2020/2021: looking backward and forward

Restarted 8.ii.21

It’s been hard to write this

Oh dear. I started to write something here between Xmas and New Year and got stuck. Cannibalising that and restarting.

Looking back at 2020

At best 2020 has been a weird year for pretty much all the world’s population and for many it has been terrible. I have been very lucky personally through 2020, and even more lucky that it hasn’t been a bad year for any of my family and, as far as I know so far, all my friends and colleagues have survived. One of my two sisters has now had a coronavirus infection twice, ruining her Christmas and disappointing my parents but my parents, now 90 and 93 years old, have been able to “bubble” together with support from their neighbours and visits from my sisters. In my nuclear family tnp had a really tough year with other health problems but finished his degree with a first, passed his driving test and has moved back to Glasgow, where he did his degree, into a shared flat with friends. S finished her, ultimately disappointing, Cambridge masters degree but has a solid relationship and she and F now have their own rented house where they are happy and she has started her PhD and continued her part time third sector job fairly happily. J resigned from a poisoned university post and continues to wind down her practice. Cv-19 meant she moved her remaining clinical work and her consultation and GRC work online. Interestingly, that has all gone well and doing the consultation and GRC work online has opened it up to a much wider, essentially global, customer/participant base. She has started a diploma as part of a major career change that is making her happy. She and the children have been gardening growing a ridiculous amount in the tiny back gardens in London and Cambridge and all have (re)discovered creative activities: jewellery, knitting, sewing and pottery mainly. My creativity was mostly some photos I quite liked, the timelapse videos, and the geeky creativity of work. That was all pretty good really.

2020 work

So work … I worked in Toulouse for a month and transferred up to our Alpine apartment where I was to meet J & S to ski a week later. I transferred a week earlier than planned as I was finished in Toulouse. It turned out that the day I transferred France locked down, all skiing was off, no meeting with J & S and then I just stayed up there, as my occasional posts through the year record. I worked very hard on paper writing, data crunching and a bit on IT infrastructure.

I did dive into trying to create ways that therapists working online could replace paper CORE measures with online forms (see here). That turned out to be a huge job and I don’t greatly like the fillable PDF forms which seemed to be the main viable and free option but nearly 13,000 of them have been downloaded as I write this (9.ii.21, see here for some not very good charts of that download history). I also threw myself into supporting some bits of work responding to the pandemic in the UK, Greece, Ecuador and Brazil which added up to another huge and unexpected workload. The UK one was overambitious and folded rapidly, the Greek one was great but we failed to publish in the window of real opportunity, but the other two went pretty well and with two great colleagues in Ecuador and Spain I did get a little anecdotal paper out about our experiences trying to help with the pandemic (seems to be open access: here). All in all 2020 was a very productive year for me with nine new peer-reviewed publications (and one accepted in 2019 finally appeared). That’s not a record for me (CV with publication list here) but it’s up near my record (10 in 2002!)

Retreating from non-work people

The bad side of 2020 was that I retreated from pretty much all non-work contact with people outside my family. It wasn’t a conscious choice and it got to the stage where it was getting embarrassing but I still wasn’t making any time to communicate beyond the very infrequent blog posts and then it became a familiar cycle of avoidance of shame.

Sidestepping the shame/guilt, I can see that I just seemed to want to be very alone. As that slowly became clearer I’ve thought about it a lot. I think part of it was a reaction to the horrors of the pandemic. I am sure some of it was about my anger with how badly I think many countries, including what will always be my first country, the UK, handled it. That the USA and Brazil, and a very few other countries handled it worse didn’t seem to help my disgust and bitterness about that (nor should it have I guess). Then there was the more general horror show of the politics in the UK becoming blatant nepotism: “I and my friends who went to the right public schools are OK and the only ones we reward and work with”. That sat alongside so many other relentless political terror stories in (in no particular order nor any sort of exclusive list) the USA, China, India, Hungary, Poland. I felt I was seeing terrifying shades of pre-WW-II Germany (and Italy and Spain) rising again. I think at some level all I could handle was to work, to try to celebrate the natural beauty around me up in the Alps, and to retreat.

I am sure there were threads about my own ageing and that of my parents and that takes me to this …

Ending 2020 on a bad health note and worse in 2021!

Just before Xmas I had a “posterior vitreous detachment” in my R eye and a rather scary day before it was confirmed that it was only that, not a retinal detachment or tear. There’s a slightly increased risk I may one day have one of those. (As I understand it, crudely, the bag of jelly, that “posterior vitreous” that fills the space between the lens and the retina in the posterior compartment of the eye is no longer pressing the retina against the outer globe of my R eye). It has left me with a lot of sometimes floaters in my vision that weren’t there before and can really irritate, as now, when they show up intrusively against a lot of blank white screen. Then in early January I had a very painful L eye which was totally unrelated to that first scare: this was an inflammation of the cornea and again it worried me until it settled down rapidly with steroid eye drops. Now I’m on 3x a day “eye cleaning” and artificial tear drops probably for life to prevent it happening again … and both eyes apparently need that. That’s nearly 30 minutes a day gone!

