Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Help me to be a better driver

 Last Autumn I was visiting relations near Worthing on the south coast, and unbeknown to me was clocked doing 57 mph in a 50 mph speed limit area.  The forbidding-looking Penalty Notice in bold black print arrived a week later, which informed me that I could either have points on my licence or I could attend a half-day speed awareness driving course in the geographical area where the offence was committed – a two-hour drive away from Bristol.
I opted for the latter (most people do) and presented myself on a cold January morning just after New Year.  I had been on one of these courses before in Bristol six years earlier, and knew what to expect, but was interested to find out whether the focus of the course had improved or varied from one region to another.  Not really in both cases: it left me once again wanting to have a rant – and this time I’ve got a blog on which to do it. 
The speakers rambled through the importance of keeping to the speed limit, the potential fatal results to yourself and others if you don’t, the distances you need in which to come to a halt after braking according to the speed you’re doing and the prevailing weather conditions, a terrifying video about an accident, quizzes to test our knowledge on speeds, distances, survival rates, percentage of different types of accidents in the United Kingdom, the dizzying multiple rules about speed limits according to what sort of road, how many lamp posts there are as you’re going through a village (yes, really) and so on.  This was all very worthy and valid, and it was important to be reminded of these facts. 
My rant is that this is simply not enough.
Give me the facts, certainly – but it’s essential to address the psychological reasons why people speed, carve each other up and are generally inconsiderate on the road.  We need to be forced to confront ourselves and our insane behaviour when we’re behind the wheel, and to be given the tools to deal with it.
This is what drivers need above all:
Road Rage.  How to stop ourselves from feeling road rage – what anger management arguments will stop us in our tracks?  How should we react when others show road rage towards us?  How should we deal with a driving situation caused by another vehicle which is patently unfair to us?

Age.  The age factor – the younger and more hormonal men and women are, the more intolerant and quick to anger we are likely to feel.  The older we are the more likely we are to make mistakes;

Unrelated problems.  When we’re on the road, how to compartmentalise our personal problems so that they don’t affect our driving;

Asleep at the wheel.  How to deal with tiredness and general lack of concentration – apart from opening the window and turning on the radio;

Competitive behaviour.  How to deal with competitiveness on the road: I’m not talking about being boy racers here, but a situation that happens to me every morning, on a stretch of motorway with a 50 mph speed limit.  The car in the next lane is large, and doing (say) 50 mph, and I’m in a small car being squeezed over, with another car behind me – so tempting to up the speed slightly to 55 mph “just to get passed him”, yet we risk being caught by speed cameras.

Lorries.  European lorry drivers urgently need to be taught all this on refresher courses every year, as they drive for a living, and tend to use their large vehicles to gain advantage – like the classic bully in the playground.  The type of accidents their mistakes cause are far more serious.  I’m tired of hearing that x number of people were killed because the continental driver forgot that we drive on the left.
There is one area – drinking and driving – where in this country all these aspects are dealt with strongly via powerful advertising and in other media, and I understand that drink and drive accidents are lower than in many other parts of the world.  I believe we have the Scandinavian example to thank for that.
The course was a half day one – and I believe that what I’ve mentioned above needs at least another half day, and should not be restricted to people who have been caught speeding.  We should all be forced to go on these courses with refreshers every two years, or risk losing our licences.  The extra cost should be met by us the drivers.
At both courses six years apart I asked the question about dealing with these psychological issues, which after all lie at the bottom of most road incidents.  I was told there were no plans to incorporate this into their course, and it would be too expensive anyway.  None of the speakers said “Good idea though”.  One of the attendees was a barrister (lawyer) of some standing in London who drives a sports car and in a jokey fashion conveyed how he was rather proud of the way he had avoided speeding offences (up until this one, that is).  I would say he was in dire need of being pulled up by his bootstraps and being forced to go on a driving psychology course, if it only existed. 
Is this a woman’s viewpoint then?  Does male pride come into it?
This is a crowded little country where most adults own cars, goods are rarely transported by rail and lorries from the continent are now permitted free access, including the very heavy goods vehicles, for which roads and bridges have been strengthened.  This is a lethal cocktail, and it is unlikely that drivers will be persuaded to give up their cars for public transport.
Do you have the same problems in your country?  Do drivers respect speed limits?  Do they respect drink and drive laws?
I’d love to know your thoughts on this – if you think I’m wrong, do tell me why.
Photo Finish
From Lonicera's digital archive


