The Messy Art of Communication

We are creatures of communication, we do it so naturally that many of us barely think about it, in most situations, or so it seems.

True communication is a two way activity, it requires transmission and receipt sadly something that we regularly forget. We all know the person who uses 1,000 words to say nothing at all. Likewise I suspect that we all know a person who is a lean communicator who uses very few words, but every word is golden.

We flick between communication modes throughout our days – words and pictures, vocalised and written, fact and fiction, formal and informal, emotional and intellectual, simple and complex. We are communication omnivores.

The reason that we communicate is normally for a purpose – we want to induce a reaction, a response, an action.

In my head, communication is a simple process. I have an expectation of how things work that regularly leads to frustration and I don’t think I’m the only one with this expectation. Let me illustrate from the perspective of written communications in a work context but I think it also applies in other contexts.

How I imagine we communicate

In my simple process something is created, people read and understand it. They provide feedback in a sensible way and then they act upon the contents. In six simple steps we have communicated in a way that results in action.

Anyone reading this who’s ever produced anything in a work context will recognise that this isn’t generally the reality. We don’t communicate like computers, we communicate like humans and that’s a far more fluid thing.

How we really communicate – this is also a fiction

While my simple process had a single entry point, the reality is that there are many entry points, people are joining the conversation from a vast array of perspectives and desired outcomes.

Just because I’ve started by writing something doesn’t mean that I have created what’s needed; it’s likely that people don’t know what they need to be created and that creating it is part of gaining understanding.

Meetings provide mechanisms for responding and reacting, but they also provide opportunities to debate and reconsider. They also provide opportunities for people to divert and disrupt, sometime deliberately but more often not. Meetings also create a fertile ground in which to spin off other meetings, discussions and actions.

Information gets created, rehashed and recut many times to help people gain a comprehension of what can be complicated subjects. The words that I use are likely to be different to the words that they use. The analogies and metaphors that I use speak to some and not to others. A single question can be asked in a thousand different ways and each one can elicit a different answering. We need to help people cross the chasm of understanding and that can take many, many words, diagrams, analogies, metaphors, graphs and numbers. The inevitable duplication that this brings should be both celebrated and cautioned against.

In many organisations there is still the culture of the template straightjacket; outlines of content that needs to be completed before a phase or activity can be regarded as completed. This leads to high levels of content duplication making version control an impossible task. Duplicated content would be far better as referenced content, but that requires people to think outside the template-document-mindset. The template-document-mindset being that way of thinking that transacts at the document level and hence requires all of the content to be in the document for the transaction to take place. I once deliberately putting an error in a glossary of terms to see whether anyone read it, they didn’t, years later I read a document that had a familiar looking glossary of terms in the back – yes, including the deliberate error. I hate to think how many trees had died to create that useless glossary.

Let’s spend a bit of time thinking about content and the questions people ask. How many times have you said the words “It’s in the document” or “It’s in the pages” only to give up once you’ve realised that people aren’t going to the content? I have done this many times and I still do it although now I have a new way of doing it. As most meetings are online I now point people to content by sending them the link in the meeting chat. It’s no more successful than telling people that there’s content available, but it feels less frustrating.

Once content has been created I love to see it evolve as people review and contribute to it but this is such a rare experience. In far too many situations people want to play at editing and contributing. It’s helpful to know that I’ve got the wrong their, they’re or there but it’s far more helpful if you tell me that I’ve overcomplicated something that could be done in a far better way. I’m not arrogant enough to expect my ideas to always be correct, but the number of times that people have fundamentally changed something that I have written are very rare – that’s not a good thing.

If communication is a science then it’s a complex one with many aspects, I prefer to think of it as a messy artistic endeavour that we all get to play our part in.

Header Image: This is Dunham Massey which is a local National Trust house with gardens to visit, and a deer park. I’ve never been in the house, the deer park is always wonderful.

Productivity Anti-Patterns: Video as Meeting Notes

Sometimes you need to see a poor way of doing something to see a better way – that’s the point of an anti-pattern. The purpose is to teach us how not to do something.

We sometime forget that productivity is a shared responsibility and a collective value. There’s no point in one person being hyper-productive if their practices cause significant pain to others. So much of what I see as productivity practices are precisely that – people optimising for the one and causing significant problems for the many.

In recent years recording meetings has become effectively free. All of the major video conferencing/collaboration platforms include the capability and most of them also include free storage for meeting recordings. In many circles, it has become standard practice to record almost every meeting.

