Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The story of the Oxford English Dictionary

I have a new book coming out. It is the shortest book that I have written so far and its subject is one of the largest books ever published. It’s all about the birth and development of a dictionary and the title is: A Concise History of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The actual launch is on March 21st in Oxford, but the book is already available on Amazon as a paper and an eBook. Here’s the link via my bookshop where you can find more details and a sample.

The idea for the book emerged from a tour. Last year I began planning a new Oxford guided walk based on the history of the Dictionary and became so fascinated by the story that I decided to write about it. Of course there are already plenty of books on the subject so why write another? Simple – they are all four course dinners and mine is just a snack. So, just as the concise version of the Dictionary reduces twenty hefty volumes of the second edition to one handy book, my book compresses the story of its development into a slim volume that you can read in an hour or two.

To some the topic might seem rather dry. It is not. What enlivens it is the characters involved and the doggedness shown in continuing with the work over so many years when all seemed doomed. Many of those characters were unpaid volunteers who valiantly sought sources for the many thousands of words that are defined in the Dictionary, making its creation comparable to Wikipedia by post.

I hope that my book will satisfy most people, but if you prefer the four course dinner then there is a comprehensive history coming out later in the year from Oxford University Press. It will cost £40 whereas my little snack costs just £3.99 in paper and £2.99 as an eBook: tasty and cheap, complete with pictures of the main characters involved.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

End of the road for doctors and lawyers?

Why are the ‘professions’ paid so much? Because they are worth it, of course. They have the knowledge that allows us to function in our complex modern world. Doctor’s maintain our health, lawyers settle our disputes and arrange contracts, teachers teach and so on. However, most of the professions are knowledge based and a recent book asserts that their days are numbered, as are their high salaries.

I listened to a panel of speakers discussing the book, The Future of the Professions, this week in Oxford. Both authors were present and both had the surname Susskind - at first I thought that they were brothers though they looked very different. Both handsome men, one of them reminded me of Frankie Vaughan and the other Freddy of the Dreamers, in other words very, very different. It was only when the thin, bearded one called the broad-featured one Dad that I got it.

Illustration by Norwegian cartoonist and illustrator, Kristian Hammerstad, from “Rise of the Robots,” a New York Times Sunday Book Review article, May 11, 2015.
Illustration by Norwegian cartoonist and illustrator, Kristian Hammerstad, from “Rise of the Robots,” a New York Times Sunday Book Review article, May 11, 2015. 
Their book was praised, criticised and analysed by three academics: one from the Internet world, another from the religious dimension and the third a sociologist. The latter was the most critical; she quoted the use of MOOCs, the free on-line courses where only 5% of those who started actually completed the courses. The authors’ response was that enrolment for one of Harvard’s MOOCs attracted more applicants than the total number of students of Harvard – ever. So 5% completion of a free course was pretty good.

The authors were both cogent and convincing, arguing that it is wrong to look only at jobs in the professions – the jobs should be broken down into tasks. They cited the example of the tasks that nurses now do that doctors previously did. But their main point is that technology is creating solutions that are superior to those offered by the professions and that this trend will continue. Expert systems could soon be better at diagnosis than the GP and could also be programmed to be empathetic. Similarly, lawyers cannot access and process the vast databases of trials and case law at the speeds and scope that a clever computer can. They cited a simple and existing example: millions of disputes about transaction on eBay are now settled via its resolution system with no lawyers involved.

I think that they are right, particularly where the tasks are simply knowledge based – as many professional tasks are. Progress in this direction will be spotty, but could be rapid. The NHS already has an online symptom checker. I’ve tried it. It is very basic and does not even link to the patient’s records, but when it does so, and when it incorporates AI and access to the massive amount of data on treatments, it is likely to exceed the competence of the average GP with his or her salary of £100,000 per annum.

There are problems of course: ownership of data being one and culpability in the event of incorrect diagnosis being another. But these problems exist for the existing doctors too and it is conceivable that future automated solutions may have greater access to data and hence provide superior diagnoses.

