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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30260785 )

John Mawundjul – Serpente Acrobaleno. (source By Sailko – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30260785 )

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/literature.com

Mary Beard’s blog http://timesonline.typepad.com/

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

Book review – John Galsworthy’s “Maid in Waiting”

The 7th novel of the Forsyte Chronicle and a big shift over to the aristocratic Mont family.  We have met some of the Monts before but I found it confusing to sort out relationships with no visual family tree.  In the end I decided to plough on and let them sort themselves out.

The narrative hangs on the problems of Hubert Cherrell who is in trouble for shooting, in cold blood, a Bolivian muleteer who had been mistreating the mules and who Hubert claims attacked him with a knife.  Hubert has been attached to an expedition officially run by an American Professor of archaeology who has, in fact left all the day to day management to Hubert.  The Professor has written an account of the expedition in which he criticised Hubert for his behaviour.  However, back in England Hubert is the focus of a scandal and the Mont family gather round to protect him from extradition to Bolivia on a murder charge.

Hubert’s sister Dinny uses her charms on the American Professor who has fallen in love with her and does all in his power to have Hubert exonerated, including editing any criticism of Hubert’s actions out of his published account of the Bolivian expedition.   At the same time the Mont family call upon all their influential connections within the establishment.  Hubert is a weak character with a strong wife and sisters and interesting uncles, Adrian and Hilary.

Galsworthy makes clear the wheels within wheels of the political establishment, whilst not neglecting the personal and emotional issues involved. Galsworthy writes well about the qualities and eccentricities of the aristocracy, very reminiscent of P G Wodehouse.  I especially like Lady Mont, Aunt Em to Dinny, who drops her gs and suggests taking coffee on the tiger rug in the hall and who reckons that Adrian  will never get into heaven unless he takes someone with him.

As usual Galsworthy raises various social issues including women’s rights, divorce, prostitution, American democracy, foreigners,  religion and madness. And, as usual his views are modern and humane. I like the way Galsworthy develops family relationships but I don’t like Hubert and was uncomfortable with what I interpreted Galsworthy’s ambivalence towards him.  The plot around his way to avoid extradition becomes more absurd as the novel progresses.

Maid in Waiting has something for everyone: adventure, politics and romance.   We are left with the cliff-hanger of who will be a worthy suitor for Donnie.  Will she be tempted by the New World of America or stay with tradition?  Roll on Flowering Wilderness and One More River!

Liz and Ali are also reading this series, and have now reviewed them: Liz’s review is here, and Ali’s is here.

Posted in books, Literature, low vision, Reviews | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Networking and Development with the Macular Society

Leaflets from the Macular Society
This year the Macular Society, UK invited its volunteers to a Volunteering and Networking and Development Event. Each time this event is held at a different venue and this year it was held in West Bromwich, Birmingham.

What a weekend!  The new New Street Station concourse opened under the new name of Grand Central (I hope this name is an example of Brummie irony denoting its situation in almost the precise centre of England), England played Fiji in the Rugby World Cup and won and sadly Aston Villa played a local derby against West Bromwich Albion and lost.

Inside our comfortable hotel, we received the warmest of welcomes from the superbly organised Macular Society staff and Chief Executive, Cathy Yelf.

Volunteers represent most ages and genders, (surprisingly, I saw no ethnic minority members) the majority with different forms of macular conditions.  Many of us have WMD, some DMD and some rare forms of inherited sight loss.  Some sighted volunteers work in this field while others have friends or relatives with forms of macular degeneration and VI.

Three conscripted volunteers stole the show, Holly, Finch and soon to retire Brunel … beautifully behaved and very professional guide dogs.

Two days of lively workshops gave us an opportunity to gather new skills, exchange information and explore new ideas.  Networking at its best.  As a telephone befriender, I found it helpful to share some of the pleasures and issues that arise; others worked on raising the profile of the Society and informing the public on the common existence of macular degeneration and the importance eye health.  We played with useful gadgets assisting accessibility and we exchanged apps and programmes.  Undoubtedly new technology will play a valuable role in the lives of people with VI.

Because of the nature of age related macular degeneration, most of the participants, but not exclusively, were of pensionable age.  Under the present government much emphasis is placed on the function of volunteers in charitable organisations and this gives pause for thought.  There is a lot of useable energy and expertise out there.

Some areas covered by volunteers are IT assistance either by phone or in person, telephone befriending, skills for living with VI training and information distribution.