Sunday, 7 April 2013

Good night and God bless (II)

John Dillon Humphreys, 13/11/1927 – 18/03/2013
This is the text of my tribute to John given in the church where the funeral service was held, with images from the presentation on a loop given at the venue where refreshments were offered afterwards:

"I was loved by a wonderful man for 26 years.  
I met John in 1985, when I volunteered to help backstage with the Bristol Opera company as a way to recover from divorce.  It was agreed that I should dress in a peasant girl dress and cap at the forthcoming sing-through of Merrie England, and offer round trays of marzipan in the interval.  I’m amazed to think of that now; I must have been really desperate to climb out of the hole I was in to do something so conspicuous and way out of my comfort zone. 
John then invited me out for dinner, assuring me over and over that he wasn’t trying to date me because there were 25 years between us.  I joined the backstage team at the Bristol Opera Company helping with the makeup during the week of the opera, and I gradually started to cheer up, and put on weight thanks to all the dinners to which I was being treated by John.  He has always called me Tich because of my height, but the irony did not and continues not to escape me.

I learned about his working life as a civil engineer, and on one occasion we travelled round the country visiting various dams he had been involved in, notably Winscar, the first asphaltic concrete dam in England, of which he was the proud designer.  I still can’t believe that he encouraged me to bring along tapes of music I liked, because he told me he would be interested to hear them.  They were mostly folk music, to which he listened politely.  Knowing now of his total intolerance to any music that wasn’t classical, I appreciate that he must have been trying to impress me big time by pretending to like my favourite group, Steeleye Span - or “Stainless Steel”, as he called them.  I took him to one of their concerts once, and he could barely restrain himself from covering his ears.
I got to know him and gradually his family - Simon, Alison, Jo and their mother Blanche, and sometimes accompanied John and his elder daughter Alison on days out, such as flying in hot air balloons, sailing round Bristol harbour and exploring local beauty spots.  During this time I learned about Clifton Town, the folk opera about the Bristol Riots which he had written years before. 

He had already staged it at the Hippodrome by the time I met him, and a trimmed production took place in 1989 at the Theatre Royal.  I’ve always loved Clifton Town, and am grateful to Pam Rudge for singing “The Song of the River Avon” today.  It was Alison’s favourite song, and mine too, and in fact I named my house Avonsong after it.  It would be a dream come true to be able to stage it again one day.

I’d like to say we shared our hobbies, but it was more a case of John sharing mine.  He supported me with my photography, always keen to take me on assignments, always questioning my judgment on apertures, composition or systematic errors, and using the tripod for stability to avoid camera shake.  He would soothe me when I panicked because the camera suddenly didn’t work, encouraged me with the results, even when they weren’t that good.  We belonged to Backwell Camera Club, and he would push me to go on the evenings when I would have rather remained curled up on the sofa.  A member reminded me this week that although he came to keep me company, he always had questions to ask the speakers, usually prefaced by “I’m not a photographer, I’m just the stooge that accompanies Caroline Holder, and I’m known as Tripod Holder”.   (See pic below)

In the dark as we watched the slide show of the evening you would suddenly hear the obvious sound of John noisily unscrewing the metal top of his hip flask, and saying in a loud stage whisper “Fancy a tot of brandy?” to everyone around him.

For 5 years he escorted me to rugby games at the Memorial Ground when Bristol were playing at home, back when they were in the first division and I was taking pictures of the game for their programmes.  John and I would sit on the touchline usually in the pouring rain or sleet, munching his way through hard boiled eggs with bread and butter, Kit Kats, taking slugs of brandy while still managing to puff his way through a cigarette and hang on to my next roll of film, and call out instructions on which direction I should run to catch the try.  The miserable weather conditions which seem to go with rugby got to me in the end, but John was disappointed when I stopped.
In the last few years I have discovered the joy of blog writing, and John insisted on vetting the text before I uploaded it.  He always had valid points to contribute and mistakes to correct.  Oh yes, there was nothing he liked better than finding spelling errors.
He was unimpressed by my interest in languages though, sharing the popular belief that Englishmen are no good at foreign languages so you might as well stick to English.  He certainly proved himself right once when he was designated by his firm to entertain a bus load of visiting French civil engineers on a tour of various dams, and in an attempt to communicate better with them, as they traversed and earth-filled dam he conveyed his preference for large dams (forgetting that the French for dam is barage) by saying “Moi je préfère traverser les grandes dammes”, which left them open-mouthed.
I regret to say I didn’t share most of his hobbies, among which was inspecting anything under water, such as newts in the pond and various fish and octopus in the sea with his snorkel – it all seemed sort of creepy to me, though I found it more interesting when he started photographing them with an underwater camera. 