Then, just to make sure that 2021 started badly, in the early hours of the morning a few weeks back I found myself in abdominal agony again (as per 2019). Yes, renal stones again, now L not R. That’s settled but perhaps two weeks have been lost when I was utterly failing to work and felt pretty grim. So five or six weeks into 2021 I am waiting to get the advice on the stone but I am sure it is lurking inside me waiting to start kicking me again!

So, to try to look forward with some hope …

Well, I have finally managed to finish this summary of my year and view forward. I think that will help me now Email the people I should have been in touch with regularly last year. I am rebooting my work and it looks as if our book will come out in November which means some work for me to do to create online support materials for that but that feels good. I have found a good way to create pages about my work with R (https://www.psyctc.org/Rblog/) which also feels good and I am about to get back to number crunching and writing with some huge and potentially very exciting large projects and also to dive into what will be three or four busy years on one full size project which, a year of gestation and three of initial data collection can move to analyses and writing. Those are the big things and there’s a frightening pile of smaller lumps of work, overdue, or that I dream of doing before I stop work (at 70, if I make it).

Less solipsistically, I hope the world will get luckier in the battle with cv-19. I pray that global politics will change: BLM surely must help; surely, surely cv-19 has helped us all see the inequalities and madness of short term capitalism; perhaps we really can start to slow climate change and global environment destruction and our annihilation of so, so many species other than our own. I will try to hope but I won’t hold my breath.

So can I crawl out of my social, interpersonal retreat? To be honest, I really don’t know, I know I am ambivalent about that as so much that is driving it still feels unclear and certainly unresolved. However, I will try and this may be a start.

To cheer me up, here is one of the last shots I took before leaving Aime. It’s the full resolution version of the one at the head of this post.

And a couple more from that day.

I was incredibly lucky to be able to live much of the year up there, able to work, in stunning scenery, almost the safest person on the planet from the cv-19 point of view. Who knows when I will be able to get back up there. Will I manage to fix residency and perhaps, eventually, dual citizenship? This last image feels more bleak, still beautiful but perhaps more how things feel for me.

Onwards … and apologies to those I’ve neglected this year: you know who you are.

Snow!

Created 29/9/20

The last four days have been pretty dramatic up here, we seemed to jump most of autumn and plunge into winter. You may be looking at the image that is, I hope, above this post and thinking “The mark of Zorro” or “Harry Potter was here”. No, that’s the rather lovely mark made by an icicle falling off the balcony above the terrace here into the snow. I like the strange shapes and the precision with which the punch into the snow. I think the sharp angles come from the bit that held onto the edge of the balcony coming off as the sun loosened its hold. (As ever, I think you should be able to click on them to get bigger views.)

So here’s my shadow as I do like a good selfie, well, I like a rather weird one.

Snow shadow selfie

I like that you can see the fallen icicles and the big ones still hanging above me. The snow was from mid-calf to knee deep across the terrace and I didn’t want to wade across not just as I was going to end up very cold and damp, but also because I loved that it was marred only by falling icicles. The lighting creating my spooky shadow is from the strong sun reflecting off the window behind me.

It’s nearly three months since I last posted anything so it’s almost as if I’ve missed out on the summer and the reality is that I have been working pretty hard. On the really sunny days I generally got myself 30-60 minutes in the sun reading and just soaking it up and before and after the actual summer season (4/7/20-29/8/20) I walked down and up to shop in Plagne Centre (I wasn’t doing that last Friday when the snow had hammered in: I think bits of the walk would really have been salopettes and snowshoes only). What have I achieved? Well, I am a bit less, no, significantly less, behind with the many long overdue collaborative bits of work that sort of buried me over the last ten years. Somewhere between a year and seven years from now they’ll all be done! With colleagues in various countries I’ve started to be more successful in terms of getting papers accepted and published and I think my infrastructure in terms of hardware and software I use, backups etc. are in better state than they were. “The book”, familiar to some, is with the publishers and about to come back to us for final revisions before going to press. However, blogging, social Emails and chatting and getting out into the Alps around me all went by the board as one urgent pressure followed another. To the many people I’ve neglected: apologies.

The work is still screaming at me so no more words. Just some images starting with icicles still hanging against beautiful sky before they drop to make runic inscritpions in the snow.

Pale views,



I love the way the peaks can seem to float above cloud and how windows break through the cloud. At other times I got brighter views, not looking through cloud: stunning blue skies but less my sort of aesthetic.


Sunset views.




And some links to the better timelapse videos from these snowy days:

  • 25th
  • 26th
  • 27th (just the first 20 seconds or so for the flash of sun, the rest is not so interesting!)
  • 28th

Of course, all the timelapse videos are I’ve got are available, index here. There ones from the 2018, 19 and 20 now. Now I really must try to blog a bit more and work a bit less!

