Sunday, 13 January 2013

Fred Slattern's broken away

Hi everyone. Fred Slattern, Colchester's slum poet has gone his own way, and requested that I remove his pages from here. So I have. 
If you would like to see what he's up to, check out 
I gave him a start, and he's dumped me. I hope he trips up.

I haven't been blogging much recently. I'm taking a break for now, but expect to be back sometime. Best wishes to both my readers.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Cape Wrath 2013?

I'm an old curmudgeon. I don't really like it when people go on extreme expeditions to raise money for their pet charity. They sign up for some horrendous adventure, where they thrash themselves in some desert or ocean (whilst supported by a back-up team to look after them, and carry their bags) and expect the rest of us, the left-behinds, to hand over money as we listen to their boring stories about how hard it was.

I like cycling and walking, especially in remote places. But I don't do it because it's hard; I do it for beauty and peace and fun and fresh air and culture and exploration and a bit of physical exercise. I find long-distance cycling and backpacking very relaxing - the simple life away from it all. And in May 2011, I fancied getting away from it all. Since October 2008 Frank's diabetes has been stalking us every minute; it never sleeps, much like ourselves. 

At that time we'd done a 1000 days of care for Frank, visually checking him every 10 minutes during the day, and every few hours during the night. He'd had 3000 blood tests and 2500 injections up to that date. It's exhausting for us all, but I'm really not complaining, it's just how it is. And little Frank just accepts his lot in life.

In May 2011, I traveled solo towards Cape Wrath, accompanied only by my imaginary friend Fred Slattern, Colchester's slum poet. Fred plan was to take his "Message from Essex" show on the road, performing at various pubs and cafes along the route.

I carried my own tent and kit, taking a bike on the train to Plockton on the west coast, and cycled about 200 miles on some twisty switchback roads to the far north west. The destination was the north west corner of the island of Great Britain (click for wikipedia link) , a remote spot about 80 miles as the crow flies from the nearest city, Inverness, and about double that by road. It is about 11 miles along a track from the nearest main road, and that main road is only single lane. Oh yes, and there's a foot ferry to get you to the start of the track to Cape Wrath.

Along the way from Plockton were a few small settlements, but it's mainly sea inlets, open countryside, peat bogs and no trees in the north. When I get to the Cape I won't be touching the sea, as we're in the area of Great Britain's highest cliffs. I've always wanted to visit "because it is there".

And another fabulous thing about the Cape is the Ozone cafe at the lighthouse, and it's open for food 24/7/365. Yes, it's like diabetes, it never closes. Not that there's much round-the-clock custom in the cafe, as the ferry is only seasonal and available at the right time of the tide and in daylight. And why would Fred want to go there, apart from "because it's there"? Because if he gives a poetry performance, he can justify his claim to be Great Britain's most north-west poet. 

UPDATE: The 2011 poetry tour started well, but there was very poor weather, with a powerful headwind, and fairly incessant rain, sometimes very heavy. Poetry commitments honoured at The Old Inn at Gairloch, where a very successful and well received set was performed, I came home after four very tough days and 180 miles of cycling and camping in the highlands! The Cape itself was inaccessible, as the foot ferry wasn't running due to rough seas. The Cape will have to wait another year for Fred's visit............ 2013?

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Did dinosaurs walk through Prettygate?

"Did dinosaurs walk through Prettygate?" and other important questions were answered at "Fred Slattern's Celebration of the Suburbs" Jane's Walk on Friday 4 May 2012.

So, who wants to come for a walk through a pancake flat 1950s housing estate, at the end of a windswept and rainy week, after work on a Friday, to talk about urbanism? Have I gone deaf? Or is it "no one"! Fred's walk was one of a series of Jane's Walk events in Colchester, set up by "Walk Colchester", the UK leaders in the international movement celebrating the life of Jane Jacobs, encouraging local people to enjoy their own patch.

Eager to pull in the punters, Fred enticed them in with a rich mix of cod-history, faux-planning, psycho-geography and poetry. Yes, a couple of readings from his never-in-print book "Love, Hate and Prettygate".

