me and I hope for D. It is a highlight of the year.

For me travelling down to his wonderful flat is also part of the experience. The journey through the A614 past Clumber Park, Rufford Abbey and Center Parcs encourages a nostalgic car journey as these places were frequent calls with my lovely young children in the 1980s and 1990s. A walk by the water at Clumber was a simple pleasure. I also played cricket at Clumber which was a very traditional village ground with a very old and tiny pavilion. My son also played there as a junior. I took visitors there and also first camped with my then new trailer tent in a lovely campsite within the Park, though sadly it no longer exists. So the journey encourages those episodic memories which infuse any car journey when on your own as, randomly, you recall events, in no order and probably with a glaze of imagination and invention given the time lapse.

We have nearly always met in Nottingham principally because I love the penthouse flat D occupies. I love the shape and feel of the flat and sink into the settee as if it is an old friend. I love the lounge surrounded by book boxes which need a ladder to access. The view over central Nottingham from the balcony, even on a grimy wintery day, is great and sets the tone of the day. There is a selection of photos below which I took on this recent visit, including a wonderful dentist chair care of D’s partner.

Old fashioned dentist chair

The home of JM Barrie when in `Nottingham

We drink copious amounts of tea, usually have a sandwich though we have eaten locally too and talk. When we need to, we can talk frankly offline in the secure knowledge that concerns will not be shared with others. This enables and promotes an honesty which is refreshing. The thoughts will not leave the flat unless we want it to do so. During the time back in 2012 when I had such an awful time at work, D listened, reflected back ideas and helped me with perspective. It’s just a gem of an opportunity, so thanks D for putting up with my ramblings, it remains such a pleasure.
Do we spend enough time in our busy lives just standing back and taking stock? I am not sure I have always done enough, often pushed by deadlines and the next task. It is hard when so many plates are spinning in the air that we rarely shout ‘stop’ and not worry that the plates won’t come tumbling down. I think I have kept sane over the years through having a number of distinct plates which have co-existed with each other notably my family plate, my work plate, my sport plate and I did become a good multi-tasker to do this. I like the variety of my life but it has rarely been anything less than hectic. But I am not sure I stepped back enough just to reflect outside of these competing pressures. I spent time with a friend in Chester last year and thought why have I not done more of this? I remember my Nottingham visits partly because I rarely did this at any other time whilst at work. Work for me has always been a reflective environment at its best and I love that but sometimes keeping those plates going reduces time to stand back. As someone who has taught the importance of critical thinking and reflection we must always find ways to fulfil this aspiration. Thanks D. 

This week’s pics

From Waxwings to Chinese New Year 

I achieved a first this week if only briefly and fleetingly. I saw a discussion online indicating that waxwings had been seen in large numbers in Harworth, the next village to me. Now 24 months ago the word ‘waxwing’ would have had no meaning. Indeed beyond the sparrow and the still wonderful robin my ability to recognise, far less appreciate, birds was effectively non-existent. A tentative move into taking bird pictures for my Blipfoto site (, where I have taken a pic a day for over three years now, has seen me erect a bird feeder in the garden, visit bird hides at nature reserves and now a bit of twitching. Also when I am out I am seeing birds in ways I simply ignored throughout my early life. I still recognise only a few and I cannot discern a bird from its song but it’s a whole new world and so I went to do a bit of twitching. Now I did choose the coldest day of a cold week and could only stay a short time before my fingers could no longer grip my camera but stood alongside both twitchers and photographers, managing to create the illusion I was a regular and managed to get a few half-decent pics in the trees though no real close-ups. 


I have learnt to recognise quite a few birds now and get excited when I spot and get a decent picture of one. It is a simple, free pleasure and I do get a real buzz from getting a good close-up showing the colours in sharp relief. Not that this is easy and I have gone quite quickly from an iPhone to a bridge camera to a DSLR and most recently a large zoom and quite expensive lens. This last buy is good for birds as I can get close without spooking them and sometimes, through luck as much as judgment, I get a sharp, clear picture. I am slowly getting better but the learning curve is slow and I am forever coming up against limits to my knowledge. But I have not set a goal of becoming expert, I just enjoy what I can achieve. You have seen some of my efforts in previous blogs. 

