The Diary: The Joy In Small Things

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Seemingly like in the blink of an eye – like play like play in the pidgin English of my youth –  we are somehow at the end of May!  Summer is finally here, bringing in its wake the realisation that if I had stayed up North, the first of my Nine Fridays of Summer would have just gone past. As it is though, I find myself in an intermission of sorts, loitering in the space between a past life and the future in which an adventure in the sun hovers just out of reach, 70 days late. There are of course worse things than swapping grey granite for verdant green or being cooped up with family, like dying or very nearly dying like so many people, including a few closer to home for me, have over the past few months of this pandemic.

The reality of the lockdown first hit on a personal level sometime in late March, when my flight out was cancelled. My initial reaction is to take it as an extended holiday of sorts, cue extended hours of Football Manager but as time passes, each day blurring into the next, I find life without the tether of routine somewhat disconcerting. Its the first time since the autumn of 2009 that I have been in this place where there is plenty of time on my hands. Six weeks of a creative non-fiction writing course and National Poetry Writing Month do provide some structure and help mitigate the sense of floundering, the result of decisions taken earlier in the year as part of fleshing out what My Year of Delving Deeper would look like. It is thus only in May that the desire to stay creative and productive kicks in, no thanks to the reminders of the supreme productivity of Newton and Shakespeare in similar times from the Twitter productivity gurus.

One of the bigger impacts of all the time everyone suddenly has is a significant regression in the quality of my Whatsapp messages. Being Nigerian, with loads of older, Christian folk in my contacts, I find my inbox something of a ground zero for conspiracy theories of all flavours, from the 5G one peddled by a certain Nigerian MOG through a raft of others suggesting it is all a ploy to foist some religious or moral imperative on the rest of us. Elsewhere in my wider (Pentecostals) network, the miracle of hindsight manifests itself in various names – both well known and lesser-known lights – claiming some sort of prescience or other in having prophesied that a pandemic of such a nature was coming. What those who forward those messages on to me fail to answer is why, if these prophets were that certain, they didn’t shout louder for those of us at the back as Nigerian Twitter likes to put it. Those who cling to conspiracy theories do so as an attempt to find certitude and assert control of what is fundamentally an uncertain state, at least so says Skye Jethani who is a lot more clued into the Christian sub-culture than I am.

In retrospect, the things that stand out from the past 70 days – and some – are the little unplanned things; a picture from 2016 which brings back memories of Lagos and hanging with the old gang, an impromptu WhatsApp video call which segues into a three-way call that drags in A, I and C and dredges up fantastic memories of life, youth and friends that have become closer than brothers as it were.  I find myself measuring time in the small things and new routines, Mondays as bin days, Wednesdays as my Alpha Online days, Thursdays for joining the line that snakes around my local Tesco to stock up on food and water and Sundays for lengthy phone calls to friends and family around the world. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays have become portals of exploration, as my runs take me along paths which weave their way around the River Wey navigation paths. The bucolic sights that greet one’s eyes these days belie the fact that as recently as the 1960’s these were functional navigation routes. Private boats and yachts now line the waterway in places, a nod to the relatively well off folk who are our neighbours out here. Even those lie quietly, all furloughed in their own way, more than a few clearly showing signs of age and disuse, a metaphor for pausing to smell the roses and to enjoy the whispers of nature the world would otherwise have drowned out.

This is what my days have boiled down to; Reading, Writing and Running, and finding Joy in small things.

The Diary: Malta

 

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4 am on a weekend is far too early to wake up, particularly when it is the next day after a late-night flight, but given my flight the next day is a 7.30am one I have to suck it up. The next day, having rushed through a shower, completed final bag checks and double-checked I have my passport, we find ourselves in a taxi speeding away on the A3 a little after 5am, barely lucid but glad I don’t have to do the driving. At Gatwick, we find lengthy lines bent double on themselves with baggage handlers thin on the ground. That EasyJet, that famously lean airline, deigns to apologise over the state of affairs is perhaps all one needs to know about just how dire the situation is. Thankfully, we make it through baggage drop and security just before 7am; just enough time to grab a Shake Shack breakfast bun and start frantically eyeing the departure boards for signs of our flight. It ends up delayed, no surprise there.

