Another year – running and walking, changing roles and new books

Yesterday I completed the Tiree Ultramarathon, I think my sixth since they began in 2014. As always a wonderful day and a little easier than last year. This is always a high spot in the year for me, and also corresponds to the academic year change, so a good point to reflect on the year past and year ahead.  Lots of things including changing job role, books published and in preparation, conferences coming to Wales … and another short walk …

Tiree Ultra and Tech Wave

Next week there will be a Tiree Tech Wave, the first since Covid struck. Really exciting to be doing this again, with a big group coming from Edinburgh University, who are particularly interested in co-design with communities.

Aside: I nearly wrote “the first post-Covid Tiree Tech Wave”, but I am very aware that for many the impact of Covid is not past: those with long Covid, immunocompromised people who are in almost as much risk now as at the peak of the pandemic, and patients in hospital where Covid adds considerably to mortality.

Albrecht Schmidt from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München was here again for the Ultra. He’s been several times after first coming the year of 40 mile an hour winds and rain all day … he is built of stern stuff.  Happily, yesterday was a little more mixed, wind and driving rain in the morning and glorious sunshine from noon onwards … a typical Tiree day 😊

We have hatched a plan to have Tiree Tech Wave next year immediately after the Ultra. There are a number of people in the CHI research community interested in technology related to outdoors, exercise and well-being, so hoping to have that as a theme and perhaps attract a few of the CHI folk to the Ultra too.

Changing roles

My job roles have changed over the summer.

I’ve further reduced my hours as Director of the Computational Foundry to 50%. University reorganisation at Swansea over the last couple of years has created a School of Mathematics and Computer Science, which means that some of my activities helping to foster research collaboration between CS and Maths falls more within the School role. So, this seemed a good point to scale back and focus more on cross-University digital themes.

However, I will not be idle! I’ve also started a new PT role as Professorial Fellow at Cardiff Metropolitan University. I have been a visiting professor at the Cardiff School of Art and Design for nearly 10 years, so this is partly building on many of the existing contacts I have there. However, my new role is cross-university, seeking to encourage and grow research across all subject areas. I’ve always struggled to fit within traditional disciplinary boundaries, so very much looking forward to this.

Books and writing

This summer has also seen the publication of “TouchIT: Understanding Design in a Physical-Digital World“. Steve, Devina, Jo and I first conceived this when we were working together on the DePTH project, which ran from 2007 to 2009 as part of the AHRC/EPSRC funded Designing for the 21st Century Initiative. The first parts were written in 2008 and 2009 during my sabbatical year when I first moved to Tiree and Steve was our first visitor. But then busyness of life took over until another spurt in 2017 and then much finishing off and updating. However now it is at long last in print!

Hopefully not so long in the process, three more books are due to be published in this coming year, all around an AI theme. The first is a second edition of the “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” textbook that Janet Finlay and I wrote way back in 1996. This has stayed in print and even been translated into Japanese. For many years the fundamentals of AI only changed slowly – the long ‘AI winter’. However, over recent years things have changed rapidly, not least driven by massive increases in computational capacity and availability of data; so it seemed like a suitable time to revisit this. Janet’s world is now all about dogs, so I’ve taken up the baton. Writing the new chapters has been easy. The editing making this flow as a single volume has been far more challenging, but after a focused writing week in August, it feels as though I’ve broken the back of it.

In addition, there are two smaller volumes in preparation as part of the Routledge and CRC AI for Everything series. One is with Clara Crivellaro on “AI for Social Justice“, the other a sole-authored “AI for Human–Computer Interaction”.

All of these were promised in 2020 early in the first Covid lockdown, when I was (rather guiltily) finding the time tremendously productive. However, when the patterns of meetings started to return to normal (albeit via Zoom), things slowed down somewhat … but now I think (hope!) all on track 😊

Welcoming you to Wales

In 2023 I’m chairing and co-chairing two conferences in Swansea. In June, ACM Engineering Interactive Computer Systems (EICS 2023) and in September the European Conference on Cognitive Ergonomics (web site to come, but here is ECCE 2022). We also plan to have a Techwave Cymru in March. So I’m looking forward to seeing lots of people in Wales.

As part of the preparation to EICS I’m planning to do a series of regular blog posts on more technical aspects of user interface development … watch this space …

Alan’s on the road again

Nearly ten years ago, in 2013, I walked around Wales, a personal journey and research expedition. I always assumed I would do ‘something else’, but time and life took over. Now, the tenth anniversary is upon me and it feels time do something to mark it.

I’ve always meant to edit the day-by-day blogs into a book, but that certainly won’t happen next year. I will do some work on the dataset of biodata, GPS, text and images that has been used in a few projects and is still a unique data set, including, I believe, still the largest single ECG trace in the public domain.

However, I will do ‘something else’.

