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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : The Family : Page 1

Into the earth

CW: death. Another day, another funeral

It was a bright, crisp, autumn afternoon, the sun still high in the sky. I put my hand in front of my face to shade my eyes from it. Nobody else did, and I wondered if they thought I was saluting.

“Private committal”, I had said on the Order Of Service, so it was only a small group of us. Two of The Mother’s brothers, and their wives; the third brother was too sick to travel. A nephew, a couple of nieces, and my children standing by.

The Child Who Likes Animals was taking a great interest. “She will be buried next to Grandpa,” he kept saying, no matter how many times people explained that, no, Grandpa’s grave had been made specially deep so Grandma could be slotted neatly on top in her matching wicker coffin. When the funeral director had us, the mourners, stand well back by the hearse as the coffin was carried over the damp grass to the temporary trestles at the graveside, The Child Who Likes Animals had ignored him completely, had run circles around them and peered down into the hole. He was the only mourner who saw the bottom of the grave, before the coffin went in.

“Earth to earth,” said the priest, in her hard-edged New England accent. I don’t mean that to sound like a bad thing: she is a very good priest, but her public-speaking voice is firm, and clear, every syllable carefully divided and enunciated. “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” She sprinkled soil from a small plastic takeaway container, finely-divided to be straightforward to sprinkle in.

“Take as long as you want,” said the funeral director, after the ceremony had finished. We stood, not really knowing exactly what to do, or how long to wait before leaving. I thanked the priest, and the director; the pallbearers, two old men and two young women, had drifted away discreetly as soon as the body had been lowered into the ground. We stood, chatted a little, said how nice the flowers were, and it was something of an anticlimax. When she had died, in a hospital room, it felt inappropriate some how to be the last one to leave the room and leave her body, on its own, slowly cooling. At the graveside, it felt the same.

This is also something of an anticlimatic way to end this post. When my father died, this blog was on pause, but I wrote about watching him die straight away. The Mother’s death was four weeks ago, and so far, I haven’t written anything about it, about what led up to it, about the sudden shift in realisation that a life will be ending, not in months or years but in a few hours or days. This, though, might be a good point to start writing about it: the end of the process, not the end of the legal and formal processes, but the end of the ritual part.

On whether birds have legs

Or, conversations The Mother has had

It’s been quiet on the blog for the past month, what with one reason and another. Work has taken priority; other writing projects have taken priority; and more than anything, I didn’t realise just how long videoing my crafting exploits, recording a narration and editing the footage into something at least semi-watchable would take. I will put a link to the YouTube channel over on the sidebar at some point.

I did think it would be nice to make sure I did have at least one thing posted here in September, though, and handily The Mother said something yesterday that I thought was worth writing down. “You probably won’t believe this happened,” she said, “but when I was in town today…”

When The Mother says “you probably won’t believe this happened,” it usually means she’s about to say something that’s extremely believable—much more believable than a lot of the things she claims as straight-up fact—but also unintentionally hilarious. I pricked up my ears.

“…you see this top I’m wearing, how it’s covered in animals?” she said, veering off on a tangent. She was wearing a horrible brown sweatshirt, the colour of estuarine mud, coveerd in embroidered birds.

“There were these two women in town with a pushchair,” she said, “youngish lasses, and one of them came over to me and said: ‘scuse me, can you come over here and show my friend your top?’ So I went over, and she said to her: ‘see! Birds do have legs!’”

I almost wish I’d heard the rest of the conversation, which could be settled most quickly by finding an old woman with the right clothing, rather than, you know, an actual seagull or something. The matter, though, had been decided. The Mother can’t quite get over it.

The Paper Archives (part three)

The title of this series is maybe not quite as suitable as it was

The previous post in this series is here.

Sometimes, sorting through the accumulated junk that fills my mother’s house, I come across things that I remember from my childhood. For example: alongside the stack of modern radio transceivers that my dad used to speak to random strangers over the airwaves, is the radio I remember being my Nanna’s kitchen radio, sitting on top of the fridge.

The old kitchen radio

It’s a big, clunky thing for a portable, its frame made of leather-covered plywood. I know it has valves (or tubes) inside, not transistors, because I remember my dad having to source spare valves for it and plug them in back when my Nanna still used it daily—he was the only person in the family who knew how to work out which of the valves had popped when it stopped working.

