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Archive for the ‘photography’ Category

Since I retired six years ago and emigrated from Scotland to France I’ve lived in a house surrounded by vineyards. Watching the changes across the seasons and seeing how the workers tend to the vines has been an education for me. There’s something very comforting about watching the sweep of the seasons through the year. It helps me to feel more in tune with Nature’s harmonies and cycles.

I think these two photos capture two concepts which vineyards can convey – diversity and order.

You can see as you look at these images that the vineyards are not uniform. Although the individual “wires” run parallel to each other within any single vineyard, each yard runs in a different direction. Some run north to south, some east to west, and yet others seem to be on a diagonal. This brings a real sense of diversity to whole landscape, despite the fact that as far as the eye can see there are vines everywhere.

What you can’t really see in these images is that each vineyard is a different age. Each year, some old vines are removed and new ones are planted. As I look out of my window just now I can see one whole vineyard which is row after row of seedlings, each in a bright green protective plastic tube. All the other vineyards are golden or brown. Some still seem to have all their leaves, and others have hardly any left at all.

That diversity strikes me as really important because its in so many dimensions – place, direction of the “wires”, age of the plantation – and so on.

Yet at the same time there is an incredible amount of order. At the time of the pruning the workers move from plant to plant trimming each one back to only two branches, and tying them onto the wires. The row after row of vines is the most ordered, planned and maintained landscape I think I’ve ever seen. Farmland in Scotland is not at all like this. OK, maybe if you see a field with all one crop, be it rapeseed or wheat, it looks pretty uniform, but these vines seem to take order and control to a whole other level.

You might think that diversity and order are opposites, and in some way, they are. So what we have here is that key phenomenon of “integration” – two apparent opposites existing together in synthesis, in harmony, in a way where neither negates the other.

We need diversity in our lives. We need some order too. But most of all we need “integration” – bringing everything together to work in harmony.

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I haven’t taken a flight for almost exactly a year now. I suppose that’s a good thing for the planet. The sky above where I live in South West France is so empty of plane trails now that yesterday I was chatting with my landlord, Jacques, in the garden and he suddenly stopped speaking and pointed up to the blue sky and said “Regarde! Un avion!” (Look, a plane!). Well, there’s something that wouldn’t have happened before.

This photo was one I took the last time I was flying to Scotland and if you look carefully you can see all three bridges over the River Forth. First there is the famous red iron railway bridge, then next to it, the first road bridge, (I remember seeing its construction), and then the newest one, “The Queensferry Crossing”. One bridge built in each century for three centuries in a row.

Looking at this again I get thinking about the what bridges do – they connect. In this pandemic year we have been distanced and disconnected. Disconnected from our routines, our habits, our families, friends, and for many, our work. Jacques said yesterday how sad and strange it is now that when he saw his little grandchild the wee one held up his hand and told him to keep his distance in case he caught the virus. It’s little gestures, behaviours and episodes like that which deepen the strangeness and awkward disconnectedness of this year.

Maybe you’ve been making new connections this year, though. Maybe you’ve connected to family or old friends over video calls or meetings. Maybe you’ve been Whatsapping and texting more than you used to. Maybe you’ve reconnected to some people you might not have had so much contact with in recent years.

Maybe you’ve connected more to Nature, hearing more birdsong in the space opened up by the disappearance of noisy machines.

Maybe you’ve connected more to the seasons, the new growth in the Spring, the fruit trees in the Summer, the leaves turning red and golden in the Autumn, the first frost of Winter.

Maybe you’ve connected more to the here and now. Becoming more aware of colours, sounds, scents and tastes of the everyday.

Maybe you’ve re-connected to what’s important in your life, re-assessed your values, made decisions to change where you focus your attention and spend your energy.

One thing is for sure, as we come out of this pandemic, we are going to have to build new bridges, make more connections, make new connections, find different ways of living according to our most important beliefs and values.

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There’s something very beautiful about this cloud pattern. I prefer a sky like this to a homogenous grey one where an apparently solid cloud stretches from one horizon to the other.

I like its “granularity”, the fact it is made of many different smaller clouds, not one of them floating in the sky alone.