Sometimes a little voice in my head says to me, “haven’t we heard all this future gazing stuff before? Long before, perhaps in the 1970s, when the computer was going to take over almost everyone’s jobs and robots the remainder”. That did not happen, or at least not to the extent that some soothsayers then claimed. But in the meantime technology has made great strides: computers are so much more powerful and have the capability to learn; the Internet and Web provide an undreamed of degree of interconnectivity; and the means of sharing and intelligently mining vast databases has become feasible. So maybe we are on the brink of a great change which will revolutionise the professions.  Interesting isn’t it that this revolution will rock the well paid professionals, possibly leaving the artisans, creative artists, bricklayers and so on to carry on as before.

As I finished writing this I had need to approach a solicitor for advice  and was shocked by their charges – almost £300 per hour! Roll on automation and a more equitable world.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Bowled over by boles: Do have a look at my trees

A bole
I have always liked trees: climbing them when I was kid, cutting them down and planting more as an adult, burning their logs for warmth, carving their wood to explore its inner beauty, walking through woods and forests, and more. For a few years now I have been photographing boles (the trunk of the tree if you like) especially distorted and/or unusual ones with a vague idea of publishing this strange collection somehow. And now I have begun...I have attached a selection to my website Rob’s Bookshop.com!

Do have a look. I think you’ll find it interactive and fun, oh and please sign the guestbook while you are there. Just go to the bookshop and take it from there. Do pass the bookshop website address (www.robsbookshop.com) to any friends who might be interested. More boles will be added soon. I’m concentrating on North Oxford at present.

I have also spent some time renovating my website. They are a bit like trees you know – things fall off. Files go missing from the Web; things that once worked no longer do so; YouTube videos are removed for obscure copyright reasons; and so on and on. This seems to have most effect in the pub section: it’s hard being a landlord. Anyway I’ve done some pruning and replaced some branches so all should be well. Have a drive around – if you spot anything amiss let me know.

Whilst on my tree theme, and noting that ‘poetry’ and ‘tree’ do rhyme as all poems in my lowly estimation should, I have had a search around for poems on trees. Unfortunately, the low lying fruit does not have rhyme or rhythm, but I have found two that meet my childish strictures. Here they are.
Windy Tree

Think of the muscles 
a tall tree grows 
in its leg, in its foot,
in its wide-spread toes -
not to tip over 
and fall on its nose 
when a wild wind hustles 
and tussels and blows.---
Aileen Fisher
Give me a land of boughs in leaf,
A land of trees that stand;
Where trees are fallen there is grief;
I love no leafless land."
- A.E. Housman

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Truth, perception and Hedy Lamarr.

I have a friend who often tells me that “it’s all about perception” - not truth. And another, sadly no more, who once said:“Rob, you know a lot about marketing, why don’t you write books that people want to read rather than the books you want to write?”

I have been interviewed twice in this very young year about my book, Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and the mobile phone, and both interviews touched obliquely on truth and perception.

The first interview was with a US based radio station called The Kim Komando Show.  Which is “a nationally syndicated radio show in the United States that focuses on technology”. The second was with two schoolboys.
The first was, I think, a disappointment for the interviewers. They are making a programme about Hedy Lamarr’s “contributions to WiFi and Satellite technology”. And the problem is that there isn’t any – not really – but that is not what they want to hear. We started the interview as usual with “I’ve read your book and it’s very good” followed by a series of questions which are all answered in the book. That’s fair enough since they want my voice as the author, or perhaps the authority that implies (something that gives me some difficulties since it is now ten years since I wrote the book).

 As the interview proceeded it became clear that my interviewer had not read the book. That too is fair enough since they are busy people. So I explained that Hedy and George Antheil’s patent (there were two names on it – George was a piano player) describes a particular implementation of frequency hopping in securely steering a torpedo. They did not invent the core technology of frequency hopping, there were earlier patents covering that. The next question was where is ‘Hedy’s technology’ used today. I replied that frequency hopping is used in some cordless phones and in Bluetooth.

This particular interviewer then asked the cruncher, “If Hedy had not taken out the patent in 1942 would Bluetooth exist nowadays?”

And my answer was a disappointment for him, “Yes, it would”. Oh, oh. Wrong answer. Perception destroying.