The behaviour of ants was fascinating to him, and when visiting my parents in Spain over many years he would sit by the pool staring down at the patio floor studying processions of ants, which he would follow and feed with various choice morsels to see how they reacted.  One year the ants carved a route through the kitchen, up into the cupboard with the pots and pans and through a hole in the wall to the bathroom, along the rim of the bath, up the wall and out through the window.  He spent a lot of time in the bathroom that year studying them, and waited in vain every subsequent year, but they had changed routes.
Sailing was a great love, and I failed miserably at this.  It was in his family, he had shared the fondness for this activity many years before with his wife Blanche – and I was absolutely pathetic.  I couldn’t cope with the concept of clinging on by my fingernails to a very large object swaying through water which didn’t stick to the left bank and which you couldn’t stop by braking.  We went sailing on the Broads once, and he could barely conceal his disappointment with my lack of enthusiasm for standing on the deck in bracing weather, legs apart, arms akimbo, being buffeted by icy rain, and instead took refuge in the galley.  He had said I’d be able to sit and trail my hand in the water and photograph birds, but it transpired I was expected to “help” – it was tote that barge and lift that bale, and dodge out of the way when the sail was swinging towards me while trying not to be sick over the side.
In fact if there was a requirement for curriculum vitae for starting relationships the “hobbies” section would have ruled me out straight away.
I did however share his interest for his type of music.  I enjoy opera entirely thanks to John.  His performing interests moved from light opera to grand opera and in the last 10 years back to Gilbert & Sullivan.  He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Bristol Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society, not just because he loved the music, but because he loved the people who formed part of the society. 
<< John singing "A policeman's lot is not a happy one" - (or as they say - not a "nappy" one...)
I doubt they’ll ever forget how he would encourage them into evil ways at rehearsals by - again - producing his hip flask with brandy at the drop of a hat.  They were his other family, and he didn’t miss a rehearsal simply because he couldn’t bear to do so, even near the end when he was so ill.  I’m so grateful to them for singing “For he is an Englishman” today.
Four score years and five is not a bad age to reach, and he had lived life to the full.  People will remember him as a gentle gentleman, a modest man, a kind boss who promoted staff with promise and never took the credit for their achievements, and as his former secretary Marion has told me, the most civil of engineers.  When I would quote to him the testimonials given by friends and colleagues, he could never understand why people liked him.  And yet everybody said he was such an agreeable man, and he couldn’t think why...

This may have been because he understood his failings – mostly.  His determination to only look at the positive side of people sometimes took on the naïve attitude of speaking up for Attila the Hun because he had always been nice to him.  However this didn’t extend to his instinctive dislike of certain television personalities, which I couldn’t enumerate because we would be here all day.  I will tell you about one though – during the endless questionnaires asked by different medical teams in his last few weeks, to the question “any allergies?” he would reply “yes, one”, then pause as their pens were poised in the air.  “Tony Blair” he would announce triumphantly – it took them by surprise every time.
During the early seventies he had cause to examine his own behaviour, and over a period of 3 weeks he knelt for twenty minutes each day in Bath Abbey, where he sought unselfish answers to many questions.  He eventually experienced what was for him an epiphany.  He realised that in searching for genuine selfless love within himself he had been looking in the wrong place.  Love was not something within him that could be shone onto others.  It was a light – or a loving spirit - shining onto him from outside, and all he could do was try to reflect it onto others.  He also felt it was reflecting onto him, forgiving him his past sins and telling him he wasn’t worthless.  He had sought and found a way to a possible future redemption, and he often told me that he was a different person from that day onwards. 
This Loving Spirit was always with him.  It was an immense comfort to him during the very sad time when the Humphreys lost Alison, and when his brother Peter died, and it enabled him to bear his own final illness with the most astonishing fortitude.
I can’t quite believe I shall never again hear his footsteps coming into my study as I’m typing away, and his saying “Whatcha doin’ Tich?”; or watching me park the car and unable to stop himself from commenting “The trouble with women is that they’ve got no spatial sense”; or coming back from Waitrose with his five oysters and calling out “’Tis me, I’m back!  It’s Handsome Jack!” or in reply to someone stating “You’re such a gent”, saying “It’s just my very good impression of a gentleman”. 
He had a warm, generous, loving personality and great personal integrity, and was immensely proud of his children and grandchildren Jack, Katy, Frankie and Rowan.  He also loved our cats, Rusty and Banjo, more than he ever believed he would.  He wasn’t just my partner but my best friend.  He helped me through depression, he spoke up for me when he could, always gave me his full support on every decision I made, and told me off regularly for under-valuing myself.  And he was that most extraordinary of men in my life – he loved me for myself, and for a very long time.  He was my oak tree.
“Go gentle into that good night”, dearest Humph, and as you used to say every night first to the cats and then to me, good night Humph, God bless."

