Never again

As I listened to the bells tolling at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, I thought of the grandfather I never knew – of the father my mother never knew. I wondered how our lives might have been had he not been killed in 1916.

Major Ronald Greig was a professional soldier – he had already got the DSO in the Boer War and was an experienced 40-year-old officer in the Royal Engineers when he died.

I have little idea of what he was really like. I get the impression of a nice, easy going, probably quite charming man, but without the  apparent liveliness of the family he married into.

What would have happened if he had lived? Well, for starters Tish, my gran, a young war widow overwhelmed by life with three small children, would not have remarried. (So I would not have acquired an additional aunt and three lovely cousins.) Nor would she have started the liaison/friendship with Dick Mitchison in 1927 which lasted till his death in 1970. And our family would not have benefited from all the rich friendships, that still continue, with his family .

So would Ronnie and Tish have lived happily ever after? Hmm.  I’m never quite sure.  I always wonder whether being an army wife would have really suited my fun-loving, capricious granny.

The First War had dealt her a double whammy: the year after Ronnie died, she lost her favourite brother, David. In some ways I wonder whether this death did not affect her even more.

David Clutterbuck was the middle of three brothers. The oldest, Lewis, came back from the war a damaged man.  We never asked gran what really happened, but he spent most of his life abroad – a remittance man, paid to stay away from home.  The youngest, Walter, survived the First War and ended up a major general at the end of the Second War.

My mother once took us to Winchester College and showed us the war memorial for David’s class.  I think the entire class was wiped out.

That led me on to remembering reading Vera Brittain’s sad ‘Testament of Youth’ and watching the powerful 1930s American film of the German book ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’.  Two works to push you towards pacifism.

To end, the unbelievable news that Donald Trump stayed indoors rather than face the rain for an Armistice day event at a cemetery holding the graves of American soldiers! While Merkel and Macron make symbolic gestures of peace and unity, he once again makes bellicose gestures and statements and fails to understand the symbolism of what he is supposed to do.

And I wonder what he made of Macron’s statement:

Le patriotisme est l’exact contraire du nationalisme. Le nationalisme en est sa trahison.
(Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.)

 

Playing the cello again

It is over five months since the perforated ulcer put a dramatic stop to all music making. I am now resuming my cello playing, but it’s hard work.    The problematic right shoulder is still a major obstacle and a long period with no physiotherapy has not helped.

I am still limited to lifting a maximum of two kg (not much more than my handbag). But I have worked out a way to slide the cello off the spare bed (the spare room is doubling up as music room now), over my knee and into position in front of me.  And on Tuesdays (music day) I have arranged that my friend Christine will come and put the cello into the car for me. (At the music school there are plenty of people to get it up the stairs for me.)

I had my first lesson on Tuesday, playing  Mendelssohn’s ‘Song without Words’ which I been working on in the spring.  I think Anne, my teacher, is probably a bit tired of hearing it, but as I explained to her, the relentless passages of sustained bowing on the A string are a form of physiotherapy for my shoulder.  The aim is to not seize up with the effort of lifting my bow arm out so far. Anyhow, she wants me to play it in the end of term concert in December, so I have to arrange to practise it with the piano teacher (appositely called Jean Sebastian…) who will accompany me.

Before then I have to sort out what to do with my bow, which is pretty well at the end of its useful life – it was a cheap one I got for Jude when she was about 12. It is somewhat warped and now half bald. I have given it a hard life and it is to be given some respite by being rehaired.

On Thursday I chummed my friend, Dessa, to Montpellier and we started the day by taking my bow to the luthier (always a pleasure, as he is a nice man, a genuine craftsman, with a lovely first floor atelier, crammed with instruments, in a grand nineteenth century building with a splendid over the top marbled and mirrored entrance and magnificent staircase).

If I get a second bow, this old one can become my backup. Bows can be incredibly expensive – thousands rather than hundreds – and my level of playing does not justify a big investment.  So I discussed with M. Becker, the luthier, the relative merits of a carbon fibre bow rather than the traditional wood (ideally an expensive Brazilian wood called Pernambuco).  I get the impression that in the sub-thousand range I might get more quality for my bucks going for carbon.

M. Becker has lent me a cheap(ish) carbon bow to try out while he is repairing my bow.  When I first played it yesterday I was staggered by the difference: it is so much easier to get a good, strong sound.  Of course this could just be because mine was half bald.  I suspect if my playing ever improved (huh!) I would find the colours less subtle.  But meanwhile it has convinced me that I am definitely buying a new bow next week.