With only a vague idea how old it might be, I looked at the tuning dial to see if it would give me any clues.

The tuning dial

Clearly from before the Big BBC Renaming of the late 1960s. I’m not sure how much it can be trusted for dating, though, as Radio Athlone officially changed to Radio Éireann in the 1930s, but I was fairly sure the radio probably wasn’t quite that old. Of course, I should really have beeen looking at the bottom.

The makers' plate

And of course the internet can tell you exactly when a Murphy BU183M was first sold: 1956, a revision of the 1952 BU183, which had the same case. The rather more stylish B283 model came out the following year, so I suspect not that many of the BU183M were made.

I’m intrigued by the wide range of voltages it can run off: nowadays that sort of input voltage range is handled simply and automatically by power electronics, but in the 1950s you had to open your radio up and make sure the transformer was set correctly before you tried to plug it in, just in case you were about to blow yourself up otherwise. I suppose this is what radio shops were for, to do that for you, and potentially to hire out the large, chunky high-voltage batteries you might need if you didn’t have mains electricity. This radio is from the last years of the valve radio: low-voltage transistor sets were about to enter the marketplace and completely change how we listened to music. This beast—or the B283, which at least looks like an early transistor radio—needed a 90-volt battery to heat up the valves if you wanted to run them without mains power, not the sort of battery you can easily carry around in your handbag. The world has changed a lot in seventy years.

The Paper Archives (part two)

More relics from the past

The previous post in this series is here.

Spending some more time going through the things The Parents should arguably have thrown out decades ago, I came across a leather bag, which seemed to have belonged to my father. Specifically, he seemed to have used it for going to college, in the 1970s. Him being him, he’d never properly cleaned it out, so it had accumulated all manner of things from all across the decade. There were “please explain your non-attendance” slips from 1972; an unread railway society magazine from 1977; and the most recent thing with a date on was an Open University exam paper from 1983. It was about relational database design, and to be honest some of the questions wouldn’t be out of place in a modern exam paper if you asked for the answers in SQL DDL rather than in CODASYL DDL, so I might come back to that and give it its own post. What he scored on the exam, I don’t know. There were coloured pencils, and an unopened packet of gum.

Juicy Fruit gum

It seems to be from before the invention of the Best Before date, but the RRP printed on the side is £0.04.

Slightly more expensive: a rather nice slide rule. Look, it has a Standard Deviation scale and all. Naturally, my dad being my dad, it was still in its case and with the original instruction book, which will be useful if I ever try to work out how to use it.

Slide rule

And finally (for today) I spotted what appeared to be a slip of paper at the bottom of the bag with “NEWTON’S METHOD” written on it in small capitals, in fountain-pen ink. Had he been cheating in his exams? Had he written a crib to the Newton-Raphson method down and slipped it into the bottom of the bag? I pulled it out and…I was wrong.

Paper tape

It was a rolled-up 8-bit paper tape! Presumably with his attempt at a program to numerically solve a particular class of equation using Newton’s method.

I don’t know what type of machine it would have been written for, but I could see that it was likely binary data or text in some unfamiliar encoding, as whichever way around you look at it a good proportion of the high bits would be set so it was unlikely to be ASCII. Assuming I’m holding the tape the right way round, this is a transcription of the first thirty-two bytes…

0A 8D 44 4E C5 A0 35 B8 0A 8D 22 30 A0 59 42 A0 47 4E C9 44 C9 56 C9 44 22 A0 D4 4E C9 D2 50 A0

That’s clearly not ASCII. In fact, I think I know what it might: an 8080/Z80 binary. I recognise those repeated C9 bytes: that’s the opcode for the ret instruction, which has survived all the way through to the modern-day x64 instruction set. If I try to hand-disassemble those few bytes assuming it’s Z80 code we get:

ld a,(bc)
adc a,l
ld b,h
ld c,(hl)
push bc
and b
dec (hl)
cp b
ld a,(bc)
adc a,l

This isn’t the place to go into Z80 assembler syntax—that might be a topic for the future—other than to say that it reads left-to-right and brackets are a pointer dereference, so ld c,(hl) means “put the value in register c into the memory location whose address is in register hl. As valid code it doesn’t look too promising to my eyes—I didn’t even realise dec (hl) was something you could do—but I’ve never been any sort of assembly language expert. The “code” clearly does start off making assumptions about the state of the registers, but on some operating systems that would make sense. This disassembly only takes us as far as the repeated 0A8D, though: maybe that’s some sort of marker separating segments of the file, and the actual code is yet to come. The disassembly continues…