Now, if he had asked me if the 1942 patent contributed anything to the advance of technology, my answer would also be yes. The idea of jumping between frequencies is likely to occur to many people who are thinking about secret communications or sending signals in a noisy environment, but you still have to figure out how to do it. Hedy and George’s implementation is entirely out of date now; it is electro-mechanical whereas Bluetooth is entirely electronic and mostly digital. But the patent is a neat implementation for its time and solves the difficult challenge of synchronising the ship and torpedo systems in a clever way.

So yes, there’s little doubt that the patent moved things on a little. One man who did actually build a frequency hopping system in later years told me that he took the idea from the then expired patent. And Hedy, and to a much less publicised extent George, certainly did add a touch of glamour to a rather grey area.

Oh, and by the way, I told the interviewer, the detail of the patent was drafted by Samuel Stuart MacKeown, an assistant professor at Cal-Tech: neither Hedy nor George would have had the technical knowledge to do it. And the idea itself was probably stolen from Hedy’s ex-husband, Mandl, the arms dealer. Oh, oh – more perception destroying.
The other interview was over Skype and involved two delightful eleven-year-old boys from Laurel Elementary School in Brea, California who are working on a National History Day project about Hedy Lamarr. That interview was harder and much more enjoyable. They had read a lot of my book and their questions were (probably with some help from their teacher) more searching. However, their starting perspective was that Hedy had invented some serious technology which has had a fundamental on our lives today, so I felt a little cruel in gently telling them the truth. I also told them that Alexander Graham Bell was not the first to invent the telephone and that Harry Potter was not a real person – no, not that last one, that might be going too far. I certainly hope that I did not disappoint the two lads too much and who knows, their project might start them on a career in telecommunications one day.

There are more successful books than my one about Hedy Lamarr and the patent. I have not read them of course, but I am pretty sure that they do not contain the facts that I have briefly outlined here and am also sure that at least one of them is much more successful than mine, and probably perceived as more authoritative.

I’m going to finish this blog with a perception, it’s taken from an Amazon.com review of my book in which the reviewer, to my utmost delight, describes the book that I did intend to write. A book that is more about the truth as far as I could unearth it rather than perception filtered through desire.

“If you're looking for a biography of Hedy Lamarr, there may be better but this is good. If you're looking for a biography of George Antheil, there may be better but this is good. If you're looking for the history of radio with an emphasis on spread spectrum, this is very good. And if you're looking for a book that weaves all three together you've come to exactly the right place.”

Monday, 30 November 2015

Faking documentaries

I am not a great TV fan. Much of my viewing is after the 9pm watershed and some of it with the aid of a drink or two. That is not to deny that there is some great TV, just that it mostly is not for me. I mainly watch documentaries or films and am becoming very tetchy about the former. However, one that I particularly enjoyed recently is called: The Railway: Keeping Britain on Track. It’s great. Commentary is light and we never see the commentator, and why indeed should we. What we see is real people doing real things, travelling, selling tickets, driving trains, paying and avoiding paying. Oh and there was a Sisyphean cycle of a drunk repeatedly walking up the escalator the wrong way. It’s fascinating, there are scenes of drama, anger, kindness, selfishness, loyalty and comedy. And it is all real.

The railway documentary has none of those awful fake entries when the presenter, often a ‘personality’ with little connection to the documentary’s topic, knocks on a door and real people open it feigning surprise at this obviously prepared and often much rehearsed scene. Do they think we are idiots? In my recent appearance with the Hairy Bikers I was made to do one of these. No door this time, just a slipway to the punting station on Oxford’s River Cherwell. After chatting for an hour or so whilst the director and general dogsbody set everything up, we had to pretend to meet ‘for the camera’. Our ‘first’ meeting took four takes. On the third one the Hairy Biker slipped on the wet decking and fell over – now that was the entrance that should have been screened (no Hairy Bikers were hurt in the making of this sequence).

The Hunt is currently being screened by the BBC and it is excellent, though I am torn between supporting the hunter and sympathy for the hunted. Commentary is heavier, but we never see the commentator. He is a media personality, chosen I suppose to give authority to the script, but it could have been done by anyone with good diction. It is secondary to the action which could be enjoyed without commentary at all. And to see how it is all made described by the crew who actually filmed it – magic.

