Under A Well-Lit Sky

NO matter how stable the genius, best-laid plans have a tendency to get swept away by real life.

Some get upset by that and lash out in 280 characters or less. Repeatedly. Others put off attempting to string together rather longer, less knee-jerk combinations of words, no matter how many times it makes it to the top of the to-do list.

Genius? Almost certainly not. Stable? Depends which doctor you talk to.

And so 17 days into 2018, one of the great traditions of the Travel Marmot swings around again – the new year, state of the nation address planned for New Year’s Day finally gets written.

Well, started anyway. Let’s see if we can get it finished despite the distractions of televised football (it’s Chelsea, so pretty safe), Twitter and the need to cook at some point in the not too distant future.*

This tradition started three years ago in a dark, peaceful beach bar in Ghana. It continues for a fourth year in a considerably better lit flat in Gloucester, considerably colder  despite the fact my boiler has been fixed after a couple of days without heat or hot water.

At least the need for a shower finally got me back to the gym.

That initial new year address was written, unplanned, on January 1 (although not posted for quite a few days). The next three have been scheduled to follow suit – the point where those best-laid plans have gone astray.

Things just kept getting in the way. Work, largely, a mini African reunion in Nice, losing weight (more later, not much of an excuse but have spent more time shopping and cooking), binge watching Stranger Things (no spoilers, not finished yet) and largely finding excuses to avoid spending even more time tapping away at a keyboard.

Still got here almost a week earlier than two years ago (starting it at least), albeit more than a week later than last year’s missive when the tradition was expanded to include my pick of the previous 12 months’ album. Again, more of that to come and why this really does need to be done on schedule.

Best albums of 2017: The final cut

So what has changed in those 365 days? Well, 373 to be accurate (and climbing).

On the face of it, not that much.

The blog had been on a hiatus, planned as opposed to just not getting round to it often enough, was living in the same place, doing the same job and was working through a tax issue that was muddying the finances for any travel planning.

Was about to head off to London to the Adventure Travel Show to get a few ideas and at least try to salve those itchy feet.

That much certainly hasn’t changed. There’s a few loose ideas and it was off to Olympia again at the weekend, part reunion, part travel fix.

My flat’s over there somewhere in the distance

Yes, still living in the same place – thankfully, warming nicely after a couple of nights layered up as the mercury dropped at the worst moment – but a fair few things have changed.

On paper, the job is the same but in terms of the working week it is unrecognisable from a year ago. No daily deadline to scurry towards, more a gradual cranking up of the pressure as we head towards Wednesday and the weekly appointment with the press.

There’s also no commute. Well, not so you’d notice. The hour or more on the bus every morning replaced with a gentle stroll a couple of hundred yards to the relocated office.

Not sure all my colleagues – a much more select bunch nowadays – appreciate the move so much having suffered a reversal of travelling fortunes, but now there’s a chance to do something meaningful with the evening. Like writing a blog post. Or going to the gym.

Oh yeah.

The other major change, bar the fact Gloucester have started winning regularly, has been my waistline.

It’s not a massive change, not yet. You might not even notice it, bar my trousers falling down (nothing that new there) unless my belt is pulled so tight it is almost garotting me. It you can be garotted there.

But after seven weeks, the difference is starting to show.

There’s closing in on two stone gone, wearing an old pair of jeans a size smaller (although with no buttons in the fly, not in public) and a lot of walking in Nice was, well, quite nice.

Certainly could not have covered so much ground on foot a few months ago. Then 10 minutes or so would have reduced my left hip to a throbbing knot, shooting pains down to my knee (which has given the odd minor grumble since the much-delayed return to the gym). Partly down to a hip issue, partly my total lack of conditioning.

Some more expensive flats near water

But only when things got steep – and they did, what with neighbouring Monaco being built largely on what felt like a cliff – was there any doubts that this was not a good idea.

Even my back held up to carrying a bag back to the airport when we decided walking was the best option with the Promenade des Anglais closed to buses and taxis for a race.

And it was probably a good idea after breaking a fair few rules of the diet every time we were ready for another round (although never thought it would lead to ordering a Coke Zero in a McDonald’s. Overlooking the Grand Prix circuit in Monaco –  country number 58 on my list).