When walking around the land and ocean boundaries of Wales, I was always aware that while in some sense this ‘encompassed’ the country, it was also the edge, the outside. To be a walker is to be a voyeur, catching glimpses, but never part of what you see.  I started then to think of a different journey, to the heart of Wales, which for me, being born and brought up in Cardiff, is the coal valleys stretching northwards and outwards. The images of coal blackened miners faces and the white crosses on the green hillside after Aberfan are etched into my own conception of Wales.

So, there will be an expedition, or rather as series of expeditions, walking up and down the valleys, meeting communities, businesses, schools and individuals.

Do you know places or people I should meet?

Do you want to join me to show me places you know or to explore new places?

Universities and Covid – how bad was it and what next?

A record number of students have been heading to universities over the last few weeks.  They will still face Covid-restriction, however, happily the situation will be nothing like last year.

Last year I had my own concerns early on, and in retrospect it is easier to assess just how bad things were.  Combining SAGE’s Sept 2020 estimates of the impact with actual Covid mortality would suggest that during 2020-2021 there was an additional death for every 50-100 university students educated. There are arguments to reduce this figure somewhat; however, it is still clear that society at large paid heavily to enable education to continue.

Happily, this year vaccination has vastly reduced mortality, albeit set against very high case numbers. Although things will be more ‘normal’ this year, as a sector, we are still clearly deeply indebted to the rest of society and need to do all we can to minimise further impact.

The data – how bad was it?

Early in the summer of 2020 I estimated that the potential impact of autumn University return would be to at least double the number of Covid cases unless major action was taken to mitigate the risks.  Based on figures for the first wave and projections for 2020-2021 winter, I put the figure at around 50,000 deaths.

At the time this was derided as heavily pessimistic, but of course within months SAGE modelling estimates came out with far higher figures.  SAGE’s  “Summary of the effectiveness and harms of different non-pharmaceutical interventions, 21 September 2020” estimated that without substantial mitigation, university return in 2020 would lead to an increase in R of between 0.2 and 0.5, which corresponds to not just double, but between eight to sixty times as many cases over the first term.

This was all based on modelling, but the impact was evident in actual case data as Universities returned. This was particularly clear in Scotland as universities returned in mid-September where there was an almost instant doubling of infections in the university age group, which then fed into other cohorts over the succeeding weeks.

As well as more local measures, the Universities Scotland issued guidance for the weekend of 25-27 Sept 2020 asking students to avoid socialising outside their households and avoiding bars and other such venues.

In the rest of the UK the data was a little less clear as university return dates are more staggered, but there was a clear step change at the beginning of October 2020.

In Newcastle the local newspaper analysed national data and found that areas with high student density had Covid rates five times higher than areas with few students.  More anecdotally, we will all remember the images of students’ messages on their windows as halls went into effective lock-in, and the (rapidly removed) fencing around Manchester halls of residence.

This initial surge was due to the combination of simply lots of people coming together and establishing new contact networks, a known Covid risk, and the more obvious effect of start-of-term parties and ‘freshers week’ high spirits.

It is far harder to assess more long-term impacts during the year, as this simply added to the general societal growth.  Modelling can be used to attempt to disentangle these effects, but it is difficult to definitively separate effects of coupled dynamic systems  except during periods of sudden change.  There were noticeable end-of-year spikes in student areas of Leeds reported in June, but that, like the year start, was more about end of term parties, not the general effect of increased contact networks.

Mitigations – it could have been worse

SAGE’s figures, like my own, were for University return without mitigations. and they suggested potential actions to reduce the impact, some of which were headed.

Every university made very strong efforts to reduce spread within teaching environments, whilst still offering levels of in-person activities, but it was, and still is, the social side of student life that was expected to be most problematic.

Anticipating the mixing during Freshers Week, my own University and I know many others, created outdoor bars and activities in order to create spaces that were safer and less likely to lead to cross infection.  This was effective in that the majority of traced ‘superspreader’-style outbreaks seemed to be related to off-campus parties or events.

Students also took matters into their own hands.  For every highly publicised case of wild parties and ignoring of Covid rules, I heard other less highly published accounts of students effectively permanently isolating themselves in their rooms.  I also know of universities where courses that started off in hybrid mode with a mix of in-person and remote activities ended up abandoning the in-person elements as students effectively voted with their feet. I think this was principally the case for universities with a large number of local students, but also some students simply returned home and completed their studies remotely.

But students are young, so not at risk

One of the difficulties when thinking both about universities and schools, is that Covid is not particularly dangerous for those in their teens and twenties.  This is not to say no risk for pupils and students, especially for anyone with other health problems.  There is of course more risk for academics and teachers, and even more other staff such as cleaners, security and catering, who typically have older demographics than teachers and academics, but still the risk for working age adults was always smaller.

The biggest problem was, and still is, the spread into the community as a whole.  The Scottish data for last autumn showed this indeed did happen within weeks.  This is partly due to out-of-house contacts such as buses and shops, and partly due to home visits (for away-from-home students) and local students living at home.