Why wouldn’t you? It’s free and gives a full record of the meeting.

There’s more: some of the collaboration tools now include, as standard, an automated transcript of the meeting. Brilliant? You don’t have to trawl the whole video to find what you are looking for, you can search the transcript for the relevant part. Everyone who was invited to the meeting has all of the information available whether they were able to attend or not.

This is where the productivity anti-pattern starts

If we have a video of the meeting and a transcript of it then we don’t need to take notes or minutes for the meeting? We have all of the information automatically, why burden the secretary (remember them?) of the meeting with typing something up and distributing it? Wrong.

Summarising a meeting in notes and minutes is a skill with immense value to the reader, and also to the producer. Here’s a list of just a few:

  • The summary is far easier to reference than the transcript. In a transcript you have to make sure that you understand the full context, this often requires reading the whole transcript. You can’t read, or watch, just a few minutes because you can’t be confident that a subject was revisited later in the meeting.
  • Minutes, including actions, allowing people to understand what is expected of them quickly and easily. The act of writing the action out helps with understanding the action.
  • A summary can be revisited at the start of a meeting to get people up to speed a transcript never can.
  • A summary allows people to take a meeting out of their head, where it is using up useful cycles, and put it to one side until the next time it is needed. A video or transcript doesn’t do this in the same way, for me at least.
  • Notes of a meeting outline the conclusions of the meeting, not all of the working-out. Often the working out is of no value to the people responsible for taking actions from the meeting. Sometimes the working-out has value, but that’s normally as people progress the actions trying to understand context.
  • Producing notes and minutes are an opportunity for the meeting secretary to be review whether the meeting fulfilled its objective. It’s so easy to finish a meeting thinking that everything has been covered only to discover that something vital was missed.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t video and transcribe meetings, but I am saying that using these as a replacement for good meeting practices including notes and minutes is a productivity anti-pattern.

One aspect that I haven’t covered is the psychological impact of videoing a meeting. There are many occasions where this isn’t an issue, but there are still many where people feel constrained by the thought that there words are going to be available for everyone to listen to. Video is great for the active vocal participants, it’s not good for the quiet contemplative.

Using the video of a meeting as the minutes may optimise the world of the meeting organiser (who is the de-facto secretary), it significantly decreases the productivity of everyone else in the meeting.

As a footnote: I’m not sure that continuing to optimise the organisation of meetings is a good thing. It leads to more poorly organised meetings – it’s experiencing the washing machine effect (more on that another time).

Header image: Sitting out for a pub meal on the Kirkstone pass.

Process and Technology “Hefting” – What will it take for you to change?

In response to my last blog which revisited the theme of Password Expiry Chris Swan tweeted this:

This got me rethinking about the idea of “hefting”. Let me explain by returning to some words I wrote a little while ago (2016):

I love to walk in the hills of the English Lake District. This area of the country is famous for a particular variety of sheep, the Herdwick, which have been indigenous in this area for over 1,000 years. Almost anywhere you go you’ll encounter sheep – they occupy vast areas of moorland. Have you ever wondered how the farmers know where their sheep are so that they can retrieve them from the hills for winter, for lambing and shearing? The answer to the question is hefting – also known as heafing in this part of the country, but known as many other things across the UK.

I’m no expert on hefting but the way I understand it to work, from a friend who does know, is that when shepherds want to establish a new flock, they take the sheep up onto the moorland where they want them to graze and they constrain them on that land. This is sometimes done with fencing, but is also done by physical shepherding. The flock gets to know where it can, and can’t, go because of the constraints. Eventually the shepherd removes the constraint, but the sheep don’t drift off. They stay where they have been hefted. They’ve learnt to live within their current constraints.

Once a flock has been established within its heft, the shepherd can add new sheep to the flock and they will take on the heft of the rest of the sheep, as long as too many fresh ideas aren’t introduced. The hefting is passed from generation to generation without the need for the constraints to be put back in place. That’s how strong the constraints are in the minds of the rest of the flock.

We’re not dissimilar to sheep. We pick a way of doing things, or a technology, based on what our tribe is doing. Having chosen a technology, we stay with it, we invest in it, and we live within its constraints. We become comfortable in our place of pasture. There used to be a saying:

“No one ever got fired for buying IBM.”

Over time that got replaced with:

“No one ever got fired for buying Microsoft.”

