Saturday, 19 January 2019

Private Alfred Walton, of the Suffolk Regiment

The mortal remains of a soldier lie in a little graveyard in St Neots. The grave's white stone is slightly weathered, with traces of mould forming a green haze near its base. As a Commonwealth War Grave, it dominates the other graves in the graveyard.


The inscription reads:

30299 PRIVATE 
A. WALTON
SUFFOLK REGIMENT
19TH JANUARY 1919 AGE 20

My family was doubly blessed: although we had family members serve in both world wars, as far as I am aware we lost no-one to that conflict. Therefore I find war graves somewhat poignant: we were lucky when so many were not.

But this is an unusual grave: not just because it is on a route I walk regularly, but because of the date of Private Walton's death. The First World War ended on the 11th November 1918, so he died a little over two months later, presumably whilst still in service.

So how did he die? Accident? The great Spanish flu?

Fortunately the Internet gives a few answers.

According to the st-neots.ccan.co.uk website, his name was Alfred William Walton:

Alfred William enlisted in the 3rd Battalion of the Bedford Regiment in October 1915, and in May 1916 was transferred to the 2nd Garrison Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment (service number 30299) and served at Landguard in Felixstowe, but was taken ill with tuberculosis of the lungs and was discharged in August 1916 as no longer physically fit. It was also found that he had enlisted when only 17, when the minimum age for service was 19. He died from TB on 19th January 1919 and was buried on 23rd January in Eynesbury Old Cemetery.
He is commemorated on the Eynesbury War Memorial, but was not entitled to any medals as he never served abroad.
He must have been a brave young man, volunteering to fight in the war at a time when the horrors of that conflict were first becoming known, and whilst a couple of years younger than the minimum enlistment age. Like so many other young men, he must have lied about his age in order to fight.

Yet he never did get to fight, and tuberculosis laid him low.

So on this day, 100 years after his death, I remember and salute Private Alfred Walton, and indeed all the victims of that war.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Another coastal walker

Karen Penny is setting off on a 20,000 mile walk around the coastline of Britain and Ireland, including over twenty islands in that time. She set off from Swansea on Monday 14th January, and plans for the walk to take her four years, averaging 15 miles a day, every day. She is raising money for Alzheimer's Research UK.

For more information, see:
bbc.co.uk
Sky News

I am slightly puzzled by the mileage; the coastline of the mainland can be well walked in 4,000-4,500 miles, and my own rather extended walk (e.g. by not take ferries) was 6,200 miles. Ireland should add about another 2,000 - 2,500 miles. Still, I daresay all will become clear, and I wish Karen the best of luck: walking for four years is an amazing aim in itself, and it's perfectly possible to walk 20,000 miles in that time.

Combining the coastlines of Britain and Ireland in one walk (obviously with a ferry or flight between them) is becoming increasingly common. I think the first person to do this feat was John Wesley, but more people are following in his footsteps. I'd quite like to do Ireland one day, but I probably won't get the chance to do it for many years.

One other note: my list of coastal walkers is very out of date. I hope to update it soon, and thanks to everyone who has sent me information on coastal walkers. There are lots of them about.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Weighty topics

When I was young, I was scarcely concerned about my weight. As a teenager I felt I could eat whatever I liked without putting on weight, although my family might disagree with that! This was aided by the fact I was often in pain, and hence my appetite was stifled, and hindered by long periods of inactivity due to the pain.

But I don't think I was ever particularly overweight. I had my last operation in May 1998, I took up walking as a hobby immediately afterwards. 1,000 miles a year tended to keep me trim and, although I scarcely ever weighed myself, I got the impression that I could eat whatever I wanted, only to lose any weight gained during a walking trip.

Then came the coastwalk, a year and 6,200 miles of walking. Although I was already quite fit, my weight decreased markedly during the first three months, plateaued for six months, and finally increased for the last three months despite an increased average mileage. I can only assume that my body had got used to the exercise, so I required less calories per mile. Pictures of me from that time show a slightly gaunt, bronzed and well-weathered figure staring at the camera - I was certainly fitter than I had ever been before, and perhaps ever will be.

Perhaps the fittest I have ever been.
What went wrong?
As I passed through my thirties, work and other obligations weighed on me and my weight slowly increased. I got married, and happiness induced a certain sloth that also helped my paunch grow. Then, a small back problem and the birth of our son led to me reaching 100kg.

This is overweight, but I have short legs and a long body, and I kept on telling myself it didn't really matter.

Then, on February 1st 2016, I got meningitis.

The meningitis was not caused by my weight, nor by my general health. It just happened. But I was shocked when I went on scales in the hospital and discovered I weighed over 105kg. I had to face it: I was in my mid-forties, overweight, and with a young son who I wanted to see grow up into adulthood. The meningitis had been an almighty scare, and my mortality had been made clear to me.

