EU Referendum, June 2016


No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thy friend’s

Or of thine own were:

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.


John Donne (1572-1631)


Poem source

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Facebook Novice

facebook extract

Facebook sign in page extract, 15 June 2016

After a lot of thought and advice I finally decided to join Facebook. To be honest, it was when my cousin in Australia joined and we realised we could post family photographs.

Initially the friend who helps me with this blog activated my page on Facebook but I was still too unsure to know what I wanted to post. Unfortunately, Facebook is not very accessible to people with VI and I was, and still am, afraid of making mistakes.

Instantly cousin, her five adult children and other relatives befriended me. Photographs appeared of happy and healthy looking people on beaches, in parks and other photogenic settings. There were dogs and horses. It was like being in receipt of those Christmas letters which show everyone leading action-filled glamorous lives. It provided a wonderful window into their lives and I loved it because even though there were many people I did not recognise, I could fill in a narrative from what I already knew about them.

And then other friends started befriending me. Friends with common interests … general, political, cultural and humorous. Links appeared to other sites some of which made me laugh and most of them interesting.

It was time to bite the bullet. I went to see Lindsey, technology advisor at the Centre for Low Vision at FOCUS, Birmingham. With infectious enthusiasm she taught me the basics of Facebook. At this stage she has not persuaded me to use Voiceover which still terrifies me after my experience of switching it on and being unable to persuade it to switch off! This means that some of Facebook is visually inaccessible to me. Never mind, I can read posts and post messages with the help of my magnifier.

With Lindsey I discussed what I wanted to use Facebook for, who I wanted to befriend and who I wanted to see my posts. We decided to restrict it at this stage to just family and close friends. As my immediate family have chosen not to be on Facebook I have decided not to post photographs as I think this would be an invasion of privacy.

However, I am really enjoying looking at other people’s pages, following up links and engaging in comments. At the moment I am very much enjoying the satire and serious discussion relating to the European Union In/Out Referendum.

When I am more confident I may set up a separate page to link to this blog.

Do you subscribe to Facebook? If so, how accessible do you find it? What is your favourite use of Facebook? I would like to know how other people with VI manage


Listened to

This Must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell narrated by Thomas Judd and Penelope Rawlins. Excellent, well written book about an incognito American film star and her Linguistic Professor’s long term relationship set in rural Ireland and mercifully free of Irish stereotypes.

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook narrated by Leighton Pugh. Interesting novel set in Germany in 1946 about an English officer and his family who take over a German family’s home but allow them to live in part of the house. This takes place during the de-nazification process and demonstrates the hunger and depersonalisation of Germans at that time. Very humane view of a defeated nation but never quite engaged me.

Birthday celebrations held at the beautiful Old Downton Lodge Hotel in Ludlow.

Other birthday celebrations still continuing. Oh, those calories but lots of fun.

downton lodge

Old Downton Lodge courtyard, May 2016

Posted in Audio books, Birmingham, Education, Family, Food, Ludlow, Reviews, technology, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Review catch up May 2016


Elizabeth von Arnim by J. Burlinson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Weeks have passed, visits made, eye zapped, cataract operation,  sprained ankle and many books listened to but no blog produced. As a result I am making this a review catch up.

Books on audio (in no particular order)

Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim narrated by Nadia May.

First published in 1898 this is a witty and insightful account of the author’s life in Pomerania at her husband’s rural castle. She fills her time planning her much loved garden and playing with her three baby daughters. She calls her husband The Man of Wrath and draws some ironic and vivid pictures of the comings and goings of her home. Her husband considers her to be eccentric!

Her feminist views are delivered with a delightful lightness of touch. After her German husband’s death she returned to England and became Countess Russell. Wonderful book and one I would take to the desert island! I would like to have a printed version with illustrations and botanical information.

Troubles by J.G.Farrell narrated by Sean Barrett, first published in 1970. This fairly short novel concerns the story of an army officer who, after WW1, goes to Ireland to marry a fiancée he barely knows. Her family own a once grand and fashionable hotel in County Wexford which is now dilapidated and failing. Funny and melancholy by turns this novel demonstrates the shocking events which took place during The Troubles.

The Living and the Dead in Winsford by Hakan Nesser narrated in a Swedish accent by Jennifer Vuletic. Set in Sweden and Exmoor this gloomy psychological thriller is a page turner. Well written and well read.

The Balkan Trilogy: Great Fortune, Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes by Olivia Manning narrated by Harriet Walter. Published in 1960. These three novels have become a classic account of the creeping occupation of the Balkans by the Nazis. Newly married Guy and Harriet Pringle arrive in Bucharest, Romania in the baking hot summer of 1939. Guy immediately immerses himself in the academic life of the University and simultaneously the couple are drawn into the colourful social and political life in the city. This is a vivid and intelligent series of novels about love, war and people who don’t belong. Also made into a tv series called Fortunes of War with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. This was a re-read and even better than the first time. Harriet Walters’ interpretation is perfect.

