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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : The Family : Page 1

How to cross the same river twice

Or, returning to the scenes of your youth

They say you can never go back again. Never cross the same river twice. The past is a foreign country, as the famous quotation goes. Sometimes, it can’t be avoided. Sometimes, though, it can be worth doing just for yourself.

When I was small, our summer holidays followed the same pattern, from when I was three through to when I was about 14 or 15 or so—I can’t rememeber the exact year it stopped. We would go camping for a fortnight, either two weeks in Sussex, two weeks in Kent, or more often than not, one week in each. The amount of equipment and comfort changed over the years, from smaller tents to larger tents, trailer tents through to caravans, but the destinations were always the same, the same two campsites in the same two parts of England. Wherever else we went, every holiday would include at least one day trip to Hastings, the south eastern seaside town that feels almost like a genteel resort, a noisy arcades town and a West Country fishing village all rolled into a single ball and mixed together. Here’s a photo I took when I was eleven, of the cliffs in Hastings Country Park, looking towards Fairlight Glen.

The cliffs east of Hastings

And then, in my mid teens, we stopped going. We had a couple more family holidays, where I asked for Gwynedd to replace Sussex, but I never again went back to Hastings.

Until last week.

I took The Children away for a summer holiday; and where better to go than a classic seaside town that has a beach that’s great for paddling, arcades, a miniature railway you can ride on, castles, caves, cliffs, the lot. OK, you can’t really build sandcastles, but building sandcastles is something The Children really enjoy in theory far more than in practice, and at least the sea never disappears to the horizon, the beach being steep enough to let it merely retreat a respectful few yards from the prom and the arcades. And: they loved it. I took them around all the same places I’d been taken when I was a kid myself: the miniature railway, the crazy golf, the cliff railway, the castle, and they loved absolutely all of it. We barely even left town for the week. The Child Who Loves Animals would have had us go to the aquarium every day if he’d had his way. I just enjoyed the chance to walk around and practice a bit with my new camera.

Hastings seafront seen from the pier

Bottle Alley, the covered promenade linking Hastings and St Leonards

The town? As a child your priorities are naturally a bit different to those of a middle-aged adult; but, even I could see that it has changed in the past thirty years. It has improved, a lot. So many places to eat out in the evening! So much craft beer everywhere. So many Pride flags flying, even from the flagpole in the castle. But it was still recognisably the same place, the same old shape, new flesh on old bones. The 1930s railway station might have been demolished and replaced, but the walk from it down to the beach was still unchanged. The art deco promenade by the pier has artwork now, but still the same concrete lines. The miniature railway might have nicer trains, but they still go between the same two spots, past a boating lake now cleared of boats and pedalos, but to a crazy golf course that still has its windmill and watermill obstacles and where hitting the bell at the end still scores you a free round. It’s hard to say, but I’m fairly sure the fish and chips is better.

The main thing that’s changed, though? Probably me. And it made me quite emotional. The last time I went there, I had a fairly good idea of the sort of person I wanted to be as an adult. Going back, walking down the promenade, I almost drew tears as I thought about just how much of my envisaged self, the me I imagined back in my early teens, is present in the woman I am today. Even if it does mean that I have to walk along the shingle in heels now.

Because the East Hill Lift was closed for major track repairs, we didn’t go up to the Country Park so I could replicate the picture at the top of this piece. Here, though, is a view of the town from the West Hill, the castle site, still the same odd little mixture of holidaymaking and industry that it was when I was a preschooler.

View of Hastings from the castle

Sunset at St Leonards beach

Oh, I said we barely did leave the town, but we did go for a couple of days out, to Battle and to Hythe. Here’s a couple of photos of Hythe railway station, one I took age 9 (I think) and one from last week, just to show you that in some ways I haven’t changed that much at all.

Hythe railway station in the mid 1980s

Hythe railway station in August 2023

The great year

Looking back, on reflection

The year turns, and the seasons change, as has happened many times before. Tomorrow evening, if you’re in Europe, is the winter solstice, and the days start turning back towards spring. Right now, as I write this, the sun is well below the horizon and the moon is a thin misty sliver behind dark and rain-filled clouds.

This site has been quiet since I posted about putting The Mother’s body in the ground, back at the start of November. Since then…there has been too much other stuff on the horizon to have space in my mind to assemble words into sentences for here, or for that matter, to add video for things to go on YouTube. When you’re dealing with a death in the family, there is an awful lot of paperwork to do, correspondence to answer, and many hours spent on hold to banks, energy companies, everyone she had to deal with. I’ve even had a few letters to answer from organisations who now suddenly think my dad has died, three years later, because The Mother never cancelled all of his direct debits.

Tomorrow, though, is Yule. The end of the year and the start of that time between this and the next, the strange unofficial intercalary weeks that we all somehow seem to obey. Everyone is wound down, yet still tense. Everyone needs the light to change and the sun to move backwards in the sky; and so we have candles and glitter and the warmth of a fire.

At the turning of the year, albeit not the Great Year, it’s worth looking back at what has and hasn’t happened. I’ve made huge strides in life, even if it feels like I haven’t. I’ve taken massive steps, even though I feel I haven’t moved for a long while now.

The other week I was at the beautician’s salon and she asked if I was seeing any difference in how I looked. “It’s hard to say,” I told her, “because I look at myself day to day so I never notice a tiny daily change. You’re more likely to notice a change than I have.” I’m sure, if I were to go back to photos of myself a year ago, I’d see a massive change, even if I feel right now that no massive changes have happened. Hopefully at the next Yule there will have been more changes, even if I feel there haven’t been still then.

I will sit back, imagine lighting a fire, imagine watching the log crackle in the flames, and drink a warming drink. Hopefully, a clear sky, and I can watch the stars spiral and turn. Here’s to one year gone, and here’s to the next just starting, the old gods bringing the sun back around to us once more.

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.