Add all that up and the whole weight loss thing has gone pretty well. It’s not all been easy and, don’t worry, there won’t be any preaching here but this is something worth sticking with.

There’s a long way to go. Not to any target, don’t really want to set those beyond the next landmark but throw in increased gym and the aim is simply to keep going and see where we get.

Not so much a new year’s resolution, just a fresh way of life – rather like it is not a diet, more a more sensible way of eating.

Haven’t always been good. There’s been a couple of sessions on the beer, rattling up all my syns in one go. And they’ve generally been accompanied by not exactly paying too much attention to the allowed food list.

But they’ve also included plenty of walking – in rain and snow through the streets of London – to counteract the added calories.

That’s sort of the idea (beyond the obvious health benefits). When the Travel Marmot eventually does get back on the road somewhere, fitness and weight is not going to be an issue in choosing whether or not to do something.

You never know, might even doing something about my snoring.

But let’s not get carried away.

  • Think the date at the top rather gives that away, but failing to get it done before heading to bed and four straight days away from the laptop rather scuppered that.

And the need to finish the second part of this post, once it became clear it would be way too long all rolled in to one.

Click just down there to the right for details…

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Ghost to Girl From Mars

IT may have largely wandered down a musical side street – at least very loosely – but this blog started out as a home for travel writing.

The post-pub conversation which gave birth to the Travel Marmot* was about bringing my own writing from out on the road together in one place, as well as a place for advice articles and for other would-be travel writers to find a home.

The last of those never got further than a vague idea, the middle one remains a largely unmined seam of subject matter – there’s a huge list waiting to be tackled – while the first one worked fine. It is just hampered when you are not out on the road.

Which is why we took the diversion on the other journey from A-Z through my iPod.

And that journey cut across the early days of my travel writing, when this blog – and most of those which can be found all over the internet – was largely unthinkable.

Back in the days when internet access was not the given it is these days, newspaper offices had one – two, if you are lucky – machines in the office to be shared on a needs-must business.  Very slowly if you were trying to download a picture or send something via dial-up.

My first bout of travel writing was from fairly exotic climes – The Bahamas.

Newly arrived at a paper in Wales, they somehow decided to pack me off as the company’s representative at a golf tournament for the winners of regional tournaments around the country. We had done the press for the Welsh heat and got to send somebody.

The workload was, frankly, not over demanding. The Welsh winners came from outside our area so nobody was interested in a report on the golf, so all that was left to do was swan around a few golf courses, hang around the hotel pool and bar, pop into the basement casino and enjoy the day trips and activities put on by the tourist board. All at someone else’s expense.

A few hundred words for features never even touched on the unfortunate injury suffered by one of the golfers enjoying a ‘massage’.

Not all press trips are that exotic – most are weekends away a lot closer to home – but over the years managed to blag my way on to a fair few trips (mainly skiing, at least once because they thought it was a well-known ski writer of the same name).

Prompted looks of horror from at least three accompanying PR folk – one when we stumbled on a dead wolf painting not quite the picture he was envisaging outside our lunchtime stop on a mountain in Serbia, another when she realised one of the journalists in her charge was lying in a frozen stream,  trapped under the snowmobile he had crashed in northern Finland.

The third – a fairly regular travel companion – was just horrified at the mention of calling it a night. It was about 2am and it was becoming tough to focus, especially in the midst of a pool battle with two Finnish gold miners, but  she shamed me in to staying up. And making it up for breakfast and a morning on the slope just hours later.

Not me – they are still upright. Got a lot better

The trip which came to mind on the latest section of the A-Z journey was a touch warmer and was in October 2001 (thanks Google, dating courtesy of the trip coinciding with David Beckham’s goal against Greece which took England to the World Cup and more disappointment).

This was more golf, albeit slightly closer to home on the Algarve. A larger group was split across three villas, the four younger lads (it was a few years ago) handed the keys to one with a swimming pool which made fielding on the leg side rather perilous in a long afternoon game of garden cricket.

The trip produced some of my finest golf (not saying much) as even the bad shots seemed to ricochet off the cork trees back into the fairways with one stunning victory over a Sun reporter and a guy we nicknamed Lou Carpenter, who never forgave us for nabbing the best villa and not being included among the younger crowd.

We also had access to a hire car and, for some reason, the others agreed to one of my compilation tapes as the main source of music.

