+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog

Motivational speaking

Or, principles and platitudes

It’s nearly a month now since I started the new job. It’s not been plain sailing all the way, of course, but it feels like it’s going reasonably well.

One aspect of coming in and taking over a team is that naturally I want to put my own flavour on things. I’m not saying I automatically think my ideas are always better than what the team already does, of course, but I do think firstly that new ideas can often trigger new thinking and give new energy to a team, and secondly, that some of the things are familiar to me are inevitably going to be new to my new colleagues, and things they might not have considered before. So, if I can bring in processes and practices that have worked well for me before, they may well work well in the new job too. If anything, as long as I can get the team behind them, they might be worth a try.

“As long as I can get the team behind them” is the key point there, of course; and it’s important to make sure we all feel we are a team and that we can all contribute to making change happen. I started writing down some Basic Good Principles along those lines. “We know we’re not perfect but we’re always improving,” for example. “We all review each other’s code, because everyone gets it wrong sometimes.” — I’m always surprised how many people don’t quite follow that one. “This document is not set in stone and is always changing, just as our processes are always changing and improving.” is another one, because when a particular practice or process turns into dogma is when it starts to impede you rather than work for you.

After a while brainstorming this stuff, writing down these sort of things, though, I started to get a bit of self-doubt. Is writing down these sort of principles really helpful, or were my notes just turning into meaningless platitudes in themselves? Was I at risk of accidentally coming up with the “Live, Laugh, Love” of software development?

Which of course, set me thinking. What is the “Live, Laugh, Love” of software development? Maybe if I deliberately came up with something quite so awful, quite so twee and nauseating, it would reduce the risk of ending up in that zone by accident?

I scribbled a few things down, crossed some out, shuffled some ideas around, and eventually came up with the following. I think it’s pretty good. By which I mean, I feel slightly disgusted with myself.

Code

Create

Care

One of our regular correspondents writes: Yeah, I think you might need a shower after that.

Most definitely. I felt dirty. If you ever find me giving that as advice to my team, please, tell me I need to take a holiday. All the same, if I was to pick a font and put it on a framed print, I wonder how many I could sell?

Flashback

Or, someone from the past

Regular readers might have noticed that there haven’t been many posts on here lately: the pressure of various other things that come before this place. The new job, for example, is one. Going to visit The Mother and help her with various bits of paperwork, another. I was up visiting The Mother the other day, as it happens. Not only did I also fit in a few nice long walks on her local beach, which will be the subject of another post another day, but I went down the pub and met up with this chap for lunch.

Wee Dave, allegedly

In the post about the new job, I mentioned how I used at one time to write lots of posts about my colleagues, giving them all false names and talking about some of the less controversial things some of them got up to. The chap in the picture is the guy referred to on this site as Wee Dave—not his real name of course. I called him Wee Dave because he succeeded Big Dave, although of course that wasn’t Big Dave’s real name either.

I hadn’t seen him for, ooh, it must be thirteen years nearly. We caught up, on and off, about various things that had happened through the intervening time: him on how strange it was, after I left that job, to stay on for a few more years in a business that was slowly shrinking as its owner wound down towards retirement, selling off a department here and shutting down one there, until in the end only Wee Dave and a couple of other people were left rattling around inside an empty warehouse. For my side, I told him all about some of the things I’ve worked on since, some of them interesting and some of them less so.

Naturally, we also reminisced about the people we worked with and that I wrote about here. “Say hi from me!” messages were passed over, and we talked about how few of the people there we actually kept in touch with, and quite what a strange place it was to work. Wee Dave ended up working with someone else from that place at his next job; unlike me, of course, disappearing to the far end of the country. Like me, though, he’s moved from general IT work into software development, partly because it’s far more interesting and challenging than setting up servers, rotating backup tapes and generally being a systems dogsbody. We shared the usual gripes that all software developers have, such as nobody really agreeing on what Agile is supposed to mean even though everyone claims they do it. That, indeed, is something I might have a long ramble about on here some time.