My eyrie, selfies, skies and work!

Created 7/7/20

I never seem to find time to post things here: work has been crazy for the last few months. Some of that is the chronic backlog but much is down to cv-19. Back in got involved in cv-19 related projects using bits of the CORE system in the UK (project’s lead’s ambitions outstripped his capacities: waste of time), Ecuador (great project, my involvement valued and probably good, settled into low weekly input), Brazil (emerging monthly survey apparently well appreciated there) and Greece (inexperienced by enthusiastic co-leads’ ambitions matched by huge input in one huge initial burst and now we’re working to digest the data). Alongside those was the project to make CORE measures available for online use for free: see my CORE site page or the ResearchGate project. That’s supported over 7,000 downloads as of this morning (daily update page here!) With Clara & Pablo I have even, already, managed a paper out some of this which we think is free to read while the cv-19 pandemic continues and publishers feel generous: here. All that is on top of the regular work and that is slowly speeding up as I settle into my freelance researcher life.

Hah! Hot off the press: no sooner do I publish this post than LinkedIn reminds me of one of those regular pieces of work (the biggest one: so many things to be reported out of the ITAMITED study over the next one to five years I guess. LinkedIn post (hm, immediately broken I think: own goal LinkedIn!). Anyway, this courtesy of Joan Carles, Guillem and Toni … and it is visible in ResearchGate. I really must learn to use these channels … and to tweet!

Why say this? I know it’s a sort of apology for not communicating more with many friends and relations, and apologising to myself for that, and the tottering pile of ‘photos I could have posted here, and the almost equally tall pile of topics about which I’ve wanted to post. Anyway, the image at the top of this post (I hope) is my sort of selfie with the early morning sun behind me and the door of my eyrie open letting the air in. I like my sorts of selfies (as ever you should be able to click on these to get them full sized).

That’s enough self stuff! What about skies? Well, the sky up here is always changing. In the space of an hour we can go from seeing nothing really, just about the next nearest building as the cloud has enveloped us, to clear blue sky and roasting sun, and then to a thunderstorm with dramatic lightning (one day I will try to work out how to catch that on camera). Here is some mackerel cirrus I find curiously beautiful.

And now juxtaposition of cirrus from a different day and time of day with smoe some towering up of cumulus on the high ridge across the valley.

Then there are times with relatively clear blue sky overhangs a little low, rapidly changing cloud and below that mist in the air creates the “atmospheric perspective” I love. (The term is one photographers and visual perception people have for one of the ways we see distance and depth in 2D images: objects in the distance are hazier and lose contrast.)

Then some evenings the sunset is gently beautiful …

And some other evenings it’s anything but gentle …

And I’ll sign off by recommending that you watch at least the first one minute and forty seconds of the time lapse video from yesterday: a truly dramatic sunrise and early morning. The remainder of the roughly four minutes are nice and convey what a lovely day it was but they can’t match that early morning drama. You should be able to click on the image to start it running. Do hit the little icon down at the bottom right (next to “vimeo“) with the four radiating arrows: that should give you the video in full screen mode, it deserves it!

Timelapse video: stunning sunrise

Helicopter!

Added 13/6/20

It’s been a family story for as long as I can remember that early in my forays into language the one word I couldn’t get right was “helicopter”. To me it was “kellihopter” (or however you spell that). That was a long, long time ago and maybe I should be writing about the horrors in the world, and the good things emerging with BLM, but for now, no, I can’t really find any words to do that any justice so I’ll just share some little things from the last month up here in my rather hermitic retreat.

One thing is that I’ve discovered that I am not, as I used to think, phlegmatic about the weather! I’ve really come to hate over two weeks with almost no sun or blue sky at all. On the 11th we had some of both, but not much. Yesterday we had more but it was still damn cold in the morning during the best of the sun. Today we had real warmth for about an hour: the first for well over two weeks but it’s gone back to cold now as the cloud surged back over.

However, in the early bits of blue sky yesterday morning we did get our eardrums battered for over an hour while the local utility helicopter lifted what I think are new flat roofing tiles up from the car park and dumped the old roofing down there.

It was pretty loud even with double glazed windows and door shut and playing music was out of the question but it was also impressive. There was a strong wind and you could see the helicopter bucking in it as held steady to drop the waste into the skips and allow the workers down there to disconnect the lifting line and then connect it to the next palette of tiles to come up. I did try to film it but it was bitterly cold in the wind and I wasn’t terribly successful. Here’s about 12 seconds of the helicopter hovering above the nearest terrace across from me. (I think my own terrace has already had its tiles replaced, though not I think since 2004 when we “moved in” as I now think of it.)

Deafening but hugely impressive!

That captures its repeated hovers just over the western peak of Aime 2000 from me. I was less successful capturing the much more entertaining events down in the car park but this gives a sense of it (1’34”).