ld (&a030),hl
ld e,c
ld b,d
and b
ld b,a
ld c,(hl)
ret
ld b,h
ret
ld d,(hl)
ret
ld b,h
ld (&a0d4),hl
ld c,(hl)
ret
jp nc,(&a050)

Well, that sort of makes some sort of sense. The instructions that reference fixed addresses all appear to point to a consistent place in the address space. It also implies code and data is in the same address space, in the block starting around &a000 which means you’d expect that some of the binary wouldn’t make sense when decompiled. If this was some other arbitrary data, I’d expect references like that to be scattered around at random locations. As the label says this is an implementation of Newton’s method, we can probably assume that this is a college program that includes an implementation of some mathematical function, an implementation of its first derivative, and the Newton’s method code that calls the first two repeatedly to find a solution for the first. I wouldn’t expect it to be so sophisticated as to be able to operate on any arbitrary function, or to work out the derivative function itself.

If I could find jumps or calls pointing to the instructions after those ret opcodes, I’d be happier. Maybe, if I ever have too much time on my hands, I’ll try to decompile the whole thing.

The next post in this series is here

Wibbly wobbly

Or, something from the depths

I took The Children away for a week over the Easter holidays. Naturally, they wanted to go somewhere that had a beach, and naturally, they badgered to be taken to the beach nearly every day we were there. What did we find there, when we went? Jellyfish. Big ones.

Jellyfish

Jellyfish

Jellyfish, at my feet

I poked the bell of one with the toe of my boot, almost expecting it to burst, or my foot to sink into it. It felt surprisingly tough, though, tough and rubbery, not fragile in any sort of way. They were all sizes, from tiny things, to beasts a couple of feet across. I took a photo with The Children in it for scale.

Jellyfish with child for scale

THe big one seemed to have tiny tiny shrimp living in a little hole. I’m not sure if they’d been trapped and eaten by it, if they were in some sort of symbiosis with it, or if they just happened across it as the tide went out and were using it as a kind of emergency rock pool.

Tiny tiny shrimp

One of the regular readers, who I won’t embarrass, has already written to say they’re terrifying. I find them eerie, but also comforting, in that they have been bobbing around the sea happily for millennia, eating away at stuff and just generally doing their own thing. I think these are the barrel jellyfish, Rizostoma pulmo, which can potentially grow to much, much larger than this, and are also known as the “dustbin lid jellyfish” as a result. Maybe one day I’ll come across a dustbin-sized or child-sized one washed up on the shore.

Bad for your health

Or, a sudden flash of the past

The Mother has always lied, and always denied that she does. She hates being called out for her mistakes, and will flatly claim she didn’t make them. Moreover, she’s always preferred to lie rather than admit any aspect of the past she’s ashamed of. Sometimes these things come out, years later, and I start to doubt my own memory. I’m not saying she consciously gaslights people; but she will say one thing one day, something entirely contradictory a week later, and you start to wonder where the truth, if anything, actually lies. This has reached the point where she has been—possibly deliberately—not taking her heart medication, and not going to the pharmacy or the doctor when she should to get her prescription sorted. So, now and then, I go to the doctor with her, to see what she tells him and what he tells her. This woman, who has been telling me constantly that she doesn’t feel well, that she’s constantly dizzy, will tell the doctor that everything is fine. He asks her why she hasn’t been taking her medication: she tells him she ran out, even though she has plentiful stocks at home. He asks her why she didn’t come back for a repeat: she says she wants to help save the NHS money.

Since my father died I’ve been trying to help her come to terms with her grief; but that, too, has in a way been difficult for both of us. I was always aware that there was something slightly off in the atmosphere of the house when I was growing up, although as a child it was impossible to explain or analyse. My father was extremely, intensely controlling, and since his death more and more has emerged which shows what I have been feeling for a while. That, to my mind, myself and my mother were in an abusive relationship with him. She, of course, does not admit this, does not admit that he stalked her before they got together, does not admit that my traumatised memories of his outbursts of anger ever happened, does not admit that he felt anything for us other than love.