These contacts then seed others and these indirect contacts, contacts of contacts, etc. far exceed the number of initial cases, and furthermore ended up spread over all demographics of society including the most vulnerable.  When the disease is near static (R ~ 0.9–1.1) this leads to around 10 additional cases for each initial case over a 2-3 month window, higher during times of higher growth.  While universities actively published the number of actual student and staff cases, these were the relatively safe tip of a far more deadly iceberg.

Last year, before the vaccine and new variants, these knock-on infections meant that each preventable infection would have a one in ten chance of causing an eventual death (see “More than R – how we underestimate the impact of Covid-19 infection” for the details of this figure).  At our current mid-vaccine stage, but with delta, the figure is about one in fifty – still far higher than any of the common risks we impose upon one another such as car driving, second-hand smoking or general pollution.

What about variants?

While the data suggests that at least half of the cases during the autumn of 2020 were due to university returns, the original Covid variant was overtaken first of all by alpha variant and then by delta variant.  There is thus an argument that only the deaths due to the original variant be counted, that is perhaps 10,000 deaths rather than 40-50,000.

For the delta variant this is undoubtedly the case; it quickly overcame the original variant and so the number of cases before the delta variant emerged are largely irrelevant to those that came after.  However, delta only emerged in the UK as the second wave decayed and after the majority of deaths, so it makes little difference to the overall tally.

Alpha is more complex.  Nearly all second wave deaths were due to alpha, and these constitute the larger part of winter 2020–2021 Covid deaths.

It is almost certain that alpha developed in the UK.  It could be that it developed in a person who would have been infected anyway irrespective of the universities.  If so then only around a half of pre-Christmas deaths should be attributed to the universities. However, if it developed as a mutation in someone who would not have been otherwise infected, not only all of the alpha variant UK deaths, but also all alpha variant deaths worldwide would land at our doorstep.

There is no way of knowing, but the odds as to which of these is the case run exactly with the proportion of cases due to the universities, so the best estimate is still to count that proportion of UK deaths and in principle a proportion of worldwide alpha-variant deaths also, but I don’t have the heart to calculate that figure, only knowing it is a lot, lot higher.

Why not blame schools?

Arguably, it is unfair to pin the increase entirely on the universities.

According to the SAGE estimates in Sept 2020, the two largest potential drivers of Covid were schools and universities.  Each were expected to lead to increases in R of 0.2 to 0.5. That is, if universities had returned but schools not reopened, while the universities would have still doubled the number of cases, this would have doubling a smaller number.  Given both schools and universities have similar figures then maybe it would be more fair to divide the combined impact between them, leading to maybe 3/8 of cases being assigned to each rather than half the cases to the universities.

This is a tenable argument, and indeed it is always hard to apportion blame or cost when faced with multiple causes that lead to non-linear effects.

Personally, I discount this.  First because it doesn’t make so much difference, 3/8 of a big number is still very large.  Second there were far stronger arguments for reopening schools: (i) because being more local to start with it was easier to mitigate their impact; (ii) because school children are younger it is harder for them to cope with remote learning, and (iii) because reopening schools freed up parents from childcare allowing other sectors of the economy to recover.  However, if you disagree knock a quarter off all of the figures for the impact of universities.

Maybe not so bad – lockdowns and government policy

Finally, while the bald figure of one death for every 50 to 100 students educated is frighteningly large, there is I think there is a good argument to reduce this substantially, albeit opening up the issue of wider non-mortality costs for society.

Last autumn Covid cases were increasing rapidly and the UK government was set against any further control measures.  Eventually it was forced to instigate a November lockdown across England after the earlier Wales ‘firebreak’.  The trigger for this was not the cases per se, but the danger of overwhelming the NHS ability to cope.

Those on the front-line of the NHS would debate how close we got to breakdown, and indeed whether in many ways we went beyond it.  However, crucially the driver of policy has been not Covid cases as such, nor even Covid deaths, but the number of hospital and especially intensive care admissions.

If Covid cases had been only half as high, there might not have been a pre-alpha lockdown at all before Christmas, or if there had been it would have been later as would the January lockdown.

By this argument, which I believe is a sound one, the impact of last year’s universities reopening was to accelerate growth, leading to earlier and longer lockdowns.  The increase in university-attributable deaths would by this argument still not be negligible, but lower, maybe less than 10,000 (about one for every 250 students educated).  However, this is then offset against the additional strain put on the rest of society, not least on the jobs of the other 50% of 18-21 year olds who don’t go to university.

In summary

First of all, it should be noted that there will be a further hit as universities return now, and a recent Times Higher survey reported that more than half of lecturers had serious concerns about the new term. However, the corresponding figures for this year will be an order of magnitude lower.  This does not mean we should not take every precaution possible, Covid deaths are still at levels that would be inconceivable if we hadn’t seen them so much higher previously.  At the time of writing, there are as many deaths due to Covid in two weeks as a whole year’s worth of road deaths.