We are rapidly moving to the era of:

“No one ever got fired for buying Amazon Web Services.”

These transitions don’t happen overnight. They take a long time and, for some, they are still being played out. IBM still makes good revenue from mainframe, and Microsoft is still a pretty safe bet. Looking at what they are doing in cloud, they are likely to remain so – but it’s not certain. People become hefted to the technology they and their flock know, both the good parts and the constraints. Technology moves on, but people stay with the flock. Alternative technologies become available, but people stay hefted to what they know. When it comes to technology, though, that’s often a dangerous place to be.

There’s another tradition in English moorland communities – shepherd meets. These are the times when the shepherds from the community get together to trade sheep, show off their best ones and get to have a good time. There’s another reason for these meets, though. This is the time when the shepherds return their neighbour’s sheep. That’s because some sheep are mavericks. They aren’t happy with the place they’ve been hefted and wander off exploring, looking for somewhere better. I’ve certainly been through a number of technology changes in my career. I’ve made the move from one flock to another. Sometimes I saw that the flock I was in was not going well. But I have to admit, at other times, I’ve been pushed. I’ve also, at times, chosen to follow the maverick and found myself in a better place. I’ve also watched some businesses stay too long with their current technology, eventually getting caught out by a change in their market. Where’s your technology hefting? Is it still relevant? Do you know your mavericks? Are they going to a better place? Perhaps you should follow them.

These words were written from the perspective of technical hefting, but process hefting, or process debt, is just as prevalent and is more difficult to move out of. Once you’ve changed technology it’s changed, processes don’t change in the same way because of their human operators. Even for the simplest of processes humans really struggle to switch from one way of doing something to another. Organisations amass thousands of processes, some official, others more ad-hoc, these combine together into a spider’s web of function that define the organisation. The impact of many of these processes is unknown, they are followed because that’s the way things have always been done. As a piece of machinery within the overall mesh of business capability few organisation know which pieces are working well and which pieces need replacing. People have become hefted to their process and moving them out of it is a difficult thing to do.

Header Image: The Herdwick sheep in her environment.


Why are we STILL expiring passwords?

Back in 2018 I wrote this:

Picture the scene: You’ve just been on a wonderful vacation it’s been a great time to relax and do something you love, but now you are walking into your place of work. Waiting for you is a mountain of emails and you want to get right to it. You take out your iPad, Android tablet or open up your laptop and turn it on. Then it hits you, those words you dread: “Your password has expired”. Today is the last day you want to be changing your password. You’ve got enough to think about, but you have little choice. You wonder whether you should have reset your password before you went on vacation but you’re not sure that would have made any difference.

After fighting with the complicated set of rules that define what your password can be, you eventually pick a new one. For the rest of the day, and the next few, you try to remember to type the new password rather than the old one. I characterise this as The Four Ages of Remembering a New Password. Recently, the UK governments IT security advisor, the CESG, reiterated and gave further explanation for advice it gave in September 2015:

Regular password expiry is a common requirement in many security policies. However, in CESG’s Password Guidance published in 2015, we explicitly advised against it. (Read more: The problems with forcing regular password expiry)

Scheduled password expiry has been a dogma of enterprise IT security for many decades. It’s so embedded into the fabric of the IT landscape that it sounds scandalous for an organization as esteemed as the CESG to challenge it, but challenge it they have. The argument that they make, in summary, is that the “usability costs” of regular password changes makes people adopt mechanisms to cope with the changes that themselves lead to other security vulnerabilities:

It’s one of those counter-intuitive security scenarios; the more often users are forced to change passwords, the greater the overall vulnerability to attack. What appeared to be a perfectly sensible, long-established piece of advice doesn’t, it turns out, stand up to a rigorous, whole-system analysis.

The CESG isn’t recommending that organizations don’t worry about password vulnerabilities; they are recommending that organizations use other measures that do not involve scheduled password expiry and have a lower “usability cost.” They are proposing measures that they believe match better to the modern vulnerabilities that passwords experience.

I concluded with these words:

Whilst the approach of regular password expiry is embedded in corporate IT, it isn’t in places where you might expect it to be if it were such a good approach. My bank doesn’t ask me to change my password regularly; it makes sure that I have a complicated password that I can understand by making me use a password and a pin. For sensitive transactions, it makes me use two-factor authentication. Amazon doesn’t make me change my password regularly. When I log on to twitter from a new device, it sends me a message to let me know and to confirm that it’s really me. All of these approaches have a far lower “usability cost” than the regular password change, and it’s those approaches that the CESG is advising UK government organisations to adopt. It really is time to stop regular password expiry.