Thirteen years is a long time, from one meeting to the next. Of course, as I have to go up there and visit The Mother fairly regularly nowadays, I’m going to be in the area much more often in the future. Hopefully the gap until we next have a drink together won’t be quite so long.

Milestones

Or, how and how not to learn languages

I passed a very minor milestone yesterday. Duolingo, the language-learning app, informed me that I had a “streak” of 1,000 days. In other words, for the past not-quite-three-years, most days, I have fired up the Duolingo app or website and done some sort of language lesson. I say “most days”: in theory the “streak” is supposed to mean I did it every single day, but in practice you can skip days here and there if you know what you’re doing. I’ve mostly been learning Welsh, with a smattering of Dutch, and occasionally revising my tourist-level German.

My Welsh isn’t, I have to admit, at any sort of level where I can actually hold a conversation. I barely dare say “Ga i psygod a sglodion bach, plîs,” in the chip shop when visiting I’m Welsh-speaking Wales, because although I can say that I am wary I wouldn’t be any use at comprehending the response, if they need to ask, for example, exactly what type of fish I want. To be honest, I see this as a big drawback to the whole Duolingo-style learning experience, which seems essentially focused around rote learning of a small number of set phrases in the hope that a broader understanding of grammar and vocabulary will follow. I’ve been using Duolingo much longer than three years—I first used it to start revising my knowledge of German back in 2015. When I last visited Germany, though, I was slightly confused to find that after over a year of Duolingo, if anything, I felt less secure in my command of German, less confident in my ability to use it day-to-day. Exactly why I don’t now, but it helped me realise that I can’t just delegate that sort of learning to a question-and-answer app. If I want to progress with my Welsh, I know I’m going to have to find some sort of conversational class.

Passing the 1,000 days milestone made me start wondering if anyone has produced something along the same lines as Duolingo but for computer languages. In some ways it should be a less difficult problem than for natural language learning, because, after all, any nuances of meaning are less ambiguous. I lose track of the number of times Duolingo marks me down because I enter an English answer which means the same as the accepted answer but uses some other synonym or has a slightly different word order. With a coding language, if you have your requirements and the output meets them, your answer is definitely right. In theory it shouldn’t be too hard to create a Duolingo-alike thing but with this sort of question:

Given a List<Uri> called uris, return a list of the Uris whose hostnames end in .com in alphabetical order.

  1. uris.Select(u => u.Host).Where(h => h.EndsWith(".com")).OrderBy();
  2. uris.Where(u => u != null && u.Host.EndsWith(".com")).OrderBy(u => u.AboluteUri).ToList();
  3. uris.SelectMany(u => u.Where(Host.EndsWith(".com"))).ToList().Sort();

The answer, by the way, is 2. Please do write in if I’ve made any mistakes by being brave enough to write this off the top of my head; writing wrong-but-plausible-looking code is harder than you think. Moreover, I know the other two answers contain a host of errors and wouldn’t even compile, just as the wrong answers in Duolingo often contain major errors in grammar and vocabulary.

Clearly, you could do something like this, and you could memorise a whole set of “cheat sheets” of different coding fragments that fit various different circumstances. Would you, though, be able to write decent, efficient, and most importantly well-understood code this way? Would you understand exactly the difference between the OrderBy() call in the correct answer, and the Sort() call in answer three?* I suspect the answer to these questions is probably no.

Is that necessarily a bad thing, though? It’s possibly the level that junior developers often work at, and we accept that that’s just a necessary phrase of their career. Most developers start their careers knowing a small range of things, and they start out by plugging those things together and then sorting the bugs out. As they learn and grow they learn more, they fit things together better, they start writing more original code and slowly they become fluent in writing efficient, clean and idiomatic code from scratch. It’s a good parallel to the learner of a natural language, learning how to put phrases together, learning the grammar for doing so and the idioms of casual conversation, until finally they are fluent.

I realise Duolingo is only an early low-level step in my language-learning. It’s never going to be the whole thing; I doubt it would even get you to GCSE level on its own. As a foundational step, though, it might be a very helpful one. One day maybe I’ll be fluent in Welsh or German just as it’s taken me a few years to become fully fluent in C#. I know, though, it’s going to take much more than Duolingo to get me there.