Know there was some Nick Cave on there (Tupelo, probably) which did not go down well. There was definitely some better received Moldy Peaches (Downloading Porn With Davo). And there was Slobberbone.

Gimme Back My Dog, picked up from an Uncut sampler CD, became the song of the trip. At least for the four of us, not sure the rest of the group were quite so enamoured when we hosted a final night barbecue round the pool.

And it was a pleasant, largely forgotten surprise as it popped up at number 4,000 – of, currently, 13,330 – in the latest section from Neutral Milk Hotel (largely passed me by, but seemingly worth further investigation) to probably Ash’s finest three and a half minutes.

We went through ghosts, giants, gifts and girls with a fair few old dependables – Pixies (the wondrous Gigantic, twice), The Smiths (Girl Afraid) and Ryan Adams, two versions of Gimme A Sign and three of Gimme Something Good (one of them twice for some reason).

And there was GI Blues from Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, which goes back even further than my first bout of travel writing and who bring a fair few stories which we’ll get to eventually. Probably when we get to S.

The song comes from a different perspective, but one verse did catch the attention and works today:

Look away John F Kennedy
Look away Franklin D Roosevelt
Look away George Washington
Thomas Jefferson and Brother Jonathon
Look away Bob Hope
Look away Uncle Sam
Look away Ronald Reagan
Look away Dixieland

Look away indeed. Especially if you happen to be on Twitter.

  • That’s it for the blog for 2017 – Happy Christmas to anyone who has bothered to read this far.

Back soon with the now traditional new year state of the nation post and my pick of the past year’s albums – after wading through the pile of downloads after scouring everybody else’s lists.

In a twist of fate, the daughter of the man who took the conversation about a website seriously and created it while some of us were still lying in bed is poised to feature somewhere in the end-of-year lists.

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Gagarin to Ghetto Thang

MOST of my journeys in recent years have started by turning right.

Not just boarding flights, when even my one incursion into life behind the posh curtain came via a lucky escape from what was shaping up to be a long, frustrating night crossing the Atlantic in cattle class.

Any pretence at appearing to belong in the posh seats was rather ruined by attempting to get off the plane by turning right and heading towards the cockpit, rather than left and back towards the exit.

Let’s blame it on being disoriented after sleeping through a flight (well, almost, was paranoid of keeping the first class cabin awake by snoring).

Even jumping on the back of a big yellow truck on the way round Africa, my standard position was off to the right at the back – extra room staked against the increased chance of getting sent airborne if the truck hit any serious bumps or potholes.*

And for the last couple of years, my everyday commute has started by turning right out the front door and making my way to the office through a combination of walking and bus. An hour at least.

Until now…

A recent post outlined the big change in my working life with the switch from daily to weekly newspapers and posed the question of what to do with my weekends cleared from work (not entirely, managed to find stuff that is best got out of the way then, but can be slotted in around everything else).

Now there is more time back – that commute is down to, at rough estimate, all of two minutes.

All from turning left and wandering the couple of hundred yards to our new office.

The postman can’t find it, the milkman delivers to the office over the corridor and nobody can agree on whether it is too hot or too cold in the office, but from considering home early if The One Show was still on, a late return now is if Pointless has finished.

One impact of this is the knock-on effect on the A-Z trip through my iPod – the cornerstone journey of this blog.

Instead of that hour of travelling every morning (got a lift home most nights) to rattle through the tracks, a journey to work now would cover only the shortest entries on the A-Z.

So whatever the answer is to do with the new-found spare time – more regular posts would be one idea, once that time has stopped being filled with an awful lot of… well, nothing constructive really – it needs to involve more listening to the iPod.

And with everything else going on, the simple answer is finally (seriously, it’s been far, far too long) to get back to the gym.

The view from my flat over the ice rink to the gym with the blue lights. The little light bottom right stays on all night and is really annoying.

The gym sits across the square from my flat, the lights shining out through the large windows around the clock – the other side of the ice rink and the Ferris wheel at the moment – every night reminding me just how long it has been.

There is an excuse. For some time, that would have involved a gag about my back/shoulder/knee (delete as applicable).

But it seriously has been stopped in recent months by a hip. A hip which could yet spark more telling changes to my life than those at work.