Dessa enjoyed her little visit into this world of musical instruments.  We then moved on to lunch at my favourite restaurant – outside, since we had not booked, but amazingly the rain held off until we had finished.  Then off for Dessa’s checkup with her (and my) surgeon, Marion Bertrand, who greeted me with great friendliness. And we rounded off our day at one of our favourite places, the Apple Centre, where Dessa bought the new iPad (yes, I’m envious).

Autumn

We are in the middle of yet another Episode Cévenol –  yes, our weather has its own page on the French version of wiki. The heavens open up and dump an incredible volume of water over 24 hours – making up for the long dry summer weeks. The last month has seen a succession of such episodes, interspersed by kinder days, when we revert to strolling or sitting outside.

Yesterday morning Poppy and I walked to Serres. I was struck by how the autumn colours have suddenly arrived, looking magical in the sharp post-rain light.  But I suspect autumn this year will be short-lived; by the afternoon the rain was back with a vengeance.

I’ve been too busy to go out and take photos.  Let’s hope that the forecast for Sunday remains quite promising.  Meanwhile,  I have been unable to resist snapping the view from my bedroom terrace.  When the rain stops, the mists rise up round Bréau, changing my view all the time. The middle two photos were taken last Friday, the last two this afternoon.  See how the colours have changed in this week.

 

360 degrees

The weather seesaws between rain and sun. Today it was the sun’s turn, so I continued my efforts to improve my drone skills .

Pushing on the joystick and watching the drone soar up is exciting, bu nail biting.  It is so easy to panic, pull on the wrong joystick, or in the wrong direction and risk sending the drone plunging to the ground or, worse still, getting it caught up in a tree.

I’m beginning to teach myself not to panic when I send it rushing off in the wrong direction, but rather to pause, and let it hover, while I look at the controls on my phone and work out which way I am facing.

As I start to acquire better basic navigation skills, I can start thinking about how to take photos – after all, the point of this venture. I need to work on turning the drone to face where I want to take a picture and to swivel the drone’s little camera up or down.

Today I decided to use a command which would get the drone to turn round 360 degrees, taking photos as it turned. It too taking nine sets of three shots, looking up, ahead and down.  I then ‘stitched’ the 45 images created into a panorama:

 Then I used applications on my Mac to turn the panorama into a 3D globe, producing this quirky result:

I was using new techniques first on the drone and then  on my computer. I cannot imagine producing many panoramas and globes, but the exercise taught me a lot .

Here are some of the 45 individual photos which make up this globe.

Its been useful sending the drone up above my own house, but soon I must have enough courage to go further afield again. Maybe tomorrow. My friend, Dessa, has just rung to say her new neighbours would like to see what state their roof is in. So, provided there are not too many trees close by, I’m going to have a bash at filming their roof.

Hibernating

Once again we are awash.  Here is today’s newspaper warning.  We are in the orange bit with symbols of heavy rain.

Black clouds are scudding across from the Mediterranean, the rain is coming down in buckets rather than drops, and every so often rolls of thunder add to the menacing air.

Sensible people stayed indoors, but I ventured out to help some friends with their computing problems (and got a good lunch in exchange). We were constantly having to turn off computers and internet connections as the thunder rolled around overhead.

Problems all solved – other than the ongoing one that Poppy does not understand that she must go out alone in this weather. She is very bored.

First week with drone

The reason for getting a drone was to take a different sort of photo.  After one week I have managed to get the drone up several times, crashed it once, taken some jerky videos, but so far no photos.

I recognise that being able to take decent photos is somewhere further along the learning curve, but still, here are some examples of snapshots taken from the videos.

Apart from the crash into trees beside a football pitch, I have confined myself to home ground, hoping that it would be easier to rescue a crashed drone.  As the week progressed I felt adventurous enough to take it to my friend, Dessa, who lives in a stunning old hamlet, la Rouvierette, a collection of old houses running along a ridge looking down and over the valley of the Hérault below.

I discovered immediately that this would be a tricky site: there were too many trees round her house and I am not experienced enough yet to avoid them.  It is unnerving when the drone disappears out of sight and I find squinting into my phone screen – the only way of tracking it –  a bit of a challenge in the glaring sunshine. Concentration was made even more difficult when we were joined almost immediately by the neighbours’ children and then their parents. Still, fun was had by all.

Indian summer ends – during motor rally

What a glorious ten days it has been: temperatures in mid-twenties, beautiful clear skies, a lovely sharp autumnal light. Everybody was smiling because the weather was so good.

Now it has come to an end, as predicted. This morning we had rain and the temperatures have dropped ten degrees. From now on, the forecast is for more rain and unsettled weather.

This will affect this weekend’s busy programme of activities around le Vigan. Tomorrow is the annual apple and onion fair – I fear it will take place under heavier rain.  And we are in the middle of the annual Critérium des Cévennes, one of France’s major motor rally events – a series of courses taking advantage of our steep, winding roads.  Last night it was the leg Arrigas-Aumessas-Col de Mouzoules-Mars. For several hours  there was the constant noise of rally cars at the end of this circuit, turning  the road junction at the foot of my land.