When you think about our theory of the origins of the universe – that Big Bang theory – maybe it’s not right but it’s an impressive image isn’t it….the idea that in the beginning was a tiny dense energy which all of a sudden exploded out in all directions to create the universe as we know it. When you think about that, if it is true, then why did these waves of energy start to condense and form clusters, groups and objects? Why when we look at the night sky, even when we look at our own galaxy, The Milky Way, do we not see either just darkness in all directions, or a homogenous grey film stretching from one horizon to the next?

What we see in the night sky are millions and millions of stars, galaxies, and even groups of galaxies. Maybe what lies between them is dark material, and dark energy. But so far we haven’t been able to find it.

The universe is granular. It isn’t homogenous. It’s made of stuff gathered together into clusters and objects. Or, at least, that’s how it seems. So what we see is difference. We see each object as different from it’s surroundings.

We see each object as different from all other other objects, in terms of spatial and temporal co-ordinates, but also in terms of the exact amounts and proportions of elements of which it is made.

We see each object as having a different life story, a different origin in time and space, a different set of environmental influences. We see each object as having a uniqueness which we can only understand by following the multitude of it’s connections – in time, in space, in relationships and in experience.

Beginnings, endings, events and experiences. Edges and boundaries. Connections and relationships. None of this would exist if the universe weren’t full of difference.

Maybe that’s why I find this cloud pattern so beautiful…..because it reveals a fundamental principle of all existence.

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I’ve got lots of photos of spider webs. When there has been a heavy dew and the sun is just up in the morning they look absolutely bejewelled. Mesmerising and gorgeous. Most webs have that classic spiral appearance with a clear centre, and strands all spreading outwards from that centre, then concentric rings of web woven around and around that centre point.

But this one is different, and maybe you’ll look at it and think it’s not as beautiful because it has neither a clear centre, nor any lovely symmetries. But this structure is one of the most fundamental shapes in Nature.

It’s a network. It’s made up of two simple components – nodes and connections. There is no single clear centre, no branching or hierarchical structure. Some nodes are multiply connected, others only connected to two other nodes.

The cells and organs of our bodies are like this – they are multiply connected and once change takes place somewhere it spreads quickly through the entire network. There is no single commanding point. This is an incredibly flexible, adaptive structure and it is exactly what every “complex adaptive system” looks like – either literally, or functionally.

I find it utterly beautiful and wondrous. I love how I can understand human biology through this lens. I love how I can understand the brain through this lens. I love how I can understand ecosystems through this lens.

Every single one of us exists within, and emerges within, these vast complex webs or networks of Life. We don’t function like machines. The connections are not linear – instead they are “non-linear” – so effects can accelerate as they cascade through the system, and changes can occur which are utterly unpredictable from the starting state.

This reminds me of the importance of seeing each of us, not as separate disconnected individuals, but instead as unique instances of change within the entire web of Life.

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Do you see the rock just beyond the harbour wall? The white foam of the sea catches your eye, doesn’t it? At first, you think it’s water splashing against the rock, because, that’s something you’ve seen many, many times before. But if you keep looking the foam disappears and you can see this –

Click on the photo to get a closer look. Can you see the gap in the rock where the white foam was? If you look very carefully you can still see some water falling down the front of the rock from that gap.

This rock has a gap in it. A long narrow gap. The waves crash against the other side of the rock, the side you can’t see from the land (the dark side of the rock??) and some of the water flows through that gap and cascades down the front.

I don’t know how this began, and I’ve no idea when it began, but it’s quite mesmerising to watch. There’s a rhythm to it, as there always is when you are watching waves breaking on a shore line.

However it began, I know that every time some water forces its way through this gap it widens it just a little bit more. I can’t help but think about that power of water and what it can teach us.

Little by little, probably imperceptibly at first, constant, repeated, pressure of the water against the rock opens, and widens, a hole right through the middle of the rock. It would be tempting to think of the rock as solid and unchanging, and the water as soft and constantly changing, but this reveals that’s not quite right. It’s true that the presence of the rock changes the shape of the water – influences the speed and direction of the waves. But the water actually constantly changes the rock.

Gentle, constant persistence.