It is almost mid-day UK time when we catch our first glimpse of the islands as we begin our final descent. The first thing that strikes me is just how small it looks, bringing to mind memories of our last jaunt a few months ago, Madeira. Passport control is a breeze (not for much longer given Brexit I suspect), finding our coach to the hotel takes a little longer but all told we’re at reception checking in to our hotel in Qawra just over an hour after our flight lands. The rest of the day is spent catching up on sleep and getting our bearings in the positively baking 17 deg C heat, a shock to the system given the London temperatures we’ve just escaped.

With time – three years and counting – a method has evolved around these holidays: a catch up with the official tour representative to get the lay of the land, followed by a hop-on/ hop-off tour of the city and then a few official tours with free days in which we do our own thing as we feel like. At our travel agency briefing we find out about shared connections – M is part Maltese and grew up in North London before upping sticks and relocating to this corner of the world. As for tours, we sign up for a day trip to Gozo, a guided tour that takes in the old capital Mdina, Mosta, a craft village and Valletta and the Christmas day special. We also sign up for the hop-on/hop-off tour of the south of the island to take advantage of the 3 euro discount.

There is a certain symmetry to the beauty of quaint European cities: narrow cobbled streets, old buildings and magnificent cathedrals around which each village/city is centred which, after you’ve been to a few, can begin to blend into each other. Undergirding what we see though is how the intersecting interests and intrigue over millennia have shaped the present. Thanks to its location, and perhaps climate, Malta has seen more than its fair share of conquest with imprints of pre-historic peoples, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, The Aragonese, Sicilians, Knights of Saint John and the British all there to see. These were all sights we took in in bits and pieces over the 8 days we spent out there. Most surprising for me though is how the Arabic influence has persisted, most notably in the spoken language. That tension between the past and the present remains visible in the form of cranes and spruced up facades sitting often next to the tired and worn limestone ones of other buildings.

We had the pleasure of experiencing two power cuts during the period of our stay, the causes of which we never managed to understand. That, and the chaos we seemed to just manage to avoid (read late departures for tours/ frantic phone calls by our travel agency rep to confirm tours were still on), brought shades of Lagos to mind. Back to the power situation: at the fishing village of Marsaxlokk we spotted a tanker delivering LNG to the power station visible across the bay and not very many wind turbines. Given the high winds we experienced – which threatened to toss someone’s weave into the sea as we waited to board the ferry at Sliema – the absence of wind turbines was interesting.

The ornately decorated insides of St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta and St Phillips in Zebbug caused me to cast my mind to sacred spaces and how their design can inspire a sense of wonder in the worshipping faithful. This is something our Pentecostal spaces would do well to learn from I think, given their typically more spartan outlook.

Being able to wander the streets, thanks to long paved promenades at St Julian’s, between Qawra and St Paul’s bay amongst others was a positive, particularly given the temperatures which were just warm enough, staying mainly in the 15 to 17 deg C range for most of the time out there. On one of those walks, we came across a game of bocce and stayed a few minutes to watch. Given it was our first time we had no clue what the objective was besides, as a German tourist who also stopped to watch put it, old people passing time 😊

One of the reasons for sticking with Europe this time was to try to get into the Christmas spirit. Nativity scenes and colourful night-time displays dotted the landscape. Running into several other black faces was a welcome change from our previous travels – even as it included running into friends of friends.

For all the things we planned and did, two things defined this holiday for me, both unexpected. A wander into St Paul’s Bay on which we chanced upon a tiny church which supposedly marks the location of Paul’s shipwreck and the introduction of Christianity, and a boy who took to the piano in the airport and proceeded to delight us all, to sporadic applause now again – the perfect, unscripted ending to a season of chilling if ever there was one.

P.S: More pictures here (on Google Photos), if those are your bag.

The Diary: The Paphos Files

The first bits of Cyprus we glimpsed as our flight began the descent towards Paphos were wind turbines slowly turning in what must have been a slight evening breeze, and houses which from the height looked like small, matchboxes pressed into the sides of the hilly terrain below us. Although it was only 5.20pm local time, it was quickly growing dark, which at first seemed odd until I realised just how much closer to the equator we were here than in England from where we were arriving. This trip to Cyprus was at the instance of S, ten days in Paphos being her idea of a honeymoon. The hope was to get the chance to catch our breaths after what had been a whirlwind three weeks in which we had managed to get hitched without losing our minds; the pressure of a large Nigerian wedding notwithstanding.