As is probably evident, certainly from previous writing about the issue, I believe the decision to reopen the HE sector in Autumn 2020 was fundamentally wrong.  As I have previously argued, the universities’ hands were largely tied, as were to a lesser extent the devolved governments, by decisions taken at Westminster.  I assume that these decisions were partly party political (not wanting to alienate half of first-time voters) and partly financial (reducing the need to prop up the HE sector groaning under the increased costs of dealing with remote teaching).

The result of this was a worst of all possible worlds: bad for students who often ended up paying for semi-useless accommodation and being taught remotely during lockdowns anyway; bad for lecturers trying to cope with mixed models of teaching and the uncertainty of constantly switching of models; and bad for society deepening both the health and economic crisis.

Possibly saying that the universities’ hands were tied by government and that in turn as an employee of the university I was just continuing to do my job is a version of the concentration-camp guard excuse.  Personally I feel the weight of this: I knew what was unfolding, I had written about it, but could I have done more to raise the issue?

Looking forward we can still make a difference.

I’m part of the Not-Equal research network focused on issues social justice in the digital economy.  We are coming to the end of our funded period and had originally hoped to have an in-person end-of-project event bringing together the many academics and third-sector stake-holders who have been part of the network to share experiences and maybe create new partnerships looking forward.  During the summer, after consulting with our advisory board, we unanimously decided to instead have a purely virtual event.  Meeting together would have clearly had great advantages, but it felt that holding such an event, however worthy would be irresponsible.

Each such decision only makes a small difference, but it is the tens of thousands of such small acts that make a big difference.  This has been one of the hard to comprehend lessons of Covid, but one that will continue to be important as we shift our focus back towards other massive issues of poverty, social injustice, climate change and the myriad diseases other than Covid that plague so many in the world.

The Adelphi Liverpool

Last week I spent an evening in Liverpool watching the Lodestar Theatre Company production of Romeo and Juliet, part of the Liverpool Shakespeare Festival.  It was a wonderful performance, with evocative AV backdrops, rich music and an energetic cast, the high spot for me probably Juliet’s effervescent energy as she covered the stage with 14 year old tomboy-ish exuberance.

For the night, due to an overbooked hotel elsewhere, I ended up at the Adelphi Hotel, right in the heart of Liverpool, only a hundred yards from Lime Street Station and the St George’s Hall, where the performance was staged.

The Adelphi seems like an hotel from a different age, a huge Victorian edifice in the heart of Liverpool city centre.  The perhaps more imposing station hotel has been converted into student accommodation, so now the Adelphi stands alone in the centre jostling with the glass and neon Holiday Inn and Travelodge for station travellers, still representing tradition in an age of automatic check-in and Lego-kit furnishing.

Like an ageing aunt, remembering her dancing days, bright lipstick slightly awry, the Adelphi is clearly struggling to maintain its dignity assailed  by the recession and narrowing margins from without, crumbling masonry and cast-iron radiators within, and the occasional onslaught of amiable drunks passing on their way from pub to pub.

Sometimes it seems that, like the crooked lipstick, things slip: three times dragging my suitcase up and down to and from my sixth floor room until my keycard was properly programmed (yes electronic keys, signs of the 21st century), the water taps that only just work and never gave a hot shower, or the lifts that seemed to constantly deliver the same packed group of pensioners up to the sixth floor when they really wanted to get down to the ground. But, like the firmly grasped handbag, hat and Sunday gloves, signs of a different standard of service, vast veneer wooden wardrobe and dressing table, brocade-covered arm chairs, a real teapot and cup and saucers with the (electric) kettle, and of course a room-service menu that includes “roast of the day”.

At breakfast it feels like a post-apocalyptic science-fiction set where in the aftermath of 1950s atomic testing  all conception ceased and so now, from wall to wall, the room is filled with septuagenarians eating unending supplies of bacon, fried eggs and toasted crumpets, with the only under-60 faces the serving staff from Eastern Europe, which has evidently been spared the mass impotence of the West.

But, did you notice, in an age of croissants, yogurt and Danish pasties – crumpets, yes real crumpets for breakfast – a trace of the Empire still survives in Liverpool L1.

So like the ageing aunt, whose occasional quirks and impatience you forgive, overlooking her inexpert makeup, for the memory of war-time childhood and rock-and-roll romances, so with the Adelphi, I forgive its dodgy plumbing and erratic lift, for the glimpse of a style and a world that is past and will soon be gone for ever.

And in days to come, in some hotel room of plastic, steel and wine-bar-like sheen, I will dream of my night at the Adelphi.