Please someone stop these ‘personalities’ walking towards the camera as they talk, and stop screening close ups of their thoughtful faces, presumably to provide drama where this should come from the documentary itself. Please stop inserting irrelevant clips of fires when the word fire is mentioned in the commentary. We all know what fire looks like. Similarly for storms, or crowds, or stars, or the sea. Please stop showing matey scenes between the ‘personalities’ and the complete strangers that they meet. These strangers are the real stars, we know that the personality does not know them, will never see them again, will not even recall their name after the next documentary. These things should not be called documentaries, they are simply chat shows on the road where the presenter is the focus and the subject, the experts and the real people are simply a backcloth for the show.

Ah well, that’s got that off my chest. Now where did I leave that bloody remote? And where’s the ‘off’ button.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Syria Remembered

I visited Syria about ten years ago, alone and with a backpack. I entered the country from Turkey and visited a number of towns and cities that have recently made the headlines. I had no agenda, just a Lonely Planet Guide and a will to explore. I recall the kindness of Kurds, Arabs, Armenians and Alawites.  Also the many pictures of Assad, the desert wastes, the heat, the incredibly low prices, the decrepit trains, the ancient remains and women shrouded in black.

Sadly, I have mislaid my notes of the month or so that I spent there, so these recollections are from a distance. My only experiences of aggression and violence occurred in the first place I visited: Deir ez-Zur, a small city in the east. Endeavouring to get cash in the bank the cashier held me entirely responsible for our involvement in the war in neighbouring Iraq. On the main street two cyclists resorted to fisticuffs following a collision. In a park a group of young men approached me with seeming angry intent. They demanded to know where I came from and I replied, with some trepidation, “England”. They looked at each other as if making a decision, then together shouted, “Bush bad, Blaire good,” and insisted upon my accepting a bottle of orangeade from them. That was a near thing.

Later my wandering took me near to the entrance to a large school. Teenagers were pouring out at the end of their day and I was soon surrounded by a vast crowd of them demanding answers to questions such as “Where you from? Are you married? How old are you? Why are you here? Do you have children? What is your name?” Finally a fully uniformed gateman pushed his way through the crowd and told me to go away: the crowd that I had unwittingly attracted was blocking the road.

Next I went to Palmyra and had the fortune to see the Temple of Bel, since tragically and pointlessly destroyed by ISIS, and then onto the capital, Damascus, one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world where the main danger was crossing the wide central road. Further west I met the Mediterranean coast at Tartus. Such a relief, such a pleasure. Here the women actually exposed their hair! On my first day there, sitting eating my lunch in a park, two uncovered young ladies joined me, talked to me and shared their food with me. It was a relief to leave behind the black-draped uncommunicative ladies of the east.

In Tartus my visa was due to expire so I had to visit a photographic studio to obtain a snap for the visa application. The photographer was outspoken in English. After the usual interchanges I pointed to the large portrait of Assad and asked, “Why do you put that there?”

“We love him,” he replied with a genuine smile. “He asks us not to put his likeness on our walls, but we want to. He was educated in your country you know.” I knew.

Leaving Tartus and the dirtiest beach I have ever seen behind, I made my way through Latakia to Kasab and was quickly embraced by Armenians who complained bitterly about the government. Not the Syrian, but the Turkish government. The Ottomans had marched their ancestors out of their country to Syria during the First World War and many had died in transit.

There is more, much more, in those mislaid, maybe lost, notes, those memories of a peaceful country with people going about their business, their lives. Okay, maybe I was naive, blinkered, deliberately misled, but I do not think so. Would that we could wind back the clock to the time of my visit and start again, but that is foolish talk. Like everyone I feel so sorry for those killed, maimed, deprived of their homes, their livelihood, their lives by this awful conflict.

Do I have a solution to this crisis? Of course not. There is just one thing I am sure of: things have certainly been worsened by other countries taking sides, arming one side against the other, castigating one side or another – yet that still continues. So what can we do? There is something - help those that are helping the refugees in the area: Save the Children for example.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Nature strikes back.

