Sunday, 18 December 2011


What did you think of when you read the title of this post? Did you think something had gone wrong, temporarily, some little problem to be easily ironed out, some failure in execution which cast a shadow over an other wise exemplary performance? A mere blip on life's radar?

If you are one of my 'Facebook friends'  or indeed a fellow 'blipper' you will most likely have thought of photos and cameras and addictive snapping and lenses and angles.  Because blipfoto is a wonderful online community of digital photographers of which I am part.

Have you ever found a lovely restaurant, or coffee shop, or small hotel in Malcesine and seriously considered not recommending it in case everyone floods in and spoils it? I'm a bit like that with blipfoto, but if you enjoy taking digital photos I can't, in all conscience, deny you this pleasure any more than I would deny you a book or TV drama recommendation.  So what's it all about?

You can be part of blipfoto by registering free at  Later you may decide to become a full member & enjoy extra privileges, but it's not necessary. Basically, you can upload one, but only one, photo, taken on that day, every day, adding a written journal entry ... a few words or a long diary-type piece. Other blippers can see and comment, as you can with their entries, so you aim to interest.  People use it in different ways depending on their circumstances and personal objectives.  The community clearly includes professionals extending themselves or relaxing; highly knowledgeable and experienced amateurs; proud parents recording their child's early years; devoted gardeners cataloguing their gorgeous blooms; less secure, non-tech blippers who are trying to extend their skills and those who are happy to take a snap or two.  Many of them live in Scotland, where the community originated, but I can easily log on and see the morning sunshine of Melbourne or the first snow in southern Germany as uploaded by worldwide blippers.

 I have a Digi SLR with which I try to teach myself to be a better photographer.  I still tend to point and shoot but I am learning.  Since the 3rd of March 2011, I have had my camera with me at some point every day to 'collect' a blip. Everything from a view of Arran, to a close up of my silver fitflop, from a portrait of a grandchild to an unusual swan photo;  they're all in there.

But what I have learned is that blipfoto is about much more than the image which appears to be the end result.  The community is a real community of souls.  Gradually, I have come to know some of the stories behind the highly anonymised usernames : there are stories of joy, of ill-health, of courage or fear, of tragic loss, of fun and laughter, of house buying, of job-loss, of good fortune, of emotional difficulty.  And in every case, the community has responded with warmth and generosity.  In nine months of blipping, I've never seen a critical, carping comment on composition, content or technique;  I have seen strangers telling a fellow blipper that they are thinking of them, that things will get better, that they admire their determination, that they have the very cure for what ails them.

If you ever glance at the comments under the clips on Youtube you will probably decide that no decent person would ever think of commenting, so malevolent and so vicious are a substantial number of comments.  That would not happen on blipfoto.  There is a sense that we know respect and care about each other.

Besides this feeling of shared values ..... always accepting that there is the very occasional odd-one-out who is swiftly dealt with by the moderation process ( a Barbie Doll wearing a swastika armband disappeared commendably swiftly) ....... there is a sense of common purpose. And that purpose can become a joyful obsession.  It's easy to take a lovely pic of a sun-kissed seascape.  But what about the day of interminable icy rain?  This is when you find yourself with an image of a city street blurred by the raindrops on the lens cover; or a close up of your new bottle of golden Scottish rapeseed oil in front of your scarlet coffee tin.  You panic as evening approaches and you have no blip!

And a day of blip-famine may well be followed 24 hours later by the torture of choosing just one from a series of brilliant or interesting photos.  Below  is what I rejected today!

Many blippers use compacts or iphone and android cameras; they snap away while out cycling or jogging.  I carry my DSLR, a Nikon 3100, slung round my neck in a case, with the long lens in my handbag or rucksack.  It goes to Tesco and out for lunch; to the Art Gallery and the yoga class and for a lot of cups of coffee and porridge breakfast! The whole world becomes a resource.   I have to look, really look, at what is happening around me at any given moment.  And I am learning to see my world with clearer eyes.