I’m not sure if there’s a standard team who work with the helicopter but there’s always the co-pilot down on the ground for these things (I think he’s visible: the one with the helmet). I think the others come and go depending on the task but it’s the second time recently that the team has been mixed gender though this isn’t the same team that were working down there the last time the helicopter came in for work renewing the cable rollers for the “golf” ski lift.

My sense is that back when I was calling helicopters kellihopters women doing this work would have been highly unusual. Perhaps I should hope that younger people now wouldn’t even notice but I doubt it, we’ve still got a long way to go on pretty much all forms of equality, gender, ethnicity, sexuality. I am starting to recognise that it seems the only way out of these inequalities, these gross inequities, is through fighting … but I was never much good at that and I am, as I say, still really silenced, failing to find words that don’t just seem trite.

One year on – not!

Created 19/5/20

Searching for today’s date in my todo list I thought that it was a year ago today I doubled up with pain and got admitted to the hospital in Bourg St. Maurice with renal colic. It isn’t a year on! That was me searching for “19.v” and finding 19.viii.19 and not noticing that I’m only nine months on! Oh dear, concentrate boyo!

It was odd then to see that I was in there for three days, that half day, two whole days and another half day before the consultant chucked me out! In my memory it was longer than that. I think that also confirms that this time last year we hadn’t had the rather wet run of rain and cloud we’ve had the last week or so. (Or do I just remember things through rosy coloured specs?) I remember that I had to make my way back up here in Norwegian felt slippers as, in the pain I hadn’t thrown any outdoor shoes into my backpack (though I remember I did throw a laptop in and did manage some work down there, not much.) I remember the young girl at the train station pointing at my feet and her mother explaining, I gather later when we shared a taxi, explaining that I probably had some psychological problems!

So, just nine months on, a gestation period. Since then cv-19 has put my little troubles into perspective. 318,596 deaths globally when I look at the Johns Hopkins tracker this morning. Ouch. The world has changed and, despite all the wonderful things that humans have done, all the good side of the species that has shown, I have a horrible feeling that we’re really starting to see the backlash of the powerful, the rich and simply horrible who don’t want good changes to come of this. I am only coping with very filtered doses of news the last month or so as that seems so horrific.

OK. On a more positive note, this morning the sky is blue, the sun is out, my washing is drying on the terrace and earlier the view across to Mont St. Jacques and beyond was lovely. (As ever, click to get the full glory, but be warned: it’s a large image.)

Early morning hazy perspective

On the other side of the terrace my mansion up here in the skies was casting lovely shadows that amused me and made me feel I was in some crenellated castle. (Again click, again, be patient, they’re big images. I haven’t got this gallery plugin sussed so I get two images overlaid though I can still see the top one fine. Contact me if you get worse and it’ll push me to try to get to the bottom of this.)

Two night’s back the layers of cloud created an amazing light and view across the valley. Hard to capture these lights with the camera but I think this gets a sense of it. (Same instructions and warnings as above.)

Down below, in the car park, this is what retreading a piste basher involves.

Retreading a piste basher (not that one, it’s got its treads)

Enough. Work and the weekly trip to the shop call me!

Social distance … what’s worth …?

Created 5/5/20

I seem to be a bit differently blocked about posting things lately. Some of that is just that I seem to have been working rather harder/longer than usual and some of that increase in work came from the cv-19 pandemic and a wish to be doing something useful in the face of such horror and sadness. But another element has been trying to understand a bit more about this “isolation/social distance” issue. Suddenly much of the world has been forced, more or less reluctantly, into degrees of social distance that aren’t normal for them. With discussion with my family, but pretty actively opted for myself, I’ve chosen to react by just starting living up here about two months earlier than planned and I only leg it to the shop once a week. That’s not a huge change from how I’ve lived about half the year for the last two years. So I’m in a social distanced place that I’ve actively sought out for myself for a while but I’m now socially distanced from, isolated from, most of the world who are suddenly also much more socially distanced than is their norm.

I’m sure that the social distancing edicts in most countries have been wise. A sad bit of that is that we can’t trust a huge proportion of the population to do sensible things if those sensible things go against their habits or wishes. I’m sure they will have been “worth it” in deferred deaths and some mitigation of terrible pressures on health services and perhaps social care services. It seems wonderfully clear that they have brought out so much that is good in many people. They also seem to me to have revealed some of the very worst of the people in power in many countries and the speculations about whether not cv-19 is an escaped bioweapon remind us that most of the world is either at war or poised to fight. In the early months of this there was a phase when I dived back into my early career “community medicine” (now “public health”) time (mostly 1983-84 if anyone wants that time perspective on this solipsistic stuff) and I spent hours every day trying to digest the emerging numbers and modelling. I stopped that a month or so ago partly because I had taken up trying to do things that might be useful to therapists having to work online but I know that part of that shift was away from the raw numbers and all the individual and familial, collective, social horror they index. It wasn’t just that the overwhelming majority of this is impinging on people I don’t know, I was concerned about the impact on family, particularly parents who I’m very lucky to still have alive either side of 90 years old and I was starting to learn of friends of friends, friends and relatives of colleagues and then colleagues and family members themselves having had the virus. (So far, no deaths even at those removes in the people I know.) There was something indecent about thinking of human horror in numbers but there always is, take cv-19 away and it’s often more the deaths and maiming we humans do to each other that I try to process in numbers from the latest news. Cv-19 wipes most of that out of the news but there’s always “social distancing” of a psychological kind rather than a physical kind in these numberings.