Diagnosed by my osteopath as bursitis – technically, inflammation of a fluid-filled sac which acts as a cushion between tendons and bones; in practice, bloody painful area which, in my case, moved down through my thigh and into the knee with any form of exertion, even that short walk to work would have been a strain at its worst – he pointed me in the way of my GP for a further check.

Being a bloke, going to the doctor is usually put off as long as possible, but this instruction seemed worth following.

As was the final verdict that there was little wrong that could not be solved by the one thing both of us knew long before the subject was broached – it was time to lose some weight.

And for once, it was not put on the to-do list and ignored.

If it was not for that hip – not perfect but much better and at a point where that initial return to the gym is on the agenda in the next few days out of the office – it would not be walking me to a Slimming World class once a week.

Not actual weight. Or my socks

And it seems to be working, 11 and a half pounds lost in the opening two weeks. Not quite so confident ahead of this week’s weigh-in, particularly after rather exceeding the allowed amount of beer (and cheese) at the office Christmas do, and there’s a long way to go but already feeling much better on it.

Add the creaking joints to too much weight and pre-diet me rarely felt comfortable. There was always some pressure pushing somewhere.

But even this early in the diet – and need to expand my recipe horizons and start cooking properly after keeping it really simple so far – it feels like someone has opened the bottle on a large bottle of Coke (a habit kicked cold turkey) and released some of that pressure.

Time to return to the gym while the initial eagerness is there to tackle three birds with one stone – lose weight, fill those extra hours with something meaningful and listen to the iPod at the same time.

When the return to the iPod journey does pick up again, it will be in the relatively early stages of G – the stuttering recent weeks taking us from Public Service Broadcasting (apt after the last entry) to De La Soul.

Along the way we saw plenty of old favourites – Echo and the Bunnymen (The Game), The Clash (Garageland), REM (Get Up, twice) and The Wedding Present who chipped in with a pair of cover version which both came in their original form – Getting Nowhere Fast by Girls At Our Best and Getting Better by The Beatles, who also contributed four versions of Get Back.

There were also multiple versions of Get Off by The Dandy Warhols, plus multiple songs from Gomez – Get Miles and Get Myself Arrested back to back – and we even got unusually Radio 1 friendly with Daft Punk’s Get Lucky.

Not sure exactly what Radio 1 would make of Georgia, Georgia or anything by Elliott Smith for that matter. But that’s the type of forgotten pleasure or discovery which is the whole driving force behind this blog.

Same goes for Belly’s Gepetto. And Get Free by The Vines. Both long overlooked but which had me singing in the office for much of the day.

More good reasons (beyond getting fit and losing weight) to get back on the gym and plugged in to the iPod.

*Oasis Overland recommend all passengers wear their seatbelts at all time. Another rule we largely ignored.

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A Few Months to Fool’s Errand

ONCE upon a time, my working world extended rather further than my desk and the screen in front of me.

Sure, most of my time was spent tapping away at a keyboard, laying out pages and ensuring newspapers got out on time without anything that could have meant any legal implications (the part of my job many keyboard warriors who just slap things online unchecked can never understand).

But back in the day, Saturday afternoons – which shows how long ago this was – and more than occasional midweek evenings were spent peering out over a rugby pitch, pad in hand.

Facilities varied widely. Reports were filed standing on top of a radio van in a storm to peer over a crowd lining the side of the pitch, from phones with no view of the pitch, sat next to a fire on a sofa in one press box, surrounded by increasingly drunken fans blocking the view and even, on more than one occasion, on the bench. Thankfully, never got on.

Ebbw Vale, 1961

Among my favourite places to cover matches was Eugene Cross Park, home of Ebbw Vale, which became my regular Saturday haunt for a few seasons.

It was a typical Welsh club ground, cricket pitch off to one end, a wonderful, steep terrace cut into the valley running the length of one side and a loyal following of familiar faces and supply of sweets from a fellow press box regular in return for spotting all the substitutions.

The Steelmen had  a pretty good side at the time, guided by a future Grand Slam-winning coach, supplying a number of Welsh internationals and reaching a Welsh Cup final. Played, bizarrely, in Bristol and the only time I turned up late for a game when working.