Having the main events on the other side of town in rural England – as far removed from our usual haunts as could be – added a layer of complexity to everything, that in retrospect we could have done without. The miracle in all of that was that friends and family rallied – some at particularly short notice, and braving the worst of the M25 and Dartford crossing traffic on the day – to be part of the events and support us. As we headed into Paphos, the overwhelming desire was to kick back and de-stress from all of that.

Before all of that kicking back and chilling could begin, there was the small matter of navigating passport checks and customs. Although I had the requisite approvals in my Nigerian passport, it still took in excess of ten minutes – and a couple of phone calls by the fellow at the desk – for my passport to be checked and then stamped. Only then could S and I head on to the baggage area and pick up our bags; she being British had no such problems. It was a warm 22 degrees C even at that time of the day, and importantly dry, with none of the chill from the wind that had hastened our arrival and helped claw back some of the lost time from our flight from Gatwick being delayed.

Bags in hand and through customs, we found our designated driver – he had our names on a card held high above his head – waited a bit at a Costa Coffee for the rest of our party to arrive and eventually headed out into town. That allowed me to take in my surroundings at the airport, the overwhelming sense being one of being somewhat pleasantly surprised by the absence of any of that in-your-face first world glitter that airports around the Western world often portray. Our hotel, the King Evelthon, was a relatively recent addition to the Paphos holiday resort scene and just beyond the city limits – sculptures of the Greek letter ρ marking these. From arrival to the hotel and then dinner took all of two hours, including the wait. Not bad, given we needed to tuck into dinner having steadfastly refused the prodding of the cabin crew to pony up the extra cash required to buy a meal on board.

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Having finally managed to get out of our travel soaked clothes and then get some sleep, we woke up to the sight of glorious sunshine already streaming in. Looking through the doors into the pool – we had been upgraded to a swim-up room – the sense was very much one of being a holiday resort, complete with all the trappings. In the distance, the lonesome hulk of a rusty brown ship loomed. I would later find out that there was some history to it, it being the MV Demetrios II. When we finally dragged ourselves out of bed for a hearty breakfast and were ready to head out, we hopped onto the 615 towards the Paphos harbour for a bit of sightseeing.

We found the harbour area a beehive of activity with buskers, hustlers and traders all keen to interest us in their wares. In the end, we plumped for a glass-bottomed boat ride around the harbour and picked up a flyer for the wave dancers suite of cruises from the Paphos Harbour. The glass-bottomed boat ride ended up a damp squib of sorts – there was nothing of note to see besides the ruins of the Vera K – but the 90 minute trip around the harbour gave a good view of the coastline all the way up and down. Trip done, we found an ice cream place down the road where we took a much-needed toilet break and three scoops of ice cream each, for the heat. We – read S – liked it so much that we returned on three other separate occasions for ice cream there. A hop-on, hop-off open bus tour topped off this first day, the whistle-stop tour putting Paphos and its size  – or lack thereof – into perspective.

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Our time in Cyprus was organised around three main all-day events; a jeep safari, a gourmet tour and an all of Cyprus tour. Being the last of the nine passengers to be picked up for the jeep safari, meant we had to make do with being sat apart, S in the middle seat at the back and me perched on the edge of the back seat alongside the others, an older Italian couple, an English couple from Birmingham and three young men from Hungary. Our version of the safari tour took in a drive-through banana plantations,  old Turkish and Greek villages, as well as pit stops at a number of other landmarks. In spite of the obvious pride the locals had in their banana plantations it turned out they were neither big enough nor straight enough to meet EU export regulations.