* The call in answer 2 is a LINQ method which does not modify its source but instead returns a new enumeration containing the sorted data. The call in answer 3 modifies the list in-place.

What rhymes with...?

Or, a trip up a mountain

What do you do on a random Saturday with zero plans? Walk up a mountain? What an excellent suggestion, thank you! So yesterday morning I headed off for a gentle amble up to the summit of the Blorenge, the mountain that stands over the valley of the River Usk opposite the Sugar Loaf, and separates the urban environs of Blaenafon from the rural tranquility of Abergavenny and Crickhowell.

I say “a gentle amble” because it’s not a particularly strenous walk. It’s not like the sort of mountain where you park your car at the bottom and hike up a path so steep you’re almost too scared to come down again. The road over the mountains north from Blaenafon isn’t that much lower than the summit, only about eighty metres or so. The walk, therefore, is essentially a cross-moorland ramble more than anything else. Still, it’s definitely a good way to spend a morning.

When I thought of posting this, I was intending to turn it into something hugely informative: a long story full of history, geology, packed with information about the mountain. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite work out how to get into it. It turned into something dry and meaningless, without flavour, when I wanted to write something evocative, something that would make you really feel you were on the mountain alongside me. What I do have, though, are pictures.

Keepers Pond

I started here at Keepers Pond; at least, that’s what it’s called on the signs. The Ordnance Survey map calls it Pen-ffordd-goch Pond—the head of the red path. Older, Victorian-era maps call it Forge Pond. The whole area around the Blorenge is filled with ancient industry: pits, hollows, old quarries and old mining tips, joined up by tracks that were once horse-drawn railways. Nowadays Keepers Pond is busy with wild swimmers, canoers and paddleboarders. The only ancient industry I found was one length of Victorian railway rail.

Bridge rail

Keepers Pond

Despite all its ancient industry, the Blorenge now is a quiet place, a place where the loudest sounds are of songbirds. There are many hikers, but they walk silently, conversations blown away by the wind. In the distance you can see all the way to the Severn Sea, in the far distance the coast of Somerset, but on Saturday the skies were grey, the clouds low, and sea, sky and distant land all merged into one continuous blue-grey palette.

The view to the sea

At the summit, naturally, there’s a trig point. On the ground, though, unmarked, a second benchmark was carved. An old one, by the look of its shape. Possibly, it is the benchmark labelled on an 1880s map as 1,832 feet.

Bench mark

1880s map

To the north, at first, the view was lost in cloud, leaving just impressions of a valley. Then, slowly, as I returned back to the car, it started to open up again. The valley of the Usk, the Black Mountains and the Sugar Loaf. The grand vista stretched before me, before the cloud came back down again once more.

The view

Changing jobs

Or, something new on the horizon

Back in the day, back in the mists of time when I first started writing this blog, I wrote quite a lot about work. If you go into the appropriate category there are many, many posts of slightly-disguised stories about the various characters I worked with: Big Dave, the cute one from the Accounts office, Wee Dave, Big Dave, the office tea fund lady, and, well, usually Big Dave. It all backfired somewhat in the end: it turned out that they all knew about it, and eventually the office tea fund lady complained I was being too sarcastic about her and I was asked to stop. I’m glad to some extent that I did it, but I’ve never risked being quite that open about the people I work with again.

It’s on my mind at the moment, though, partly because I’m changing jobs soon. I’m almost at my last day in my current position, and as part of that I’m considering, when I write to everyone to tell them how to keep in touch, giving them the address of this website in case they want to read it. If I did do that and you’re reading this, rest assured, there is absolutely nothing about you on here; and none of you have interesting slightly-fictionalised names either.*

There’s a new job starting for me very soon, and it’s going to be a whole new world: people I have no idea about yet, new things to learn, things to do, and hopefully worlds to change. I’m apprehensive about it, partly because I have no idea at all what is around the corner for me. But, moreover, this is an unusual change of job for me, because I genuinely have regrets about it. I really do love the people I work with, in a sense. Collectively, they’re one of the best groups of people I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside, and going forward into the unknown means leaving them behind. I’m only a small cog there, and my departure won’t really have any effect on the company as a whole, but they’ve been a big part of my life for the last few years.