A robin in my garden today

That last statement in itself represents a shift for me in how I tackle the world around me both in retirement and with the trials of uncertain health. Most of the time my adjustments in what I can and cannot do, how I manage my time and how I have to (reluctantly and sometimes angrily) accept limitations, I manage. I am no longer driven to go the extra mile nuancing what is doable and prioritising what I want to do rather than what I must do. It sounds simpler to state but harder to put into practice. My brain tells me I should be doing a number of things but though I have the time I haven’t the will or the energy. So I am beginning to get better at managing my time and setting realistic goals. I know for instant that a busy couple of days means a rest day though reading and garden bird watching can be done from the armchair. I have less need in me to achieve and I can settle for what I enjoy and get satisfaction from that and no more.
This does not stop me raging from the sidelines at the global politics around all of us. The post-truth era is potentially devastating and truly sickening for all our children and it makes a mockery of the struggle I and many others have waged for a decent social democratic society throughout our lifetimes. It seems on the surface we have done little good and the world seems to be going backwards and certainly the real fear is current policies and actions run the risk of future catastrophes. It is warming to see that resistance remains and the Women’s Marches around the world last week were testimony to this endless democratic spirit that we have within us. I was there in spirit too and hope we continue this fight.
This weekend has seen a festival which we can enjoy. It’s the Chinese New Year so Kung Hei Fat Choi to you all. I was fortunate to celebrate this festival twice during times in Hong Kong. The colour, the joy, the lion dances, the food, the fireworks, the red packets/envelopes, all make it a joy to behold. I watched the TV one year when the snow was threatening the return home of mainland Chinese to their families. The stations were packed full of determined people seeking to get to their family despite extreme weather. This family focus I saw in Hong Kong too. It is a time of the year when this is their first priority. I am sure my friends in Hong Kong will have had a wonderful family weekend and I hope the Year of the Rooster brings them all great joy as I hope it dies for all of us. 

My favourite novels and why….

I am taking up the challenge posed by one of my readers, Andy, a couple of weeks ago. I quite like the idea of writing a blog from a prompt from one of my readers. So don’t hesitate to set me a topic and, if I think I can do it. I will try. This topic took me back to the days I first got into literature. I was at school (fifth into sixth form, so around 15/16) and we had an inspirational English teacher, John Gibson. He would often leave behind the curricula books, so much so I never read, Edwin Muir, An Autobiography, yet answered an exam question on it! He introduced us to poetry, many classical, but also people like Philip Larkin, Brian Patten and Roger McGough and my favourite, Wilfred Owen. He took us to the theatre in Stratford where we saw Measure for Measure and Hamlet and London where we saw Eric Porter’s King Lear and still the most powerful play I have ever seen, ‘the irresistible rise of Arturo Ui’ with Leonard Rossiter in the lead role. This live, exciting way literature was brought to me through theatre and poetry reading just started me reading, a love of novels which has never left me. I cannot thank him enough. Sadly, he lost his job, I think in the late 1970s, when he tried to teach Peace Studies but fell foul of a reactionary school. He became a poet but I lost the trail on him then. My choice of degree study could have been English but I was good at history and the school had not heard of social sciences so I took history, often wished I had chosen differently.

I remember though one of my favourite courses was literature and history when we looked at how history was conveyed through novels such as Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’ or Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’. In fact this introduction to Orwell also brought a reading plan which stayed with me for many years. One summer I worked for York Council cleaning the Crown Courts. I could only do this before 10 when the courts opened and after 4pm when they had finished so sat in a cubbyhole all day. I decided to read the collected works of Orwell. I loved coming to work, settled into my little, cramped but private space with a cup of tea and I just read. I fell in love not only with the quality of Orwell’s writing but his espousal of democratic socialism against totalitarianism, I found his ideas fitting my own developing philosophy of life.
I have continued to find an author and then read all their works as a strategy in choosing books so amongst others, Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell (though not the Wexford stories), William Boyd, John Le Carrie, Julian Barnes, John Grisham and Ian McEwan spring to mind. So if I read a novel and liked it I would look out for novels by the same individual. Over the years though two other methods have evolved for choosing books, particularly since I abandoned the lists approach (100 best ever novels or best books of the year etc etc). I read an article that calculated the amount of books you could read before you die and even at a fast pace you can touch but a fraction of the total outlay. So I stopped chasing lists as I could never ever get through them. Instead I did two things.
I took note of what my friends were reading, trusted their judgments and picked up books which I then enjoyed, discovered Graham Swift and William Boyd this way. Alongside this I started to read the Man Booker winners circa 2004, starting with the enjoyable ‘The Line of Beauty’ by Alan Hollingsworth, though David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’ was my favourite that year and one of my best ever. Not unsurprisingly, having been selected for the major book prize it was an endorsement of quality and I started to read the short lists and then the long lists. From 2009 have met with friends on the evening of the announcement of the prize to chew over the shortlist and select our winner. That year saw ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel as a nailed-on winner but I went for Simon Mawer ‘The Glass room’ which remains one of my favourite books. It was hard work reading them all in advance but the deadline produced a commitment to complete which meant we got there. This has brought a mixture of some truly great books and some difficult and incomprehensible ones. A recent article inThe Times criticised the Booker prize for producing incomprehensibility; arduousness; obscurity and neophilia (novelty seeking?). I can identify books in all these categories but come October the satisfaction of reading a range of new books outweighs the occasional Tom McCarthy or Will Self aberration.