I’ve always been a fan of that. The ability to be present, and to pay attention, to sustain that attention, is a powerful skill. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons why so many patients told me the same thing – that they had just told me something they had never told another human being. It always amazed me to hear that. Sometimes it would be an important, even a key, part of their story which made it possible to make a diagnosis. Sometimes it brought about a sudden revelation which allowed the person to make sense of what they were experiencing. One small part of a life story might be like that gap in the rock and as the water of insight flowed through it, suddenly we both understood.

I suppose it’s a bit like that famous line from Leonard Cohen –

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

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I’ve got a lot of photos I’ve taken which are of this type. They are examples of Islamic art in Spain. Actually there are several different types in my collection, one of which is tiles, like these ones.

I adore these repeating, interconnected, geometric patterns. I love the stars you can see in them. There are small six pointed stars, small eight pointed ones, and small twelve pointed ones. Can you find examples of all of those? Then as the lines spread out from each star, they create hexagons, squares and diamonds.

What I see most clearly when I look at an image like this is a representation of the fundamental connectedness of creation – I see nodes and bonds – an intricately, inter-laced network where nothing exists in isolation and every part emerges from the creation of the web of connections.

Here’s a somewhat different example. Now, I’m not a scholar of art history, but I do know that there are elements of different cultures in this particular image. There is a hint of Islamic art, a thread of Celtic art, and across the middle there are three chimerical creatures – perhaps a “manticore”, a “mermaid” and a “centaur”?

I love seeing these interwoven influences of different cultures, and it isn’t hard to find examples in Spain which has such a rich history of different peoples living there at different, and even overlapping, times.

These chimerical creatures are really strange to our modern eye and they are often seen as imaginary beasts or monsters, but when I see them here in this panel embedded in webs of inter-locking links and lines, I wonder if they actually represent something of an origin story. Do these half man/half lion, half woman/half fish and half man/half horse actually remind us of our shared origins – we humans and the rest of creation?

We have such a tendency to see human beings as separate from Nature. In fact there is a long tradition in the West in particular of seeing “Man” as superior to “Nature” and even having a God-given duty to subdue and control all the other creatures and forms of Nature on the planet. There are strains of religious teaching in there, but there are also roots in the origins of the “scientific method” and, in particular in a certain strain of darwinism (not put forward by Darwin himself).

We lose a lot when we separate ourselves from the rest of the planet we co-habit with all other forms of Life. We distance ourselves from other creatures and that seems to free us up to treat them with contempt and cruelty. There’s something deeply mistaken in thinking of all non-human reality as “resources” to be “exploited”.

But there is another way. I’m aware of at least three strands of knowledge which contribute to a more holistic, more inter-connected, and, I believe, healthier model.

I start with complexity science, and in particular the concept of the “complex adaptive system“. When I view myself, others, or any phenomenon on the planet through this lens, then the whole of Nature is one inter-connected organism. Nothing exists in isolation. Every action, every thought, every behaviour is influenced by, and influences the actions, behaviours and thoughts of others.

Next I am fascinated by genetics and embryology. It has always been a source of complete wonder and amazement to me that a single egg cell can be fertilised by a single sperm, then divide over and over and over again, differentiating the cells as it grows, to create the billions of cells which make all the tissues, organs and cells of the human body. And all in the right place! It continues to astonish me that all of our cells can be traced back to just two cells – one from each parent. But on top of that, it’s been amazing to see the incredible degree of “overlap”, or perhaps more correctly, of shared origin in the genomes of humans and other creatures. It’s pretty mind boggling to discover how many genes we have in common with earthworms for example!

Thirdly, I’m convinced about Lynn Margulis’ “endosymbiotic theory” – the idea that all multicellular creatures have evolved not only from unicellular ones, but that the individual cell components of nucleus, mitochondria, ribosomes, perhaps chloroplasts, were all originally separate creatures which evolved to live together and form these more complex structures of animal and plant cells. Each cell can be thought of as a little community, and each cell exists as a member of a larger community. This places co-operation, collaboration and symbiosis at the very heart of reality.