In the two years since I wrote my post, and the 5 years since the initial advice was given, little has changed in most corporate security environments. Challenging the dogma of password expiry is a short walk to a frustrating day. Many organisations now sanction password stores to alleviate the problem of multiple passwords and to ease the pain of password expiry, this doesn’t fix the problem it just makes it a little easier. Ironically, few of these password stores require the individual user to change their password.

In these days of increased home working many organisations have seen their password and security management challenged by the need to keep their people working. Perhaps this is another area where a crisis precipitates a change that seemed far too difficult in normal times.

It’s worth noting here that the CESG no longer exists and has since been replaced by the NCSC is the UK, but the advice hasn’t changed, although I did have to update the links in the above.

Other organisations have given the same and similar advice:

and for balance someone who’s standard still says every 90 days:

I am hoping for the days when we look back on passwords as a strange thing from our past, a bit like flared jeans, but I suspect that I’m not going to see it in my lifetime 😉.

Header Image: This is the view from Martindale towards Ulswater.

Retiring a Veteran – It’s Time to Put my iPhone 5s to Sleep

Today I am retiring a phone that I have been using for over 7 years.

I’ve never subscribed to the view that a phone needs to be replaced every couple of year or even, as one UK company is currently advertising, every year. Phones get replaced when they reach an end-of-life event.

What you can’t see in the picture above is that the iPhone 5s, robust as it is, is falling apart. The screen is steadily coming away from the rest of the case. Once I noticed that this was happening, I was expecting the phone to die completely soon after, but it’s been like that for over a year.

Some years ago my employer decided that they would no longer provide its employees with handsets, so my work phone has been the venerable iPhone 5s for a while now. During that time, my personal phone was an iPhone 6s, I can’t remember why I upgraded from the 5s to the 6s, but I think it was for the same reason I’ve just up graded my 6s for a 12 – battery life. The device that needs the better battery life is definitely my personal phone.

It’s time for 5s to go to sleep. I liked the 5s very much.

You may wonder why I carry two phones? Put simply, to separate my work and personal life. The value of leaving work behind on a deck is much greater, to me, compared to the pain of carrying two devices some of the time.

Product Management and the Kitchen Analogy

These are some words I first wrote in 2016 which I thought I had lost, but a bit of searching sometimes pays off. I have made a few edits.

I’ve used this analogy a few times recently so thought I would write it out and see if it resonated with anyone else.

A few years ago whilst on vacation we visited a fascinating house called Cragside near Rothbury, Northumberland.

This house was, at one time, owned by the enterprising Richard Norman Shaw who created all sorts of ingenious devices including the world’s first hydro-electric power station.

One of the most interesting places in the house is the kitchen part of which is shown in the title image of this post. This place is packed full of gadgets many of them designed and crafted at Cragside.
 
For me this picture represents the way that we have traditionally implemented IT services for customers. There are specific gadgets everywhere, each of the built for a purpose. The cabinets are all custom built to fit the space available or free-standing. There’s very little that was manufactured, it was nearly all crafted.

This wasn’t unusual for kitchens of it’s time but this situation had started to change in the 1920s and following World War II a new type of kitchen became popular – the fitted kitchen. The fitted kitchen is what most of us have in our houses across Europe and the USA today.

There are a number of interesting characteristics to the fitted kitchen that are analogous with the shift that we need to take in the way that we deliver solutions.

The Building Block is the Cabinet

The basis of the fitted kitchen is the cabinet. There are only a few standard sizes for cabinets (using the UK numbers):

Floor standing cabinets are 600mm deep.
Wall mounted cabinets are 300mm deep.
Cabinets are 900mm tall.
Cabinets are available in multiples of 100mm and 150mm wide – 300mm, 400mm, 450mm, 500mm and 600mm.
Most floor standing cabinets are 600mm wide.

This limited set of building blocks are what is used in the vast majority of situations. People could still have custom built kitchens but they don’t because this choice of building blocks is good enough and the most cost effective.

A lot of the building blocks of solution could be standardised, there is no business advantage, for the developer or the customers, to building something outside of the building blocks. 