OK, Chris, follow that thread for a moment, maybe it matters. Well, my Email contacts collection has 5,146 people in it. Let’s say I sort of “know” or “have interacted with to a point that I can probably remember something of” say 5,500 people and if there are 7.8 billion people in the world (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population) then I have some personal capacity to think of 7.05*10-7, i.e. about 0.00007% of the world’s population. OK, is that a distancing that we all share (I don’t count having 3 million twitter or other “follower” as knowing them). I guess since the 16th Century at the latest (perhaps earlier for the Chinese?) we have been faced with both that our world is huge compared to what we know of it, and that it’s a finite sphere (oblate spheroid!) The physical area we can “know” and the proportion of living humanity we can “know” are both tiny compared to the area and numbers out there. I guess I that sociologically, psychologically, we’re making slow progress (if any) in processing this constructively and tend to collapse into “localisms” and too often into fighting to deaths over these localisms.

A true pandemic, something completely non-human it itself: a tiny accretion of genetic material and protein that only reproduces in and through “higher”, much more complex, lifeforms has suddenly challenged our other great defence against our diminutive and distanced/scattered states: hugely inflated ideas of our omniscience and omnipotence. We have the nuclear weapons to render our planet uninhabitable (certainly to our “higher” lifeforms, we have remarkable abilities to intervene in many illnesses and traumata and we can measure gravity waves and date the big bang but we’re watching this cv-19 thing kill and all we can do for now is retreat into social distancing and do what we can to adjust and cope.

I’m clear that saying that I have some personal connectedness with say 0.00007% of the world’s population, perhaps indirect connectedness with 0.0007% if I allow that each person I “know” might tell me about up to ten other people that I’m not setting a value on that. I think you could “know” a far higher proportion or perhaps just get through your life only relating to a tiny handful of people but if you relate to them well and don’t create a dangerous “us and them” around your niche then you have lived a life as worth living as anyone who can say they related well and didn’t hurt others with “us and them”. (I’m a bit sceptical about true hermits and anchorites but I guess the ones we know of have impacted on many.)

So I started this about “… what’s worth …?” and I meant to take that to “What’s worth doing?” and “What’s worth saying?”. I know that something that has been stopping me blogging much has been a rather despairing question “What’s worth saying?” (and a feeling that I was better with my current “doing”). This blog, as opposed to my equally stuck work blogs, is about trying to stay in touch with people who matter to me when I can’t Email them individually (without stopping my “doing”!) I guess it’s worth saying/writing.

I’ll stop with two experiments in timelapse other than my regular “all daylight hours” ones (timelapse-videos). These are using my camera instead of an old ‘phone, and choosing just one view to follow for a time. They were both six second intervals and they’re 25fps video so speeded up 150x I suppose. I’ve got a very interesting social distance I guess.

3/5/20 16:35 across the valley

I love that soft but scarred bluff which I imagine was a lava flow long ago and I like they way the clouds scud over it and throw everything into alternating light and dark. And here’s my noble neighbour (to the right of the view!)

3/5/20 18:57 Rognais to Mont Blanc

I’ve not got on top of all the challenges of using yet another amazing open source tool, ffmpeg in this case, to convert many separate images to video yet but I’ll chew away at this!

Life in strange times

Created 27.iv.20, click here to register to get updated when new posts, images and pages appear on the site.

Well these are strange and, for very many, horrible, times. I’m pretty lucky up here, this morning I raised my gaze from the screen to look out, my attention caught by a movement and there was a golden eagle being mobbed first by one of the local alpine choughs and then by two. I grabbed my binoculars and dashed out onto the terrace and for minutes they spiralled above until the eagle I think eventually gave up and disappeared into cumulus really quite high above me. At that point I realised how fast they had been moving both horizontally and vertically, the eagle doing it with very little wing movement while the choughs, little over half the size, flapped more obviously and short in out clearly trying to hit the eagle’s tail and wings while escaping that huge beak. I don’t get that for entertainment in London! I don’t think I’d have got any usable ‘photos had I grabbed the camera rather than the binoculars: it was happening so fast and probably needed a longer lens than the upper end of the “superzoom” I have. Sorry! However, this was a view a couple of hours earlier this morning. I think if you click on it you get the full sized image.