Most years I would be heading for Spain just now for the autumnal visit, but wife support has changed that. So I am in England and the season has just started in Oxford with a talk arranged by Skeptics in the Pub on the theme of philosophers and science. Though I enjoyed the beer and a chat with a friend I was not impressed by the talk. A youngish self-styled called philosopher tried to convince a packed audience that scientists have no ethics and philosophers (whatever they are) have a monopoly on both ethics and logical thought. Fresh from The Edinburgh Fringe, I think he found Oxford sceptics extremely sceptical and a hard bunch as they repeatedly attacked his Venn diagram. This had a big circle labelled philosophy embracing a smaller one labelled science and everything outside the big circle was labelled stupid! The speaker probably scores quite high on entertainment value (with some) but low on rational content (with many).

The day before that I lost my wallet on the Chipping Norton to Oxford bus. The moment after I stepped off the thing I patted my back pocket – wallet gone. And with it all the usual stuff from credit cards to bus pass and drivers licence plus an irreplaceable poem on Turkey. The bus went on to the railway station and I intercepted it on its way back – wallet gone and a different driver. Sod it.

The day after I received some photos from Dolors, a good friend in our village in Spain. I could see from the thumbnails that the pictures were of my caseta - my stone hut at the huerto - and left the message for later. I opened it at around one o’clock this morning and could not quite believe what I saw – my two roofs, only completed last year, wrecked; my solar panel pocked and undoubtedly ruined! Sod it.

Many pictures of Spain feature the sun, the sea and the beach, and I guess that is the picture that jumps into most people’s heads when the country is mentioned. Our area is not like that. It does get hot in the summer, but it also gets cold in the winter. And though there is much more sunshine than in Britain we are rocked by storms. The Spanish word for storm is tormenta and sounds to me stronger, wilder, more tremendous and the storms around La Fresneda are certainly all of that: ripping lightening, deafening thunder, flash flooding and sometimes, just occasionally billiard ball hail. The latter is rare, usually localised, and bloody frightening. If you are caught in one you run for your life for shelter, the balls of ice usually start small, but rapidly grow in size and intensity. They damage cars, crops and of course, roofs.

The hail storm that damaged my little creation over there broke on Monday. When I heard about it early this morning my reaction was subdued, sad more than angry. When all of my tools were stolen from the caseta a few years ago I was furious and vented my fury in a blog (7th September 2012) in which I poured anger and blame on the thieves. Who or what can I blame for the damage to my roof? Nature I suppose. Global warming perhaps – and thus all of the car drivers and coal consumers of the world – not really, I’m pretty sure that hailing predates the discovery of global warming.

So what’s next? Go over there sometime to reroof the caseta and install a new solar panel, I suppose. Sadly I carefully mortared the latter into the roof so that thieves could not take it! I wasn’t expecting an ice ball attack so soon.

PS a friend in Spain sent me a newsclip which contains a video showing the ferocity of the hail storm shot at the swimming pool of a nearby village. Reports now say that the hail stones were as large as eggs!

Monday, 10 August 2015

The meaning of life revealed in an Oxford pub!

I hate August in Oxford; it’s the peak of the tourist season in my city and the pits for intellectual stimulation (my Harry Potter tours aside ;-). The students have gone for their long vacation or forever. The city has the feel of a boxing ring at the end of  a sixteen-round lightweight boxing match as the dregs of the language students depart for their own countries, “Oxford English” now embedded in their souls. Lectures are a very rare treat after the surfeit of term time when I often have to make difficult choices. Even the music scene is at low ebb though I did score a double whammy on a recent Saturday evening: a writer’s drinks party followed by an upbeat performance by the Pete Fryer band in a working class pub (yes, they do exist in Oxford) – what a contrast.

Praise be that one thing does survive the desert of the eighth month: Philosophy in Pubs – philosophy is perhaps eternal. The subject for discussion is usually chosen by Ben, our erudite and urbane host, maitre D and convenor. This time Ben was sporting a newly shaped beard (beards are in at the moment, though I fear the word ‘in’ isn’t in) and wearing his distinguishing philosophical hat. He had chosen an Everest of a topic: The Meaning of Life!

At first, I seemed to be the only person at the Thames side Isis Farmhouse pub, but I linked up with another lost person and suggested that tonight’s topic was too daunting for the regulars or perhaps they already knew the answer. He was a young prison officer from the local magistrate’s court which led directly to a discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s ‘panopticon’ a prison design that allowed all prisoners to be viewed from the centre. “Ah, a miscreant masturbating over there,” I quipped to my new acquaintance.

