One of Those Lovely European Moments

On holiday recently I found myself on a bus supposedly travelling from Verona to Lake Garda.

The heat was oppressive that day, the Veronese moved amongst the shadows, only we tourists spent time standing in the sun, gazing up at the architecture. The bus was hot and crowded, it smelled of sun tan cream and sweat. I was jammed into a space between someone’s rucksack and someone else’s shopping. My family were scattered around the bus, squeezed in where they could.

It was some time before it occurred to me that we weren’t moving, that we’d been standing at a bus stop for some time. I noticed the driver was speaking on his phone, he was becoming more and more agitated. He made one final angry remark and then hung up. Those of us towards the front of the bus waited to see what would happen next.

The driver turned and shouted something down the bus. Those who spoke Italian sighed or groaned or muttered angrily. Those of us who didn’t looked around in confusion. And then one of those lovely European moments that I’ve experienced only a few times before occurred: people helped each other to understand.

A woman translated the driver’s words into English. She let us know that the bus was too full, we all had to get off and wait for another bigger bus. There were still some confused faces, and then another woman translated the English into German. Someone corrected her. I heard someone haltingly translating into French for the benefit of the old couple opposite. Gradually, the message travelled the length of the bus.

I’ve seen this happen before, on camp sites in France and Germany, whilst walking around Mont Blanc, when I was Interrailing just after university: people helping each other out, helping each other to understand. I love being European, the differences and the commonalities.

I’m really, really sad that soon we’ll no longer be a part of this.

The Model Railway Men

I stumbled across the ebook versions of the Model Railway Men novels on Amazon and bought them for old times sake.

I loved the Model Railway Men books as a boy, I suspect anyone who loved reading and had a model railway would have done the same. They tell the story of Mark who finds a group a tiny people living their perfectly scaled lives on his model railway layout.

On rereading, I found the books a little dated, but well written and surprisingly well observed. I find I receive constant reminders of how much of the "wisdom" I’ve accumulated through the years had its seeds in the books I read as a child. These books were just such a reminder.

With the reminders came a realisation. My wife was a big fan of the Chalet School books as a child and, (just like Chaz Brenchley), she still is now. I read a couple of the Chalet School books and found them tedious: completely devoid of incident; they seemed to me nothing more than a recounting of day to day manners.

My realisation was that the Model Railway Men books would be just as tedious to an outsider, something I didn’t understand when younger. There’s a chapter in the first book where Mark is helped by Telford – the leader of the Model Railway Men – as he works out a timetable for his layout. A discussion follows featuring such details as to when to run the milk train and how many coaches the express should have. As a boy, I loved that passage in all its mundane detail. As an adult I still do, but I can now recognise that others might not.

One last point. I grew up before there were computers in households. If games consoles had been available back then I’m sure I’d have spent most of my time on one, but as they weren’t I found other ways to amuse myself.

My friends and I were train spotters in those days. Whilst that was never cool, it wasn’t as odd as it maybe appears now. We used to ride our bikes to a nearby railway bridge and write done the numbers of the engines that ran past on the London to Edinburgh route. At home, I’d design model railway layouts and work on improving my own real one. In those days, trains and SF were practically all I thought about .

And then when I was 14, I got my first computer. I lost interest in railways virtually overnight.

I stopped designing layouts, I stopped making models and scenery. The track on my layout was ripped up. I still have two suitcases in my garage full of engines, carriages and other paraphernalia, but they’ve never been opened.

There are still people who love railways, but I suspect not so many as there once were. There will be many people like me, for whom railways once half filled a need, who found something far more satisfying in programming.

The Manchester Arena

I turned on the television on Tuesday morning to see a chicken being cooked. Two breathlessly enthusiastic Americans were discussing the flavours; the tenderness; exactly how healthy the recipe was.

It all seemed so out of place. I already knew from Facebook that a bomb had gone off the night before in Manchester Arena at the end of a pop concert. I was looking for the news, trying to find out more information. The image of a chicken cooking seemed so wrong, but so many other times I’ve woken up and watched the equivalent whilst other people were waking up to their own personal tragedies. This is how people compartmentalize their lives.

I went into work early: I knew that some of our students were likely to have been there and support would need to be put in place. I arrived at school to the news that 22 were confirmed dead and 59 injured. As the day wore on the students came into school and we heard stories from those who had been present in the Arena. One by one we marked our children safe, but the word was out that relatives were still missing.

As I went to bed that night they were playing The Lark Ascending on the radio, one of the most peaceful, beautiful pieces of music I know. It seemed very appropriate.