Starting from The Prettygate pub, an audience of eighteen quickly got through the "Why is it called Prettygate?" question. (Answer: the estate is named after Prettygate Farm, which had a pretty gate incorporating various farm implements.)  The leader and audience had a grumble about the highway authority's ugly and people-unfriendly solution to the speeding-car problem at the local shops: fence-in the people on foot, rather than slow down the cars. Maybe next time round a more enlightened solution will be applied, as "20's Plenty" takes hold?

Stopping at the site of Prettygate Farm, and moving on to Baden Powell open space the audience heard Fred's piece "Fear and Loathing in Prettygate", a story recording how people's attitudes to their homes and community have changed in the 50 years since the houses were built. Fred then got into full swing history-buff mode, compressing over two thousand years of local history into a few five-minute vignettes in muddy glades on the fringes of the estate.

The planned three-mile ninety minute walk was going slowly as the individuals on the walk got to know each other, in true Jane's Walk style. Meanwhile Fred was telling tales of the armies that had passed through our suburb, from the 30,000 strong Roman invasion, through the 6,000 Royalists taking Colchester in the Civil war, and the regiments of the New Model Army's Siege of Colchester.

And the final answer was to the dinosaur question. The gravels six inches below the surface of Prettygate were laid down about 500,000 years ago, by an earlier version of the River Thames. So no dinosaurs passed over our fair estate, as they disappeared 65,000,000 years ago. The odd mammoth has probably walked our way though. As a final thought Fred proposed that we honour our heritage by renaming Prettygate as "Prettygate-on-Thames", but by then the Jane's Walkers had other forms of liquid on their mind, as they sloped into the pub.

And so, what on paper looked "worthy, but unpromising", turned out to be a celebration of localism (in a non-political sense), with everyone saying "more next year". Thanks to everyone who supported this Jane's Walk, see you again.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Big Swifty unlikely to make GB Olympics cycling team in 2012

GB top athlete distracted by real life in 2011

Followers will be disappointed to know I am unlikely to be selected for the GB cycling team at the Olympics, just down the road in six months time. There are several reasons for this, what with me being untalented, unfit, overweight and too old; but my training hasn't kept with the programme. I've been busy with real life; indeed I've been so busy I haven't even Big Swifty blogged for a few months. So here's a summary of 2011, for anyone else who's in danger of Olympic selection, and would like to follow my training programme, thereby getting a ticket to watch the sport from the sofa:

Familiar readers of Big Swifty will know that diabetes dominates our life, as we have a five year old who is a Type 1 diabetic. The disease does not define us, but it has to be our priority, and takes up a large chunk of our time, energy and brain power. Our 2011 began with a trip to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, to make the acquaintance of the new member of our little family: Lucky, the insulin pump.  After some training, we were let loose with the real thing, live and pumping insulin, and within a day our spirits felt lighter. It was Frank that was convinced that he wanted a pump and he has never once wavered from this.  We are very proud of our brave boy, who deals with the constant invasive world of the Type 1 Diabetic with a huge amount of grace and courage.

Homeschooling continues well for us and we are looking forward to more fun times ahead.  Our style of homeschooling comes under the “unschooling” umbrella, which means we follow Frank’s interests and thus the world is our classroom!  We can find ourselves drawing dinosaurs and reading about them one day, and then rowing on the river pretending to be Ratty and Mole from “The Wind in the Willows” the next.  We meet up regularly with other homeschooling families and have been enjoying a variety of activities this year, at people’s homes, in village halls, museums, forest schools, and at Colchester’s magnificent new gallery “Firstsite”. Next year will see more crafting, science, dinosaurs, Lego, art and music, plus anything else that takes our fancy.

Travel this year for Big Swifty included a very damp and windy time in NW Scotland solo poetry tour/ cycle camping, and a week in Denmark with Tom.  As a family we spent a fairly disastrous, wet and windy few days in the Cotswolds (with Families with Diabetes), followed later in the spring by a cold, wet and windy week on our own, camping in Devon, which at least ended well as we managed to catch some relatives on the way home.   We fully banished the damp cold ghosts of the far west in September, with a fantastic trip to the east, to the warm and sunny Netherlands. We stayed with friends in the historic town of Alkmaar, and shared a fabulous central apartment above a toy shop and children’s bookshop, next to a Flemish chip shop, and just round the corner from a chocolate cafe!