We do, however, need to understand from the market what the “cabinet” is that defines the standard in each of the areas where we want to develop solutions. Standardising on the wrong thing is as costly as continuing to custom build.

Everything Else Aligns to the Standard

The standard size for a washing machine in the UK is 540mm deep, 595mm wide and 850mm high. This size fits perfectly inside a standard cabinet space (the reason the washing machine is 540mm deep rather than 600mm is to allow room for pipes at the rear).

Are these dimensions the ideal size for a washing machine? I have no idea, but it is the ideal size for a kitchen into which it is being fitted.

What’s true of washing machines is also true of tumble driers and under-cabinet fridges and freezers.

There are appliances on the market that are 500mm wide, but the choices are limited.

The appliance manufacturers have aligned to the cabinet standard, they aren’t expecting the cabinet standard to change because it isn’t ideal for them.

There are Edges and Constraints

If you are fitting a kitchen into a room that was built before the war (we have quite a lot of those in the UK) it’s highly likely that the room won’t ideally fit the standard cabinets. It’s not even certain that the walls will be straight. 

There will be gaps at the end.

When a kitchen is being refitted there are also constraints created by the location of the doors, windows and plumbing.

That’s where a great kitchen designer and fitter come in.

They’ll handle the gaps at the end and make the most of the constraints. They’ll take a length of worktop and make it fit into the space in a way that makes it look like it’s was meant to be there.

The same is true for many IT solution, we are fitting them into customer environments that haven’t been custom built to take them. Experienced designers and fitters make them work in the space provided provided by the customer.

It’s worth noting here that houses in the UK are now build with rooms that are a multiple of 600mm wide and deep. There are no longer any edges because they’ve been built knowing what the standard is.

There is Room for Flexibility

Not only is there a need to fill the gaps, but there is also a lot of flexibility in the building block approach. If a customer already has an oven then there’s no need to mandate the use of our oven, if their oven adheres to the standard it will fit right in.

There are only a few choices for standard cabinet design but there are more choices of doors than I care to count. The door design has a limited impact on the effectiveness of the kitchen and no impact on its running costs, but the design of the door has a massive impact on how a customer perceives the kitchen.

There are numerous configurations for what goes inside the standard cabinet – drawers of various sizes, shelves of various sizes, combinations of the two.

This flexibility has been built in from the start. The impact on the cost of the standard building block is minimal. Most cabinets come with holes in them to allow shelves to be fitted at various heights and to be changed at any time. People don’t have to drill holes to make adjustments, the flexibility is built in.

The Overall Result is Unique

The use of standard building blocks which allow flexibility and the empowering of skilled designers and fitters to fill the edges and work around the constraints means that every kitchen is unique. This is particularly true for kitchen refits into older housing.

Sometimes the uniqueness is just in the shelf configuration, sometimes it’s more significant, but it’s all built from a standard cabinet baseline.

Customers deserve something unique that fits there needs, but that doesn’t mean that it all has to be unique.

The Service is What Sells

Most kitchen fitting companies offer free home measurement and design, at least in the UK anyway. Why do they do that? I suspect it’s because they know that it’s really service that sells. 

The cost of a medium specification standard sized cabinet must be benchmarked and cost pretty much the same to every one of the kitchen fitting companies. There’s little differentiation to be had in making cheaper cabinets. Likewise, I suspect that people aren’t going to be willing to pay much more for a cabinet with “additional features”, but the difference in the cost of doors is huge.

Where the differentiation occurs is in the service:

Can I trust this company with my installation?
Is the price reasonable?
Are they flexible?
Do they understand my “special” requirement?
Do they understand what I like?

Summarising

It’s just an analogy, but I find analogies helpful because they help me to see something from different angle and then to see if that different viewpoint also applies to the thing I’m trying to understand.

Header Image: This is the kitchen at Cragside, or more specifically, this is a very small section of the kitchen at Cragside.

Why do acronyms bug me? And what has that got to do with Zip files?

I have a love-hate relationship with acronyms. Much of my working day is spent using them.

I work in an industry that has created acronyms that have become part of the common language – PC for instance.

** A quick aside, it’s worth me clarifying a couple of things before someone else does. Technically speaking PC isn’t an acronym it’s an initialism, the difference is in how you say them – NATO is an acronym because it’s said as a word, PC is an initialism because it’s said “P”, “C”. There’s also abbreviations, and sometimes it’s not easy to work out the difference. I’m going to use the term acronym as shorthand for all of these in this post. Also I’m not going to put a full-stop between the letters of any of the acronyms, or initialisms, because honestly, life is too short and there doesn’t appear to be any clear consensus on the correct punctuation. Back to the main topic of post.