Next day dawned with unconfirmed reports that close family members of some of our students were dead, caught in the blast. Confirmation came at 10am. Assemblies were held. A teacher read The Lord is My Shepherd and children were given time for reflection. In common with many other English schools, our Year 13s were leaving at the end of the week. They were reminded that it was understandable to feel compassion, but that it was okay to go on revising and working hard, it was okay to enjoy themselves on their Leavers’ Prom. This echoed what a lot of people on the news have been saying: that the best response to terrorism is to carry on as normal, to go out and watch a concert; to have a drink; to meet up with friends. They’re right, but responding to terrorism is not the only reason for doing so. Doing these things is what being alive is all about.

Today is Friday. Our students are wearing pink wristbands as a statement of community, fellow feeling and quiet respect for those who are grieving. Tonight, the year 13s will go to their Prom wearing pink carnations. They’ll be getting ready as I write this, putting on suits and dresses, doing their hair, getting ready to celebrate the end of their schooldays.

I hope they have a great evening. Life goes on.

Silence

My friend asked me to cover her duties as organist over Easter whilst she was trekking in Nepal. (I say trekking, she’s checking on the progress of health centres she helped to set up whilst doing voluntary work a few years ago. There’s someone who’s making a difference.)

Last night I played the Maundy Thursday service. This is the service where they wash people’s feet (something I didn’t get to see from my position sitting behind the organ). It finished with the altar being stripped, following which a silent vigil was to be held.

After the final hymn, I collected my music together and headed out the door – I was returning home to a huge pile of washing up and maybe a glass of whisky – when something caught my attention.

Silence.

The church was now a large, empty space, filled with nothing but silence. Not the silence of the night, nor the silence that results from the absence of sound, but rather a conscious silence. The silence of so many people sitting with their thoughts.

Despite the fact I had so other things to do, I sat down and listened to my own thoughts.

There’s a lot to be heard in the silence. Films, TV programs, radio show, shops and malls, even some museums now, all like to impose their own soundtrack on our lives, trying to shape our emotions to their own ends. It’s easy to forget what can be heard when that external soundtrack is removed.

Read what you like into the above. As the world fills with more and more noise and activity, I’m increasingly drawn towards stillness.

WordPress Pharma Hack

Someone kindly emailed me to point out that my writing site had been hacked. Links for Cialis were now appearing scattered throughout the text.

A quick Google search revealed that this was a common hack, and was probably the result of some rogue code embedded in a file after a brute force attack. I ran a site security check (there are many free services if you search for them) which suggested that the problem was located in wp-config.php. I could have paid for a clear up, but taking a look at the file in question it was clear the code wasn’t exactly trying to conceal itself. Once snipped out, my site’s performance improved immediately.

… or so I thought.

A few days later, the adverts reappeared. This is a clever hack – snip out the code and it regenerates itself.

There are various flavours of the Pharma Hack, (a search for WordPress Pharma Hack will give you all the details you need and more) the one that hit me had added an innocent looking file: /wp-includes/init.php

I only discovered this after I’d deleted all my themes and plugins and installed fresh versions of wp-admin and wp-includes. When I restarted the site, the following message appeared at the top of the page:

include_once(.../public_html//wp-includes/init.php) [function.include-once]: failed to open stream: No such file or directory in .../public_html/wp-config.php on line 93

Checking line 93 of wp-config showed the offending line (I’ve surrounded it with **s):

** include_once(ABSPATH . '/wp-includes/init.php'); ** 
require_once(ABSPATH . 'wp-settings.php');//Disable File Edits
define('DISALLOW_FILE_EDIT', true);  

I removed the line, reset my passwords, including the database passwords, reinstalled my plugins and (hopefully) that’s it.

I should have noticed this sooner, of course, but I’ve not been blogging recently as I’ve been concentrating on finishing my next novel.

Even so, I must hold my hands up and admit that I’ve not given my sites the attention they deserve. I’ve installed some security software following a quick search for WordPress security plugins on Google, I’ll take some time to monitor what’s going on in future.

Martin Carthy

I wondered about going to see Martin Carthy last night at the Band on the Wall

I’d heard that his voice isn’t what it was, that he can’t always form the chords any more. Well, that’s what happens when you get older, and as my companion Crofty pointed out after the show "I love a musician that at 70+ doesn’t try to be anything other than themselves at 70+"

So last night wasn’t a virtuoso performance, but to be fair, that was never Carthy’s shtick. What we got was an engaging show, a bit of chat and an overwhelming sense of folk heritage.