Sometimes, though, there are sudden flashes of new information, things I didn’t know, that just go to prove that she should possibly have walked away years before I was born.

As I said, The Mother has always lied. When I was small, back when smoking was much more common than it is today, she told me earnestly not to smoke, that she had never smoked. The one smoker I regularly saw in my life before I started school was the travelling butcher, who would drive round in his van and knock on the door once a week, and then sit on our kitchen stool trying to sell his cuts to The Mother, chain-smoking as he did. She would get an ashtray out for him; it was the only time the ashtray was ever used. He would leave, and she would tell me how important it was not to smoke, that she had never done it.

Later, then, I was a little puzzled when—and I can’t remember the context—she admitted she had once been a smoker, but had given it up. Another of those lies, of something she was ashamed of. I thought little of it.

Until, at the doctor’s this week, the nurse was reviewing all the personal information on her file. “‘Former smoker’, it says here,” said the nurse. “Is that still true.”

“Non-smoker for a very long time,” I interjected.

“Do you know why I stopped?” said The Mother. “It was my husband that did it, before we were married. He said he could never marry a smoker, so I stopped. He said he couild never marry a smoker, and he grabbed the pack out of my hand and threw it on the fire. And he did that every time he saw me with them. So I stopped.”

It was a strange moment. A strange moment of clarity, as to what my father was actually like, back in his early 20s. A little window. I don’t think it’s a nice one.

The paper archives (part one)

Or, evidence worth keeping

Back before Christmas I mentioned that I had finally persuaded The Mother to let me start clearing out some of her accumulated junk. Well, there’s a long way to go yet on that of course, but I’m slowly making progress. Slowly working through piles of things that really should never have been kept, sifting through them just in case there is anything important in there, like family photos in the middle of a stack of 40-year-old bank statements to give one real example. And then, there was one thing I came across, that potentially does have genuine historical interest. Well, there were two (one for each of my parents), but this is one.

A poll tax bill

It’s a poll tax bill! Even though I was only small, I remember these arriving in the post and being a little excited that something controversial and newsworthy was now in our house.

A historical note for anyone reading: the poll tax was a controversial flat tax pushed by the right wing of the Tory Party as a way to fund local government. It replaced “the rates”, a system whose origins dated back to the final years of the Tudor period* based on nominal property values, with an almost-flat system. One single amount for every adult in the same town, unless you were seeking work, in which case there was a discount. Introduced in 1989 in Scotland, 1990 in England and Wales, it was seen as extremely unfair. In early 1990 poltiical demonstrations against in turned into fierce riots; by mid 1990 it was clear there were massive problems with collection and non-payment, and by the end of the year the Prime Minister had resigned over the issue.

This—as you can see from the date—is from the first year the poll tax was introduced in England. It ran for four years altogether, from 1989 to 1993, whilst the Major government hastily thought up a replacement for it. And I am definitely tempted to keep it, as a historical artefact. I’ve destroyed all the ancient bank statements, thrown away the gas bills, but I might keep this as a tiny little artefact of the history of the 1990s. Of course, the most quaint thing now about that period in history is that we had a Prime Minister resign honourably over a disasterous policy, rather than cling on to office with every muscle of their fingers.

There will be a few more things to come from the archives, in future weeks, once most of it has been consigned to the shredder. I do feel like I’ve turned a point, though, where some of the rooms of junk no longer look quite so overwhelmed with junk as they once were. I’m not entirely sure The Mother will appreciate it, though.

The next post in this series is here

* Specifically, the 1601 Poor Law introduced the Poor Rate to pay for social security at the parish level.

Finally, spring

In which The Mother is persuaded a fresh start might come in handy

For years, The Mother has been telling me the house needs cleaning out. “It’ll be too late when I’m gone,” she has said. “You should get started on it now.” And I should get started on it, of course, because for years she has had the false assumption that all of the mess and clutter in the house is mine, or is my fault somehow. This is patently untrue. Things, for example, in my bedroom right now include:

  • a vacuum cleaner
  • a steam cleaner
  • a late 90s CRT monitor (large)
  • a box of parish church paperwork
  • a set of suitcases
  • a set of cigarette cards (framed)
  • several large bags full of used jiffy bags, just in case they came in useful one day

None of these things, you have probably guessed, are actually mine.