I’m pretty neutral on motor rallying itself, but we have had bad experiences of spectators parking anywhere, leaving rubbish, and one year while we lived below, camping on our new house site, helping themselves to our woodpile. More long-lasting is the effect it has on local drivers, or would-be rally drivers.  How often I have heard cars take the corner below by skid-braking rather than changing down gears. (And no, despite all my speeding offences, I have never tried this technique.)

One of the most enthusiastic spectators is Malik, the driver who delivers my lunch (equivalent of meals on wheels) each morning. Yesterday he could not wait for the rally to start and to take his children round the local country to watch as much of the rally as possible.

Malik’s enthusiasm is infectious and I enjoy our morning chats.  Sadly I have decided that I must end these meal deliveries, intended to help while I am limited to lifting two kilos, making shopping and cooking difficult.  The limit is still there, but I am working out ways to avoid lifting shopping bags and not cooking in larger pans. Never mind, said Malik.  We will surely bump into each other in le Vigan.

Du soleil

What a wonderful weekend it has been: sunshine, no wind and temperatures in the mid-twenties.

Apparently the beaches round Montpellier were full of sun-worshippers.  Here, people just rejoiced that for once the lovely weather coincided with the weekend.

It is extraordinary how here we leap from one extreme to the other – the unrelenting rain of ten days ago being replaced by a balmy Indian summer. The good weather is set to continue all week, albeit with cooler temperatures.

Yesterday was supposed to witness my next step in the drone journey: a video clip taken above my house. Afterwards I took the card out of the drone and discovered that aerial footage was blank.  I think I had failed to press the video button twice.  Instead, all I got was a couple of minutes of a blurred image of an insect crawling in front of the drone, as it waited for takeoff on a rock beside me while I consulted the manual.

Another technical challenge is how to create clips of an acceptable size for the internet, rather than this simple screenshot.

Aha.  Some time later…. I have just made my first video with the drone.

A day later:

And here is a second, less jerky video.

This was made after I crashed into some trees . The learning curve continues.

Nerdy Granny. My tech journey

I have just bought a drone!  But before I explain further, I want to go back and reflect on how on earth I came to be even thinking of buying one.

I have always had a weakness for gadgets and machines.  I suppose if I am honest this goes back to my teens, when I bought an elderly Lambretta 150cc scooter from the gym mistress and became the first sixth former to drive on two wheels to school.

The two wheelers became more efficient over the years: first a replacement Lambretta when at university, then better performing Hondas in Nigeria, then  back a step in France, with a series of mobylettes with more character than efficiency, before Chris and I returned to Italian scooters, this time Piaggios.

In the meantime, of course, I acquired a succession of four wheelers.  I have always loved driving, from my first car, a spanking new Mini when I was a reporter, a Peugeot in Nigeria (underpowered), a rusty old Renault 4 van in Scotland (I was particularly attached to this, holes in the floor, doors that fell off, and all), a sturdy Lada and then a boring family Renault 12, then a VW hippy campervan which walked rather than ran up the French hills, then a later one, which drove faster but did not have the same charm (but was equally unreliable), on to Citroens (much more reliable), and now, of course, my quirky two-seater Smart car (still capable of generating speeding tickets, I’m afraid).

Cameras have had the same chequered and varied journey.  My childhood Kodak Brownie 127 produced a small number of dark, monochrome snapshots.  It was replaced by a hand-me-down from my mother whose photos were equally dull and only marginally more in focus.  It finally fell from favour when my friend, Wenol, and I were making our epic voyage through Africa, and I realised that not a single shot of the Victoria Falls had worked – the shutter had finally stuck on open. In the Zambia we hitched a lift with a crop sprayer who showed us his Pentax single lens reflex camera, and when we reached Nairobi, we both bought the same model (and as a result were so short of cash we nearly did not make it back to Europe).

When the children were young I graduated through a number of other SLR cameras, from black and white to colour, and as time progressed, moved into the world of digital photography – perhaps the biggest transition of all.

The biggest camera purchase of all was done on impulse.  In 2003 I said goodbye to Chris and set off for my first trip to India.  En route, in Montpellier, I bought a Canon DSLR, but it was several days before I dared to write to Chris to confess. My excuse?  It would perhaps be the only time in my life when I would see the Taj Mahal, which deserved a better camera than I had. (Indeed I was very pleased with my photos of India and mounted an exhibition in our local village on my return). Ultimately it cost too much buying lenses for this first Canon and its successor, and they were too heavy. So I downgraded to what are known as mirrorless cameras and currently have a Sony a6500.