It also came with its own climate and you could spot those who were not used to it – interviewed great All Black Zinzan Brooke as he shivered in shorts and a T-shirt after a pre-season friendly against Harlequins in August. Those of us in the know were clad in multiple fleeces kept in the car for trips to the head of the valley, however glorious the weather was just 20-odd miles away.

Emergency office

There were frequent sprints (yep, long time ago) to the phone box up the road to phone in reports to other papers for a few quid – no chance of a mobile signal up there – and an interview with one of the players through a blocked door as he carried out a post-match drugs test.

Was even accused by some of the faithful of brokering a move for two of their international players to Gloucester when financial problems hit. May have answered a few questions about Gloucester and broke the story, but that’s as far as it went. Agent’s cut would have been nice.

Things have changed. Ebbw Vale don’t produce internationals anymore, although they more than hold their own at the semi-professional level, and my rugby watching is much closer to home – bizarrely, a row in front one of those former players at Kingsholm at a pre-season game which saw a rare move from The Shed to a seat in the stand.

But the town has popped back up in my consciousness in recent months, courtesy of what is a fairly clear leader in my list of albums of the year and which has popped up a few times in the A-F catch-up on the A-Z journey through my iPod.

Have liked Public Service Broadcasting before. When they get it right, their blend of samples from old films, TV and news reports over a carefully-built soundscape – ooh, feel slightly queasy writing that – is excellent.

But it’s been more the odd track rather than album that’s caught my attention, more the first than the more widely-favoured follow-up Race for Space.

And then they released Every Valley, recorded in a makeshift studio in the town’s former workers’ institute.

It is, quite simply, a work of art (ooh, drifting off in to slightly pretentious critic territory now) as it explores the culture, high hopes, crushing collapse and determination of the mining industry with liberal sprinklings of Welshness,  from the unmatched voice of Richard Burton, through contemporary soundbites from miners and wives, a dash of the native language to a male voice choir for the finale, perfectly pitched to deliver one final emotional punch.

The music has the ability to get in your head, those soundscapes (stop it, now) working alongside the samples rather than overpowering them and at times veering in to Mogwai and even, bear with me here, Godspeed You! Black Emperor territory. The gentle border territory.

The guest vocals of James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers – from just down the road in Blackwood – is maybe the one track which sits slightly uneasily on the journey which needs to be made from start to finish. No shuffling, always the mark of a good album.

There’s been a couple of tracks from the album in this catch-up, the title track and All Out, where it hits the heart of the strike.

Arcade Fire

We’ve had a fair amount of Arcade Fire – not quite sure what to make of their latest album, but the fact it has not caught hold of my attention probably says it all.

Among others, there’s been the debut from Girl Ray – the band which features an old friend’s daughter, just to make me feel old – new stuff from the always interesting John Murry, comebacks from Ride and At The Drive-In and a couple from the latest Jason Isbell offering.

After releasing the couple of great albums we’ve been waiting for Ryan Adams to come up with for years, he appears to have released an album we’ve received more than once from Adams. It’s OK, but…

And then there’s The National.

Have mentioned before on this trip that they are a band which largely passed me by. For some reason, suggest they were dismissed as just one of a bunch of anodyne The… bands which were around at the time. So anodyne, can’t really remember who they were. The Script? The Feeling?

Various friends rave about them, one whose musical judgment is pretty trustworthy, but they continued to pass me by although they snuck in to my collection courtesy of a few borrowed CDs from an ex-flatmate which went largely unheard.

They pricked my attention early in the journey when they seemed to pop up very regularly, but vanished just as quickly. Until now.

Their new album is pretty bloody good. At its best – Day I Die on this stretch – it is very good and while it doesn’t all live up to that, there’s enough to keep dragging me back and delve into that back catalogue.

In among starting on G…

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Freedom to Fuzzy

ONE of those Facebook on this day posts popped up in my feed this week, recalling my attempts to adjust to working a Monday to Friday, nine-to-five week.

That was seven years ago and lasted little more than a year during a career diversion out of journalism and in to the travel industry.

But since first switching from a weekly newspaper to a daily – one still embroiled in the unfolding tale of the Fred and Rose West killings when OJ Simpson was about to be more than an ex-sportsman turned actor – my working life has involved weekends.

