Leisure time

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Let's start by following the time line from my "retirement":

Politics & Activism

Barking Dagenham and Havering Green Party (BDHGP) was inaugurated in summer, 2001. Our first Co-ordinator, Geoff Hunwicks, had worked with the Waltham Forest and Redbridge party, whose members - along with Noel Lynch and others from the London Federation - gave us invaluable help and support during our launch. I volunteered to open a bank account and act as Treasurer, and also created the artwork for our leaflets, newsletters, posters, banners, etcetera. In September, after standing in the Marks Gate (Barking & Dagenham) by-election, Geoff announced that he was going to emigrate to The Gambia. Ok, he got fewer votes than he deserved, but that did seem like an extreme reaction! Anyhow, we wished him well, and Melanie Collins took over as Co-ordinator.

[Street stall in Barking]

I stood as Green Party candidate for Cranham Ward (Havering) in the council elections on 2 May 2002, polling around 5% of the vote. By that time I'd started doing some photography and artwork for the London and national Parties, mainly taking group and individual pictures at landmark locations in London (and once making an unscheduled appearance in a TV news bulletin!). One assignment that I remember well involved shooting two nude models, holding strategically-placed cards bearing pithy slogans, in a London studio; my pics were on the cover-sheet of the GP election press pack, and even made it into the national press!

BDHGP fielded candidates in several more by-elections, and now regularly offers a good slate in general and council elections. But it was always a struggle to win significant support - a great many people in the London/Essex borders will forever, it seems, put recyclables in with the black-bag rubbish, drive gas-guzzling SUVs, and obliterate their gardens with paving blocks and/or grass-effect plastic. And vote (if they can be bothered to drive to the polling station) for the Family Favourite.

In August 2003 I decided to leave the Green Party, "for ideological reasons [...] to be able to discuss green issues with power-wielding politicians, councillors etc. from a politically neutral platform, free from any overtones of confrontation". Basically, I'd realised that the best way to influence political change, if your preferred party stands little chance of being elected locally, is to be friendly towards politicians of all colours - whilst gently nudging them in your direction. Furthermore, as I saw it, the Party's increasingly socialist leanings were at odds with some of my "deep green" principles; the cornerstones of its earlier incarnation as the Ecology Party, including core concerns about overpopulation, seemed to have been tossed aside, for fear of losing popular support. I'd even heard it referred to, in some circles, as the Red Party! Nonetheless, it still often gets my vote. I actually believe that the way forward, especially if younger people are to be encouraged back into politics, is to abolish the "party" system altogether - but that's another story!

[London GP launch 2005]

Over the next few years, I continued to do some photography for the Greens' campaign launches, such as the pictured 2005 event at Westminster. I also started to get involved with Upminster and Cranham Residents' Association, whose borough councillors occupy all 6 seats in the two wards, with an established, comfortable majority. Over the years I've been pleased to support their various campaigns against over-development on Green Belt land in the area. No nude models to shoot this time, but there was one evening when I went out with a councillor to photograph a dead horse dumped in an Upminster lane. All in the course of duty...

On 15 July 2003 I chaired the Havering Public Debate on Genetically Modified crops, our contribution to the Government's GM Nation programme. Several councillors and more than 50 members of the public listened to speeches for and against the technology, and then joined in the debate. The event was organised by local campaigner Maryla Hart, and a campaign sustained over the next eight months culminated - to our surprise and delight - in Havering becoming the second London council to vote in a GM-free policy for its land and services.

Between 2001 and 2007 I joined many anti-war and pro-environment demonstrations in London; some of my photos can be seen here. I also attended London demonstrations against water fluoridation, and various local actions staged by South-west Essex Greenpeace (SWEG). The latter targeted oil companies, nuclear power/weapons/waste, SUVs, supermarkets... the list goes on (I rate among my greatest achievements the perfection of a convincing "Moooo" while occupying the front legs of a pantomime cow outside the local Sainsburys!). SWEG was based in Romford, and held regular meetings and stalls at local events for several years. Unfortunately though, by 2010 our active membership had fallen to an unsustainable level, and I figured the time had come to set up a new green campaigning group, ideally closer to Upminster where I live. SWEG finally closed down in April 2011.

[Garden waste bag]

On an individual level, in 2005 I invited a Farmers' Market provider to visit Upminster with a view to establishing one here; in the event, we did gain such a thing for a few glorious years, but from a rival source. Sadly, it didn't get the support it deserved - despite most residents being relatively well-off, I'm afraid many have a stubborn East End reluctance to spend their money on good food [I'm wondering, as I write this, whether it's time to give Farmers' Markets another try?]. A more successful campaign of mine that year was for the introduction of compostable bags for garden waste collections; I'd discovered that the plastic ones in use at the time resulted in the green waste going to landfill! It was a long time before anything changed, but in the end we got not only compostable bags, but also an optional fortnightly wheeled bin collection.