On Travelling and Stretched Souls

A few days ago I tweeted:

“Maybe people like car warranties have so many years or so many miles? Each flight a little death; 400 more miles on the clock. Better walk.”

This was half in jest, but set me thinking.

Each time I fly I feel thinner, more distant, like some bored executive’s rubber desktop toy overstretched. Now this may simply be age or ennui, but, naturally resisting such a simple explanation, I wonder about an alternative Pullman-esque world, not so different from our own, where, while our bodies move, some part of our soul, like a snail track or Theseus letting out Ariadne’s thread, is stretched behind, so that in the sky amongst the vapour trail of each passing plane, two hundred souls are also spread, vapourous, across the heavens.

It is not so far from the world we know where, with nostalgia and fond memory, it is clear some part of our heart is always left behind. If we move slowly, or rest still for periods, our souls regrow, regenerate, but, if we move too fast or too far, our body, Golem-like, continues to walk, yet our eyes increasingly blankly stare from an emptied heart, and our soul blows gossamer-like, spread thin across the empty seas.

Across Ireland to Limerick: Stepping Out of Time

Early last week I had  a few days external examining the iMedia course at Limerick.  A wonderful course I was impressed again at the Dawn 2010 show pieces produced by the students who come predominantly from arts or design backgrounds and many of whom have never touched code or soldering iron before starting the course.

As it was Bank Holiday weekend, flying would have meant spending 24 hours in an airport between flights and airport hotels in each direction, or alternatively driving south to an airport.  It seemed more sensible and more fun to drive south through Ireland itself, and in the process satisfy a little my itinerant spirit.

I didn’t manage to write as I went along, but have retrospectively made a number of post-dated photo-blogs:

Roads of the Sea — Tiree to Larne

Into the West — Larne to Westport

Serendipity and Song — Westport to Doolin

Last Day — Doolin to Limerick

Full set of photos at my Limerick-Aug-2010 Flickr photo set

Last Day — Doolin to Limerick

From Doolin’s harbour side you can see the ferries that ply back and forth to the Aran Islands.  The rock is limestone, like the Burren, and the land beneath cut through with caves including the world’s largest stalactite and the submerged ‘Green Holes’, only discovered in the 1980s.

While the Aran Islands stretch across the sea to the North West, to the South West rise the Cliffs of Moher, 200 metres from the sea, shortlisted alongside Kilimanjaro, the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon to be one of the new seven wonders of nature.  There is no beach, no sand or shingle, just sea and shear rock, but surfers travel there to ride the 35 foot wave at its feet.

The Moher visitor centre is dug and buried into the hillside with curved windows cut through the turf; Hobbit Town meets HiTech,  The paved, stepped, and wheelchair-access routed area with its viewing points and wall of wave-patterned Burran limestone slabs, ends at widely ignored signs threatening danger to life and limb if one proceeds.  You can see why the signs are there; it is not so much the lack of fence or wall between the cliff top path and precipitous edge, but the rock itself.  The limestone of the Burran, Doolin coast and Aran Isles has ended and this is younger, softer alluvial rock, at the cliff top often little more than flakes of shale in hardened mud.  The tourists peeking over the edge may be secure in footing, but the soft cliff edge itself might shrug them off to fly for a moment amongst the nesting gulls before hitting the water 600 feet below.

And out on the grass beside the forbidden cliff path, an Italian couple set up a video camera looking out towards the rocky headland, and sit in front of it to exchange rings.

Back at the visitor centre a sculptor was hard at work with chisel, angle grinder and chain saw, capturing the spirit of Maher from surfer to sea birds.  Shane Gilmore‘s sculptures are found across Western Ireland, and he was commissioned to make this one in situ during the Clare Heritage Week.  At Shane’s feet lay a collection of reference books; he explained that if he got some detail wrong, gave a bird the head of a gull and the body of a gannet, someone would be sure to notice.

It is only a short way from Doolin and Maher, and slightly longer of you cut back north to travel across the Burren, but worth it, for its near lunar yet surprisingly fertile landscape.   Few roads cut across the limestone countryside but far beneath the ground are subterranean rivers and networks of caves left from past water courses, treacherous as they too can flood rapidly when rain falls and drains through sinkholes and caverns.

At a distance the Burren landscape appears barren, but between the clints, giant paving slabs of grey stone, the cracks, or grykes, are rich with wild flowers and lush grasses that supported communities from Neolithic times, who in turn left their traces in fire circles and ring forts.  And near every parking place, each clint is topped with a tiny cairn or sculpture as visitors today still want to leave some trace of their being here, or maybe token of their hoped-for return.