Short listed for Man Booker 2016

I have also dabbled in two other book competitions, the women’s prize for fiction (now the Bailey’s prize) which I have done twice, loving it in year one when ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ by Tea Otreht was a deserved winner and the following year when the shortlist was disappointing.
In 2010-11 I found myself on sabbatical in Hong Kong. I had time at last to focus on novels. So much of my working life has been taken up with reading – academic books, articles, student essays, Doctoral theses, reviewing articles, blogs, official reports etc etc etc. This has always squeezed the time for novels. I found myself in HK with time. So I followed the Man Booker Asian Literary Prize. Read books I simply would not have come across before and found a richness about south Asian culture I had been unaware of. During the seven months I read 35 books captured in the collage below, an output I have rarely achieved before or since.

I still do the Man Booker but will choose books which are winners of other prizes, as I said above too many books and not enough time. I have also experimented with the form in which I read. I bought a kindle when I was travelling a lot and this eased the burden of dragging books around. I have gone back to hard copy books more recently. I love the smell and feel of books and love them on my shelves. In two different times I have also audio read books, a very different experience where the reader brings the novel alive with their own interpretation. Last year’s Booker winner, `A brief history of Seven Killings’ by Marlon James was written in several voices and the audio attempted to deliver those very distinctive voices. If I had read it the experience would have been very different. So I still return to hard copy.

So I have tried to highlight why and how I read novels but I am going to finish with my own highly quirky list of my favourite books. I have not listed them in order of merit but more chronologically to reflect books that have had impact over my life as it has progressed. I am sure I have missed some out but it’s just a bit of fun.
Brighton Rock by Graham Green (1938) – I read this in school and was gripped and terrified in equal measure. I had never, in my sheltered life, met such a villain as Pinkie, and his personal struggles to deal with what he did entranced me. I had a nightmare after reading this, the only time this has ever happened.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866) – I was enthralled by this book which explored the inner punishment which a crime engenders, even if you have not been discovered. I think this book took me towards probation work and I always encouraged my students to read it.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) – my marathon reading sessions at York Crown Court meant Orwell has stayed with me forever. I pick this one but could have picked one or two others. Recently I saw it in the theatre and it reminded me just how relevant the themes remain.
Curious incident of the dog in the nighttime by Mark Haddon (2003) – probably my favourite book of all time. For the first time I understood a little the experience of the world by someone on the autistic spectrum. It was such a well written and powerful novel. More recently I saw it produced as a play and again it had an emotional experience on me I have rarely appreciated. Love it.
The Millennium Trilogy Collection: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005); The Girl Who Played With Fire (2006); The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007) by Stig Larsson. – What a total and wonderful surprise these novels were introducing Scandinavian crime fiction in a magnificent and page turning way. Despite their length I read them quickly and thoroughly enjoyed them. A wonderful central character in Elsbeth Salander. Such a shame Larson had died in 2004 so we will see no more of his talents.
To kill a mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) – I came to this book very late, only a few years ago. I had read all about it many times but never read it. When I did I realised what every review had said, this Pulitzer Prize winner exemplified racial prejudice in a small time American town, still relevant today. I immediately watched the film and it just furthered my admiration.
The colour purple by Alice Walker (1982) – was another Pulitzer Prize winner and also a Spielberg film. It’s a novel about women, about abuse, about children. It is story telling at its best drawn from the horrendous position of women of colour in 1930s America and the author’s own experiences.
The glass room by Simon Mawer (2009) – unlucky to be a short listed book during a Hilary Mantel year this book was an absolute delight. Well written, the fascination of this glass house, made for new lovers. It is based on a real story but set in Czechoslovakia as nazism grew and took over. As the world spins into chaos, the Glass House remains a constant. Lots of twists in the plot but I loved it.
The narrow road to the deep north by Richard Flanagan (2014) – my second Booker choice which won in 2014. For once we all agreed this was our winner. It tells the story of Australian prisoners-of-war in Burma building a railway. It is a harrowing account of their treatment by the Japanese but for me the novel seeks to explore the Japanese mentality making it a much more nuanced account of why individuals act as they do to each other. One of the most disturbing yet mesmerising books I have read.
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (2012) – I have read more and more from Asian authors and this, by a Malaysian author, is one of my absolute favourites. It was shortlisted in 2012 for the Man Booker and won the Man Booker Asian Literary Prize. Amid “the stillness of the mountains” and “the depth of the silence”, a story slowly unfolds. Very, very slowly. It is so well written and really worth time reading it.
So I have tried to answer the question posed and must have missed out as many novels as I have included which deserve a place. I have never re-read a novel so some novels I retain a feel for their quality but not the detail. Amongst these Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, Amsterdam, The Sense of an Ending spring to mind. I have plenty of time to read novels now but fatigue and tiredness does impact on my concentration. But come July every year when the Man Booker long list is announced, I get butterflies in the stomach and start the process once again. But this has been a long blog, I must stop.