“If that was the worst thing they got up to my job would be easy,” he said sadly, and then explained that he was looking elsewhere, the job was too demanding and unsatisfying. I could see that he needed to find new meaning in his life.
Ben arrived at last and drew us together at tables in the garden. One man in our group sat at another table and shouted a series of complex words to us that I did not comprehend and said so. He responded with another stream of rare and presumably philosophic terms. Too much philosophic knowledge kills open philosophic discussion, so I changed tables.

I think that I am usually the oldest (but not the wisest) attendee at Philosophy in Pubs (PIPS), but the man I then sat next to was near my age and accompanied by two content  King Charles Spaniels: they both knew that the meaning in life is stroking and food. He, the owner, struck me as having interesting views on our topic, but his argument led directly to god or something like god; oh and love, lots of love. Those spaniels can get you that way.  A much younger man took me to task as I banged on about the meaning of life being personal, related to personal happiness and satisfaction and the need for others to be happy and satisfied in order to create a society in which I, and they, can be happy and satisfied. He maintained that since I did not believe in life after death my life did not have meaning. I admitted that he had a point, but later after a few more pints in another pub which had live music I thought of the answer. So, I now know the meaning of life – my life.

That young man was studying for a doctorate of music. His interests lay in the structure and meaning of music, including its relationship to complex mathematics. He maintained that the shared enjoyment of music takes one beyond the personal and gives life meaning – interesting. Later, on another table, someone suggested that searching for meaning is futile: it is the journey though life that provides its meaning. At that point I timidly suggested that the inclusion in the American constitution of the phrase ‘the pursuit of happiness’ may be the answer, then left to do just that in another pub. Hence, I do not know if PIPS agreed on a meaning for life that evening. I rather doubt it. It’s personal you see.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The end of Oxford and me?

I cycled down to Oxford last Saturday to give a tour to some youngsters. I was not looking forward to it particularly. Youngsters know very little and therefore cannot easily relate to what they are seeing or what I am saying. They are generally much more interested in their friends, in eating and the odd passing distraction (a rising bollard, a descending bollard, a trashed student, a shop, etc).

My negativity was reinforced as I approached a renowned tourist focus - the Martyr’s Memorial. I could see a long line of white coaches with colourful streams of youngsters pouring forth and surging towards the city centre. They had damned up at the pedestrian crossing at the mouth of Beaumont Street no doubt in a deliberate attempt to block my path to the cycle stands. Nonetheless, I ploughed my way through and on towards the Playhouse where five of us badged guides were due to meet our hoard of 100 sixteen-year-olds from somewhere or other. The two coaches arrived disgorging their youthful cargo onto opposite sides of the roads. Bringing 100 independent bodies together in one place on what seemed to be Oxford’s busiest day was no mean feat, but we did it somehow and left it to the helpers to divide them into five groups and to distribute food bags (yep, they often bring their own). This took some time, in fact it nibbled almost half-an-hour off a tour duration of just one and half hours!

At last we were off with our separate groups all converging on New College where Harry Potter awaited. Threading ourselves through an over laden Broad Street was not easy. Mostly the pavements were blocked by large groups where the leader was often indistinguishable from the led and the street itself was chock-a-block with more conga-like groups, also threading. There was some easing around the Sheldonian, but the exit was blocked by a brilliant young woman who had the brilliant idea of addressing her crowd from the steps – brilliant.

I think it was about then, or maybe when a sub-group of my group announced a growing need for the toilet, that I decided that this was not what I wanted to do with my life; no more than I desired to contribute in any way to attracting yet more youngsters to visit Oxford. Enough was enough. So I smiled vaguely, turned on my heel and walked quickly back to my bicycle and pedalled off to my comfortable little flat high above the Woodstock Road and well away from the maddening crowd.
Not really. I persevered and, with the possible exception of two Spanish lads who probably could not understand a word that I was saying and were distracting two Spanish girls who could, they were a nice enough bunch. I can still remember the smile of delight as a pretty Italian girl first saw the Holm oak tree in New’s cloister (it’s the tree beneath which Harry Potter’s enemy...ah you don’t need to know that). Some of them even asked questions. I gave them the best time that I could – and allowed them a toilet visit as well.