Next, I want to learn the skills of the candid portrait.  I have used only those images where the person has actively invited me to take the photograph, but some blippers have an amazing series of candid shots.  I also need to learn a bit more about using the features of the camera to take movement and night-time shots.

I hope to meet some more fellow blippers in person!  I 'got into conversation' with one person when I recognised from her pics that she lived near my sister,  We met for coffee and I felt an instant rapport!  In another instance, I could see that the blipper was a jazz fan and we arranged to introduce ourselves at a gig we were both attending.  Only in this developing relationship does a 'real name' come into play;  I exchange comments with another blipper who lives nearby.  I have no idea exactly where she lives, far less what is her name.  It isn't important; you reveal what you want to, no more.

Being part of blip fits well with other aspects of my life; it asks me to focus on the moment as my yoga and my interest in mindfulness also do.  It makes me look at the world through a lens, as I have looked though literature and am hoping to learn to look through paintings.  It makes me get out and look at the world , in particular the ordinary.  I photograph my existing passions; Glasgow architecture, the Isle of Arran, my garden, my family; and I discover new passions ..... light on water, the elegant contortions of the swan, the beauty of grass, the majesty of dark clouds.

Perhaps I'll see you there, on blip, someday soon.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

"Facebook? No, I don't fancy that!"

"Your sister has just played a 33-point word I've never even heard of!"  I tell my husband.
"Which sister?"
"Mel!"  I say. I have three sisters-in-law in Australia and play this scrabble-type word game with two of them.   Mel lives in Perth.  Biz lives in Camden, also in Oz.  Her daughter and our niece had a sore throat yesterday, which isn't surprising when she works so hard in her young business, what with five children also demanding her attention.  I feel as though we are involved in each other's  day-to-day lives, far more than we were two years or ten years ago.  We no longer share only the big life events, the New Year phone call, the wedding photos.  We also share the grumbles and joys of family life in all its minutiae and this sharing brings us closer.

All this happens on Facebook.

While I was still working, I steered clear of this site. I had heard of it, as I had of Twitter and the infamous Beebo which regularly was the venue for vicious slanging matches between teenagers who seemed to think they could abuse one another online without consequence. Since I began my new life, however, I have become a great fan of Facebook:  I follow sensible practice and limit my number of friends; I restrict the readership of my posts and I don't write anything on my status which would be harmful if, indeed, it were to be seen by someone other than my intended audience.

I often talk about Fb with friends and family who are still very reluctant to join.  The big mystery for them is why I would want to use a social networking site rather than phone or meet someone.  The only way I can begin to explain is to describe how I use the site as the base not only for far-flung family contact about little things you would never remember to say in a phone call; but also for my intellectual growth.

In the last 24 hours, Facebook has linked me to the following activities.  I have used it as a shortcut to the blipfoto journals of several photo-taking new 'friends';  I have kept up to date with the activities and future gigs of Brass Jaw and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra;  I have shared with my Fb friends a couple of inspiring TED talks I have listened to.  I have perused Rafa's latest post and read the Tennis Now update.  I have followed one of @theplayethic Pat Kane's excellent links to Carol Craig's blog on the Centre for Confidence website and enjoyed several articles in The Economist and other political journals which I hadn't read and wouldn't have taken the time to subscribe to myself. I have kept up to date with stimulating posts from Action for Happiness, Charter for Compassion and the Mindfulness Manifesto, all of which feed to my status (the word used for your 'own' bit of Fb).  I have listened to a 1980 performance by Weather Report and laughed at a video clip of a cat climbing over someone during a sun salutation in the yoga studio!   I've had to question my responses to several articles on KILTR and The Scottish Review, discovered via the recommendations of other Facebook users.

And yes, I have kept up with the latest news from Strictly Come Dancing.