Returning to 2010: Friends of the Earth (FoE) had kept a small local group alive for many years - I'd been involved, briefly, back in the 1980s - and I thought it would be a good time for a revival. So Rosina Purnell (another Greenpeace survivor) and I, with much appreciated help from Tom Wright at FoE's HQ, co-founded a new Havering Friends of the Earth group. We held an initial public meeting on 5 October at Upminster's Roope Hall, and a further two meetings there before moving to Fairkytes Arts Centre in Hornchurch, where we continue to hold our monthly meetings to this day (except, of course, during a coronavirus pandemic). I currently hold the post of Webmaster.

Voluntary work

In 2004 I joined two local groups: Front Lane Community Association (FLCA) and Cranham Regeneration Group (CRG, initially known as Cranham Village Association).

[Cranham Social Hall]

FLCA was, and is, a registered charity whose main purpose is to run Cranham Social Hall. This attractive, Scandinavian-style facility, above a small parade of shops, was originally owned and run by the Council, but was then in the process of becoming leased-out to a bunch of volunteers (sadly, an all-too-common story). The Association was in crisis, because their (required) secretary was moving away from the area and, thus far, they hadn't found a replacement. So, after attending a committee meeting as an observer, I offered to fill the post - on the strict understanding that, unlike my predecessor, I wasn't under any circumstances prepared to be a keyholder!

The job turned out to be quite frustrating. On the plus side, I gained a good deal of experience in some new areas, such as liaising with the Charity Commission, and recruiting and employing a paid Hall Manager/Cleaner. We did however suffer a depressing amount of damage by vandals, requiring security measures at the rear of the building. Fortunately the shops below included a helpful glazing company - and the local police often visited the Hall for a morning cup of coffee! But, with the exception of their wonderful "Community Liaison Officer" Elaine, I found trying to persuade Council officials to maintain the building to be, at best, like wading through treacle. Not least because all the actual work was farmed out to contractors. At one stage I wrote: "If the Council's aim is to make this Association give up trying to run Cranham Social Hall so that you can reclaim and demolish it, then I have to say you are very close to success".

I plodded on as Secretary until August 2006, when I was glad to hand over the tortuous process of negotiating the Lease to a lady possessed of a lot more tolerance and patience than myself. The good work of the Social Hall continued apace, with regular coffee mornings and talks open to all, even a small Farmers' Market for a while. My friend Valerie Goldstein organised many of these, and I helped by sending regular news items to the local press.

[Morris Dancing at the Plough pub]

Cranham Regeneration Group did what it said on the tin. We (or should I say They, since my role was, once again, mainly taking pictures) staged litter clearances, community fun days, flower planting, and many other street enhancements. A notable event was the annual Christmas Shop Window competition, when Havering's Mayor joined local councillors and volunteers for a leisurely stroll round the village shops, presenting a cup and a certificate (made by yours truly) to the one judged to have the best window display. The Social Hall usually hosted refreshments, accompanied by carol singing and other merriments.

On August Bank Holiday Monday 2010, with the Social Hall closed for refurbishment, a Family Fun Day was held at the Plough pub. Morris dancing (pictured) was followed by a barbecue, Punch and Judy show, fancy dress competition, and evening theatricals (a Victorian melodrama, performed by local players inside the pub). This single day brought the Village together - and gave the pub a boost in trade - to an extent that I think astonished even the organisers!

Between 2009 and 2013 I participated in a Volunteer Visiting Scheme run by my erstwhile employer, the BBC. This entailed keeping in touch with willing pensioners in the Havering area, particularly those over 70, in poor health, or recently bereaved. It included making telephone calls, writing letters, meeting up for coffee, and visiting people in their homes. In the course of this I met one or two ex-colleagues, gained insight into many areas of work away from engineering, and was able to provide help in understanding the benefits system. Once a year all the visitors met up at a conference in Cardiff. It was rewarding and often enjoyable stuff, but in the end I gave it up to spend more time helping my Mum during the final years of her life.

Walking, pedalling, standing still

[Maps and guide books]

From an early age, my parents took me on walking holidays in Somerset, Dorset and (more often than not) the Lake District. We stayed, often for 2 weeks, at a favourite guest house or small hotel - full board, including packed lunch! Later in life I revisited some of those haunts (and many new ones, notably the Yorkshire Dales) with a select band of friends, the main difference being that wherever possible we lunched in pubs and overnighted at pre-booked inns. Much of the fun was in the planning, constrained as it was by starting and finishing at (ideally different) railway stations, and limiting the daily trudge to 15-20 miles.