I decided to do something about it.

I started in September 2016. A two-pronged approach of boring calorie counting and even more boring running led me to a weight of 95kg, which I was more happy with. I also cut down on my drinking, which I was less happy with. Since then, more of the same has led me down to about 90-92kg. This means my BMI says I am still overweight, despite there not being much more to loose.

I find I can maintain 90-92kg fairly easily, without undergoing too much suffering and without doing too much exercise. Best of all, it's not trying mentally: I don't find it hard to do. Attempts to go below 90kg always fail within a few weeks.

My ideal weight in my mid-forties seems to be about 90kg. I wonder what it will be in my fifties or sixties?

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Brexit

It's all a bit of a mess, isn't it?

There is no clear way forward now that May's deal has been rejected. Many anti-deal people want options that involve the agreement of third parties, and therefore might be unavailable. They are wishing on unicorns.

The public split 52-48 on the Brexit referendum, and polling shows very little change in their view since then. Some polls show remain in the lead, some show leave. The country is still bitterly divided.

I have no answers. It is up to reasonable people in parliament to be sane and sensible, and they are proving to be unreasonable, far from sane and very, very silly.

In my view, the first question MPs and the wider public should ask is: "what is certainly deliverable?" The second question they should ask is: "what will the great British public support?"

I cannot see an answer that satisfies both these questions. Brexit has split the country, and it seems few people - especially MPs - are willing to compromise their views, even when those views are undeliverable or anathema to the public.

It is easy to think of options that suit individuals.

You might want a second referendum. But which options would be 'fair'? There is also precious little time for one to be held before the end of March.

You might want an extension to A50 beyond March 29th to allow more time to sort it out, but the EU might not want an extension beyond the next European elections - and besides, who says people will change their minds even if we give them an eternity?

You may want to cancel Brexit, but would the EU want us to remain in with the same conditions, rebates etc as before, or will we be forced deeper into their project? And if the result of the 2016 referendum is ignored, people might reasonably cry: "what price democracy?"

The only clearly deliverable option is no-deal Brexit, and that threatens to be disastrous to the economy and country: but that is only deliverable because nothing needs to be done for it to be delivered. It is the default.

So that is where we are heading: a no-deal, crash-out Brexit that will harm the country in many ways.

I hope I am wrong.

Politics is moving very fast at the moment, with May facing a vote of no confidence this evening. Sadly, it seems that the views of too many people are firmly entrenched.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Concrete barges

Whilst walking the final stretch of the London Loop path near Coldharbour Point, I came across 16 concrete boats wallowing in the mud. Some had their bows pointing towards shore, as if trying to clamber onto dry land, whilst others lay marooned at random angles. Lengths of rusty reinforcing bar showed through gaps where the concrete had decayed.



When I got home, I decided to research them. These boats were built in the early 1940s to cope with the increased wartime need for vessels. They are technically called ferro-cement barges - the advantage of concrete being that less steel was required in their construction, at a time when steel was scarce. The barges were also not expected to last long, whereas a ship might be designed to serve for decades. Each weighs about 200 tons, and were constructed at the London Docks before being craned into the water. These particular ones were built for handling and transporting petrol.

It is rumoured that barges of this sort were used in the D-Day landings and Mulberry Harbours, perhaps as parts of the floating roadway. Whether these particular vessels were used or not, they were dumped on the riverside after the 1953 floods to act as coastal protection, and have lain there ever since.

Or have they? They seem in a slightly odd arrangement and location for that to be the case, at least to my inexpert eyes. Were they used, and then moved to be dumped at their current location once the defences had been repaired?

They appear to be in surprisingly good condition given they were built around 75 years ago, and have been abandoned for over 65. Whereas wooden vessels soon disintegrate except where they are buried in sand, and metal rusts to nothing, some of these concrete boats appear as though they could be refloated and used - although that is almost certainly a false appearance.

The concretebarge.co.uk website has details on how similar vessels were made (although I believe not these particular ones) - including an interview with the designer! It's interesting to see Gunite was used - an early version of the shotcrete used in civil engineering nowadays.

At times the Second World War can seem rather distant. It is therefore good to see some concrete reminders of the war - even if it is in a rather bleak, industrial and wind-blown spot on the Thames Estuary.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Driver aids

I have long been bearish on autonomous cars. This has not been helped by Elon Musk and Tesla consistently over-selling the autonomous capabilities of their cars, and of journalists sometimes  overawed reviews of other companies technology, e.g. Waymo.

The wheels have somewhat come off the autonomous car juggernaut over the last year (and I will try to write about this later). But for this post, I thought I would look at the other end of the problem: simple driver assistance aids.