The essential feature of my life now is lifelong learning;  I want to have my brian ache as much from the demands I put on it as my body aches after yoga!  This is where Facebook comes in.  It is no more a substitute for my university classes and face-to-face family contact than a Kindle is for a book, but it is a gateway ...  a shortcut ..... to a network of experiences which stimulate my brain.  Fb fires up the synapses!

The snapshot above only touches the tip of the joyful iceberg which is my Facebook experience.  I use the messaging facility of the site instead of emailing friends and contacts; I have renewed contact with individual former pupils from classes as far back as 1976 who 'found' me on Fb.  I have shared all the photos I want to share. I have sought advice or the answer to a question and been flooded with answers.  I know where every snowflake or hailstone in the Central Belt is falling.

This is just the start.  In five years, there will be a bigger, better, newer, more stimulating way of keeping this level of social contact.  This is the exhilaration and excitement the future holds.  If you're 60+  and convinced Fb isn't for you, my advice would be to sit along with someone like me and actually watch us use it.  See how protected you can make yourself, how easy it is to limit your friends ... you just say, "no".  See what a massive range of activity it introduces you to by shortcuts.  It isn't perfect, and the endless fine-tuning changes to the site can be irritating, but it can be wonderful.  It links you to a world of ideas and people which then encourages you to go off on your own into further reading, listening, watching and researching.

I have another sister in law who lives half an hour away. We'll be seeing her later today.  But when we were arranging today's meeting, we realised that she wasn't up to date with a piece of great news:  my older son has a new job!!  Now, Mel and Biz in Australia knew that within hours of his interview  ...... thanks to Fb!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Book Buyer's Dilemma

Recently,  I read the views of Richard Russo, Anita Shreve and a number of other authors whose work I regularly read and enjoy on what they perceived to be the beyond-the-pale tactics and rampant commercialism of Amazon seeming actively to encourage buyers to browse in a real bookshop before ordering online.  The response to their  dismay was divided between the horrified and the 'get-a-life' brigade, but the debate rings a very loud and discordant bell for me, touching on a dilemma I cannot solve.

In early November my husband and I went on a pre-Christmas browsathon at Waterstones, the one big surviving bookstore in Glasgow.  We had a lovely breakfast and looked at so many books, leaping up and down the stairs between biography, children's, spiritual, new titles, music, sport.  We bought two books to a total of about £20, but came away with a list of other titles.  Yes, reader, you've guessed at the dilemma.  Arriving home, we went on line and had Mr Amazon send us another £80 worth.  By doing so we saved about £17.00 but I felt uncomfortable.

Books and reading have played a massive role in my life; my father's insistence that books were the key to learning, his habitual gift of a book given as a reward or recognition, or when I was poorly; his agreement to pay for any book I needed at uni. while showing reluctance to underwrite my chocolate egg habit, the joy he got from discussing with me the books we had both read .... all of these early interactions with books have underpinned my life, my relationships with others, my values.

This Amazon dilemma is the second wave of trauma for my book-buying generation.  Do you remember the many departments and subsections of John Smith in St Vincent Street?  Was your preferred browsing zone the equally quaint Thins on Edinburgh's Bridges?  How did you feel when John Smith was drowned by the tidal wave of Waterstones, Borders, Ottakars?  As you sipped a hot chocolate while perusing possible buys, or rifled through the '3 for 2' piles in one of the 'new' stores, did you worry that you might have played a part in the downfall of the old favourite?

Hardly had I overcome my guilt by nearly bankrupting myself, weekly, in the massive branch of Borders, The Fort, than there came the news of its closure .... a victim, perhaps of the amazonian strengths of online booksellers.  And so to a further dilemma.

I use Amazon for most of my online buying: not only books, but camera lens, hedgetrimmer, snow shovel and dyson have arrived at our door in the past year, courtesy their swift delivery.  No matter what the item, I check there for a comparison and cannot remember the last time they were not the cheapest!  Sometimes it is only because of their pricing that I feel I can afford the item.