In keeping with the safari theme, much of the driving was on bumpy, rocky roads on which we in the back seat bounced about. The trek up the Avakas Gorge was the first real physical activity I had undertaken since my last 5k on the 18th of October; that showed in my lack of fitness. The trek itself – ours was the abridged version – took in a number of rare bushes and flowers and a number of tiny rivulets; smaller now at the end of a long summer than they would be in the rainier, wetter winter season. Other interesting pit stops along the way were the Aphrodite baths (where Aphrodite used to bathe according to local mythology), the Adonis baths and the blue lagoon where a few of the less intrepid swimmers dove in for a leisurely swim. As we made to leave the Adonis baths, an interesting exchange ensued between the caretaker and I.  He called me a chocolate Adonis, warning S to be extra careful overnight, his point being that my brush with the very essence of Adonis at the baths had upped my virility. That made for a few awkward moments between him, S and I, although no offence was meant or taken.

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Over the course of the remaining days, we managed to fit in two more all-day tours. The first of these was a gourmet tour that focused on highlighting the food, art and craft of Cyprus, the intent clearly to showcase a rustic Cyprus where life was lived at a leisurely, laid back pace. Pit stops on this tour included a winery where we got to taste a range of locally brewed liquids, an all-female factory where a range of Cypriot sweets were made and a factory where roses were used in everything from chocolate to wine in addition to the usual suspects of perfumed body care products. Elsewhere on the tour, we got to see the Holy Cross church in Omodos and fraternise somewhat with the local silver and glassmakers. Also on the gourmet tour, we discovered Carob, which became the bane of my existence over the next few days, as S tried to score bottles and bars of the ostensibly healthy stuff. The other tour – an all of Cyprus tour – went along similar lines, the highlights being a visit to the capital Nicosia and the view across the green line into Turkish controlled Cyprus from the top of the  Ledra observatory and the church of Saint Lazarus (the fellow who died twice).

In between the full day tours, we managed to get three 7k-ish runs in, possible in part because S is a running enthusiast who needs her running fix, and the presence of a coastal path which we learned is a fairly recent addition. The ruins being excavated at the harbour area and the Wave Dancer half day BBQ cruise also help the time pass.

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By virtue of its position at the junction of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Cyprus has had a long and checkered history, with ownership and control changing hands several times. Greeks, Ottomans, Venetians, The French, the Romans – and a few others I can’t remember – have all at various times laid claim to the island, leaving their marks in various ways. Greek culture predominates, as does the Turkish military presence in the Northern third of the island, a self-declared Republic which is recognised only by Turkey. There was an opportunity to cross the Green Line and explore a bit of it, but the situation with my Nigerian passport made me wary of crossing any more borders than I needed to.

What I found surprising was a strong undercurrent of Russian influence – like London one of our guides joked on one of the days. I suppose the shared religious history enables this – both the Russian Orthodox and Church of Cyprus are part of the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, making it easier for devout Russians to integrate, and providing a driver for them to visit shared holy spaces – as does the official passport for investment program which provides access to Cyprus and by extension the rest of the EU for €2million.  A different guide took great joy in pointing out which of the palatial, stately homes were owned by Russians.

The British influence was more expected, and obvious, given the recent colonial history and the long-running interactions with the island going back to Richard the Lion heart’s invasion in the late 1100s. The language and the sunshine does make it one of the prime destinations for Brits looking to retire by the sun and the sea, that they’ve arrived complete with their own little micro-communities complete with English and Irish pubs suggests there is some impact to the local community, particularly in a town as small as Paphos with 75,000 inhabits.

Thankfully, it wasn’t peak season so places like the beach were not filled to the point of bursting at the seams, which made me wonder how this must feel in peak season.  I doubt the locals find the influx of tourists as disconcerting as the Barcelona locals do but I got the sense of a mild irritation at times – the eye roll and shrug I shared with an older lady at a shop within the Kings Avenue Mall at a couple rowing over a can of beer at the till being one such.

For all its history, I did get the sense that some of the places we visited over the course of the ten days were not particularly remarkable or deserving of the hype (It might have to do with my lack of culture or just an overt focus on looking to chill and de-stress). That got me thinking of just how much Nigeria could benefit from a concerted effort to clean up its hinterland, make it safer and easier to travel in, and market some of the natural features and historical artefacts. I remember visits to the Obudu Cattle ranch many years ago being the highlight of a team building session at work. Places like the Ikogosi springs, the Ososo tourist centre and carnival come to mind as ones which with a little more focus could be developed further.