Serendipity and Song — Westport to Doolin

Westport nestles on the far shore of one of Ireland’s great peninsulas, jutting into the Atlantic, with the Mountains of Connemara to the south and the wild coasts of Achill to the north.   Some years ago we camped on Achill Island in late September.  Most Irish campsites close after the first week of September but we found one campsite still open although only one other campervan stopped by in the few days we spent there.  The site had several permanent mobile homes, and despite the 8 foot banks of grass-topped sand that protected the site each was held to the ground with structures of foot-wide girders to hold them down against the force of the Atlantic winds.  We parked close between some of these and as the campervan shook in the night reminded ourselves that these were just mild September breezes, not the wild storms of the winter.

This time I had to set my face south cutting across Connemara to Doolin for the night.  I took the coast road between Croagh Patrick and the sea, passing the car parks and coaches at its foot where the pilgrimage route begins.  Although I’ll forgo the climb on hands and knees of the true pilgrim it would be good to climb it some day for the view and the sense of those who have visited this holy spot for a thousand years.

I do not have a SatNav and somehow at Louisburgh I took the wrong road.  As the road narrowed to single track and then grass began to grow down the centre, I realised my mistake, but assumed it would eventually join up with the main road.  In fact I was driving down a 15 mile cul-de-sac.  Often when I have lost my way in a strange city, I have vowed I would get a SatNav, but now I am glad I have not.  Global communications and perpetual internet offer instant information and allow us to plan every journey with printed Google maps and reviews of each tiny coffee house.  But it would be a Faustian bargain if it were to rob us of the joy of just one unexpected and unplanned mistaken road to paradise.

On the far south west of County Mayo, there is a tiny nick in the coast on the map, and the indistinct line leading to it is this road, skirting the coast, looking out to islands and ocean, and ending at that nick, named like so many other simply White Strand.

Although my feet ever itch to wander, if there were a place to stop for a while and taste the ocean air, this would be it; but with many miles to go, I had just a few minutes to walk among the dunes and check where I was with three lads taking turns on a quad bike across the broad washed sand, before setting on my way again, back along the road I had come and again amazed at the way I had come and the fortune of following a ‘wrong’ path.

Through Connemara and many mountains calling to be climbed and lakes to be sailed; past Galway, the sound of tin whistle and fiddle almost audible even from the European funded ring road that bypasses the town’s old streets; along the coast of Northern Clare with the Burran on the left and sea on the right and on down, over the little bridge to Doolin and Fisher Street.

Fiona and I had camped in Doolin many years before, but we arrived late, the night was wild, and the ground in the campsite down by the harbour more like marsh than grass1.  So we stayed in the van, opened up the roof just far enough to poke out our heads, feel the wild wind whip our hair, and see the waves crash against the feet of the Cliffs of Moher.  So this was the first time I had visited the legendary O’Connors and experienced a session there.

Doolin is a Mecca for traditional music: around the bar several Japanese faces, a lady from South Carolina, and a couple of hitchhikers from Lille meandering their way around the Western Ireland, cooking pasta in a battered saucepan.   Perched on a bar stool, I chatted over dinner with a man who lives just 25 miles away, staying in his caravan overnight, ready for a day visit to Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands the next day. He had briefly visited the islands 12 years before, but this time was planning to walk across Inis Mór to Dún Aonghasa, the huge Iron Age fort cut in half by the eroding cliff face. I was reminded of the parable “the wise man built his house upon rock”, but after over 2000 years even the limestone of the Aran Isles is no sure foundation against the buffeting of the North Atlantic waves, that can throw vast boulders up to the cliff tops from the sea 25 metres below.

At 9:30 the music group began to assemble, three men who clearly played together and others invited into the music making, an older man with no instrument who later sang, and others.  It is an inclusive music, with no pretension, Guinness lubricates the beating Bodhrán and pumping accordion, and the old hands play alongside the young.  One couple, maybe students visiting during the summer vacation, looked nervous but were welcomed in and a young boy, maybe 12 or 14 years old, sang and played tin whistle, gradually growing in confidence as the night wore on.

next Last Day — Doolin to Limerick

  1. The campsite was Nagle’s, a great location overlooking the sea, but this time I stayed at Lane Lodge B&B.[back]

Into the West — Larne to Westport

The fastest route to Limerick from Larne is probably due south to Dublin and then across to the West, the route we took as a family when we first visited Ireland together on the weekend of the Good Friday agreement.   At that time, the IRA and Unionist cease-fires had been in operation for several years and the border checkpoints, while still very visible, were not in use.  However, I vividly recall the gradual realisation that the alternating villages we drove through: one prosperous and brightly bedecked with red, blue and white painted kerbstones, followed by one more down at heel with a large church in the middle, were in fact alternating protestant and catholic villages, bringing home so sharply the social as well as political and religious differences.

Whether it is passing time, or simply a different route, but I didn’t notice the extreme differences this time.  However some things don’t change and beside the road, strapped to each lamppost, flap the Union Flag, the flag of St George with the hand of Ulster in the middle and even Scotland’s flag of St Andrew, but never the flag of St Patrick nor, of course, the tricolour1!  Like Norman castles in Wales, masonry also remains, and the heavily armoured police stations contrast so strongly with the bungalow with its ‘Police’ sign in Tiree.