But, as I disclosed on the topic of charity, I am no stranger to hypocrisy.  I absolutely love bookshops, the piles upon piles of titles, the knowledgeable staff, the books I've never heard of which suddenly grab my attention; the classics in brand new, extortionately priced but beautifully illustrated editions and formats (there's a new 'Secret Garden'!)  Then there's the opportunity to read a few pages over coffee:  is it my type of novel? Or look through three books on Venice; which is the best?   In a small, out of town bookshop I became involved in an ad hoc discussion with two other book buyers who then recommended titles to me, as I did to them ... wonderful!   Will all of these pleasures be lost to us in the near future if people like me indulge ourselves in the shop then buy cheap at home?

Waterstones, and I am sure the small independent survivors (to whom the likes of Waterstones is no doubt a continuing torment), do their best to fight back by giving a high profile to their 'special' prices, their rewards for buying multiple titles, their loyalty cards. I will always visit bookshops and will buy, not always because the price is the cheapest, but out of recognition of what is offered, inclusive,  that Amazon cannot give me.... the chance to browse, the advice, the smile, the coffee!

A fortnight ago, our local library contacted me to ask if I still wanted a book I had ordered;  there would be a delay as they would have to buy a new copy to replace a missing one.  I phoned to say they shouldn't waste limited funds on this very specialist book for me;  I had seen it on Amazon, and would buy it; I'd rather the council funds were spent on a more popular title!  The irony did not escape me:  virtuously saving my library cash while putting another dent in the prosperity of bookshops!

I am extremely fortunate to be able to afford books; I would also prioritise them over many other items in a pinch.  If Morrison's price for Nescafe Gold Blend is markedly lower than Tesco's,  I'll pop in to Morrison's.  If my new coat costs substantially less in John Lewis than it does in Fraser's I will buy it from John Lewis.  It seems so obvious, so 'common-sensical' that I wonder why I would feel I ought to do any differently for books.

But it is different; it does feel like a moral as well as a commercial dilemma.  What should I do ?

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Sweet and Sour Charity

A month ago, I had a thought-provoking encounter with my hypocrisy.

I was in Glasgow's Royal Exchange Square taking photographs for an online photo-journal; I had a DSLR and an extra lens in a case hanging round my neck.  I had just been interviewed on camera by a group of media students who had asked me questions about the importance of technology in daily life.  I suppose to the untutored eye I looked like a 'proper' media person.  As I left the square, a street beggar who was sitting cross-legged at one of the arches called out "Hey! Y'gonnae take my photo?"  and threw out his arms in an expansive gesture. He smiled broadly.
"Oh, I wouldn't be bothering you!" I replied.
"That Kate Moss gets £100K a day, they say!"
"Aye, just to get out of bed!"
At that, someone dropped a coin in his paper cup.  "An' I've just got 20p!"  He smiled and laughed ruefully.  The whole conversation was very jokey and he seemed more upbeat and focussed than, sadly, street beggars usually are.  The eyes feed information to the brain without our immediately realising it and in retrospect  I had registered that he was very clean, that his skin was fresh and clear, that he was warmly dressed, that his hands were clean.  Perhaps because of this as well as the selfish prospect of the chance to take a portrait I agreed that if he wanted me to photograph him, I would, but would put cash in his cup.

I raised the camera.  At that point, to my astonishment, he dropped his gaze, drooped at the shoulders and wiped the smile!  He posed.  I took the image, showed it for his approval, dropped coins in his cup and bid cheerio to his waving hand and beaming smile.

In the intervening weeks, I have questioned my whole attitude to charitable giving.  For many years, I have had a Charities Aid Foundation account, paying in a monthly sum which I then distribute among my favourite charities, as well as having standing orders to two other charities. It is all very genteel.   I don't even notice the money going out; I get pleasure from bursts of online giving.  I strongly resist on-the-spot street collectors; would never sign up in response to 'chuggers' ; I don't buy The Big Issue or give to street beggars.