Stories from an iconic building

It was 1985 when we were due to start our second cricketing adventure – a cricket tour in the Lake District. For six glorious years we had toured Somerset and Devon with some of the best cricketers I had played with at York and Hull University, hence the name Yorkhull CC. We were getting a little older so had decided on a gentler itinerary and just four matches instead of the six in six days we had played in the south-west. With not long to go we had still not secured anywhere to stay. Our nominated player for securing accommodation kept making positive noises though nowhere was actually mentioned. The success of the tour depended on a reliable, hospitable place to stay, an essential component of any cricket tour but, with young families, it had to be within our then limited means. 

As we arrived for this weekend for our last ever visit to The Heaves Hotel, Sedgwick near Kendal we reflected that it would have been unlikely that we would have toured in the area for 11 years and returned on many other occasions had we not discovered the shabby sheik of this wonderful Georgian mansion. Their website describes the hotel thus:
Once the home of the Gandy Family, this fine, Georgian Mansion became a Country House Hotel in 1947. We have a wealth of history here and although modern luxuries have been added, Heaves Mansion still retains the elegant character, which befits a true Country House. It is still owned and run by the same family after nearly 60 years. Heaves has always been noted for a friendly welcome and a sense of peace and quiet. Set in ten acres of formal gardens, woodland and parkland, the hotel has magnificent views of the Pennines, the Kent Estuary and the Lakeland Hills. The Whitelock family look forward to personally welcoming you to their home.

In fact it has been revealed this weekend that it was pure fluke that we landed here. Booked following a desperate conversation with yet another B&B who could not fit us in and it was mentioned just in passing. It sounded within our price range, but pre-internet so no pictures or description but a place to rest near to our chosen cricket grounds. We could always look around for somewhere else if we came back here. 
I will never forget that first year, after struggling to find it at all, eventually spotting it and driving up their long tree-lined drive with rolling hills all around and at the top this magnificent, grand and imposing building. How could we afford this? Had our player booked us an expensive place by mistake? But it did not take us long to discover everything about it suited us, it was quiet, had numerous rooms to explore and very old comfy chairs to sink into. It was well within our budgets, breakfast was and still is great, and, before a bar was installed, we were allowed to bring beer and wines into the lounge and enjoy an after match drink or two! We often seemed to take over the house when we came with 13 of us in these grand old rooms oozing history and we created a regard for it which has lasted through time. 
Beyond our cricket tours, individuals have had honeymoons here, brought their families, I arranged a 21 year post graduation reunion for 26 ex York university students and their families in 1995. We returned in 2012 at the request of one of our most loyal players and wonderful friend, George. He had been diagnosed with bowel cancer and sadly had only months left to live and would not make our usual summer rendezvous at a cricket ground somewhere in the UK, a tradition we continue to this day. He wanted to come back here and so we did. We rediscovered it as we had left it, just the same, a few more en-suite rooms but the same relaxed comfort and owners, M and C, not looking any older and still running the place with quiet authority and a welcoming smile. George loved the weekend, a poignant memory of great times and we all fell back in love with it and have returned every winter since. Indeed in 2013 we planted a tree in the grounds in memory of George who left us in June 2012.

 I brought a group of 12 academics here last year to spend two glorious days working hard to produce a unique volume of work in a journal. They all loved the experience and vowed to return with their partners. 

So many memories crowd my mind as I write this piece. It seems almost unbelievable that it won’t ever be the same after the end of January. Even if in the long term it is redeveloped as a hotel it will be so different and the indelible print of the owners of which, M, stands supreme, with his partner C, having lived here or nearby for all of his life, they and thus the Heaves character we know and love, will be sorely missed. Their son, P, we first met as a 5 year old and now head chef here. The games of snooker just a memory now as the tree which devastated the snooker room one year never ever got repaired.
Those who like five star luxury when using a hotel would not have enjoyed the relaxed splendour of this place. But where else would you still get served curly butter pieces for breakfast, a typical quaint touch. As the leader of our group I have always stayed in the Gandy room, see pics below, which has such a splendour about it. Yes it may be cold sometimes, and the antiquity of the furnishings cannot be disputed as you creak into them but in this world of pre-packaged formality, rooms tend to look identical and with no character, the individuality and history of this room and the others stands out. It is a privilege to use it one last time this weekend. 