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke narrated by Jeff Harding. Set in Houston in 1981 this is a political thriller featuring struggling lawyer Jay Porter and covering city and corporate corruption, black power and family obligation. Good to find a new writer.

As well as a lot of listening I also attended the Cambridge Literary Festival. We were lucky enough to attend two sessions in the Cambridge Union and one in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Was pleased to surprise g/s by going to hear poet and rapper, Akala, talk, rap and read his poetry in his Hip Hop Shakespeare presentation. The session started with a quotation quiz on which quote was from a rapper and which from Shakespeare. Clever and dazzling. Link to video.

The other two sessions were an inconclusive debate on whether Labour is too left wing to be elected and Claire Harman talking about her interesting book on Charlotte Brontë, Charlotte Bronte: A Life.

Whew, that about wraps it up for now.

One of my favourite occupations is daydreaming about which book I would take if I were stranded on a desert island. As I have said earlier, for now I think it would be Elizabeth’s German Garden, so that I could conjure up tulips, roses, pine trees and the frozen Baltic Sea.

If you could choose one book to take to your desert island, which would it be (you would also be allowed the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare)? I would love to hear your choices.

Posted in Audio books, Cheltenham, Family, Literature, Reviews, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments


Filed under Miscellaneous, I have a small archive of letters, postcards and handwritten notes; all of some significance to me. Old Postcards and airmail letters are mostly written in what my University tutor disparagingly called a ‘small, crabbed hand’ in order to pack as much information as possible into a limited space. They come from all over the world – USA, India, Sri Lanka, Australia, Europe. Letters from a distant cousin in the USA span more than 60 years. Emails are immediate and reassuring but do they carry the same sense of place and person?

Because all the writers of these communications are known to me so is their handwriting… some neat and round, some elegant and sloping, some small and spidery, some calligraphic and all instantly recognisable. Handwriting announces its author. My favourites come from children whose developing script can be followed over the years. Character speaks from the pages.

Recently my friend, Liz, (Blog here) decided to experiment with publishing her book journal directly from the page. In its beautiful brown and sepia colours it was inaccessible to me. She kindly reversed the process to black and white and instantly I could hear her voice behind the writing. What a pleasure. In the same week a postcard arrived from son’s friend, holidaying with his wife in Japan. I couldn’t read it so I showed it to various friends who struggled to decipher the script. Is reading handwriting a lost art? Thankfully my 11 year old neighbour, Evie, came to my rescue. She read it perfectly, even the tiny postscript written along the edge of the card. Whew! Good to know the schools are still on the ball.

Most handwritten communications are now inaccessible to me but I hope they keep arriving one way or another.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the speed and accessibility of electronic communication which can carry a welcome immediacy. I also love my diminishing archive.

Do you enjoy handwriting? Do you still use it or is it a thing of the past?  If you use it, for what? I would love to hear from you.


Welcome to Daisy who is a new addition to my ‘Help! How do I do this?’ Tech team! She will be editing and posting this blog with help from Liz. Many thanks to everyone for so much support.

Listened to

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, narrated by Juliet Stevenson. I loved this account, set in the nineteenth century, of evolution, botany, enterprise, exploration, female sexuality and love. The novel ranges from Kew to Philadelphia to Tahiti. The narrative mainly concerns two sisters: one plain and clever who longs for a man who will fulfil all her needs, mental and physical, and the other beautiful and self-sacrificing. They are the daughters of a semi-literate but extremely fast-thinking and intelligent, not-very-honest English father and sensible Dutch mother. The author presents the two life options available to middle class women of the Victorian era in a beautifully imagined and erudite novel. Juliet Stevenson could not have been a better narrator. I am tied up in knots trying to describe this book. If you are interested look it up!

A Long Way Home by Eva Dolan, narrated by David Thorpe… interesting detective story set in the market gardens near Peterborough in the UK and concerning the appalling conditions endured by migrant workers from Eastern Europe and beyond. Reminded me of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Thought provoking.

Perilous Question by Antonia Fraser read by Sean Barrett… a blow by blow account of the Great Reform Bill of 1832. Useful background reading for 18th and 19th century literature.

A Room Full of Bones by Ellie Griffiths narrated by Jane McDowell. Not one of her best.