What does all this say about me?  I want the egocentric pleasure of giving but try to impose middle class rules to 'merit' my generosity?  I'm not giving to the street beggar, because (I reassure myself in  righteous inner voice) I "don't know where the money will go"?  I become become irritated by charities which phone to tout for business or indulge in 'chugging'; I want to choose the recipients of my miserly bounty.  And, interestingly, I don't tick the 'give anonymously' box!

I don't like what I have discovered about myself.

If I give a beggar some money, do I have the right to worry about what he'll buy?  If life has dealt him such blows that he finds himself sitting next to polystyrene pizza boxes and dog shit in a city lane, does it really matter if he collects the money for something brain-numbing, or spends it on a healthy bagel  and a latte with cinnamon?  Who am I to judge?

The argument extends to the wider issue of overseas aid.  We see the images on TV and reach for the laptop to donate.  Then we hear that a huge proportion of the money raised disappears through fraud and never reaches those in need.  What to do?  We give freely when the disaster kills holidaying Europeans in  a place we thought was paradise or in a setting which looks a bit like our own country;  we hesitate when it is Haiti or New Orleans.

I am always moved when ordinary folk do extraordinary things to raise money for good causes.  Who could remain unmoved by the magic of Cash for Kids, Children in Need, Comic Relief?  That money changes lives, beyond doubt, and I am in awe of those who tirelessly give of their time and imagination.  The target of my enquiry is myself:  if I want to look in the mirror and like what I see, do I need to change my attitude to giving to those in my own country who are closest to despair?

Does an imposed hierarchy of need sit easily with true compassion?

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Reading the Runes

To develop the theme a little further:  removing myself from paid employment has meant also happily stripping away the veneer of 'She' ... the woman who was the senior manager and headteacher  ....  to rediscover my former self, the woman who was only partly represented in the stilettos, formal clothes and workaholic self-indulgence; to leave behind the ego.

I loved most aspects of my work and could usually set out in the wind/rain/snow safe, at least, in the knowledge that I would have an interesting day.  But since I stopped working, the aspects of my former life which give me cause to smile are the memories of young people and of some truly gifted colleagues.  It gives me enormous satisfaction to remain in touch through Facebook with people who were in my English class in 1976, or 86 or 96, because there was no great distinction in those years between my classroom persona and my perception of who I was ; someone who loved literature, language and kids!  It was all one and there was time for being oneself, even as an assistant head, before the demands of senior management role-play dominated the last ten years.

So who am I now that I do not have to wear high heels  ... red ones for unpleasant meetings .... or smile through gritted teeth and tolerate behaviour in adults which I would not tolerate in a child? Is there enough of me left once She is shaved away?   It occurred to me this morning, marooned at home by a storm of some ferocity, that if reading has been at the centre of my life,  a stranger might read me in the books currently scattered on the large coffee table.  I offer this as a true record:  what do you make of it?

The Warmth of the Heart prevents your Body from Rusting                      de Hennezel
Yoga for You                                                                                              Fraser
Nikon 3100                                                                                                  Revell
Building Norfolk                                                                                          Rice
The Practice of Contemplative Photography                                                Karr & Wood
The Bolivian Diary                                                                                       Guevara
Travelling with Che Guevara                                                                        Granado
Mystery & Manners (contains chapters on writing)                                      O'Connor
The Blank Slate                                                                                             Pinker
A Small Town in Germany (library book)                                                    le Carre
Untold Story    (library book)                                                                        Ali
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life                                                           Armstrong
The Forest of Hours                                                                                       Ekman
The Leopard                                                                                                   Nesbo

Also on the table are:  a David Baldacci (nothing  to do with me!) ; yesterday's Herald; two Apple laptops (mine and son's) and a Galaxy 2; a written Journal, posh Parker pen and two leather covered notebooks!