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I’m convinced the images we encounter daily influence what we feel, what we think and how we behave. In fact, I don’t just mean images such as artworks, adverts or photos. I mean how things look – including the shapes and sizes of buildings, the presence of trees, flowers and bushes, the colours of walls, the landscape or the cityscape, depending on where we live, and the decor, light and shapes of the rooms we live in, as well as the objects which surround us.

All of these images influence us deeply, and, largely unconsciously, creating moods, emotions and feelings which stimulate or inhibit well-being, and which change the course of our lives.

One dramatic example of that is in hospital design. There is a lot of research about this, but, to give one example, it was found that patients who had a view of nature from their hospital bed recovered more quickly, needed less painkillers, and had less complications than those who only had a view of a wall.

Of course the advertising industry is well aware of the power of the image. These days there is even a specialist area of knowledge and advised described as “neuro-marketing” which seeks to employ the findings from neuroscience to persuade customers to buy certain products. These things work at the level of image, sound and smell. Mostly, they work unconsciously.

So, I think it’s good to notice our here and now, our everyday reality. I think it’s good to be aware of the images we absorb as we work, play and relax in our home and shared environments.

Taking photos is a good way to become aware. When you look around, or go out somewhere with a conscious intention of photographing what you notice, then your awareness is automatically heightened. These days most of us have smartphones which are more than ably equipped to take photos. You don’t have to have a fancy camera.

These two photos I’m sharing today are of street art I noticed as I walked around the streets of Salamanca one day last year. The image on the left is like a work of modern art. It looks a bit “Miro” to me! What I really notice about it is how the artist has used the walled off entrance as a frame, using the concrete filling the space as a canvas, but, he or she hasn’t stopped there. They’ve spread their artwork beyond the bounds of that frame….reaching out to cover the left hand pillar. I like that. I like how it demonstrates how creativity can be opportunistic, inspired by what is already there (the walled-in entrance way), and how that inspiration can come from the most unlikely places. Would you have thought that entrance way represented a canvas? I like how the artist isn’t bound by that either. How they kept creating outside of the frame – thinking and creating “outside of the box”. This work inspires me to be creative, to see opportunities for creative work, and to refuse to be constrained by other people’s frames.

The second photo shows the power of stencil. I mean just look at this person holding their head. Are they in despair, or are they trying to figure something out? I can see both. So it’s an image of hopelessness which reflects something we all feel from time to time, but, instantly, it’s also an image of someone thinking, someone deep in thought, trying to come up with a solution. At least, that’s what I see there. How about you?

I know, with every interpretation we bring our own standpoint, our own sets of values and beliefs, our own moods and preoccupations. But that’s one of the great things about art, isn’t it? It isn’t just the power of the work to convey “percept and affect” (as Deleuze would say). It offers us the chance to wake up and change by engaging with it. And even if we don’t wake it, it influences us without us realising. It interacts with us, and we interact with it. It’s a relationship.

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Last year I photographed this doorway in Salamanca. What caught my attention were the eyes. I mean, they are so big, how could they not catch my attention? I came across this photo again yesterday and it’s actually one of two. The first one is a close up of the eyes, but it was only when I looked at this second one that I noticed the large circular painting at the top of the door. I’m pretty sure that when I was there I’d have thought it was a close up of an eye….the pupil….so, just another eye on the door. But today, in the light of this pandemic, it looks just like a “corona”! Check out this photo I took earlier this year of a corona around the sun –

Do you see what I mean?

How weird is that? Now, even when I saw that corona around the sun a few months back I thought it was strangely appropriate. I don’t think I’d ever seen this exact phenomenon before – these concentric rings around the sun which made it look a bit like a giant pupil. It was so new to me that I looked it up and discovered it is called a “corona”.

A corona! During the “coronavirus pandemic”!

Well, when I return to the Spanish photo I now see the painted door and gate as covered with images of eyes, and dominated by a closeup of an eye at the top, a close up which transforms that eye into a corona.