A Prayer

~ Max Ehrmann ~

Let me do my work each day;
and if the darkened hours of despair overcome me,
may I not forget the strength that comforted me
in the desolation of other times.

May I still remember the bright hours that found me walking
over the silent hills of my childhood,
or dreaming on the margin of a quiet river,
when a light glowed within me and I promised my early God
to have courage amid the tempests of the changing years.

Spare me from bitterness and from the sharp passions
of unguarded moments.
May I not forget that poverty and riches are of the spirit.
Though the world knows me not, may my thoughts and actions be such
as shall keep me friendly with myself.

Lift up my eyes from the earth, and let me not forget the uses of the stars.
Forbid that I should judge others lest I condemn myself.
Let me not follow the clamour of the world, but walk calmly in my path.
Give me a few friends who will love me for what I am;
and keep ever burning before my vagrant steps the kindly light of hope.

And though age and infirmity overtake me,
and I come not within sight of the castle of my dreams,
teach me still to be thankful for life,
and for time's olden memories that are good and sweet;
and may the evening's twilight find me gentle still.


A few more pictures...

The willing model

In the Doghouse

The Shy Photographer

A Hand Sandwich...

Christmas 2001, with my family

The earliest picture of us taken together - about 1988


Friday, 5 April 2013

Good night and God bless (I)

John Dillon Humphreys, 13/11/1927 – 18/03/2013

Gentle, noble John, my beloved partner, passed away the day after I wrote the last entry. 
On 14th February he had been diagnosed with lung cancer and secondaries in his spine and liver.  Barely a month and four days later his exhausted body gave up the fight.  I had intended to nurse him at home where the two cats he loved so much would be close by, and with the assistance of district nurses, but he never returned from his second visit to hospital. 
His younger daughter Jo spent many hours driving up and down the motorway to provide support and company, and the load was made lighter by her presence.  The time we had with him was so very brief, but I would not have had it any other way.  If he had sought clinical advice about his extreme tiredness over the previous three years he may well have discovered that he had not escaped his years of smoking, and that every puff of the cigarette had been one puff of air less when he needed it the most.  However this would have meant three years of uncomfortable and painful treatment, with his strength and morale being sapped little by little, and too long to have to live with the awful truth.
At first when his mind was clearer we talked to him, and he was never in any doubt about how much he was loved, and by how many.  Although he knew what was happening he remained philosophical throughout and showed little inclination to examine his feelings – as usual.  Jo asked him once if he was frightened, and he replied “Not really.  But I am curious about what’s going to happen the day after...” 
In the last two days in hospital he slipped into unconsciousness, and on Monday 18th March I had just left at 1 p.m. after sitting with him since 5.00 a.m., and Jo was with him when he peacefully took his last breath half an hour later.  That evening my ginger cat Rusty was nowhere to be found, and for the first time ever in 12 years he didn’t come bounding in when I called him.  I tried at fifteen minute intervals till 1.30 a.m. then had to give up.  John would never have gone to bed until he found him, but I was just too tired and on autopilot.  I left the cat flap open but there was no sign of him the following day.  My kindly neighbours saw me unable to cope with all this, and set to work – one walked up and down the road calling him and shaking a box of biscuits, and the other called at every single house in the road asking the owners to check their outbuildings in case Rusty had got shut in by mistake.  There was no sign of him.
While Jo sorted out the intricate paperwork required after a death and contacted the vicar and funeral director, I started advising people by e-mail, and tried to explain to John in my head that in a matter of hours we had gone from a household of four down to just two – just me and Banjo, my other cat.  I also begged him to help me find Rusty.  I didn’t think I would ever see my little ginger cat again, wondering if a fox had got him or he had wandered too far and got lost.  He had a chip under the skin, but who ever cares about picking up a stray cat, taking it to a vet and having it checked just in case?  It all just about pushed me over the edge. 
So at 1 a.m. when Rusty casually let himself in through the cat flap in the study where I was sitting, I screamed and just about squeezed the breath out of him as I blubbed at him about his poor sense of timing.  He just purred.  His fur was in perfect condition, with no sign of his having been in a fight, or slept rough in the field behind the house; he wasn’t hungry – just thirsty because he had had no insulin for 36 hours – he was warm and unharmed.  Perfectly happy, and glad to see me.
I was determined to write a eulogy which I would read out myself at John’s funeral – in fact I had started it a couple of weeks’ earlier when he was still at home.
“Whatcha doin’ Tich?” he called out.  I stopped and went to sit on the bed with him.
“You’ll never guess.”
“Try me”.
“I’ve started on your eulogy”
“Saying anything nice?”
“Nope, I’m telling people just what a nasty person you were”.
We smiled at each other.
“Will you show it to me when it’s finished?  There could be spelling mistakes...”
“Of course Humph.”
“Don’t forget to tell them about Bath Abbey.”
“Of course Humph.”
But we ran out of time. 