Naturally, I’m not going to write about the new job either, although if we do anything particularly earth-shattering I might drop hints about it occasionally. When we do anything earth-shattering, of course, I mean. If I write about tech stuff on here, it won’t be anything that relates directly to work; it’ll be general tech stuff like “how the git version-control system works” or “tips I’ve learned from working in tech that are also useful in daily life”.

I’m scared, I admit, of exactly what’s around the corner. Soon, though, I’m going to find out. Whatever happens, it’s going to be an adventure, and I’m sorry I can’t bring all the people who currently work around me, with me on that adventure. I’m sure they’re going to do their own great things too, though. I’m sure they’re going to go out and change the world.

* If I do ever write about that workplace, which I doubt I will, I’ll just call everyone Matt. Most people there were called Matt at one point, so it’s probably right.

Warning: May Contain Granite

But without any other explanation

Back in March, I wrote about the colour of the Afon Ebwy, and what it might contain, based on a guide to camping I read as a child which included a dire warning about Alpine river water. A dire and entirely unexplained warning.

Well, visiting The Mother the other day, I managed to dig up the original book with the warning in it. So here, along with some other advice about where to pitch your tent, you go:

A dire warning

(for accessibility, the full text is transcribed further below)

The Plain People Of The Internet: So what does this thingy do, then? Turns you to stone? Petification?

I’m not sure that’s entirely what that means. And I’m still not entirely sure what it might lead to. A brief search of the internet has not thrown up any obvious risks it might lead to, only to people worried slightly about food prepared with granite mortars. But remember: if you’re going camping in a blizzard, make sure you fasten a flag to your tent so you can find it. Or, you know, maybe reschedule that trip?

The book, should you want to hunt down a copy, is Illustrated Teach Yourself Camping by Nigel Hunt—published 1969 by Brockhampton Press and withdrawn from library stock in 1985 at which point I assume it came to me. I’m not sure I’ll ever want to get rid of it, despite how dated and idiosyncratic almost every little bit of its advice now is. But not all of it.

That’s the end of the post proper; here’s a transcription of the photo above.

V is for View: try to pitch camp in the best scenery possible. Good for morale and memories … of silver tarns, valleys hazed with brass, gold rust tints, reeds framing the tent door, clouds trailing from the moon.

W is for Water—checking on siting camp. Is it drinkable? Muddy water need not harm you if it is just suspended mud; a crystal stream could be running over a dead sheep fifty yards upstream. Always boil water before drinking (or use purifying tablets). Never drink Alpine river water (contains powdered granite). Camp above a town or village for best water. Fish in river is usually a good sign.

X marks the spot in snow so you don’t lose the tent. Lash a readymade flag to tent so that you could find it again after a blizzard (or if you have to go outside in a blizzard). Note landmarks in remote places.

On emotional lines

Or, a special locomotive

In the last post I mentioned I’d been up to North West Wales recently, for the first time since January 2020. The first place we headed to, naturally, was the Ffestiniog Railway, and it was bustling with activity: five engines in steam, I think (plus one diesel), several trains shuttling up and down the line. I couldn’t stop taking photos, either on the phone or on the Proper Camera, of every train I saw. And one in particular was special.

Welsh Pony

This is Welsh Pony, or Merlen Cymraeg, the one engine I was really hoping to see. “It’s Welsh Pony!” I said excitedly, snapping away, sending out photos and so on.

“What’s … so exciting about another train?” came back the replies.

“It’s Welsh Pony!”

Which obviously didn’t exactly cut it as an explanation. “I’ll try to explain more,” I said, “when I’m back at my computer and have time to put it into words. This is a very special engine for my generation of nerds.”

Welsh Pony was built back in the mid-1860s, one of a pair of very similar locomotives built for the Ffestiniog Railway by George England & Co of New Cross, following on from four slightly smaller side tank engines. Three of the earlier engines—Princess, Prince and Palmerston—were rebuilt to be rather more like Welsh Pony and its sister Little Giant, and those five together shared many decades of service.