Posted in Audio books, Communication, Handwriting, Literature, low vision, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Eccentric Viewing

John Mawundjul - Serpente Acrobaleno. (source By Sailko - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, )

John Mawundjul – Serpente Acrobaleno. (source By Sailko – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, )

When I first heard the term ‘eccentric viewing’ in the context of WMD, I thought it was a slightly un-PC reference to my new way of seeing things. My first experience of my sight changes took place in Sydney Art Gallery after a long flight from the UK to Australia. I put it down to jet lag. Sidney Nolans’s magnificent paintings of Ned Kelly twisted and turned. The square metal helmet elongated and then restored itself. The concentric patterns on aboriginal designs refused to stay still. Eccentric viewing it certainly was in the broadest of terms. Frightening and intriguing. At the time I had never heard of Macular Degeneration.

Years later, diagnosis and treatment accomplished, I know that ‘eccentric viewing’ is the professional term for a technique which helps the person with a loss of central sight to maximise their peripheral vision. For instance, if I want to see your face, I may look over your shoulder and peer at you out of the corner of my eye. To the observer, this can certainly give the appearance of eccentricity, but it is a useful tool, particularly when looking at art.

From time to time I attend the Barber Institute of Fine Arts Quarterly INSIGHT programme (see previous blog post).  As I have written before, this is a programme run by mainly sighted guides for the benefit of the VI.  Since I first started attending, my expectations of what I want, or, more specifically, what is now available to me, from art, have changed.  Subtleties of colour and composition are replaced by narrative and form.   The approach from the INSIGHT professionals has changed too.  They have adapted brilliantly to the very differing needs of the group.  It must be counter-intuitive at times to go into some detail before we visit the paintings we are exploring.  For me, one big loss is sometimes not getting the thrill of the new impact of a painting or piece of sculpture. However, I am getting accustomed to this and enjoying more the expertise and enthusiasm of our guides.

There are plenty of resources out there for people with VI.  At the risk of labouring the point, eccentricity in all its forms plays an important role.  Do any of you VI or fully sighted use an unusual approach to access the arts in all its forms?


Listened to

“Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts, narrated by Humphrey Bower … hours of self-indulgent but colourful writing about an Australian criminal’s redemption in the slums of Bombay.

“The Coffin Road” by Peter May, narrated in a lovely Scottish accent by Bill Wallis … terrific thriller set on the Isle of Harris.

“Imperium” by Robert Harris, narrated by Peter Forbes … fascinating novel of the frightening politics of Cicero, Pompeii and the young Julius Caesar … well worth reading.

“Exposure” by Helen Dunmore, narrated by Emma Fenney … ostensibly a spy story but really a subtle story of different kinds of love.

Posted in Art, Birmingham, Communication, Education, low vision, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

2015 in Review

Bathroom with building work being done

New bathroom, early stages

In terms of my VI, 2015 was a steady year of learning new things and adapting to my situation. I have covered most of these in previous blog posts and thought I would like to summarise them here at the start of 2016

  1. I attended various accessibility sessions at Action for Blind People and FOCUS where I learned how to use my simple Samsung mobile phone (gave up on the iPhone as too complicated for me), learned about useful apps (e.g. giving bus times using VoiceOver) and learned how to use Siri on my iPad (although I have the distinct feeling Siri dislikes my RP accent so it sometimes has strange results). I investigated the availability of TVs with voice-activated controls and looked at colour indicating audio labellers, video magnifiers and much else.
  2. I attended the Macular Society Volunteers Conference.  Excellent for networking and learning about the wonderful work of the society.  Strongly recommend contacting their Helpline for almost anything you want to know on 0300 3030 111.
  3. I continued to act as a volunteer telephone befriender.
  4. I had my old bathroom taken out and replaced by a more accessible shower room with easy controls, underfloor heating and bright lighting.  Utter luxury.
  5. I continued  to travel by train with the first-rate assistance of Travel Assistance, which is available at most railway stations.
  6. I used my Low Vision card to allow friends to accompany me free of charge to concerts, theatre, art galleries and cinemas.
  7. I attended some interesting talks for people with VI under the auspices of the  University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts Insight programme.
  8. I decluttered files and transferred as much paperwork as possible to online administration.
  9. With much help, and some sadness, I weeded out three large bookcases of books, which are now packed away in boxes ready for a bit of a giveaway party.  In compensation, I have read 5 books on Kindle and listened to 35 on audio.  I struggle with Kindle but really love audio.
  10. I  finally had a cataract operation on my right eye.


Kindle Books

“The Cleaner of Chartres” by Salley Vickers.  Everything from foundling infant, kind old woodsman, nuns, city of Chartres and the wonderful Chartres Cathedral. Well researched and full of interest.