Acronyms are everywhere.

Some words that we use we no longer even recognize as acronyms – Radar is probably the best known if these.

Most organisations have an internal language littered with them – in my organisation a NOD is a Notice of Decision.

Yet, despite their prevalence, I’m not a fan. The truth is, they bug me.

The other day I asked this question on twitter:

I’ll let you read the comments, which were all helpful. No one chimed in to say that they were a fan, and there were several reasons why people thought that we used them. I was hoping that if I could find a fan they might be able to help me understand a little of why I feel this sense of dread every time I come across a piece of TLA (Three Letter Acronym) laden writing.

While I was pondering this, an analogy occurred to me which has really helped me understand the mechanics behind my frustration. It’s a bit technical, but I think most people will relate to it.

Acronyms are the Zip files of writing

Zip files aren’t as widely used as they used to be, but they are still used, it’s just that there use is a bit more hidden these days.

Imagine this. You are sat at one of your many screens and for once you haven’t been distracted by WhatsApp or by gazing blankly at a group of people who would rather be anywhere than on another Zoom call. You are, however, distracted by a notification informing you of a new email. The notification takes you to an email from a friend inviting you to a party (remember those). You look up and down the email a couple of times but can’t find any details. At this point you realise that your friend has attached a file to the invite. You select the file and it opens up in another window/app showing that this is a Zip file containing a PDF of the clipart heavy invitation.

As someone to whom the announcement of a party is new information you had to go through three steps to get to the information you needed. If you had already known the details of the party you would have only needed to go through one of those steps. It would have been far more efficient, for you the reader, if the author had put the information in the text of the email, but if they had done this you wouldn’t have enjoyed seeing their clipart skills.

The other day an insurance company sent me a renewal notice for my car insurance. The details were in a Zip file, but this file required a few more steps because it was a password protected Zip file. The text of the email told me how to unlock the file using my data of birth. The problem was, these instructions were hidden is several hundred other words and it took me a while to find the answer I was looking for.

Acronyms do the same thing, they compress together units of information that in many cases we need to uncompress to understand. That process of uncompressing takes extra time, extra effort, additional steps and interrupts the flow of reading. Sometimes it doesn’t have that impact because we know what the compressed item contains, but there are far more times when our flow of reading is interrupted by our need to uncompress what we are reading.

Acronyms still bug me, but I think I now understand a bit better why – TTFN 😉

Header Image: Today’s picture encapsulates the sunset at a local beach as Sue and I watched and waited.

About Not Writing

This has been a strange season for me, and I’m sure I’m not alone. One of the outcomes of that strangeness has been a lack of writing, in some ways, perhaps a lack of creativity all-round though I have been involved in many things and even created many things.

I don’t suppose that there is one single reason for this strangeness apart, that is, the peculiarity of the time in which we find ourselves and my own part in this global story.

My head is a swirl of things, some of them are simply thoughts, others feel like they are lurking just out of grasp waiting to reveal themselves when it is least appropriate. This isn’t a wholly new experience for me and in previous seasons I’ve used writing as part of the processing of those thoughts, but this season has been different, I haven’t felt like writing.

It may seem strange to be writing about an inability to write, and peculiar is what it is, but what you aren’t seeing is the effort that it’s taking me to write these simple words. It feels a bit like walking up a long loose sandy dune with each step requiring even more effort for little gain. Even now I’m not sure about what I’m writing and many of these word have been replaced, recreated, only to be superseded by something else.

I’m not even sure why it bothers me that I haven’t written in a while, I’m under contract, or do this as a means of making a living, it’s just something that I’ve done for a long time and it has become part of me. Many people who started blogging when I did gave up years ago, perhaps they’ve found something more interesting to do. Something draws me back to writing these words in this little, seldom visited corner of the Internet, to expressing a thought or an idea, to reason and to ponder.

There have been many things that I could have written about, let’s face it, the world has been a crazy place for many weeks now and there have certainly been things that I felt deeply about and could have commented on. I am reticent to add my voice to a world full of far more eloquent and more insightful voices than my own. Sometimes the reticence descends into comparison and the dangers that lurk there for each of us.