Welsh Pony

The Ffestiniog’s fortunes started to decline from the First World War onwards. Little Giant was dismantled for spares in 1929, but as the 1930s progressed the railway struggled to fund necessary repairs on the ancient locos. Prince was out of use from 1936, and Palmerston from 1937. Welsh Pony was probably last used in 1940. When the railway closed to traffic in 1946, Princess was the only George England loco still running on the railway.

Welsh Pony

When the railway closed to traffic, the company didn’t shut down. It became the empire of one depressed, gloomy old man, who had worked for the line since he was a boy and had slowly seen it decay and rot away. He didn’t make any effort to save the locos, or the rolling stock, to cover them over or wrap them up or shut them away securely. They stayed where they had been left, many of them outdoors, some like Welsh Pony indoors, all close by the salt-spray of Harlech Bay. They rusted quickly, as the grass grew up around them. When a group of enthusiasts gained control of the railway after about eight years of closure, nothing was close to serviceable, and the enthusiasts had to carefully piece things back together on the tiny amount of cash they had to spare, repairing the most repairable locos and carriages one-by-one until they had the minimum they needed to offer a service. Welsh Pony, abandoned for about fifteen years when the railway reopened, was not one of them.

Welsh Pony

Welsh Pony hung around the railway, parked on various sidings, stored in various sheds. In the mid-1980s it was painted up and put up on a plinth, as Porthmadog Harbour Station’s “gate guardian” loco. It stayed on the plinth, rusting away in the sea air, until the early 21st century when it went back into storage once more. In 2014, restoration work on Welsh Pony finally started. A careful survey discovered that a huge proportion of the surviving fabric was just too rusted, and would have to be replaced. A new boiler was needed, new frames, new cylinders, new rods, but the wheels and valve gear are still original.

Welsh Pony in December 2019, with Prince and Palmerston on the left

The new Welsh Pony’s fire was lit for the first time in June 2020, with the ceremonial event livestreamed to an audience of thousands. Before restoration the boiler had been lagged with wood, and some of the rotting lagging had survived all those years the engine was out of use. When the loco was dismantled some of it was set aside, and was used to light the first fire, another little piece of continuity.

But why is Welsh Pony so special? Why, when I saw it in steam for the first time was I quite so overwhelmed? Well, I guess, for those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s, Welsh Pony was a fixture, the engine standing mute and silent at the entrance to the car park, a symbol of the railway and yet at the same time something cold, dead and filled with the past. There are many people of my generation who can remember climbing up the plinth and onto the engine, even though you probably weren’t supposed to. It seemed impossible to imagine the rusting machine would ever run again. Even when it was taken down from the plinth and cosmetically restored, tucked back away in a storage shed, it seemed impossible to imagine it would ever run again. To watch it being warmed up, from afar, on a cold morning about a year ago, was a sight we thought might never happen. To see it running, hauling a train again, to be able to see it warm, moving and alive, for personally the first time, felt like an impossible moment.

Welsh Pony

I’m not sure setting out the bald facts like this will help you understand what made me so emotional about it, to be honest. Maybe, along with everything else, it’s a bit of an insight into how my mind works. Hopefully, though, it makes some sort of sense even if you’re never going to have that feeling about the engine—about any railway engine—yourself. All I can try to do, after all, is explain.

Books I Haven't Read (part twelve)

A journey of discovering a book didn't need to be read

It’s always nice, when you go away and rent a cottage for a few days, to see if it’s been furnished with any interesting books. Sometimes you’re unlucky, and there’s nothing at all, or something worse than useless that charity shops would turn away. Sometimes, though, there’s something good: a book that makes you think “oh, I’d have read that if I knew it existed,” or something relevant to the local area. When visiting Calderdale a couple of years ago I found a fascinating book about the in-depth history of the parish we were staying in, right down to the surviving evidence for its medieval boundaries. Well, I thought it was fascinating, at any rate. Naturally, as you can’t take the books home with you, there’s a pressure to at least finish enough of a potentially-interesting one to see if you might want a copy yourself, or read the whole thing before you go.