I'll never tire of exploring the British countryside, and I hope one day to add to this website some of the diaries, and hundreds of photos, that I recorded during those hikes - plus countless rambles closer to home, in Essex and nearby counties. I'm strangely proud of having neither a passport nor a driving licence, albeit the lack of these causes no end of trouble when I need to identify myself!

I don't really do enough cycling to call it a hobby, but once in a while I take to the saddle in order to cover a bit more ground in a day. My steed is a Carlton Corsa Strada road bike, which I believe was a 16th birthday present! A few years ago I fitted new tyres, brake pads and gears, renovated the Brooks leather saddle that had suffered years of neglect in a damp shed, and I've since traversed hundreds of miles of rural Essex lanes.

[Boat in lock]photo by Howard Fisher

Another good way to travel from pub to pub, through stunning countryside, turned out to be on a narrowboat. Between 1974 and 2002 I enjoyed 24 canal holidays in England and Wales, with various groups of friends. The most memorable of these were major undertakings, involving two 70-foot, 12-berth boats! Some of us also holidayed on dry land, often staying in esoteric rented accommodation, such as castles, and on one occasion an entire Cornish village! Again, I'm hoping to recover lots of photos.

I was an early adopter of portable video equipment; in the 1970s, this comprised a shoebox-sized camera - complete with vidicon tube and CRT viewfinder - and a separate, shoulder-slung open-reel VTR. All this, plus chunky cables and a home-made gizmo to charge the recorder's sealed lead-acid battery from a vehicle battery, occupied a suitcase that was considerably larger and heavier than the one containing my personal effects for the week!

I edited down several reels of tape to, typically, a half-hour show, using a home-made mixer and all sorts of special effects, mastered on a second open-reel VTR whose electronics I'd largely redesigned and rebuilt. Unfortunately the only surviving, playable copies are on a VHS cassette with a very flaky soundtrack (a consequence of the VCR's intolerance of the non-sync cuts in the edited video). The original tapes are suffering from "sticky [oxide] shed", but I haven't yet given up on the idea of trying to stabilise them with hot air. Then there'll be the challenge of coaxing those old JVC and Sony monsters back into life...

Enjoying & making music

[Electronic music kit]

My musical tastes are rooted in 1970s Prog Rock and the like. As well as the usual suspects (Floyd, Yes, Genesis...) I enjoy some of the lesser-known bands, such as Renaissance and Curved Air, and even some more recent (80s!) stuff. Before the advent of CDs, I had more material on [open-reel] tape than on vinyl. But the lure of digital quality, albeit at a miserly sampling rate, spurred me on to build up a modest CD collection, which currently stands at around 150.

One of those CDs is home-made, created in 1997 using the set-up in the picture. The kit includes a Roland JV-30 keyboard, JV-1080 rack-mounted synth and MC-50 sequencer, Alesis 3630 compressor and Quadraverb Plus effects, Fostex 280 mixer and 4-track, AKG D190E mics and Audiomaster/BBC LS3/5A monitors (plus home-made pre-amps and PA). I mastered my album on a Sony TCD-D8 portable DAT recorder, and took the tape to an industrial unit in London to get a handful of discs burned - this was before domestic CD writers were commonplace.

Most of the equipment still works (the DAT recorder now eats tapes instead of loading them, but I think that's because the poor thing feels neglected). One day, when I have nothing better to do, I intend to revisit the project. Remaster those tracks that have any merit, add some new ones, and if I can persuade a - preferably female - vocalist to participate, perhaps my nom de clavier, "John Macclesfield", will see the light of day!

See also...

[Film and slide scanner]

My interests in electronics and computing, winemaking and brewing, and photography are covered elsewhere on this website. I plan to add more pages, especially about mainframe computing, amateur radio and video processing, in due course; there's quite a lot of old equipment to be renovated!

I recently invested in a macro lens for my digital camera, specifically for digitising film negatives and transparencies. The picture shows a tube with interchangeable end-cap adapters, which mounts horizontally on a tripod, to view 35mm frames, backlit by a large white card. For colour negatives, I use a blue-green card, and some bizarre upside-down transfer curves in the processing software to recreate positive images. An evenly-lit background has proved to be the most important detail to get right. So far I've made a few collections available to those depicted in them, but hopefully there will be some of sufficiently general interest to publish more widely.

Not shown is a larger version of the "scanner", for use with 120-format negatives. With that, I'm getting great images from my father's, and even my grandfather's photos. Some of the latter are on glass plates rather than film! I find it immensely satisfying to reincarnate these as digital positives, with all the improvements that processing can make. The sad thing is that, in many cases, there's nobody left who can identify the people on the screen.

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