For us as a group it simply fitted like a glove and became the spiritual home of our nomadic cricket team, Yorkhull. When we stopped playing in 1996, with too many arthritic knees, broken backs and failing eyesight, we presented a picture to M and C which still appears in their bar. We enjoyed a meal together then to celebrate the union of our cricketing exploits with the perfect tour venue. It is a comfort blanket which stretches over you as soon as you walk through the door. Both us, the hotel and M and C have grow older together but somehow time seems to stop when we get here. A bubble takes us back to great memories and some we now might, as more mature adults, prefer to forget. But mostly, overwhelmingly, they are good memories and however lucky it appears we were to find it and secure it year on year we will be forever grateful. Talking of bubbles we raised a glass last night at our traditional meal, in our club ties, to the phenomenon that is, and will forever be, The Heaves Country House Hotel. 


Why I like soaps?

Yesterday I went on a wonderful trip organised as a Christmas present. With my son and friend we went to the Emmerdale Tour Experience. Last year we had visited Harewood House in Leeds where the current external scenes of the village of Emmerdale is now located but this was more looking at the sets and internal workings of Emmerdale. I thoroughly enjoyed this and then we took ourselves off to Esholt where Emmerdale was filmed until the 1990s. It still has the original pub, the Woolpack, and we finished our day trip out with a beautiful lunch in the pub, to be recommended. I took pictures of the day and they are below in the collage. There is a picture of Kirkstall Abbey which we passed on the way to Esholt. 

Watching soaps divides people as much as whether you like marmite or not. (I don’t!) The distain in people’s voice when they dismiss soaps with a withering remark quite often based on never actually seeing an episode. This low brow, trashy, poorly acted, waste of time is not worth the time, an oft quoted remark by the soap dispensers. This is despite its wonderful story telling and examination of core social issues in much the same manner as Shakespeare and then Dickens produced in their works. A distinction is often made by TV watchers between worthwhile TV and the rest and it can be a mark of honour to dismiss soaps. Well for me I have been an avid watcher of soaps since the days of Crossroads, admittedly not the best argument on the merits of soaps. My favourites are Coronation Street and Emmerdale but I have a passing knowledge of Eastenders, Brookside, Crossroads, Hollyoaks, Albion Market and even Neighbours. The same people who dismiss these soaps will, if pushed, admit to being a lifelong fan of ‘The Archers’ as if it’s narrative has more cultural merit than any TV soap. Bah, humbug!
I watched Corrie as a child with my family and have never lost the bug. Corrie’s ace in the pack is its humour as it pairs together people who feed off each other with gentle humour, just like odd couples do in real life, Norris and Rita is a good example. But they also by their very existence open up a sociological understanding of life on these northern streets. The storylines, the very shape of the environments are a reflection of popular life and culture. We can all recognise what they bring to mind. All soaps explore community in their own contexts.
Sometimes they tackle difficult issues – be it Hayley’s pancreatic cancer and death in Corrie, or in Emmerdale Zak’s testicular cancer and ongoing, Ashley’s poignant reminders of the horrors of vascular dementia, to name just a few. They may not always get the details right or portray an image which appears helpful to the issue. For instance Stan’s death with prostate cancer in Eastenders fed into the myth that it is an old man’s disease which people die with rather than from. Not sure that 10000 people would attest to this as each year they will die from this disease from their 40s right through the age range. But they took on the issue and it created a debate and perhaps that is the service they bring. They enable difficult conversations to be had through the characters in the soap, a safe outlet for discussion. 
Tackling social issues is more the norm now in soaps than ever before. But from the outset of my teaching I would give examples from soaps to make my academic lectures on crime and social justice come alive. Students would shift slightly uncomfortably in their seats in case anyone near them realised they understood the reference but relaxed once they understood that most students would have a favourite soap. Crossroads provided us with a wonderful example of restorative justice 80s style which raised all the issues of fairness, victim-centredness, remorse and responsibility. This was taken up many years later when Gail in Corrie agreed to a restorative justice conference in prison which was tweeted heavily by the major restorative justice organisations. The early coverage was textbook and a great advert for this process though Gail meeting Michael after he was released, befriending and marrying him is not evident in the textbooks I have seen on this process.
Soaps need drama and thus at times the events are magnified for dramatic effect and we get features of these communities – higher incidence of marriages, deaths and illnesses, multiple car crashes, airplane incidents and murder – which would make them risky places to live your life, though not as dangerous as Midsomer. But they do have saving graces in that you can get a life threatening stroke, heart attack or paralysis and find yourself a year later fully fit and running marathons. 