For the past few days we’ve been staying in North West Wales, riding on trains, rambling about a bit, sending photos off to various people among the cast of characters that occasionally pop up in this blog. In the cottage we’re staying in there’s only a handful of books: some vintage ones clearly bought purely as ornament for an awkward corner, and a basket of a few local interest books, mostly fairly dull: technical climbing route guides for example. There was one, though, that looked like it might be an interesting read. If you’ve read the title, you probably guessed that I didn’t finish it. The Hills Of Wales by Jim Perrin.

Perrin has been an outdoor writer for many many years. He pops up fairly regularly in the Guardian‘s “Country Diary” column. I’ve never been able to read any newspaper’s “Country Diary” without thinking of Evelyn Waugh’s famous Scoop!, in which the hapless diarist is accidentally packed off to become a war correspondent, but Perrin is as far from the pale, inexperienced and incompetent journalist in that novel that you could imagine. He’s an elderly man, and has been walking the hills and landscapes of Wales for many, many years. Myself, I’m very interested in the hills and landscapes of Wales, so I thought it would be a natural fit.

The biggest structural problem I have with the book is that it’s collated from various short pieces of work written at scattered times over the last thirty years, rearranged and grouped together geographically, so that a certain block of landscape (Meirionydd, for example) is kept together in one place. This leads, though, to a lot of repetition. The same descriptive lines about each hill reoccur, the same anecdotes. Picking it up to read half a chapter at a time, without a bookmark, I found myself flicking back and forth unsure if a particular line was one I had read previously or not.

More than that though, I started to find the content of the book, on some level, distasteful. It’s something that I find in quite a lot of nature writing, unfairly or not. It is focused very much on a particular way of enjoying the countryside, one that is focused very much on personal remoteness and on a particular rural aesthetic. On the countryside being used in the right kind of way. Traditional farming: good. Authors and artists moving out to the country to get in touch with their underlying roots: good. Archaeology: good. Wind turbines: bad. Industry: bad. I don’t want to call this classist, I think that would be wrong, especially given the history of class involvement in the countryside right-to-access movement over the 20th century. It’s certainly, though, a very elitist view of the countryside, of the right reasons to be there. There’s no space in it for a lot of the people who use it, or a lot of the people who actually live there day-to-day.

So, I’ve given up on The Hills Of Wales before reaching the end. It’s a personal book, sure, but it feels such a one-sided book that I feel I could never be friends with it. I closed it, after another anecdote about a great countryside-loving man the author once knew, with the feeling in the end that all the hills of Wales were one and the same, with the same cast of artists and poets and romantic lone shepherds populating them. That, surely, must be the opposite of the author’s intention.

The past is a foreign country

Or, some news about a legend.

Back in the mists of time…

…oOo…oOo…oOo… wavy dissolve effect …oOo…oOo…oOo…

…I lived in Edinburgh and worked for a little 3-person tech firm, out of this guy’s study in his family house. And one day, he said to me:

Do you know the secret Armenian restaurant?

He described a building I’d walked past many times, tucked into a corner between the road and the railway lines near Abbeyhill Junction. As he described it, I recognised it immediately, because I walked past it on my route to and from the supermarket. It was, it turned out, something that sounded almost too magical to be true. A secret restaurant. It didn’t advertise, didn’t have a sign, didn’t send out flyers or list itself in the phonebook. If, however, you did somehow find its phone number from a friend-of-a-friend, and if the owner answered and felt like opening and thought you might be a good guest, you were given a booking, could come along, and enter a dark candlelit room where you would feel you were at an Armenian family party for the evening. The owner would cook all the food, then come out and meet everyone and talk to you and make sure he liked you. Like something from a fairy tale, strangely magical and otherworldly, and where the hosts might suddenly turn against you if you weren’t careful or said the wrong thing.

My boss had never been. He didn’t actually have the magic phone number himself, he just knew people who did, it was only really word of mouth that the place even existed. The building was solidly real, though, in Victorian red brick and with a boldly-painted Cyrillic sign above its archway. Whenever I walked past the gates were always firmly closed, the paint peeling and the building slowly fading, with buddleia bursting from parts of the brickwork.