On a personal level, as a person with VI, I receive a lot of help, from my friends  Liz and Mathew Dexter who edit and post this blog for me, and  from the Macular Society, FOCUS in Birmingham, and Action for Blind People.  I would say to any readers, sighted or VI, who have the time and would be interested to get in touch with one of these organisations, your help would be invaluable.  The site links give some idea of the sort of help needed.  Of course there are others but these are the ones I use.  Google will help!

I am not usually inclined to make public appeals so this one comes from the heart.

Some Links

The Macular Society www.macularsociety.org
Tel: 01264 350 551

The RNIB www.rnib.org.uk

Action for Blind People www.actionforblindpeople.org.uk
Tel: 0121 665 4200

FOCUS Birmingham www.focusbirmingham.org.uk
Tel:  0121 478 5200

Posted in Age, Birmingham, Charity, Communication, Education, low vision, technology | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Swan Song

Swan Song

John Galsworthy

Just as I was about to give up on this marathon read of the Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy comes up trumps with Swan Song.

As the Forsyte family seem to drift off into their own middle class lives, Fleur marries into the aristocracy and a whole new world for Galsworthy to explore. Of course, the two fathers: Soames Forsyte and Lawrence Mont, remain as protectors and guiding lights for the younger, rather naive, generation combining their knowledge and connections for the benefit of their offspring.

Swan Song is packed with differing themes from the past and setting the scene for the next trilogy. I haven’t yet mastered bookmarking when listening so I am afraid this review will be very sketchy.

The story starts with the General Strike. Michael is on the side of the miners. There is a long commentary on the British character and what’s Right Thinking? I was not really sure what Galsworthy was aiming at here. However, the Forsytes and Monts do become effectively strike breakers by driving buses and setting up a canteen.

Michael comes up with the idea of getting Fleur to set up a canteen to feed the strike breakers. This leads to their discovery that the kitchen they will use is filthy and full of beetles. Fleur surprisingly rallies to the challenge.

Michael’s clergyman Uncle Hilary promises to be a great character in the next trilogy. He is witty, urbane and unpatronisingly compassionate. He proposes to his nephew that they form a committee to raise money to modernise and repair the slums. Hilary understands that the community do not wish to be re-housed but that the housing conditions are unacceptable.

The ensuing organisation on the composition of the committee is, for me, a superb piece of writing. Mont uses all his experience to make sure that all interests are represented. A reluctant Soames is co-opted and even Fleur is there to raise money by organising social functions. Michael is now fully occupied in something useful. Galsworthy’s take on the situation is modern and quite cynical. I particularly enjoyed the conviction that electrification would transform the lives of the slum dwellers. And so it did!

In the meantime, Fleur is manipulating her way back into Jon’s life causing Soames serious anxiety. The more he tries to prevent the two from meeting, the more Fleur sidesteps him. Jon does his best not to hurt his American wife, Ann, but Fleur is determined to get what she wants. Jon is weak and characterless. Both Michael and Ann are aware of the dangers but the tragedy moves inexorably forward.

With the end of the strike Fleur once again has less to do. She sets up a kind of country retreat for women from the slums but it doesn’t seem to engage her interest. The painting of her portrait by one of June’s protégés provides a distraction and an opportunity for meetings with anon.

June, Aunt Winifred, Holly and Dartie all play their parts and the reader becomes as involved as they are. At the same time Soames is aware of his age and that of his trusted manager, Mr Gradman. He approaches him with some sensitivity to suggest he train up someone to take his place in managing the family’s affairs when the time comes. Mr Gradman is offended but Soames remains appreciative but firm. True to form he rewards him with some fine silver.

I think Soames is one of the great characters of 20th century English literature. From the start of the Saga, he remains stolid and honest, lacking much insight into his own behaviour but always reliable and conscientious in looking after the interests of the Forsytes. His Achilles heel is his spoilt daughter Fleur but his love for her endears him to me. His art collection characterises his taste and it remains to be seen what will happen to it in the future. In this novel he attains the gravitas he deserves. It is interesting that whenever he sees Fleur suffering his instinct is to give her one of his paintings…his other great love. Make of it what you will!

So now I can’t wait to read A Maid in Waiting.

Liz Dexter and Alison Hope have also read and reviewed this novel – here are links to their reviews.

Liz: https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2015/07/27/book-reviews-swan-song-and-years-of-hope/

Ali: https://heavenali.wordpress.com/2015/07/21/swan-song-john-galsworthy-1928/

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