Until recently, my bedroom also contained a pull-along shopping trolley, a considerable quantity of winter coats, and a mid-80s portable CD player, the first one my family owned. That, at least, I can claim some responsibility for, as it was my main means of listening to music in my teens. Still, no need for it to be there now. It’s time to bite the bullet, I decided. Time to actually persuade The Mother to get rid of something.

I loaded the coats into a bag, put the CD player in the back of the car, and took the trolley down to the kitchen to start loading it up with unnecessary stuff. Now, the kitchen is full of unnecessary stuff. The Mother has never seen a flat surface without wanting to hoard things on it, so virtually all of the kitchen countertops are covered in piles and piles of things: food that she hasn’t put into the cupboard, crockery that she hasn’t put away, stacks of empty takeaway containers that have been kept just in case they “come in useful”. I start loading the empty plastic into a recycling box.

“You can’t throw those out!” says The Mother, who has crept up behind me. “I’m saving those for your uncle!”

“When is he coming to collect them?” I ask. “They’ve not moved for a few months.”

“Well he comes now and again,” she replies, “and he said he uses plastic tubs to keep them in.”

“He can buy takeaways too, though,” says I, and they go. Behind them I discover gadgetry I’ve never even seen: a slow cooker, and a Nutribullet.

“I didn’t know you had a Nutribullet,” I say.

“What’s a Nutribullet?”

“It’s grey,” I say, because I’m not feeling in a particularly familial, caring mood, “and it says ‘Nutribullet’ on the side. You use it to make smoothies.”

“Oh we tried it,” she replies, “and I used it to make soup. But it was too much of a faff. It’s a right pain to clean.”

“Which is what 99% of people who buy a Nutribullet say,” I told her. “It’s going to the shop too.”

So, out of the house went: the Nutribullet, a coffee machine, the coats, the ancient CD player, a stack of CDs of Dad’s that nobody else in the family wanted, and about a third of The Mother’s excessively large supply of plain, cheap, white coffee mugs. She bought a bulk order, a few years back, so that when my dad’s old colleagues came to see him and have a natter, she could give them some cheap crockery she didn’t care about. I removed a third, on the theory that The Mother doesn’t actually know how many there are and never sees them all in one place; and so far, it seems to be working. The charity shop people were extremely excited about the CD player, it being a vintage piece, but as yet its highest bid is still under a fiver.

Naturally, the house looks barely changed. One car-load, after all, isn’t going to make a dent in many decades worth of hoarding—there is stuff hoarded by my grandparents that has been passed down the line, a line which I am going to be the one to break. Still, psychologically, it’s definitely a start.

An unexpected visitor

Of the feline variety

We had an unexpected visitor in late July. One morning, as I was heading out for my morning 6am walk, I noticed one of the neighbourhood cats lurking outside the house, asking for scratches and strokes. When I came back an hour or so later, it was in the back garden instead. I opened the back door, and it followed me inside. It prowled the kitchen, miaowing boldly, before deciding to lie down as Guardian Of The Recycling.

Random Cat

It came back again the following morning, and the morning after, and started to explore more of the house. Initially it refused to go upstairs, and if anyone went upstairs would sit at the bottom waiting for them to return; but after a week or two it was happy to roam the whole house and particularly liked lurking among the clutter in the office.

Random Cat

The Plain People Of The Internet: So is this one of those situations? The whole “this is your cat now” situation?

I doubt it is, somehow. It’s clearly a healthy, happy cat that has a home nearby. It doesn’t need food from us, and I haven’t given it any. Moreover, as one of the other regular correspondents has pointed out to me: if Random Cat is a much-loved household pet, tempting it away to another home is not exactly a very neighbourly thing to do, however friendly it seems to be and however much it stands by the kitchen cupboards miaowing at me.

Why has Random Cat been visiting, anyway? I realised its visits started in late July, at the same time as the school summer holidays. Maybe one local family’s routine changes so much in the school holidays that Random Cat can’t cope with not getting its breakfast early, and decided to scout around the rest of the neighbourhood instead. Possibly, then, now we’re into September and the schools are going back, its visits will start to dry up again.