I guess that’s about a sixth of what I see as I look up. That’s the first time in the last seven weeks that there’s been that carpet of low cloud down in the valley. Most days I think the early sun has actually been too strong, and the air down there too dry for that though over a whole year it’s a frequent pattern. So the aesthetics up here are stunning. When I arrived the snow on the terrace was chest high and I wouldn’t have been able to get out there with binoculars the first few days as the snow was less than a foot from the windows, door and walls. As the sun blasted down, day after day, the snow receded. The first week created enough space to squeeze out of the door and this auto-excavation. I think some rather more impressive artefacts are being revealed from high Norwegian passes as climate change excavates them. This was not quite in that league.

As the snow receded the sun really was hot so I did a bit of engineering.

I don’t want to give the impression that it’s been all birdwatching and sunbathing up here. There have been some minutes of the first and, OK, a few hours, enough for me to have lost my pasty pallor and started to tan, but mostly I’ve been working.

Coronavirus, SARS-CV-19, whatever other terms and acronyms one uses, has been a savage backdrop. The work providing online CORE forms has continued: if you go to the ResearchGate page and look at the project log that gives some history of that and https://www.coresystemtrust.org.uk/parse_logs3.html shows that the forms are being downloaded and I’ve become involved in supporting an impressive “psychological first aid” project in Ecuador and, this last weekend, an exploration of views of CV-19 in Greece and all the usual work continues.

But I’m safe and well, my family seem safe and brave too but so many have not been so lucky and we’re clearly starting to see ugly sides of political and economic reactions. We’ve a long way to go: stay as safe and resilient as you can. I’ll finish with Mont Blanc in the sunrise this morning. Another that may be worth clicking to get the full image.

Mont Blanc catching the early light this morning

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I fled Toulouse for the Alps

Created 13.iv.20.

It was a month ago tomorrow, how the month has flashed past.

I left Toulouse, relieved to get away from a misdescribed airBnB (when it says you have the place to yourself you don’t expect to share with four others … but I was too tired after a 24 hour journey there by coach to complain). I realised that my eyrie, which we let out in the ski season, wasn’t rented that week and I was due to rendezvous with my family up here the following week so I decided to go a week early.

I was relieved to leave the airBnB really but also a bit sad to miss very friendly co-habitants: we were from the UK (me!), Côte d’Ivoire, France (from North Africa childhood) and Albania and communication was much in sign language but hugely friendly: thanks friends.

In the then growing grip of cv-19, and with SNCF still technically subject to strike action, I wasn’t sure if the trip back to my Alpine eyrie would work. My cab driver in the early hours in Toulouse turned out to be a lovely music teacher who gave me a free French lesson, one of the best cab drives I’ve had: thanks Monsieur!

That left me outside the rather grand train station: Toulouse-Matabiau. Wikipedia tells me it was built between 1903 and 1905 and that its 26 coats of arms mark the 26 destinations that the then CF de midi sereved. As ever, click on the gallery to see better images.

I particularly liked this with the emerging engine giving a sense of how the trains looked at the time. I like the slightly surreal juxtapositioning of the train, the other hardware (is that a hand and foot powered point shifting lever) against the foliage, cubism was still a way away but no dull perspectival view this!

The last stage of the journey back up to Aime2000 was in the little local bus and to my surprise it was almost full: the first time in the day when I felt I was in any danger of catching cv-19. About a quarter of the passengers were in a group who had clearly been imbibing happily all day and sang (not badly but loudly) all the way up the hairpins. That was with the exception of one member in the seat diagonally in front of me who reclined his seat, which turned out to go down almost horizontally, pinning me to the window while he promptly went to sleep. Thanks mate!

The following morning I slept in and when I finally had coffee in me and looked around the lifts weren’t moving. That was the first time I realised that I’d made it up here just as the French closed all ski domaines and started to implement their lockdown. With the family we had to accept that there would be no skiing together and we decided that I should probably stay up here and build up my “French days” and be very safe while they battened down in the UK.

So I’ve been here, working hard (CV-19 and online measures: boy has that been much more work than I’d anticipated). I’ve resuscitated my timelapse videos (but don’t bother with the boring ones, things probably improving now as clouds are back) and just tried to understand what’s happening to the world. I’ll close with some views from up here from the last few weeks: thanks mountains!

Bad art? Le capitole de Toulouse

Created 3/3/20, images from 28/2/20. Apologies about the awful formatting of the embedded galleries of images, as ever, click on them to get the full glory of the images.

Oh dear, I didn’t take any general ‘photos on Friday, I was trying to get the details in all their grandiose and glorious awfulness. OK, so “Le Capitole de Toulouse” is a late 19th century building around much earlier roots and the main civic building. I had learned around the time I first went into it, with only smartphone camera, that my sister, a charismatic teacher of history of art, had found herself in an interesting discussion of whether there can be bad art with a Taiwanese colleague. I’m no art historian or expert on art but I think the answer is that there can be great art and I believe the art in the capitole in Toulouse is, for me, quintessential bad art. Well, those were in the inner courtyard. As ever, click to get full size images.

What is it about those, are they chimeras on each side of the smirking man? Women’s heads on dogs bodies? And surely not to scale. Like something that Mel Brooks and Marty Feldman might have done in the best spirit of Young Frankenstein?