Until now…

Be it covering rugby matches and the accompanying travelling and writing or producing pages for Monday’s papers, Saturdays and Sundays have been normal working days. 

But no longer. The past week has been the first since our newspapers took the leap from dailies to weeklies and the working week of the production department switched to a standard five-day Monday to Friday.

It’s taken some getting used to, not least because we did it from a standing start after the final daily newspapers, producing the first week’s product in three days.

And it’s not exactly been nine to five – it’s been more nine (ish) to whatever time we have finished. Which meant nine (the other one) on one night and around 4.30 on quieter ones, having wandered in nearer 10.

For people used to working weekends, taking days off in the week and considering leaving the office anything before 7pm as an early finish, it’s all been a bit odd.

What do people do on Sundays? Or with full evenings? Especially once Pointless has finished.*

Our working hours are minor changes in everything that has happened in the office in the last month. And the newspaper industry.

It came as something as a shock to us all. Not so much the decision, more the timing. We knew something would change, we just weren’t expecting it to be so drastic and so sudden.

And, however many times you go through this – reckon my personal redundancy process counter is up to double figures and have somehow survived them all, even the one where my hand went up for voluntary – it is not pleasant to go through uncertainty and see friends and colleagues disappear from the newsroom to uncertain futures.

Been debating what to write about the changes, the reasons behind it, the state of the newspaper industry and the reaction to the decision and a week in, not sure there’s a totally coherent answer there.

There’s several future posts in all that once the dust has settled and, for now, we just want to get on with it.

I remain a huge advocate of newspapers and their role in the world, especially when providing a much-needed scrutineer to politicians – global, national and local – and anyone in a position to make a decision which can impact on readers’ lives.

And, yes, the decision to go weekly would not have been my choice. But, it is an understandable one in the current climate – however many people tell us we are wrong. Right before telling us they haven’t bought the paper in years.

One thing that does need pointing out is the reaction of more than one former colleague or fellow journalists past and present who have jumped in to have their say.

Many have been measured and realistic about the state of the industry, others have criticised and repeated claims they have not bothered to check – most notably that the papers will be “thrown together” by people in another office who don’t know the area and don’t care.

Can assure them, we are based in the area, care about it hugely and the paper and I have never just “thrown together” any pages, article or paper in 27 years doing this. If that happens, it won’t just be weekends I won’t be working on newspapers.

And we’ll continue to check our facts.

The sense of change and end of an era has been echoed by the A-Z journey through my iPod as it reached the end of the F section on this section from The Housemartins to Grant Lee Buffalo – track 3,794 out of 13,090 (for now).

It looked at one point as if the whole journey had ended at The Friendly Beasts by Sufjan Stevens when my iPod basically packed up.

An F word which popped up a few times in this section came in to use, but one thing about Apple is you can find solutions for most problems online – albeit with fairly liberal use of the same F word – and it popped back in to life.

It brought a decent, if not classic, selection headed up by a pair of Half Man Biscuit tracks from across the decades – the early Fuckin’ ‘Ell It’s Fred Titmus and more recent Fun Day In The Park, complete with wonderful rhyming couplet,  ‘Soft play area with free bananas/Iguana Andy and his iguanas’.

There was the familiar figure of Billy Bragg (From A Vauxhall Velox), the lovely French Navy by Camera Obscura (more of them in the next entry), the sadly departed Stornoway (Fuel Up), Full Moon, Empty Heart by Belly – one of those bands rediscovered on this journey – a Jam classic (Funeral Pyre) and Frontier Psychiatrist by The Avalanches which somehow became a bit of a regular on the Trans Africa.

Grant Hart

Continuing the apt timing, there was Friend, You’ve Got To Fall by Husker Du, pretty much about the time the sad news broke that drummer Grant Hart had died. Not without damaging the hearing of a generation of guitar music fans.

And there was Future Boy by Turin Brakes. There’s some decisions to be made as this boy heads into the future over the next few weeks, probably starting with whether to see them live again at the end of the month.

Hopefully we’ll have worked out how this new weekly stuff pans out by then.

  • It’s not exactly no weekend work, there’s been a couple of Sunday hours ahead of finishing this post. More changes in the next month or so will produce even more free time as my journey time from work changes from more than an hour to about a minute. There are plans for that spare time, but more of that to come.
photo by: paul bevan
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