Meanwhile there was another strand to my techie journey: my progress through many (too many) computers and phones. It all started in the mid-eighties when I progressed from a BBC microcomputer to the purchase of my first Mac, which I was also using at work.  I progressed through various generations of Mac till 2013, when I bought my most recent one, a laptop called a MacBook Air (with a giant monitor when at my desk).

But that is not enough.  Oh no. Just as my camera journey has sort of moved back to something less powerful but more portable, so too in the world of computers and the gadgets that have followed.  In the 1990s I briefly possessed an Newton – perhaps the first machine to have a go at handwriting recognition – before Steve Jobs killed off the Newtons.  So, naturally, I was an early adoptee of the Apple iPhone and, later, iPad. Both tools which as a techy addict I regard as essential to enjoyment of life.

So there I was, ten years ago, adjusting to life after Chris’s death, relatively stable in my car ownership life.  After Chris died I sold our scooters and replaced our Citroen van with the splendid Berlingo, which I only gave up last year because I needed to adjust to life after shoulder operations. But my world of cameras and electronic gadgets has not been so stable or, one might say, mature….

Over the last five years, I have been hospitalised over seven times, accounting for an average of over two months a year. Each hospital stay has one upside: I save the normal daily expenses (food, petrol, heating and so on).  As I explained to one of my VSL (ambulance taxi) drivers, Sonia, I felt I had some justification in spending these ‘savings’ on consumer durables, compensating for the reduction in my mobility, bringing me another sort of enjoyment: mastering technology.

The other day Sonia reminded me of this, how when  driving me back and forth from hospitals she witnessed my ‘excuse’ for upgrading my iPhone (I have the iPhone x which takes splendid photos), splashing out on an Apple Watch (I was egged on by Sonia, who already had an earlier model) and – again, encouraged by Sonia, this year’s reward for three hospital stays for my innards: a drone.

Now one of the failings of many amateur photographers like me is thinking that somehow the kit will help you take better photos.  Alas, this is not the case, but I still enjoy trying to improve. At present I am trying to take better photos using my combination of iPhone (the camera that is always in your pocket) and Sony. That ought to be enough of a challenge to keep me fully occupied (and indeed this winter I want to find a teacher to help me improve with the Sony).

But I have been seduced by the appeal of taking photos from above or, compensating for reduced mobility, just a little off the track I am on.  I have dithered and researched and finally, last week, gave in.  I bought the DJI Spark drone.  DJI is the Chinese market leader in consumer drones, and the Spark is their cheapest model.

For those who have no idea what I am talking about, a consumer drone such as the Spark is like a small helicopter with a camera on board, capable of taking both photos and video.  Here is mine, sitting beside my phone.

Just at present I am at stage one: learning how to fly the drone, petrified of losing it caught in trees, sinking into my pool or simply crashing to the ground.

I have spent ages watching ‘how to’ videos on YouTube (invariably by nerdy young men) and am just about mastering how to keep the drone above me and not inadvertently muddle forward with backward or up with down on my two joysticks.

Yesterday I dared take my first photo with it.

My first ever drone photo

Not great, but the triumph was taking it and then transferring it successfully to my computer. I think it will be a little while before I progress significantly to stage two: taking decent photos.

Meanwhile I also have to take in all the rules about flying drones in France (not over towns or villages, not near airports or military zones, not above big crowd events, not over the Parc des Cévennes).  All of these are completely understandable and defensible and, given the potential for privacy invasion or causing danger to others, my position as a drone owner is not easy to defend.  So I won’t attempt to.  Well, not for now, as I want to go out in the sunshine and master today’s self imposed task: how to make the gimbal move up and down, so the camera can look down, not just straight ahead.

Tempête

After something like five weeks without rain, the weather started to change last Wednesday. There were still periods of fine weather – like on Saturday when Dessa and I lunched outside after the market.  But the clouds were gathering.

Then the rain came, with a vengeance. It rained hard, relentlessly, violently, all yesterday, throughout the night and all today.  We are catching the edge of la tempête Leslie, which battered Portugal and is now passing eastwards along the Mediterranean coast.

What a contrast to the dry, dry weather we have had.  It is rare to be able to look down at my land from above (photo taken by a friend’s drone) and see all the terraces still brown – no grass has grown since the summer.

That should change dramatically now.  Our local river is thundering down the valley, and my bassin, which had been half empty a week ago, is ready to overflow.

As I write I have just discovered a leak in my roof – just weeks after the ten-year guarantee finished.

I’ve left a message on the builder’s answerphone, but given there must be a queue,  I don’t expect a prompt reply.  And more rain is expected  until Friday, when hopefully normal sunshine will return.