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All told, the ten days delivered on their promise of providing a place to disconnect from the real world and chill, which is perhaps why the enduring images of Cyprus for me will be narrow roads draped around towering mountains like ribbons – thin, flimsy and barely there, edged on the one side by the faces of the mountains themselves and on the other by vertiginous drops. The irony of this is not lost on me; without the roads, much of these parts would be inaccessible to the wider world which would lose out on all the treasures and delights we had the privilege of seeing over the past few days, but building the roads cannot have been a trivial experience given the terrain. A lot of hard, back-breaking work was clearly required.

That  – the delights just out of view over the horizon and the hard work required to get there – is very much like a marriage, S says, on the eve of our return to our new shared life; all the proof I need that she is indeed a wise one.

The Diary: Notes From The Northern Isles

 

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What could have been. Image Source

It is in the middle of shovelling rice and chicken down my throat that just how similar to prison these cubby holes I pop into from time to time are. For one, there are a number of hoops to jump through to get here – in my case a 5.30am check-in followed by a fixed wing flight up to Scatsta in the Shetlands and then a further helicopter flight out to the platform – and the overwhelmingly maleness of everything, tattoos and all. There are also the shared rooms, the strict meal times and the restricted choices there tends to be for meals. The one statistic which goes against the prison narrative is perhaps the proportion of ethnic minorities in prison vis-a-vis the general population, but that is neither here nor there. And of course, we’re all out here by choice, getting paid a premium of sorts for the joy of being out here.

On this occasion I am on one of the bigger cubby holes – floated out in the late 70’s – with the claim to fame of being the world’s largest movable man-made object at the time. These days the Polarcus Armani  and Shell’s Floating LNG Plant the Prelude have stronger claims to that crown, a symbol perhaps of the changed fortunes of the UK sector of the North Sea vis-a-vis the rest of the world. To get here, this behemoth of the Northern North sea, we had to brave inclement weather at Scatsta, the clouds so thick and winds so strong that the pilots decided against going through with two landing attempts thirty minutes apart. In the end, we had to wing it to the southern end of the island to Sumburgh for a landing and then a bus back up to our original destination. The glimpses of the road that were visible through the windows in the pouring rain suggested that there would be some mileage in coming back here for leisure, but on this occasion the rough, rugged terrain – roads that wrapped themselves around hills and valleys and small streams fuelled by the torrential rains leaving their marks on the hills that lined our route – seemed more a trigger for memories of the past than anything else; St John’s, Newfoundland which I visited two years ago and the distant corner of Edo State to which I trace my heritage being the two main ones. One wonders where all that time went, not least the years since I last went home. My plan is to spend a total of three days out here – not since in my early years in February of 2014 have I had to spend more than a week at a time offshore – but for the regulars, a three week stint looms, which is why perhaps they seem less perturbed by the detour we have had to take.

The last few years have seen free wi-fi access hit these haunts, one more positive to everything. Back in the day, staying in touch with folk back home depended on finding access to a desk phone with the ability to dial out; access is a lot better out here than I recall from my offshore Nigeria days. Once offshore, I settle into the room I have been assigned, before heading out to the offices, to get stuck into the reasons why I am out here. A detailed chat with the platform manager to set the scene for why I’m out is followed by the first of what will be several meetings with the folk who I work with directly on a daily basis, and then a walk in the plant to eye-ball a number of areas which have piqued my interest.

With time I have come to realise that the routine is what keeps me sane – regular / restricted meal times, periodic review meetings, and the late night trip to the bund to stock up on sweets and bottled water have become things I look forward to on these trips, symbols of the passage of time, and with meetings, things checked off the to-do list.

There is joy and salvation in the mundane and routine after all, that much is not in doubt.

On My Return To the Middle of Nowhere

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Back at the heliport for a trip offshore – the first time since March – it feels like a lifetime ago. The last time there was the pressure of my counterpart from the government regulator looking over my shoulder to deal with, this time the roles are reversed as I am the one asking questions of others. Waiting to be checked in, what strikes me is how empty the terminal looks. Spending one’s days in an office which was only recently re-stacked has somehow shielded me from the reality of just how much more reduced offshore activity has been over the last year.