I’m sure I could, if I’d dared, got hold of the number. My boss certainly could have done; he had a wide range of contacts from a broad range of social circles and scenes. Even if I had, I’m not sure I would have dared try to get in. I was a different person back then, much less brave than I am now. Besides, the story is so perfect, I would in some ways rather not have known if it was real or not.

Well, it was real. Someone at BBC Scotland has written an article about it.

It’s quite a sad story, the end of it at least. It’s interesting to know, though, that in some ways the secret Armenian restaurant has had a huge influence on Edinburgh, and on the Edinburgh culture scene. Given that the story has always stuck in my mind, too, it’s probably had a big influence on me in one way or another over the post-Edinburgh parts of my life. It’s almost like an urban fantasy. Sometimes, maybe, the land of faery can exist, or at least something approximating it.

Pretentiousness?

Or, the etiquette of language

It’s been quiet on here over the past week. Other things have been keeping me busy: work, trying to sort things out for The Mother, and various other aspects of life. With all of those things to deal with, I didn’t really have time to write any well-written and properly-researched blog posts. Or, indeed, any regular ones.

I started to draft a “Readers Letters” blogpost, but was slightly wary the answers would go out of date before the post was written. When I restarted this blog last year, I went spent a few weeks of evenings going through posts from 2006 and 2007 editing out some of the things that were just a bit too in-joke and just a bit too personal and painful.* I don’t want to have to write something one week and then edit it the following week because things have changed once more.

Something has been on my mind, though, when writing the recent posts about Welsh railway history. What’s the best way to refer to Welsh place-names?

Back when I was a student, I had to write essays about the Outer Hebrides, and standard practice even then was that you would refer to place names with the current official native-language form, even if that caused confusion with the earlier literature. So, in archaeological texts,** the Callanish stone circle is now Calanais; Dun Carloway is Dun Charlabhaigh. In North West Wales, too, things are nice and straightforward. You don’t see people nowadays referring to Portmadoc or Dolgelly when they are talking about Porthmadog and Dolgellau. The main exception, to be frank, is where railway histories take the line of “we’re going to use the HISTORICALLY APPROPRIATE NAME because that’s what the railways did,” as a thin cover for being unhappy about the idea of historical change.

With South Wales, though, it’s a different matter. There are really two issues here. Firstly, in the north-west we’re mostly talking about differences in spelling. In the south, there’s a much bigger number of radical differences in name: Casnewydd/Newport, Abertawe/Swansea, Casgwent/Chepstow to give just a handful of examples. Secondly, although the proportion of Welsh-speakers in the area is slowly increasing, the majority language of the south-east is still definitely English.

Because of this, it feels a little bit, well, pretentious to use phrases like “Casnewydd/Newport” as I have been trying to do in the recent history posts. Moreover it can be difficult to find Welsh names to use for some locations: Rogerstone is known in Welsh as Tŷ Du, but Pye Corner doesn’t seem to have a Welsh name that I’ve been able to discover.*** It’s easily for me to accidentally omit things, too: strictly speaking “Bassaleg” should be “Basaleg” but I tend to forget the latter and it’s hardly used locally other than at the sign as you enter the village. “Risca” should be “Rhisga”.

Switching solely to Welsh would make my posts harder to understand, if you’re not already aware of the Welsh names of places, given that they’re virtually completely in English. However, although combined forms like “Caerffili/Caerphilly” might be clunky to write and clunky to read, they do act as a constant reminder that Wales does have its own language and that English is a relatively modern incomer to most of the country. Would it be best, in the long run, to stick to them? Should I use them only the first time I mention a place? Or how about one in brackets after the other, like “Casnewydd (Newport)” or vice-versa?

In short, I’m not really sure the best way to go on this, editorially. Does anyone have any opinions or suggestions to add? If nothing else, I can include it in my Readers’ Letters.

* Although for some reason I kept some of the most personal and painful ones.

** It’s been so long since I graduated I don’t think I need to specify “modern archaeological texts” any more.

*** I did however find some 19th century journalism calling it “Pie Corner”.