I’ve started writing a couple of times, but nothing would form and the words would run away and hide inside unreachable corners of my head. There they hide with thoughts that don’t want to be seen. Sometimes I search back for those ideas but get distracted by other, more pressing, more disturbing scenes ahead of me.

It’s a bit like I’ve been living on one side of Kierkegaard’s axiom:

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Søren Kierkegaard

Perhaps there’s been so much forwards to look at that I’ve not wanted to look backwards and understand.

I’m reading… “Life on the Mountains” by Terry Abraham

I’ve followed the work of Terry Abraham for what seems like a long while now. He first came to my attention, and the attention of many others, when I saw the film “Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike”.

Somewhere along the line I connected with Terry on Twitter and watched as his adventures with “Life of a Mountain: Blencathra” unfolded. We watched Blencathra, the day after its debut, sat outside, in the pouring rain, at the Threlkeld Cricket Club, facing towards that majestic and mysterious mountain. I loved the dramatic mountain cinematography accompanied by the narrative of people known to the family and even some distant family members. My wife spent part of her childhood living at Threlkeld Quarry looking out towards Blencathra and her wider family has roots that stretch from Penrith to Wasdale.

In recent years Terry has been working on completing his trilogy with “Life of a Mountain: Helvelyn” which was scheduled to premiere in recent weeks, but a global pandemic got in the way of that, I’m sure it will be brilliant when it does debut.

I had wondered about buying myself a copy of Terry’s recently released book, but hadn’t got around to it, so I was blown away when a copy came through the door including a personal inscription. It turns out that Sue had a similar idea to me, but she had ordered a couple of copies and then been selected by Terry to get something personal put inside.

The book itself is both an exquisite picture book and an autobiography focusing on Terry’s journey to filming mountains.

The pictures mostly align to the story being told and beautifully illuminate the stories of wild camping and inversion chasing. Having not been up a mountain for several months these pictures are both painful and soothing. There is a pain in the lack of access, but there are soothing thoughts of great days to come. You’ll notice, below, that the inscription talks about completing the Wainwrights, I’m nearly there, another four walking days will see me finished which I thought would be easy to achieve this year, but that’s a promise I’m holding lightly.

The autobiographical words illuminate Terry’s love of the hills and of the many Lake District characters that dwell between the mountains. Although having read the book I am slightly concerned about Terry’s health and safety practices while out and about, he does like a visit to the local hospitals.

We live in a world where it is possible to know so much about people, but not really know them. Sometimes we convince ourselves that in our reading, watching and social media interactions that we have got to know someone, but it’s not the same as really knowing someone. That lack of knowing doesn’t stop us having a connection with someone and that’s how I feel about Terry, this book and other interactions have given me a connection, and my life is richer for it. His regular posting on Twitter and elsewhere are an inspiration, and so is the book.

I’m Reading “The Salt Path” by Raynor Winn

I recently found myself in an unusual place, not knowing where to turn next, because I’d reached the end of a couple of series of books. I’ve recently been re-reading the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis which has been wonderful, but the Last Battle had been and gone. I’ve also been loving the Sidney Chambers series by James Runcie, but that had recently concluded with the prequal. Then there’s been the DCI Ryan novels by L.J. Ross and they finished with a Christmas mystery (although a new one is arriving tomorrow). Like I say, I wasn’t at all sure where to go next when a birthday present arrived – “The Salt Path” by Raynor Winn.

Series of books are great because you get to go deeper with the characters, starting something completely different can be a joyous revelation of new things.

The series above are all novels, “The Salt Path” is more of a biography charting a very personal journey along the The South West Coast Path by Raynor and her husband Moth. The South West Coast Path is a 630 mile ramble from Minehead in Somerset to Land’s End in Cornwall and then on to Poole in Dorset.

I love walking coastlines, but they are hard work especially in somewhere like the South West coast where you can’t walk the beach and spend your life descending into steep valleys and then ascending out of them.

While the physical journey is part of this book, it’s not the major part. Without giving the story away I can tell you that Raynor and Moth have been through a terrible time and for most people even contemplating this walk would be madness, but in their position it feels dangerous, deadly even. Yet, when they set out I understood, absolutely, why they were doing it. The alternatives to the hike were significantly worse.

For Raynor and Moth this walk becomes a journey of discovery, a journey of redemption and ultimately a journey of new resilience.