Enjoying the Corrie tour

Let’s not take them too seriously but if you are going to take against them do so with more knowledge than many have today. The quality of acting is in general very good indeed and soaps regularly spawn high quality actors who go on to stellar careers elsewhere Suranne Jones, Michelle McCutcheon, Ian McKellen to name just three. As much as I love novels for creating characters I can identify with, I can do that through soaps too. It’s a familiar world which we can dip in and out of with ease. 

Taking a bus to Hotten (from Emmerdale!)

I am not going to apologise that I watch soaps nor do I feel that stands against or in opposition to more highbrow drama or novel reading which I enjoy immensely. I enjoyed dipping into the magic behind Emmerdale yesterday just as much as I enjoyed taking the mic for a cricket fixture against Emmerdale when they played our club to raise money for Rumanian orphans. It was great to meet these stars just contributing to charity in this way. 
A few bird shots finishes this blog. 

Looking back, glancing forward 

Looking back on my journey in 2016 it’s been a time of great personal change, massive change in some respects and survival. I won’t make resolutions as they appear far too firm and unbending but I have some clear aspirations for 2017. But first a quick look back. Starting with the high or lowlight of the year, still not sure, my retirement at the end of April. The event itself was very humbling and could not have been a better way to finish. The day will stick in my memory for a long time to come and I also have the videos if I need any reminder. The following day I entered my office, cleared my desk and left the building, 34 years at the University was over. I never thought I would retire and to be honest still getting my head around it. I also thought I’d left a legacy of a well respected research centre, international journal and website, 14 years building a strong set of products. Now at the end of this week the Centre will shut and wonderful colleagues will be forced to leave. Nothing justifies this action and has soured the end of year for me beyond words. My time with the Probation Institute has kept me around the world of probation, an important transition and a new challenge, despite it being a brutally difficult time for probation.  

My second deep memory of 2016 was my final trip to Hong Kong. Always made to feel so welcome by colleagues there, many I now regard as friends, the farewell dinners were sumptuous and wholehearted. I will never forget the warmth I felt with these wonderful people in a wonderful place that I’ve come to love over the past 15 years. Another door closes but much continues and so it is important to look forward to my aspirations for 2017.

Let me summarise first:
1. Strive for a ‘reasonably healthy’ year

2. Complete first draft of my novel by May 18th

3. Undertake the photography course #AYearWithMyCamera2017 and improve my skills

4. Connected to 3) my project will be ‘My Yorkshire’

5. Continue creating and building memories 
How much I do and how well I do it does revolve around maintaining my health. This year has been rather odd health wise as I started it with a lot of pain and a worsening prognosis regarding my cancer. An intervention in March designed as a stop gap has remarkably sustained me throughout the year and I have much better symptomatic relief. That is really good news and I hope it can continue, five years and counting. Strangely since April I have suffered a number of relatively minor though debilitating ailments which have brought me down and one results in me now fighting the somewhat vague but definitely annoying, Irritable Bowel Syndrome. All very inconvenient but we fight on though how much I achieve has to be set against this backcloth, hence the aspirational tone of my ‘commitments’.
You may regard my second aspiration as rather specific. I have asked two friends to review the first draft of my novel as I guess I am now at the stage where I need to know if it is worth a second draft! I needed a deadline so have invited my friends to join me at a secluded venue in mid-May. Whatever state it is in, it will be ready for perusal. I have around 67000 words so just need to focus.
My third aspiration is a repeat from last year. This is a free no-hassle photography course, where you can do as much or as little as you want. Each week an email sets you a task which is related to skill development. I started last year with much enthusiasm but retirement, health and embarrassment at getting so far behind meant I drifted away from the course. I am back this year with renewed determination. You are asked to choose a project and last year I chose birds on which I did improve as the year went on. So I need another focus.
Thinking about this I came to the conclusion that exploring Yorkshire would serve a number of goals- visiting and revisiting my favourite haunts is always enjoyable, systematically capturing this through photos, reflecting on what I find. I have started perusing maps and planning some ideas. I will of course opt for the traditional boundaries of Yorkshire to include Hull and Middlesbrough. I hope the end product will be a personal book, mainly of photos, reflecting this journey. 
I think these aspirations will give me some realisable goals whilst enabling me to take life at an easy pace and incorporate the many activities and events which the year will provide, particularly my focus on family and friends and not forgetting Barnsley FC, Tickhill CC and Yorkshire CCC. 
I know it is conventional wisdom to regard 2016 as a bad year and certainly some strange, sad and depressing things have happened. The world remains in such an unstable state both at home in the U.K, but also in USA and I saw briefly the difficulties ahead for Hong Kong, the tragedy of Syria continues to unfold uncertainly and the ever present threat of terror incidents makes life uncertain for all. Too many people suffer from the bad, sometimes selfish decisions of others. At a global but also a local level. Dogma driven decisions on the NHS, education, probation and prisons blight wonderful services and I can personally vouch for the wonder that remains the NHS despite attempts to undermine it. I have had services from five different departments, met many wonderful nurses, had support from my GP and am still here!
I don’t see myself as old and never saw myself as retired. So 2016 will stay in the memory as a time of transition to something new and challenging. I won’t work again, my energy levels say no and I will continue to adapt both to retirement and my place within it. Thanks for following my blog so far, have a great new year and after 51 more blogs I will be back to reflect in 2017, I hope!