Random Cat

Ever since moving house, we have said: we really should think about getting in touch with the local cat shelters and finding one to actually live here. That, in all likelihood, will stop it visiting, although it’s not guaranteed. My garden is already disputed territory between Random Cat and another neighbourhood cat, an all-black one which likes to sit on the roof of a nearby shed. They have face-offs balancing on top of our garden fence. A third cat thrown into the mix might not even change very much.

If we do get a cat to live here, no doubt this blog—and certainly the rest of my social media—will become rather heavily cat-centric, at least initially. For now, though, occasional Random Cat will have to do.

Ar lan y môr

And more than once, too

As it was Easter weekend, we took a couple of trips out. “To the beach!” shouted The Child Who Likes Fairies, so to the beach it was.

Firstly, on Friday, to Aberogwyr or Ogmore-By-Sea, a small seaside village at the mouth of the Afon Ogwyr (River Ogmore). it has a rocky shore of cliffs maybe only ten or fifteen feet high, with many paths and gulleys down through them to the pebbly beach. There isn’t much in the way of sand, especially as we arrived at high tide.

On the slipway

The rocks are interesting, though, with smoothly-eroded limestones overlain by a strange array of breccias. At their lowest are rocks consisting of an amalgam of limestone pebbles, as if a beach or riverbank from a few million years ago had been frozen exactly as it was. Above them are huge, rough black slabs looking for all the world like pieces of modern concrete or tarmac. If you told me that back in the Triassic, dinosaurs had worked out the basics of civil engineering, I’d now believe you.

Interesting rocks

Interesting rocks

Ogmore-by-Sea is at the eastern side of the mouth of the River Ogmore. “Can we go to that beach over there?” said The Child Who Likes Animals, pointing to the far bank of the river. Over there, is Merthyr Mawr Warren, a vast area of sand dunes stretching from the western riverbank to the town of Porthcawl, with a long, broad stretch of sandy beach, Traeth yr Afon, facing on to the sea. So, today, we went to Merthyr Mawr.

At Ogmore-By-Sea, you can park your car at the top of the cliffs and amble down onto the shingle in a matter of seconds. Merthyr Mawr is a bit more of an expedition. The car park itself is by Candleston Castle, a ruined fortified manor that is about a mile or so from the sea. It’s an interesting place in itself, though.

Candleston Castle

Walking the mile through the dunes to the beach itself is quite the exercise. Merthyr Mawr Warren has the highest dunes in Britain, the second highest in Europe. Because the paths through the dunes are frequently disturbed, they tend to be the areas with the softest sand. It becomes something of a slog, and you lose sight of all the wonder in the landscape, the unique flora and fauna that goes towards making it a very special place. Nevertheless, we managed to stop and watch huge numbers of solitary bees of some kind, going in and out of their burrows.

Walking through the dunes is also very disorientating; you start to wonder where you are, whether you are trapped and going around in circles. Nevertheless, if you pay attention to the details, you can begin to see how the dunes vary. Further from the shore, they are more stable, the sand is darker in colour, and there are entire bushes and trees holding the dunes together. Towards the sea, the largest plants are clumps of marram, and the sand has ever more fragments of shell in it. Eventually, breaching the final crest, you slide down onto the beach.

Merthyr Mawr Warren

Traeth yr Afon is a very different prospect to the other side of the river. Open, windy, relatively deserted. Horses and riders gallop along through the firm sand at the shoreline. There is no coffee van, no lifeguard’s tower, no car park. Just the wind blowing fine sand along the surface, and the constant roar of the breaking waves.

Traeth yr Afon

Beach horses

Windblown sand

Which beach is better? That’s a matter of personal choice—and of your mood on any given day. Walking through the amazing dunes, allegedly so sandy and un-British they were used as a filming location for Lawrence of Arabia, is certainly hard work, compared with a beach that’s practically in a village. Walking along a deserted, windswept sandy shore, though, is generally just much more my taste. On the other hand, broad flat windswept dunes don’t also have fossil beds to go hunting in (for that, in the Vale of Glamorgan, you really want the beaches a few miles further east). There are always choices; it’s not a competition. We had two very different days out this weekend, but both were to amazing places.