As you go into the main show you go up a grand set of stairs (I’m sorry, “grand” may get overused here). The first face you meet is the face at the top of this post and perhaps that’s a warning. Here’s more from that staircase.

Is that man punting in the nude? What is going on here? Are the ladies looking heavenwards with the same question? Oh, how could I have forgotten? Just before the staircase on the left this chap (banished bishop of Toulouse?) who caught something of how I might have felt coming back past him having done the full tour …

At the top of stairs there’s a young male and female of the species on either side of the door into the first room.

Oh what gloriously tragic langour .. and lovely sandals

Is he really a match for her though?

Whoops, have we jumped centuries and allusions?

Then we go through into the first room where I think bad art is reaching towards its zenith … Those of a delicate disposition may want not to click on these … but we’re not, quite, at the worst yet.

Oh but you ain’t seen anything yet. I’ve almost skipped the second room as it’s, well, not quite such bad art: massive, rather pointilliste, contempory yet allegorical of the (next) artist’s family and important locals of the time like the rather impressive Auguste Marie Joseph Jean Léon Jaurès, yes, he of the university.

No, I haven’t quite skipped it, high up above the truly huge canvasses on the walls was one of heroes who spent much of his adult life in Toulouse: Pierre de Fermat.

Salute a truly great amateur mathematician … high and tiny up around the cornice

As the wikipedia entry tells us, Fermat bought a political position in the town, oh, and the right to add that “de” to his name. His “Fermat’s last theorem” must be one of the bits of maths to have achieved almost Hollywood level fame. Surely a blockbuster featuring his life and that of Andrew Wiles is soon to get started again pending the replacement of the last producer. (Ooops, we’ll come back to that.)

No, the huge gallery, apparently created by a man called Pujol by knocking through three existing rooms isn’t a simple case of putting it a couple of RSJs to take the load, oh no, dig this ceiling.

Is it just me or is a sort of theme about gender and garb emerging? And what’s going on with the lion? Is that old Britannia taking a stabbing from French aesthetic genius?

Here’s some of the art on the walls, some is Pujol again but not all.

They are rather different genre’s aren’t they? But I think they all still hit my “bad art” button. And there’s that theme again I think.

OK, I am sure you knew Fermat was coming back.

Fermat was ‘ere … and he did set the scene for differential calculus

So you remember that rather sombre looking head of Fermat earlier … fluent in six languages, lawyer and local politico … and amateur mathematician. What could go wrong if you wanted to celebrate him properly, not just tuck him away near the ceiling where only idiots like me are likely to see him but give him a bit more of a splash in the grand hall? This …

You got it: let’s pretty much recycle that bust we have of him and add, well, let’s imagine he had students, well of course he would wouldn’t he? What, they’d only have been male? Oh come on, we’ve got to make bucks here, sell the movie of the city. She’d have come for, well does it matter whether it was mathematical or legal training, she’d have needed a quill. What do you mean she looks a bit odd clad only in a rather natty chignon? Son, you’re still not listening, we’re making history here, not messing around with details.

Let’s hope all these artists and commissioners were sublimating/displacing their lusts for power and … well, to my mind deeply bizarre ideas about relationships between men and women into their … bad art rather than abusing their models and too many other women around them (and yes, as far as I could see they were all men). Let’s not forget there was that one man punting in the nude.

Aargh! I rest my case, there is such a thing as bad art and it was hitting some pretty grand heights in Toulouse at the end of the 19th Century and creeping just into the 20th.

Walking to the Garonne … and down memory lane

Created 29/2/20

I had a bit of time off yesterday afternoon: a post to come about that, but otherwise I’ve been working pretty hard here in my new airBnB hermit’s hole in Toulouse. I finished my last contributions to a paper I’ve been writing with Clara and some of her students a bit before lunch and felt exhausted. I knew I still owed lots of work to many projects and people but also knew that I would be an idiot not to take a break and a walk. So I decided to walk out to the Garonne. That’s the pretty large river that runs through the heart of Toulouse off to the Atlantic.

It was a grey day and a few raindrops fell at the end of the walk (literally a few: quite a odd feeling) but it was a great decision. I found myself on a footpath along a side channel of the river at first and the first memory trip was back to I guess around 13 to 15 years old when I spent at least some hours most weekends birdwatching with two friends from school around Leamington Spa where I lived from 11 to 18. There was the slightly mushy ground underfoot, the river (OK, the Leam is a stream compared to the Garonne) and there was a smell of wet vegetation, I think a sharp smell of nettles mostly. It took me back to something that had been precious in those teen years, for all it was just normal to me back then. Walking through countryside with varied habitats and diverse bird life. That’s something I would like to do in my retirement in France if ever get there and I’m not sure I’d been in simple, damp, not terribly attractive, marked but not much used, paths in the way I was today since those teenage weekends. The ornithological highlights were a couple of cormorants in flight but I didn’t have binoculars nor did I just stand and wait for a good while anywhere. There would have been much more around.