Big Swifty's been working for Colchester Travel Plan Club, with enough subscriptions coming in, and funding awards won, to keep the show on the road. And the spoken-word stand-up “Fred Slattern, Colchester’s Slum Poet”, has gone well with a wide range of gigs, including one in the Scottish highlands, where Fred claims that “I’m a legend in Gairloch”.

Our voluntary work continues with leading a local support group for parents of children with Type 1 Diabetes “Colchester Circle-D”.   We now have about 60 members, including adults with Type 1 in the group as well. A highlight was our appearance in the Colchester Carnival, where about 10,000 people saw our message. Our fundraising for JDRF, through Planet Frank , has gone well. We were also played a small part in Walk Colchester’s “Jane’s Walk” festival, appearing at some events at Colchester Slack Space arts venue, taking part in Colchester Street Festival (where Fred read a mercifully short poem to the Mayor), and in the Kidstival at Colchester Free Festival.

So, between all this lovely fun, education, caring, work and homemaking, and the number of hours there are in a year, there has been little training for the Olympics. I've cycled only 1400 miles this year, 1300 of them into a headwind and uphill, I believe.

And next year?  We have plans for the house and garden to help us be more self-sufficient; we made a good start this autumn, with a chainsaw, new shed and wood burning stove. All limbs still present, but eyebrows burnt off. And now we're thinking about what else we'll do next year, as I haven't had the call from the Olympics selectors. Whatever we do, and wherever we go, we try to enjoy the ride.

at Facebook      “andrew stanley budd”     “fred slattern”   "colchester circle d”

Monday, 5 September 2011

Holland not coming our way, any day soon.

“There are two possibilities – either to change the way we build our cities, which is a very far-reaching kind of project, or else we make up for their deficiencies by looking at them in a different way.”
August Endell was a painter and architect, who wrote “The Beauty of the Big City”, about Berlin in the 1920s. And here we are, Colchester awarded "Cycle Town" status and funding by the Department for Transport from 2008. And what are we doing? We're planning for Colchester in 2020.

Cycle Colchester project is a partnership between the local authorities (Essex and Colchester Councils) and the voluntary sector (such as the local Cycle Campaign, Sustrans, CTC). The Colchester project continues, even though the current government decided not to continue their financial support for the cycle town concept. Maybe this is because the govenment thinks the idea doesn't work, maybe because the idea is associated with the labour government, or maybe it's just a money saver.
There have recently been some observations in the local paper, that, following all this investment,  we have not yet created Dutch infrastructure in Colchester. Ah yes, Holland, that heaven on earth where people can cycle from everywhere to everywhere else, in complete safety, happy and smiling all the time. Here’s an inspirational link from Copenhagen showing it is entirely possible to create places where many people choose to cycle.

There are some people in Colchester who will say that Colchester is too hilly, too wet, too hot or too cold for cycling, despite there being plenty of places that have much more adverse conditions, and much more cycling. There are others who say “it’s too dangerous, and I won’t cycle until I can get from my home to —– (insert your destination here), until there is a dedicated off-road cyclepath from door to door”. Well the path ain’t going to happen sometime soon, and probably never will.

It’s back to Wendell, and how we respond to our city as it is; lovely but imperfect. I suggest that very many journeys in Colchester (and many other UK towns) can NOW be made by bike, with relatively good ease and safety, if we are prepared to give it a go. If people want to make that change from HABITUAL car use, and use their bike for SOME of the journeys, for many of us, we CAN do it. There is plenty of information out there about equipment and training, and lots of information about cycle routes.

When we look at the Danes in the video link, remember that the Danes have HIGHER car ownership than we do, it’s just that they don’t choose to use the car for ALL trips. (I have cycled in their smaller, Colchester scale, cities – Aarhus, Aalborg and Odense – and it’s not just a Copenhagen thing.)

OK, we don’t have a full network in Colchester of dedicated cycle routes for all possible trips, but we do have hundreds of miles of quiet roads that are safe to use by bike, and some very useful links through green spaces. We can wait until the perfect path is provided, but I suggest we, as a community, should be getting the benefits of cycling now.

We need more people, using bikes for more kinds of journeys, more of the time. Cycle Colchester isn’t just about “them”, the authorities; it’s also about “us”, the members of our community, and what WE do.