On playing Bruton Town:
"I learned this from Davey Graham"

On an English version of Mrs McGrath:
"I didn’t realise there was an English version until I heard Tim Hart and Maddy Prior play it in ’68"

It would seem reasonable to assume that most of us in the audience had been part of the folk scene for the past decades, attending gigs in little pubs and clubs up and down the country. Carthy, of course, has been at the heart of all this.

I don’t listen to much folk music nowadays. Too many of the performers learned their craft in the conservatoires, and that doesn’t seem very folky to me.

Last night’s show may have had its imperfections, it was all the more enjoyable for it.

(And whilst not suggesting for a moment that Carthy is second rate, I’ve written more about performance here: Second Rate Entertainers)

Remembrance Sunday

I played at two services this Sunday. Every year, I forget about what happens at the second service.

Before the last post is played, a number of wreaths are laid, most of them by members of the uniformed services.

Every year, for the past four years, a girl has come forward to lay a wreath for her father.

Despite her best efforts to be brave, she always cries as she lays the wreath.

Heading off to College?

Now that the A level results are out, many students are about to leave home. There are many articles out there giving advice on what to do when arriving at college for the first time.

Here’s mine.

I’m sharing this because a friend recently asked me this: what I would do if I could go back in time and speak to myself when I was 18? What one piece of advice would I give myself?

It was a good question, and I thought about it for some time. This what I came up with, and I’m convinced it’s the best guidance a young adult could have.

Here it is.

Learn to drink your tea and coffee black.

I stopped adding milk to my drinks after an illness when I was 25. Since then my life has been so much easier. No more running out to buy milk in the evening, no more coming back from holiday to find there’s nothing to put in the coffee. No more having to get involved with the milk kitty at work (honestly, we order hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of IT equipment on a regular basis and yet still never have enough money in the tin to buy a carton of long life).

And just think of all the time saved when making a hot drink. All those trips to the fridge add up.

If only I’d know that when I was 18. I’d never have got into stupid arguments about who was using whose milk in the communal fridge.

Oh yes, and don’t forget this:

Drinking black coffee is cool.

That’s it.

Second Rate Entertainment

I love second rate entertainers.

I encountered a fine example whilst on holiday in Madeira last week. He had a residence in the hotel: 8:30 until 10 every night. Keyboards and vocals, he was a competent player with a good voice that came into its own when doing Elton John covers.

As is the nature of a great second rate performer, he’d arranged everything himself. He switched between keyboards to play different parts, occasionally improvising, all this done over a drum track. Such performances are necessarily individual in a way that singing along to a backing tape never is. He did 70s and 80s covers: Hotel California, Sacrifice, that sort of thing. Given that he was singing in what was to him was a foreign language his phrasing was odd, but hey, he was singing in a foreign language.

It would be easy to dwell on his faults: the arrangements that didn’t quite work, the bland repertoire (necessary, given the venue), his intonation.

But then again that’s sort of the point. I’ve written about second rate performers before at the end of my novel CAPACITY, when the Watcher listens to just such a performance (the scene was based on a concert I attended in a church in France when I was writing the book).

It’s so easy to see perfect performances nowadays. They’re the result of multiple retakes and remixes, they can be autotuned and airbrushed… I don’t have a problem with this. But this can give the impression that all performances should be perfect. That everything should be first rate, all of the time.

No. None of us are capable of that.

That’s why appreciating second rate performances, appreciating people who are willing to make a go of it despite their imperfections, is such an important thing.

Because, for the most part, that’s who we are.

Map AltGr to Alt on Linux

All I wanted was to make my AltGr key to work the same as my Alt key…

As my poor hands continue to struggle with RSI, I’ve been looking at ways to make my typing more efficient. One thing that occurred to me was to fix something that had bugged me for ages: the fact that I never use AltGr on my keyboard. Things would be easier if it acted like Alt. It would certainly make it more comfortable to hit M-x and M-g in Emacs

And so I searched and searched for ways to do this. The simplest way I found was to type the following command into the terminal:

setxkbmap -option altwin:meta_alt

But how to run that at startup?

My Arch Linux setup uses the i3 window manager, which is called from ~/.xinitrc. Adding setxkbmap -option altwin:meta_alt to the beginning of ~/.xinitrc did the trick.

That doesn’t work on Ubuntu 16.04, however. The easiest way there is to use dconf editor.

sudo apt-get install dconf-editor if you’ve not already got it, then navigate to org|gnome|desktop|input-sources and choose xkb-options.

Insert the following in the value box: ['altwin:meta_alt']

… and that’s it.