Then I came (past an odd collection of deserted tents and debris: a former refugee hideout?) to the main river and could see people in sculls and I was straight to a later, and perhaps an early, reconnection. The main one was to my first year at University when I tried my hand at rowing and ended up in the Queens’ College first VIII and loved the experience. The earlier association, which has only struck me now, was that for a short time within that birdwatching phase I also kayaked in the Leamington canoe club and loved that too … until I drank too much horrible Leam water failing to learn to roll a kayak and panicking!

Oh boy, I’d love to end up living somewhere where I could go back to kayaking and rowing, or sculling. (Oh, rowing needs and even number of you as you only have one oar, sculling can be done on your own as you have two oars, actually, blades, one in each hand.) I was impressed by the gender and age mix of scullers and rowers. I was never any good in a single scull: they capsize incredibly easily unless you really get the knack of being pretty perfectly symmetrical and of holding your balance if waves or wind are perturbing things supposing you have managed basic symmetry. I’d love to go back to trying again though, and I did get to manage rolling a kayak on a family holiday a few years back, even managed to get the trick of doing it without a paddle so kayaking again would be great too! (I don’t ask much do it?!)

I’m playing around putting up short galleries capitalising on having set the camera to burst off five shots at a time, bracketing exposure (hence the varying light in each).

[If you’re not much into this rowing/sculling lark, jump to the end now!]

I mostly rowed in an eight but did go out in a pair a few times and found it nearly as hard as a single scull. That’s much, much harder than it looks!

They’re not smooth or perfectly together but I’m impressed! This younger pair sculling reminded me where I’d be starting off (assuming I could find someone willing to scull with me!)

Oh dear, that brought back so many things the coaches shouted at me back then: not keeping in synch with the stroke (doh!), overreaching, shoulders hunching up, digging (when you go too deep into the water, often because the boat is over to one side or because you didn’t get the blade face nicely vertical at the catch … if the boat wasn’t to one side when someone digs, it soon will be!) They seemed to be having fun and reminded me that these craft move quite fast even if you’re not putting that much effort through effectively. These are actually much nicer boats than I ever used.

Now this chap was pretty smooth.

That’s way beyond anything I ever achieved and he could make that scull move at a real lick. Blades like that were just coming in when I rowed (1975/6) but I never used them. (I guess if I’m being enviously hypercritical, he is hunching his shoulders forward a bit in the return!)

And just to show single sculling well isn’t just for boys:

This lass was definitely not in that league and I think, I hope, was quite amused to find someone pointing a camera at her.

If I’d turned my head that much and for that long I’d have wobbled terribly. I now remember that the worst challenge was that you had to look over your shoulder to see where you were going!

Oh yes, I remember that too: practising your arms and coordination while keeping your legs fixed out straight and not using the slides. It was fascinating how the power you could deliver dropped to a fraction of what it was with legs and the slides. A bit like swimming full front crawl versus practising your leg action while holding a float with your hands. (Oh yes, I did swim a lot for a while as a young teenager, this is memory lane session.) Now for another young pair.

This club is really doing well getting people on the river.

Finally, another impressive pair from the (also impressive) huge flood defence walls this side of the river at this point as it passes through the town.

In these smaller boats timing is crucial but there isn’t the extraordinary challenge of trying to get eight people doing something exactly together that there is in an eight (doh again!) We were a very successful eight but on enthusiasm and some brute strength rather than any skill, only two of us had rowed before. I remember the only time we hit the catch together. The catch is the crucial moment when you have dropped the blade in the water and it’s just covered and you slam the leg power on, the arms come a fraction later as they’ll just waste leg power if your arms are bent at that first moment. I guess in ten weeks or so rowing in that first eight we really only had that millisecond precision of all hitting the catch together, and well, once. It was a bizarre experience as the noise wasn’t “crump” (that’s a lovely noise, as opposed to “slush” when you’re really out), it was “crack” and “crack” as in pistol shot … and the whole boat seemed to leap forward. We were in training not racing and we literally never managed it again!

A few years later, when I’d moved on to clinical training in London, I went to watch the “head of the river” race which then was some 150 or so (I think) eights rowing the reverse of the famous “Boat race” route. The crews are set off some time, 15 seconds perhaps, after one another with the winner from the previous year going first and working backwards. We had seen perhaps 80 boats go under our bridge and they were pretty clearly going down to my old boat’s level of skill and timing. Then a boat seemed to be simply shooting past others and as it came beneath us it was awe inspring: “crack”, “crack”, “crack” some 34 times a minute. It turned out that it was the UK olympic/world squad who hadn’t entered the previous year and were entered in some convenience placing. I’ve been lucky enough to watch some very, very good swimmers at Crystal Palace, and once to be on badminton courts as the UK squad came alongside us to train. There’s something incredible about truly good athletes that close!

Enough (“much too much” I hear many of you cry!) I’ll sign off with some art.

We squabble but we like each other!