Afterwards I had plenty of time in which to write it – in Britain funerals take place at least a week after someone has died, and my employers at the hospital had been generous with me, insisting that I take as much time off as I needed to look after John and recover afterwards.  I also had time to prepare a slide show for my digital frame with over 360 images of him, his family and friends. 
In between times I slept, the cats with me on the bed most of the time.   One morning a few days after his death, the doorbell rang at 05:17 a.m.  I had just changed the doorbell a fortnight earlier, from a buzzer to one with a Big Ben chime, like an old grandfather clock.  The first half of the chime woke me, and I had jumped out of bed in fright as the second half sounded.  I had no intention of answering the door; I put my head out of the dining-room window and called, but there was no one there.  Annoyed, I went back to bed, and as I drew the quilt back over my head I suddenly smiled to remember that John would get up between 05:00 and 05:30 every morning to let the cats out, and that – who knows – maybe he had made the doorbell ring to tease me, and to remind me to open the cat flap.
Rusty and Banjo followed me about the house all the time, and Rusty would bring me ‘presents’ of the feathered variety (alas) to cheer me up...  Then one evening I had to go out to John’s car to collect things from the back seat, and left the front door of the house open.  The bleeps and flashing lights from the remote control added to the slamming of the car door brought both of them galloping out the door at top speed.  Rusty realised straight away it was only me and ran off, but Banjo came right up to the car to where I was standing having just slammed the door and stared at me with his eyes as big as saucers.  There was absolutely no doubt that they thought John had returned. 
John had asked to be buried in a church cemetery in Bathampton.  In the family plot there, his elder daughter Alison had been buried in 1996.  She died at the age of 43 of complex neurological problems which had beset her from the age of 27, and he wanted to be with her, as will her mother eventually. 
We had expected some 50 people to attend the funeral on Wednesday last, the 27th March, but more than twice that crammed into the small church until there was standing room only.  A song of his composition about the river Avon was sung by a professional singer friend of ours, and twenty-five members of the Bristol Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society came to sing one of the best known songs – “For he is an Englishman”, (from HMS Pinafore) which described John so well.  His friend Bill read out a beautiful poem by Max Ehrmann, and I read out my tribute to him without mishap and was pleased and comforted when the congregation laughed in the right places and gave me a clap at the end.
Thank you, thank you for the supportive comments, and to all who showered me with flowers, cards and kind words, and to my relations and neighbours who continue to keep an eye on me.  It has buoyed me up when I needed it most.
On Monday 18th March 2013 the world stopped spinning for a brief while, but now it is back on its orbit, and I must take up my life again without John’s love and support.   

(I’ll share with you the text of my tribute to John in Part II, and the poem by Max Ehrmann)
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