How could that not stimulate my thoughts about the virus, the pandemic and the massive increase in “bio-surveillance”. We are in lockdown number two here in France and I need to produce a paper every time I leave the house. France, like many countries, has an app, which will inform you if you’ve been near someone who has tested positive. France, like many countries, is running as fast as it can towards mass testing, apparently hoping to test most of the population frequently. Already there are ideas that you’d need to certify your recent negative test to be allowed to visit an elderly relative in a care home. You might have to certify a negative test to be allowed to board a flight. They are already well down the road to mass testing of pupils and teachers regularly to exclude and isolate those who are positive. In England they are proposing testing students at university before “allowing” them to go back to their families for Christmas. In many countries, although, strangely, not yet here in France, customers entering bars, restaurants or even certain shops, are required to register their presence, recording their location and time of visit via a QR code. You can already hear voices suggesting that vaccination certificates might be required to allow a person to use public transport, enter public buildings, go back to work, or to travel.

We have slipped so easily into mass surveillance.

I understand all of it. I can see the logic. I can even see the sense of it. But there’s still something a bit spooky at having these eyes all over the place, watching over us, checking we are complying with the decrees and the rules.

Is this the price of freedom? Surveillance.

Is the alternative option, “confinement” as they say here in France, or “lockdown” in English speaking countries. Less freedom and coupled with more surveillance?

Have we reached a turning point? Is this part of the “new normal” that people talk about?

Honestly, I don’t have the answers. But I think it’s important to know who is doing the surveilling, and that everything they do is as transparent as possible to allow us all to hold them accountable and responsible. And that side of things isn’t going terribly well so far in many countries is it? Centralised power, autocratic power, cronyism and secrecy, hidden contracts allowing rich companies and individuals to get even richer…..that’s not the kind of system which will allow the average person to accept mass surveillance – even when it is done for the best of intentions.

So, can I make a plea here, raise my voice, throw my hat in the ring…..the “new normal” is going to have to be different by becoming more democratic, more open, and with more de-centralised authority. We need to tackle inequalities of all kinds – economic, social, educational, racial, gender etc – and shift the balance away from greater and greater concentration of wealth and power in the hands of less and less people. We need to open society up and be able to hold to account those who are elected, or delegated, to take decisions for the rest of us. We need to limit the time any single person can hold such powers. And, finally, I think we need to shift from the failing “representative democracy” which currently dominates, to a healthier, fully functioning “participative democracy” where we can all be involved.

Maybe we actually need more surveillance – the surveillance of those who hoard wealth and power.

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The Boston Ivy plant which grew over the entire enormous ancient wall which ran along one side of my garden has continued to thrive even though the wall fell down dramatically just before Christmas almost a whole year ago. In that time the stones have been left where they fell and what was left of the vine continued to grow and, even, thrive.

This is an amazing plant which goes through extremely distinct phases. There are little beak-like buds on the ends of the woody stems which open up in the Spring. The glorious green leaves which unfurl are so dense that many birds make their nests in them and in the Summer the whole plant buzzes loudly to the sound of thousands of bees collecting pollen. It produces seeds which pop out of their shells once the Sun passes towards the Western horizon beyond the wall each day, and they cascade down in the millions, sounding for all the world like a fountain. The first time I heard it I actually went looking for the water pouring down the wall, but, of course, there was none. Then in the autumn the leaves turn yellows, golds and reds, then fall off, revealing foot long bright yellow stalks, one for each leaf. These fall next. As each layer is shed other structures and colours appear….dark purple berries, and bright red stalks.

This photo, which I took a couple of days ago, shows the pattern of red stalks, now that the berries and leaves have now gone. This is a distinctive form – I recognise it from my days of anatomy study at university. The human body uses this form a lot….this structure of ever branching pathways, from large trunks to a myriad of small stalks. You can see that in our lungs. Air passes down from our noses and mouths via the trachea which branches into two – one for each lung. Then in each lung there are many further branchings, creating ever smaller, narrower passageways until finally they end in little swellings like bunches of grapes – the alveoli. You can look at how blood circulates around our bodies, through arteries, veins and capillaries and you see this same continuously branching structure. You can see similar pathways in our kidneys but the direction of branching seems reversed, starting with a myriad of small tubules, which collect together to form bigger ones, all of them ultimately draining into the ureters, one for each kidney – just like we see streams joining to form rivers which flow down the mountains to the sea. I could go on….you see this sort of structure everywhere in the body and you see it everywhere in plants as well.