Sencan recently got a new job with a longer commute, and we decided to get a new car. And for the first time in our lives, it would be a brand-new car.

After rejecting the new-style Honda Jazz, and covetously eyeing a Ford Fiesta, she decided upon a Hyundai I20. The model we chose has several driver aids: Lane Keeping Assist System, Lane Departure Warning System, Forward Collision Avoidance, and Driver Attention Alert.

Sencan has been driving it to and from work for the last few months, and I only recently got to drive it for a journey further than the local shops.

I have never driven a car with these aids before, so I thought I'd have a quick trial of them (excluding Forward Collision Avoidance, which would be rather difficult to test safely) to see what I thought.

Lane Keeping Assist System

This is where the car detects a lane ahead, and if you drift out of the lane, it pulls the car back in. Whilst active, a light illuminates on the dashboard and the feeling feels heavier: similar to an old, heavy vehicle without power steering. The car definitely lets you know it is in control.

Somewhat surprisingly, it also steered around bends (this is probably not recommended usage of it) if I just rested my hands on the wheel.

When enabled, lane keeping assist appears to work well. The steering is heavy enough to allow you to know that it is enabled without seeing the dashboard light, and it seems to follow the lane well - although on some bends it steers like a fifty-pence piece - perhaps because its cameras can only 'see' a short distance ahead.

However, it does not seem to trigger on country roads or in towns, and even on an A road, it occasionally flickers on and off.

Lane Departure Warning System

In this, a light flashes and a buzzer sounds if you go outside a lane - at least on the driver's side;  I had no safe opportunity to test it on the nearside.

Driver Attention Alert

I tried resting my hands loosely on the wheel to see how well it would keep to the lane (as safely as possible; I never actually let go), and a warning would flash up to tell me to keep my hands on the wheel. This also seemed fairly reliable and unremarkable.

General notes

In the case of lane assist, it seems to require white lines on both sides delineating the lane, and will only activate if both are there. If so, this makes sense, as such line detection is far easier than trying to detect the actual edge of the road if the lines are not present. However the flickering on and off of lane assist can be annoying; I presume it is trying to fail safe (i.e. off).

The lane warning is much more robust; if I go over a white line it beeps and a light flashes on the dashboard. This seems much more aggressive in its detection than the lane assist; perhaps because it is only a warning, a few false positives (i.e. warnings given when one is not required) does not matter.

Conclusions

All in all, it was a positive experience. It is an interesting first step towards automation, albeit a baby step. There is also a massive gulf between it and true autonomy, especially in the places lane assist would not enable itself, despite the lanes being obvious. In my opinion they can also be a valuable driving aid - if used correctly.

For me, the most impressive thing is that this capability is present in a reasonably-priced car, and appears to work well and unobtrusively. But there is a vast gulf between such assistant technologies and the ones required for automated driving, which will have to work 100% of the time.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

John Bellingham

Political assassinations are thankfully uncommon here in the UK. Aside from the tragic murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016, there have been precious few attacks on our MPs.

Before Jo Cox's tragic death, the IRA and their predecessors had done their best to kill MPs, succeeding on six occasions. Despite the list of sitting MPs who have been murdered is thankfully low.

But these are just the successful attempts; there have been other, unsuccessful ones. Labour MP Stephen Timms was attacked by an Islamic extremist, whilst a tragic machete attack on Nigel Jones killed his researcher, Andrew Pennington. It is clear that MPs can make an attractive target.

A simple plaque on a building in St Neots tells the story of John Bellingham, the only person to successfully murder a sitting Prime Minister.

An event to have civic pride in?

By all accounts (mostly, it should be said, written after his crime), Bellingham was not a success in  life. Born in St Neots in 1776, he set himself up in business and travelled the world, including to Russia, where he ended up in jail in 1804 over bad debts. It took him five years to finally make it home, and he seems to have spent that time getting increasingly annoyed.

For some reason, he believed the British government owed him compensation for his imprisonment in Russia. After his pleas to the government failed, he travelled on the 11th May 1812 to the Houses of Parliament, where he waited in a lobby. As Prime Minister Spencer Perceval (apparently not 'Percival' as on the plaque) appeared at about 5.15 in the afternoon, Bellingham shot him in the chest.

Bellingham made no attempt to escape, and in fact sat down on a bench. He therefore cannot have been very surprised when he was swiftly arrested, tried and executed within a week - despite people attempting to help him escape!

There was a surprising amount of public sympathy for him, partly due to Spencer Perceval's unpopularity, and a subscription ensured that the success he had missed in life was partly gained in death.

As for Perceval? He is a forgotten Prime Minister. Few remember him, and when they do, it is for the nature of his death that any of his many achievements in life.