As I had Saturday and Sunday to get to Limerick, rather than driving directly I planned to go to Doolin for the night.  However, not content with this detour, I decided also to go to Westport on the way.  I don’t fully understand this Celtic longing for the western seaboard.  Is it deep in my blood from birth, or borne from stories of the downed cantref beyond Aberdyfy and Tír na nÓg?  It is certainly not America, but somewhere out there in the Atlantic, caught between the wave trammelled coast and the crack in the earth that is the mid-Atlantic ridge, is a path into fairyland and myth that draws at something deep in the heart.

My route south from Larne took me through places that evoked again those childhood memories: Omagh, Antrim, and road signs to others: Enniskillen, Londonderry.  Like South Africa, it seemed so impossible that things could ever change and yet, despite problems still in both, it is a different world; hope still for other parts of the world that today seem equally impossible.

In those days there would have been check-points at the border, but travelling now I never even noticed a sign to say when I crossed from Northern Ireland to Eire.  However, as I drove through Ballyshannon I had no doubts that I was in the South: bright coloured shop fronts and ramshackle road signs, a country whose spirit is far more like southern Europe, than the cooler Northern blood that often mistakes tidiness for godliness — what happened to the hot fire that flowed through the veins of Visgoth and Viking?

I would have loved to have more time to stop along the way, camp on Boa Island at the top of Loch Erne looking out at the hills that tumble into the water across the Loch, or climbing Benbulben that, while gentler from the West and South, to the North rises square faced and square sided like a wooden-block mountain in child’s counterpane landscape. However, I did not stop and drove on towards the West, through the thick traffic near Sligo, and on into the County Mayo countryside.  It would have been good to stop and stare, to spend time savouring each place; and given time I would do so, but with limited time I always choose to move rather than stay, to feel the miles flow past whether by foot or car.  Like the thirst for the western shore, the itinerant spirit runs deep in my heart, and as a child I dreamed of being a gypsy or a tramp, living along the paths of the land.

next Serendipity and Song — Westport to Doolin

  1. To be fair south of the border tourist shops accept payment in euro or US dollars, but not pounds (not even Scottish pounds), and on flag poles fly the flags of Ireland, the EU, USA, France, Germany, Italy … but never the UK.[back]

Roads of the Sea — Tiree to Larne

Friday morning at 9am saw me at the ferry queue in Scarinish waiting for the Tiree–Oban ferry, saying goodbye to Fiona and to Tiree as I won’t be home again for most of the next two months.  Friday is an early ferry — 5am check-in for those coming from Oban, but a more civilised time for going to the mainland and a 1pm arrival gives plenty of time to get down to Troon for the 8:20pm ferry.

I’ve never taken the Troon–Larne ferry before, always travelling to Ireland from Stranraer in the North or Holyhead in the South.  However, arriving with a full three hours to spare, I found it is a good place to wait, eating a late picnic lunch of pork pie and salad overlooking the bay with windsurfers and kite surfers along the strand, home from home.

Long distance ‘commutes’ and remote relationships have become common amongst professional workers.  I recall Richard Bentley at one stage working in Germany while his partner was in Jersey, and in the States several West-Coast East-Coast marriages.  However, this is not a recent phenomena, on Tiree there are families of trawler men or those working on the North Sea rigs, where ‘going to work’ means many weeks or months away.  The ‘Express’  Troon–Larne ferry fairly sped along compared with Calmac’s more leisurely vessels, and as I sat and watched us pass Ailsa Craig, struck up conversation with a man on his way home to his wife and family after three months away doing forestry work in Scotland.

Larne, like Crewe, is a place you pass through and rarely stop, but given the late ferry I ended up spending a night there in a small seafront guesthouse, Beach Vista.  The late arrival of the ferry was compounded by a wrong turning1, but despite the late hour Bob the proprietor was waiting with a warm welcome in a rich Northern accent. My childhood images of Northern Ireland are all from news stories of ‘The Troubles’; amidst these images of sectarian violence and bomb blasts, it is easy to forget the warmth of the people and the beauty of the countryside. So I spent a first peaceful night, hearing the sound of the waves lapping against the sea wall.

Walking along the seashore before breakfast, watching a freight ship glide quietly into port past the James Chaine memorial tower, I understood some of Bob’s love of the place.  “Sometimes when my wife and I go away on holiday”, he told me, “we sometimes just wonder why, when we have this at home”.  Despite being less than an hour from Belfast, the pace of life is clearly somewhat slower in Larne.  Bob, as well as running the B&B with his family, also has a Taxi firm, and explained that, just like on Tiree, he doesn’t worry about locking the taxi and even leaving the keys inside.

next Into the West — Larne to Westport

  1. why can’t Google maps include a scale on the printed maps![back]

hidden Rome

I know Rome well, but I still see new things every time I visit, and sometimes the old things from a different angle, or perhaps from some of the lesser trod ways.