“A Pattern of Islands” by Arthur Gromble.  This was a  re-read of one of my favourite memoirs.  In 1914, Arthut Grimble and his wife arrived at the remote Ellis Islands in the Pacific Ocean.  He was a raw recruit, fresh out of University, for the British  Colonial Office.  Wonderfully humane, unpatronising, erudite and funny.

Audio Books

“The Story of the Lost Child” by Elena Ferrante narrated by Hilary Huber (18 hours). This is the last in the Naples quartet.  More superb writing, but I think I would have preferred to read it, as I did the other three, than listen.  This is because I had already built up such a picture of the characters that the narration was somewhat jarring.

“The Last Hundred Years” (trilogy) by Jane Smiley narrated by Lorelei  King (approximately 48  hours).   This is a great American Novel covering the lives of the Langdon family from Iowa starting in 1920 and finishing in an imaginary 2020.  There is a family tree, which a friend kindly talked me through, but this listening project was a real test of my memory.  Worth doing though, especially as I had heard Jane Smiley talk about her work at the Cheltenham Festival.  She really loves horses!


“Spectre” James Bond – Daniel Craig – fun and easy to watch.

“Brooklyn” – beautiful but a bit too ‘plastic’ Irish for me.




Posted in Art, Audio books, books, Communication, Literature, low vision, Music, Reviews, technology, Transport, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Cheltenham Literature Festivals 2015

Cheltenham Literature Festival 2015 poster

Travelling across the Vale of Evesham in the small train towards the  Cheltenham Literature Festivals, I wonder if I will be able to see the writers and panellists at the pre-booked sessions.  Or does it matter?  After all, I already know what many of them look like from close-ups on my iPad.  But one of my big regrets with failing vision and lack of focus is not being able to see at the theatre.  I am not sure whether this is comparable or not.

The white Regency terraces and the Autumnal trees glowed in the unusual October sunshine.  The town was milling with visitors and the large marquees in the Montpellier and Imperial Gardens were well marked and cables and obstacles kept to the minimum.

Although for most sessions over a period of days, we sat in the front row, I could not see the faces on the stage, but most were identifiable enough by their familiarity and voices.  As at a pop concert, images of the panellists were projected onto a screen behind them.  This was really useful but not always clear to me.

So what did we see, hear and learn?  The choice was agonising.  If any readers are interested, just refer to The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festivals and you will see our dilemma. Subjects range through cooking, travel, education and literature, with many exciting diversions in between.  Books were available everywhere but I was sorry not to see any audio or Braille.

We started off with “The Right Kind of History”, a fascinating discussion on teaching history in an increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. The panel agreed that history can no longer be viewed in a linear fashion.  This view was echoed in the next session, “Re-writing History” with the Classicist, Mary Beard (see her terrific blog, A Don’s Life) and historian Ruth Scurr. As well as their scholarship, I enjoyed their accounts of rushing their computers to the Apple Genius Bar to have them rescued from coffee and wine spillages following late-night writing.

For me the treat of the Festival was to hear Jane Smiley talk about her writing methods (linear!), cheerfully competing with a children’s choir in the neighbouring tent, and then later hearing her views in the Trollope session with Victoria Gendinning, Joanna Trollope and Alan Johnson, MP.  As many readers will know, Alan Johnson was formerly a postman, and therefore has a particular interest east in Trollope’s career as Postal Surveyor,  setting up postal services throughout the British Isles and Ireland.

In the end, my low vision did not diminish my enjoyment.  Of course, listening to a group of people sitting in a row on chairs is very different from following live action on a stage.   I found accessibility better than expected.  I cannot imagine why I have not attended this annual event before.

I would like to have access to podcasts of the sessions.  I think some excerpts are available on YouTube, but these are not necessarily accessible to people with VI.  Organisers, please note!

Incidentally, disabled people can take a companion with them free of charge for each session.

Interesting books

Tony  Little – “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education” (2015)

David Olusoga – “Black  Poppies:  Britain’s Black Community and the Great War”

Mary Beard – “SPQR A History of Ancient Rome”

Ruth Scurr – “John Aubrey: My Own Life”

Peter Stothard – “Alexander: The Last Nights of Cleopatra”

Jane Smiley – trilogy “The Last Hundred Years”, final novel “The Golden Age”

Alan Johnson – “This Boy” and “Please Mr Postman”

Victoria Glendinning – “Trollope”

Joanna Trollope – Aga Sagas!  The latest being “Balancing Act” (2014)

Some Anthony Trollope recommendations

“The Barsetshire Chronicles”
“The Palliser Chronicles”
and many more


Cheltenham Literature Festivals www.cheltenhamfestivals/

Mary Beard’s blog

Posted in books, Literature, Reviews | Tagged , , | 2 Comments