I was a campanologist once

The title reminded me how much we undertake during our lives but also what we leave behind. This happens on a superficial level but I guess also on more fundamental issues. I think I will start with the superficial. I became a campanologist when a young teenager. With my Dad and brother we joined a new group of church bell ringers in Kedington, West Suffolk. It was challenging but once the basic skills were achieved quite enjoyable and having a chance to chat to a young female in the group via the cover of the spiral staircase was an added pleasure. We rang ‘Plain Bob’ and tried ‘Cambridge Surprise’ though I don’t think we ever managed the later tune very well. The bells were heavy at times and in my early 20s I did have back pain which may have been connected. I had left the bell ringing world as I began to feast on the pleasures of youth clubs and pints of beer and never returned. Around the same time I stopped having piano lessons even though I had got to Grade 6 (out of 8) and also stopped singing in the church choir. 
Clearly around age 18 my combined musical talents, such as they were, peaked and I left the building. When I arrived at university, sitting around in college rooms and the guitars came out my only regret was that I could not get my church bells out of my cupboard nor a piano. I had learnt the wrong instruments for my lifestyle. Too late then and too late now. I did command a somewhat drunken audience in the Bootham Pub, York on Friday nights when I would be persuaded to play on the piano and sing the Tommy Steele inspired ‘little white bull’ – you had to be there!
Sometimes we take these decisions because when we balance up against a clear criteria – ability, time, interest or the interest of others the calculation shows a deficit and it is best to move on. Or also circumstances can simply conspire against us. I started playing the piano a couple of years too late, I was 12 and though had reached a good standard other things competed and I made choices. Had I reached a better standard when 16 maybe there might have been more will to continue. Maybe we just crowd too much into our lives and only a few things come to the surface and stay there. It has always frustrated me when I see people with talent, junior cricket is my best example, who love playing but disappear to university and/or work, marriage and family and never play again. It feels a tragic waste of talent but reflects the choices we make in life. And of course for some sport is a energising outlet when young but other choices crowd in and win the day. 
I find the end of the year a time of reflection and next week’s blog will set out my aspirations for next year. I think I am very fortunate that I regret so little of my life choices, big or small. I am something of a romantic when it comes to aspirational thinking and action. I always dreamt of reaching the best level I could to whatever I applied my mind to, be it work, family, friends, sport or leisure. That I fell short in many ways on many things just spurred me on to try harder. I guess a stubborn character combined with utopian ideals drove my actions. I would always have a go……………
* So let’s do a four day conference for the ‘Century of Probation’. ‘No it will never work’ but it did and we made a small surplus. 

* I’ll write a book on the history of Tickhill CC, ‘too big a task’ but I did. 

* I’ll continue working and bring two kids up on my own… you will have to go part time….but I didn’t and I did

* Let’s organise a tour for ex university cricketing mates for 1978 – and we did for 19 years and still meet to watch cricket now 38 years later

* I was given two years but still here after five!
So maybe a positive (and stubborn) attitude makes a difference to levels of engagement. I regard myself as a glass half full person and a sense of striving to achieve the impossible has always been an aspiration. This attitude also helps orientation to issues – do you see yourself as a sick/healthy person; do you see yourself as successful or a failure; will your team win the competition? It can drive not only your thinking but your actions. I am convinced that being positive has brought better rewards. 

Christmas Dinner

One aspiration this year was to have Christmas with my two children and my daughter’s partner and so we enjoyed a wonderfully relaxing time at Center Parcs, in itself a nostalgic return from many trips when they were young. It was much the same but the quiet of the forest was a perfect place to renew and restore. Not long to 2017! Also Center Parcs was a delight for birds so a special treat below. 