A week ago I was there for the AVI conference and some other events (see previous post).  I am not a city lover preferring wild places, the sea, hills and margins of existence.  However, Rome is different, partly because I was introduced to Rome by Romans (of the modern variety), and saw it through their eyes, but partly because it is a city itself on the margins of civilisation and decay.  I would not have liked ancient Rome with its bureaucracy and mannered civil life, but this Rome we have now, that survived the Visigoths, flowered in the Renaissance, then struggled through war and invasion from the outside, and internal conflicts from within, where ancient buildings and bustling modern  life sit side by side, where humanity is dense, but nature always nestling in the interstices, and ready to reassert itself.  That is beautiful.

A week ago on Saturday I had a ‘day off’, a gap between the end of the AVI conference on the Friday and travelling to Milan on the Sunday.  It had been a good week, not just from an academic point of view, but also seeing old friends both in the conference and outside, including a lovely meal at the lake near Castello Gandalfi with Roberta, Manuela, Francesco and others.

Of course an academic day off has its own meaning, and I had a relaxed breakfast on the roof terrace looking out over the roof tops to the Colloseum … while reading papers to review.  Then after retiring to my room for some hours to type of the reviews, wandered across to the Trastevere, where there are the best pizzas, to of course review some more papers over lunch, then wandering as far as an Internet cafe near the Ponte Sisto to upload it all.  However, at 5pm I eventually laid aside my computer and decided it was time to just wander!

One of my favourite walks in Rome is to start at the north in Piazza del Popolo and then wander south towards Piazza Venezia.  So many familiar sights not far either side of that axis.  From Ponto Sisto a meandering way through backstreets led through Piazza Campo de Fiori, and Piazza Novona, past the Pantheon and Piazza Colonna on to Via del Corsa up towards the Piazza del Popolo.  In Campo de Fiori I found that it looked very different when viewed from behind the flower stands, and just off Via del Corso an American Indian encampment.

From Piazza del Popolo, the most obvious route is straight down Via del Babuino towards the Piazza di Spagna.  However, last year Manuela and Francesco introduced me to the Via Margutta, which runs parallel and set back from bustling Babuino.  At the time it was itself quite full as it was the annual street exhibition of 100 Painters, but last week, only yards from the tourist and traffic filled streets, a small oasis with just the odd Italian wandering past its old houses, small galleries and tumbling greenery.

From there back onto the main thoroughfares, through Piazza di Spagnia, and the flower filled steps still seem lovely despite the tourists and crowds, although also special if you visit them early in the morning, as I did a few years ago, when they are empty all bar a few bin bags awaiting collection.

Fontana di Trevi is as in every guidebook, splendid, glorious, and actually bigger than it looks in pictures.  The small square containing the  fountain is always awash with people.  However, imagine standing facing the fountain and then turnaround, facing away from the statues, the flowing water, the postcard and trinket sellers.  Away to your right is a tiny alleyway, vicolo del Forno.  It is too small to be named on most maps, it goes nowhere and consequently I had never turned into it before.

The narrow opening part shielded by the roast chestnut seller cuts out much of the noise, and its unprepossessing appearance puts off any visitors. But, I was not the first person to wander in.  A short way within is small side window to a shop, covered with wrought iron crossbars from the days before toughened glass and security alarms.  On each bar there were tiny padlocks, and on the padlocks more padlocks, tumbling from one another, like rock plants growing from walls.  Each padlock had names written on them, love trysts.

When I asked afterwards, Roberta told me there was a bridge Ponte Milvio, which, after a famous film popularised the idea, is so heavily hung with padlocks like this that it damaged some of the ironwork.  Lovers affix the padlock then throw the key into the Tiber symbolising unbreakable love. Looking now on the web I can see that these love padlocks are found at sites all over the world, even in Glasgow. I assume Fontana di Trevi is filling with small keys alongside the more numerous coins.  However, unlike the very public display at Ponte Milvio, this small alley is so well hidden that perhaps only those seeking a secluded embrace away from the crowds find it; certainly Roberta, a native Roman, did not know it existed.

Now charmed by the out of the way, I decided to abandon my normal route back to via Corso and on to Piazza Venezia and instead took roads going south, slightly to the east of Corso, but not so far as the route up to the Quirinale.  This led me to Via Pilotta, a glorious small road, like a chasm with tall buildings to the right and a high retaining wall to the left with the hints of a garden beyond peeking over its top.  Like a river canyon it is also spanned by numerous small bridges, presumably allowing those in the houses to the right to get to the forbidden gardens to the left without descending to the street and rabble below.

On Pilotta there is a single ristorante Le Lanterne, a perfect place to sit as the light fades on Rome … and even here it is the hidden places that are perhaps most special.