Most of the time I don’t talk to others about the books that I read, the nearest I get is to write one of these posts, but I’ve found myself talking to numerous people about this one. There are so many anecdotes and stories that I have wanted to share with friends and family. The stories are often funny and regularly amazing. I’m not going to tell any of those stories here, because you can buy the book, and that’s what I want you to do – buy it, read it and let it impact you. This is a book that impacted me and I’m quite sure I’m not the only one.

Header Image: This isn’t Cornwall, this is Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

Walking the Parish – Parochial Pathways

I’m trying to reclaim the word “parochial”. In the dictionary it has two meanings:

  • Relating to a Church parish
  • Having a limited or narrow outlook or scope.

The most common meaning, narrow, is primarily applied in a derogatory way. If you are called parochial it’s not likely to be a complement. Being broad in outlook is regarded as a good thing and it probably is, but there’s a dark side. We flit from tourist destination to viewing area collecting selfies like rewards badges. People are measured by how many countries they’ve visited, or how many famous landmarks they’ve visited and yet we have a certain admiration for people who have found a place in which they are happy just to be. We chase an illusionary peer-pressure defined outcome while looking, enviously, behind us at people who have chosen a different path – a more parochial one.

We live in an age desperate to discover the next big thing. No one wants to miss out on the latest craze. This is, sadly, even true for walking people, there’s a kudos in being able to climb the biggest hills or travel the longest walks. I have to admit to having fallen for this comparison myself. I have, after all, been trying to tick off the Wainwright hills for a while now, this is primarily a person target, but there are times when the dark side raises within me. We treat the parochial with contempt as small, narrow and inferior.

Most of England is split up into more than 15,600 Ecclesiastical Parishes a designation that dates back to the sixth century, signifying an area looked after by a priest. Parishes are not defined by size they are normally bound by natural features and represent a community contained within vale, valley or the immediate vicinity of village and town. Many parish churches still follow an ancient ritual of walking the boundary of the parish at least once a year, it’s known as beating the bounds. This can be quite challenging in areas where the border stretches over over mountain, moorland, lake or shoreline. The purpose of this activity was and still is, multifaceted at one level it is about defining the boundary, but there are also spiritual elements to it as the priest and the parochial leadership pray for the community within the boundaries. Rather than looking at the riches in adjacent parishes beating the bounds created a deeper sense of community for those within the perimeter. It’s an inward looking celebration, a parochial event.

It’s this sense of looking and seeing where I am that I am trying to reclaim, having parochial perception. By keeping my looking narrow I am finding that I am seeing more than I did before. There’s a richness in the parish that wasn’t visible when I was looking to other fancies of other parishes.

While walking one of the parochial paths recently I first noticed the drilling of a woodpecker. Walking that same path on another day I saw the woodpecker fly past me towards a particular set of trees. A few days later and I watched a black-and-white bird hopping up the side of one of the boughs of those trees. A few days later and there were two woodpeckers spending most of their time around a particular branch. I’ve seen these woodpeckers on this same branch a few time now, in one particular place where I suspect there is a nest, but it’s away from my view so I can’t confirm that. The woodpecker is a fabulous bird to watch, full of character, they are completely at home in their parish in the woods. I’ve probably walked past these same woodpeckers on several occasions before, but it’s only by having parochial eyes that I saw them.

It’s not just woodpeckers, as I think parochially there’s so much more that I see.

There are the parochial land features of nab, lane, farm, field, hedgerow, wood, house, bridge, well, brook, aqueduct, and fold.

There are the parochial names of Clarkson’s, Dingle, Haighton, Fulwood, Fernyhalgh, Ladywell, Tunbrook, Redscar, and Boilton.

There’s the parochial fauna of deer, fox, rabbit, hare, buzzard, barn owl, lapwing, woodpecker, bullfinch, goldfinch, sparrow, squirrel, kestrel, and frog.

There’s the parochial flora of blackthorn, hawthorn, bramble, crab apple, oak, ash, bluebell, wild garlic, marestail, primrose, cowslip, yew, maple, and foxglove.

There’s the parochial colours of moss, mint, lime, butter, grass, clover, violet and verdant whites.

There’s the parochial light as it illuminates the different features throughout the seasons.

During this time of lockdown there is little choice but to walk the parish, but I’m determined that this time of thinking parochially will be one of revelation. By focussing in on what is local I’m seeing more each and every day, there’s an enlightenment in being narrow.

Header Image: This is one of the local lanes on a recent evening perambulation.