Next day I led a literature tour and this healed the wounds. The invasive tides had ebbed; Sundays are usually quieter in Oxford. My group consisted of adults, all of whom had made a conscious choice to take the tour and had paid for it. Most of them knew of the authors that I talked about. They chipped in, asked questions, corrected me at times, laughed when they were supposed to, and were even mildly interested in where the Potter locations were. Someone bought one of my books, and I enjoyed the tour as much as they did – I think.

Isn’t Oxford a wonderful place? Yes it is, but its capacity to absorb ever increasing numbers of visitors has its limits.

By the way, these are not my photos. They were taken by a Spanish visistor during one of my tours. I thought that they were rather good. 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Permissive Paths: No Dogging

You might guess from the title that I have been walking lately. Yes, just returned from trudging along the first section of the South-West Coastal Path from Minehead to Westward Ho! The exclamation mark belongs to the Ho by the way. Odd name for a place, though there is a town in Canada called Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! with two: show offs. But they can’t beat this: our exclaimed village is named after a novel, a book written in 1855 by Charles Kingsley. It’s true, the book came first!

I walked about ninety miles over five days hefting a backpack containing amongst other essentials:  my one-man tent, my sleeping bag and mattress roll, plus my Kindle. Doesn’t sound far I know, but miles are not a suitable measure when traversing the North Devon coastline where there is a lot of fairly gruelling uphill and scrabbling downhill. Actually, I cheated at the end. Booked into a B&B in Barnstaple on my last walking day, dumped my backpack there and walked the path to Westward Ho! - naked. Not really naked of course, but I did feel almost naked without the hefty backpack and wearing my sandals rather that boots. That aside, I slept out every night, mostly wild camping. The weather was very changeable for the first three days – storms and showers - and too hot on the last two: hikers are rarely happy with the weather.

My worst night was at Lynmouth. The weather was quite nice as I limped slowly through the little town towards the ocean. There I found a narrow strip of grass between the low sea wall and high wooded cliff. I ignored the dog walkers as I pitched my little tent, just as they carefully ignored me. Once camped I stepped out for a clean up (don’t ask), some beer and food. As I left my second pub I met a torrent of rain so heavy that I had to dash into another for shelter and more beer. At last the rain abated and I took a muddy walk past the harbour, where the boats were being thrown around by an angry sea, to my camping site. Then, after a worried look at the large waves rolling towards my flimsy home, I squeezed into my little tent just as the rain started again – lashings of it. Inside I recalled the 1952 deluge that killed over thirty people Lynmouth. I thought of the cliff above me and the waves just below me. I didn’t sleep much.

Things were a little better in the morning. I packed away the wet tent, had a hot chocolate with crumpets in a cafe and, fully recharged, carried on walking.

So why do we do these strange things? The countryside was beautiful, a beauty that can barely be glimpsed from a motorcar. I was immersed. The ups and downs of good and bad weather brought sympathetic mood swings, and the upswings were much higher than the down swings. And, even though the rugged grandeur of the coastal route presents challenges to people with vertigo (like me), the rewards are sweet. Edging around a promontory to be suddenly presented with a panoramic view of the coast ahead, of a beach below or the unexpected view of a shimmering white Devon village – these things outweigh the discomfort, the fear and the pain. And then there’s the people that you meet along the way: strangers, yet drawn together by a shared adventure. And all that aside, there is the sheer escapism of an untimetabled trek; the escape from routine, from the Internet, from the clutter of familiar things and places, and the promise of a joyful return to same.

Does any of this explain the title of this blog? Permissive pathways are those routes that the owner allows hikers to use, but are not public rights of way. In fact, I didn’t actually see a “no dogging” sign, just “no dogs”. However, I did see one stating “no naturist activities” and my mind boggled. Was this code for no dogging? In my youth there was a degree of titillation available from pictures of naturists playing games: volleyball was popular I seem to recall. Was this innocent pursuit one of the banned naturist activities, I wondered. Or was it merely being naked that offended? Anyway, I kept my clothes on: the straps of a heavy backpack would certainly have dug well into my naked skin and my tan would be so patchy. Besides, there was the danger of ticks attaching themselves to vulnerable parts of the body.