The bonds of life

The title does not foreground a discussion on secret agent 007 which has never been a part of my viewing history, rather the blog highlights those bonds which I would contend give our lives focus and meaning. For me these are defined by geography, work, lifestyle and people, the last one arguably the attachment which gives our lives most meaning.
In my only nod ever to religion I will adopt the phrase most often used about my county that it is ‘Gods own country’. I’m very proud to have been born, lived, worked and now retired in Yorkshire. I spent six years as a teenager exiled in Suffolk and whilst I enjoyed those developmental years I was quite keen to return to Yorkshire as I did, first as a student and then as a worker. Subsequently my seven months sabbatical to Hong Kong is the only period of time of any length I have spent outside of the county. My football allegiance (Barnsley FC), my cricket allegiance (Yorkshire CCC), my university education (York, Hull and Sheffield Hallam Universities), my work, food preferences such as Yorkshire Puddings, rhubarb crumble and fish and chips and the birthplace of all of my close family underscore this commitment.

Old Moor Nature Reserve, Wath

Old Moor Nature Reserve, Wath

If Yorkshire ever did declare independence it would be able to provide me with most of my everyday needs. It has the most wondrous countryside in the Dales and the North York Moors, it has the fantastic East Coast topped off by Whitby and some great towns and cities of which York, Sheffield, and Leeds stand out, but with many other places of character such as Haworth, Richmond, Hawes, Reeth, Harrogate and of course my very own village of Tickhill. You can all add to this list. Much more could be said about Yorkshire of course, much has been written about the County and only last year I really enjoyed the quirky but fascinating account by Barnsley’s Poet Laureate Ian McMillan. I recommend the read. My thoughts on the book can be found here – This includes some pictures of my Yorkshire. So my bond with Yorkshire is very strong and whilst I love travelling around the UK, I am always glad to return North to somewhere where I feel I belong and am at ease.
My work has always been connected with the world of the probation service. For 41 years of my entire working life, whether I was working as a probation officer, probation trainer, consultant, academic or researcher it has revolved around the (mis)fortunes of probation. It is not always been an easy ride as the probation service has been the butt of criminal justice policy Tourettes where successive justice ministers have sought to undo much that is good about probation practice and impose solutions based on the worst possible decisions. This is a general blog so I will say little more about this bond though of course I could talk about probation endlessly as I have done throughout my career.
I think this commitment to probation has made the work part of my life meaningful. I have never believed in the notion of work-life balance preferring the idea of ‘presence’. Thus if my work stimulates me then I may spend many hours on it because the satisfaction which comes has helped me through the day, given me ‘presence’ if you like. So my work bond has been central to and given meaning to my life, even if I look wistfully back on those 41 years as we find the world of probation in such free fall following privatisation and I do wonder in my darkest moments whether it was really worthwhile!
One of the things which make our lives flow are our lifestyle choices. Its a simple truth that the variety of options we have, not only gives us multiple choices but enables each individual to make unique choices. It is always fascinating to meet an individual who is passionate about a subject – be it photography, bird watching or Astro physics. We develop these commitments through our personal positioning or a lucky connection. I suppose mine would include cricket, football, reading, photography, cooking and writing. I have many minor allegiances too but they can vary over time whereas this list is pretty constant. To know me and I would suggest for people to really know you fully, you need to know their lifestyle choices. Not necessarily adopt them or like them necessarily but tolerate them otherwise close relationships might never fully develop. I recall when I was working in probation, most of my colleagues only saw me through the lens of work, their gaze did not extend to my lifestyle, I was serious, focused, I suppose a little private about my lifestyle. When I played cricket for South Yorkshire probation, people engaged with me on a different level and learnt a little of my full self and friendships grew from this.
Of course my full self has to embrace, arguably, the most important bond of all. As Christmas approaches the emphasis on family grows. I love Christmas not for its religious significance I’m afraid, but for its focus on family. Whilst my family is now well spread, I remain very close to my immediate family, my son and my daughter. As a single parent since they were very young they have been such a central part of my life that other bonds can recede into the distance. Both born in Yorkshire (in case they were good enough to play cricket for the county, sadly neither were), one still lives locally whilst his much travelled sister enjoys the brighter lights of London. The joys (and frustrations) of being the primary carer I would not swap for anything. They are the glue which make everything else just rub along nicely. I went to a 50th Golden Wedding celebration this week and it’s such a wonderful milestone with such deep family bonds evident.

Golden wedding

Alongside friends these close family bonds dictate our mood, our aspirations and our goals. I have some (even many) terrific friends who support me and ensure that social downtime is enjoyed and has equal meaning. I have tried to keep in touch with friends made at school, at university and through work. It can be hard to maintain contact and I am always sad when connections wither, whatever the reasons. Losing friends is a loss I would rather avoid. It is always good to meet with friends, have food, talk, exchange experiences and renew that friendship. These bonds ensure we do not feel lonely in the world and we must hang on to them with positive actions. Not as prolific a week for birds but here are a few.