I did not 'edit' this table;  and if books were my life until I started on the senior management ladder, if they were at the heart of who I was, it's good to read the runes all these years later, to find out if that person is still thriving!

So we have a student of the 1960s,who had posters or photos on her hall of residence wall,  of Robert Redford, Che and Jean Shrimpton.  She still loves a whole range of novels, from literate nonsense (Ali) through brilliant classics (le Carre) to Scandolit (Ekman & Nesbo).  She still reads challenging non-fiction because she wants to learn and, guided by de Hennezel, gut instinct and the guidance of good friends, she adds to her curriculum a jigsaw of yoga, photography and mindfulness.  Although she loves Arran and Glasgow with a passion, there is room for an ever increasing fondness for the flatlands of Norfolk.

And she writes; she writes; she writes.

What do your books say about you and where you are on your adventure?


Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Not the Retiring Sort?

Throughout my last year of work, as people found out that I was retiring at the end of the school session, certain questions and comments recurred:  "Why?"; "Will you actually go?" and inevitably, "But what will you do?"  People who knew how much I had loved my work as a teacher were bemused;  they apparently found it difficult to identify me in other than my work persona.  This rang a bell or two:  when I announced in 1977 that I was stopping work following the birth of my first son (despite being the first woman in my school to have had the right to return to work after maternity leave) there was general surprise.  I had been promoted early and I loved the school and my work.  Seven years later, when I prepared to battle my way back into work when son number two went to school,  again I was met with expressions of amazement.  I had been neck deep in local Playgroup, as well as the emerging National Mother and Toddler Group movement, had been writing for the local paper and for women's magazines.  Why would I want to change all that?

If you are by nature an enthusiast, if you are easily fired up by whatever you are involved in, and especially if you are vocal about the joy you get from what you do, others may find it terribly difficult to imagine you in "retirement".  This is probably why so many rising 60s refuse to use the word itself.  I understand why, but I would rather we reclaimed the word 'retirement' and showed all the bewildered onlookers what it really signifies in our lives.  While never forgetting that for many, the ending of employment with a wage is not a positive thing for financial reasons, I am fortunate enough to have had work which earned me enough to save ferociously for this stage in my life and to me retirement is bringing the freedom to rediscover the self which was laminated over by the persona who was the senior manager and headteacher.

It's a bit like the nice comment "Oh! You don't look 61!"  The answer is "You're wrong!  I do look 61!  This is what 61 looks like these days!  "  We are wearing purple and a lot of us are intent on great adventures.  Our brains are in fine condition and we're going to use them!   Not least to record our lives!

Does the World Need Another Blog?

Would I be creating my first blog if it were not a windy winter's day, the first snowfall gradually leaking away into the already sodden garden, the sun struggling to make a statement?  Perhaps not.

I ask myself that very question and others:  why am I trying this experiment?  who is going  to want to be a reader?  which secrets might I reveal to titillate the audience / readership?

I have decided to use a blog as another prompt for my writing.  I am currently writing a novel which might never see the light of day in finalised form;  but I must write it.  My head buzzes with ideas about other writing, but where can they find an outlet?  I write a personal journal, with handwritten entries more days than not;  you needn't worry that I'm going to blog the endless wearisome details of my day to day life.  But I think like a writer:  when something interests me, a small word processor starts typing away in my brain, turning the experience into a mini-article for an imagined newspaper or magazine.  And now I think the blog may be the best destination for these 'articles'.

You can be either flattered or disgruntled to be one of my guinea pig group!  I  do not mind if you choose never to read what I write: why should you?  But by creating a group of invited readers, I am putting a little pressure on myself to come up with some posts that will be of interest to you.   I have no idea what the next post may concern!  Keats whispers in my ear a reminder about Negative Capability;  OK John-boy!  Let's see where the experiment leads!