At first glance it looks complex, but in fact it’s a pretty simple, straightforward form. It looks like there is more of it than necessary….wouldn’t it be better to channel all the flows down major routes instead? After all when you fall your SatNav doesn’t it tell you the quickest way to get from A to B is to avoid all the small, branching, “side” roads?

But Nature knows better. Not only does this pattern allow for the greatest interaction of, say, the plant, or the human, with the air, by creating the greatest surface area contained within a relatively compact space, but it is incredibly resilient, robust and flexible. If the flow were to be obstructed in one small section, it would soon be re-established, or increased through the myriad of other passageways.

This is what is called “redundancy” and Nature loves “redundancy” – it’s the opposite of modern management systems of “efficiency”. The idea is to always have more options, more resources, than you think you need. We design aircraft this way – they have so many backup systems, so much “redundancy”, more engines than it needs to fly, so that even if there is a failure, other systems and resources will immediately kick in so that the plane continues to fly – planes aren’t “resilient” – they aren’t designed to recover quickly from damage – they are “robust” – they are designed not to fail in the first place.

If there is one thing this pandemic has revealed, it’s the wisdom of Nature and natural systems. We have pared back our Health Services and Care Services to the bone. We have closed hospitals, beds and facilities, and failed to employ enough staff to deal with any more than the basic needs of the population – and even that not very well.

Surely it’s time to resource these services much much better. We need vastly more trained doctors, nurses and other staff. We need more facilities, more equipment and more flexible to systems. We need different, diversified, localised and devolved structures of power and organisation.

That’s the way Nature works. That’s the way the human body works. Why not design our organisations and societies on the same principles?

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I don’t know if it’s partly due to going into the second significant lockdown here in France, or mainly down to the wider disruption of normal routines and activities which we’ve all been experiencing for almost a year now, but I recently felt pretty dissatisfied with how my days can so easily drift.

I decided that were two areas of activity which have always increased the quality of my day – creative activities and learning activities. I so enjoy writing, photography and playing music – my main creative activities. And I have a life-long, curiosity driven, passion for learning.

Do you know the “pomodoro” time management method? Based on the classic Italian tomato shaped kitchen timer. The idea is that you set the timer for 20 minutes and start your activity. When the 20 minutes is up you take a short break, then set it for another 20 minutes, and go again. Well, starting from there, but deciding I wanted sessions to last longer than 20 minutes, I came up with the idea of one hour, timed sessions – ones for creative activities, and ones for learning activities.

I didn’t want to schedule entire days….well, I’m retired now and don’t need to schedule entire days the way I had to during four decades of work as a doctor. But I reckoned that even if I managed one of each of these timed sessions a day, the day would feel better. And you know what? It does.

My one hour of creative time and one hour of learning time are my minimum. I can have other ones if I want and if it’s feasible to have them on a particular day. So, there’s nothing to stop me having one hour of learning a language, and one hour of learning piano, for example, to make two learning sessions. Or one hour of one writing project, and another hour of a different one, to have two creative sessions.

I did have a notion to apply a similar technique to other activities in my day and on reflection reckoned there were two other major kinds of daily activity – there are all things you have to do just to keep life going – washing, cleaning, food shopping, meal preparation etc. And there are all the things which are just done for enjoyment – listening to music, watching movies, reading fiction etc. So I thought of “Doing sessions” and “Enjoying sessions”. But I abandoned that idea before I got going – it felt like a slippery slope to something too micro-managed – and, hey, even without trying I find that every day I do the “doing” things and the “enjoying” things anyway, so I really don’t need to do anything to enable them to happen. What I needed to pay attention to, and to consciously create, were the creativity and learning sessions.

I share this with you today, because maybe you too are feeling you’d like to have more quality in your day, or maybe achieve that nice balance of quality and structure. Anyway, if you like the idea, please develop it the way it will work for you. Play with the types of sessions, and the specific activities you want to include in particular sessions. Decide how long you’d like a session to be, and how many you want to include in an average day. Then just start.

Why not let me know how you get on? I’d be delighted to hear from you. All comments on this blog are “moderated” – that means I have to approve them before publishing them – so if you want to tell me something but don’t want me to publish what you tell me, just make that clear in the comment you send me, and I won’t publish it.

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