So will we be wagging our fingers at the authorities for not providing heaven on earth? Or will we look at ourselves, and what we can do to help increase cycling levels?

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Today, we lied to our five-year old

Today, we lied to our five-year old boy. He said to Julie "can I die from being diabetes?", and she said "no".

We love his incessant questions, as he tries to figure out the world around him; and we always try to give him straightforward truthful answers. So why did we lie to him?

Frankly, Frank has enough on his plate, dealing with the disease, receiving dozens of pin pricks every day in our pursuit of blood samples for testing. Having new plumbing every two or three days, to link his insulin pump to the fat in his buttocks. Hearing endless discussion every day about his meter numbers, and what we do next in our attempt to keep his blood sugars close to the normal range. Listening to us going on about carb contents of his next meal, and having it all again as we decide how much to take off for the bits he hasn't eaten. Pulling him up, and holding him still, to try to assess how he's feeling, and allowing us to pump insulin into his body.

He needs to grow, and to sleep, like any other kid. He doesn't need to lay awake at night, worrying about how good is the quality of his care, and wondering if it may all be in vain. He should be able to enjoy the sleep of the innocent; tired from the day's physical activities.

Concern about his sudden or long-term death shouldn't be necessary for a little kid, that's the parents' job. A job we'd rather not have, but that's what we've been dealt. Our task isn't just his physical health, we need to consider his mental development too, and we try hard to get the psychology right. (But of course we sometimes slip up....) So we focus on the great life we have together, and try to be matter of fact about the many episodes in the day that are dictated by diabetes management.

So, yes, we're happy to be liars on top of carers, if it shelters young Frank from the harsh realities of his condition. And when he's older we'll review our stance on the "will I die of diabetes?" question.

PS: WE ARE very grateful for the opportunity we have to look after him, and for the medical care that's available. Best wishes to anyone who is dealing with a chronic condition - we know quite a few of our followers are, and not just diabetics.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The pleasures and sorrows of work

"I like work, I can sit and watch it all day" said Jerome K Jerome. Yeah, but somebody's got to do it.

I was paying attention at school in a physics lesson when I learned that  "work = force x distance", and the careers advice I had was that if you can avoid real work, you'll earn more and have a comfier life.  Vincent Van Gogh may have celebrated the labouring classes, but he didn't actually do the physical work that he so admired in others, however splendidly he recorded it.

So what's all this got to do with Big Swifty? It has all been a bit frantic recently, hence my relative silence on here. My best paid job is very busy, and so is my second best paid job. But I've had a week's holiday in Denmark with my older son, so work got even further behind. Plus at home we've taken on far too much in the house and garden with our urban homesteading, and all the activities we have with the diabetes support group, stand-up spoken word, carnival float, fundraising and food and drink. Oh yes, "work is the curse of the drinking classes" said Oscar Wilde.

My second biggest earning job is working, on piece work, for the local authority, delivering information to households about the electoral register and about waste collection and re-cycling. A basic delivery job, with some admin and intelligence gathering on the round. A job that is useful, and that I understand, and is "task and finish", unlike many aspects of modern life. I find it satisfying, doing the job during the different seasons, observing the changes in nature. Most of the task is in suburbia, but I also cover a couple of sprawling rural parishes, with villages, hamlets and isolated houses.

At one of the latter I was greeted by the middle-aged resident with the suggestion "So they force you to deliver these cards on a bicycle?". "No", I explained, "I choose to use a bicycle; I like the fresh air and the exercise, and it's the most efficient way to do the job", me sounding like the pompous bicycle nerd that I am. He responded with "What's on these cards anyway?" I explained about the new rubbish collection arrangements, and was given a look that suggested he felt that my job was the most degrading and demeaning task imaginable. "Well that's a waste of time and effort, sending you out here to do this" he said. Clearly he didn't value the task.

It got me thinking about "the pleasures and sorrows of work", which is also the title of a recent volume of the philosophy of Alain de Botton. It makes me laugh, to think of skinny pasty Alain, being an authority on work; I imagine his delicate hands would be ripped to shreds by a day on a shovel. I love my delivery job, and feel sorry that some people are unable to acknowledge the pleasure in such a task. Most other people I met seemed to enjoy my quick visit, as I gave service with a smile and a happy heart.


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