We go through the usual things – waiting, getting checked in, watching the safety brief and then more waiting – a monotony broken only by the joy of people watching. This time only a few things catch my eye, chief of which is a bit of banter between a group of men and a woman who appear to all be going to the same rig as I am. In sitting amongst them, she almost misses her seat, spilling a bit of her coffee. This leads to her being asked if she is sober. Only later, as I overhear another conversation whilst we’re offshore does that bit of banter make sense; she does have a reputation for being a lively, paint the town red kind of person, one which the latest escapades she regales the group with only cements.

Before all that, there is the small matter of an hour and some of flying time, whilst kitted out in one of these, not exactly the most comfortable of feelings. I do manage to fall asleep during the flight, the rhythmic chugging of the helicopter and having woken up at just past 4.00am all contributing, in my defence. Besides the boiler suit, I get the added ignominy of having to wear a green arm band, this being my first time out to the particular rig since the back end of 2014.

The series of meetings I am offshore for go very well, there being enough time over the course of the three days I am out to catch up with folk I haven’t seen in awhile. These offshore trips can sometimes be an exercise in politicking dealing with people, the overwhelming objectives being to not come across as an onshore boffin who is ramming things down people’s throats without thinking of the impact of the added work. This fine line of balance is never more obvious than when the subject of ongoing pay cuts come up. Word around town is that most of the folk I deal with directly have had to stomach a 22% pay cut over the last eighteen months with a few of the perks being pulled, like the option of an extra bacon roll at morning tea time. Not exactly the stuff morale boosting conversations are made of but I do my best we’re all in this together impression, a truthful one this time because the only reason why I am making slightly more money than this time last year is I have chosen to accept a contribution in lieu of a city centre parking spot.

Running into people I have met on other rigs in the four years and some since I began these trips is a recurring theme on this one. On arrival, I find out that the installation manager is a control room lead operator from a different asset I used to support who has risen through the ranks  – by way of a job elsewhere. The inspection team also includes two people who I have worked with in the past.  As we exchange life jackets ahead of hopping on to the helicopter for the flight out on Thursday, I run into another two folk from a past life. This all leaves me wondering if there is a wider meaning to all of these – have I spent too much time around these parts or is this just an indicator that one has done a good enough job, and stayed long enough to survive the impact of one’s decisions? I suspect it is a little bit of both.

Of Times, Eyes and Seasons

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Life – and time – have a penchant for throwing up surprises, ones which are sometimes welcome, but (perhaps more often than not?) unwelcome. Never more obvious is this than in the passage of time as measured by times, seasons and the lives of others. Somehow life in the moment, in the here and now – never seems to move at pace; only with the benefit of hindsight does the amount of time that has elapsed become obvious.

This, the apparent disconnect between time in the moment and time as Time, was brought home to me this week thanks to a chance conversation with my cousin V. Out and about for a quick lunch time walk to clear my head, stretch my legs and get some fresh air, I run into him on the corner of Market and Hadden Streets. As we have a quick chat, he mentions that it is his daughter’s birthday tomorrow – her fifth.  I distinctly remember being at her first birthday, seemingly only a couple of years ago. How four years have gone by so quickly beggars belief in my mind.

It is now just over two years since H passed. The keenness of loss has been medicated by the time which has passed since then, which I suppose is  a  good thing. The new normal is more and more embedded, with occasional triggers like remembering one of her favourite songs – When I look into Your Holiness  – being the things which jolt one back to the reality of loss. With all that, and the song, came memories of children’s Sunday school and growing up at Chapel in the early 90’s.

One of the more interesting things I read this week was Anne’s musing about spiders; which reminded me that I am due a free eye test; yet another reminder of the passage of time, and in my case how dependent on my glasses I am to function in the real world. On the odd occasion my glasses fall off the cabinet next to my bed, I struggle to find them, such is the state of my eyes these days.

The nip in the air is another telling indicator of the passage of time. It was spring not too long ago, then summer, and now we stand on the cusp of autumn. It is not heaters-blazing-with-multiple-duvets weather yet but it doesn’t feel like there is much between this and that. Word around town is that this year’s winter is likely to be harsher than the last. For now, it is dry, cold and sunny. That, I can deal with.