Archive for the Cardiff Category

Lá Saoire i mí Lúnasa

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , on August 1, 2022 by telescoper

Today, Monday 1st August 2022, being the first Monday in August, is a Bank Holiday in Ireland. This holiday was created by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 when Ireland was under British rule. While the holiday was subsequently moved to the end of August in England and Wales it has remained at the start of August in Ireland. Today is also a Bank Holiday in Scotland, though the Scots have the best of both worlds and have a holiday at the end of August too.

I’ve mentioned before that 1st August marks the old Celtic festival of Lughnasadh, named after the God Lugh, on which is celebrated the beginning of the harvest season. It is also one of the cross-quarter days, lying roughly half-way between the Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox (in the Northern Hemisphere).

Anyway, the University is closed today and I made the use of the long weekend to take a few days of annual leave last week, from Wednesday. I’ll be off tomorrow too. Those four days will be about it for my summer holidays, though, as our repeat examinations commence on Wednesday 3rd August and I’ll be busy doing corrections from then on. Incidentally, these examinations are called the Autumn Repeats consistent with the general interpretation here in Ireland of 1st August being the start of autumn. The weather today is certainly somewhat autumnal!

For various reasons we have a larger-than-average number of students taking repeat examinations this year. Moreover, one of our temporary lecturers left at the end of his contract at the end of June so is unavailable to mark his examinations. As Head of Department, and with several staff unavailable, it’s my responsibility to make sure that they get graded so it looks like I’ll have to mark the majority of his scripts as well as my own. And a few projects too.

At least my term as Head of Department is due to end soon. I was appointed to this position in 2019, initially for three years starting on 1st September so August 31st 2022 is my last day in office. That reminds me that I stepped down as Head of School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex on 31st July 2016, i.e. six years ago yesterday. How can it be so long?

I moved back to Cardiff in 2016 to a three-year, part-time position which would have come to an end in 2019. I supposed at the time that I would then take early retirement and that would be that. I certainly didn’t imagine then that I would move once more, this time to Ireland nor did I think I would be Head of Department anywhere.

Reflecting on my decision to leave Sussex and return to Cardiff I wrote this:

I’m not going to go into all the reasons for stepping down, but one of them is I wanted to establish a better work-life balance…. I was therefore more than happy to accept the offer of a position here on a 50% salary. In other words, I am officially a part-time member of staff. I’m planning to use the other 50% to pursue some other interests, such as writing a couple of books and running the Open Journal of Astrophysics, but generally just taking more time off the treadmill of academic life.

It didn’t quite turn out like that, but at least I did what I was appointed to do at Cardiff. It was just chance that led to the change of plan, with the opportunity of moving to Ireland coming out of the blue. Instead of taking 50% of my time off, from December 1st 2017 until July 2018 I worked 50% of the time at Maynooth, commuting to and fro across the Irish Sea: thereafter I worked here full-time.

When I was appointed Head of Department of Theoretical Physics in Maynooth in 2019 I received some (sarcastic) comments about that bit above about the “treadmill of academic life”. In truth I didn’t imagine that it would be as hard as it turned out. I wrote in 2019:

It’s about three years now since I stepped down as Head of School at the University of Sussex at which point I didn’t imagine I would be stepping up to be Head of Anything again, but to be honest this position has a smaller and much better defined set of responsibilities than the one I used to hold so I’m actually quite looking forward to it.

Of course I didn’t know then that the Covid-19 pandemic would strike in 2020, exacerbated by staff shortages and lack of support at University level, creating a huge increase in workload and stress. The job has been far harder than I imagined it would be, not least because there is no proper job description for a Head of Department at Maynooth. The “smaller and much better defined set of responsibilities” I anticipated turned out not to be the case at all. Indeed, the workload associated with being HoD has grown substantially over the last three years, with fewer resources and lower levels of support.

In short, I can’t wait for this month, and my term as Head of Department, to be over. I am not going to leave Maynooth and will continue doing teaching and research (including supervising graduate students), both of which I enjoy. But after this month time I will have served my time as Head of Department and it will be someone else’s turn to climb up on the treadmill…

The Kindness of Faces

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Film, Television with tags , on July 28, 2022 by telescoper
Bernard Cribbins

Another bit of sad news arrived today. The much-loved character actor, singer and comedian Bernard Cribbins has passed away at the age of 93. He was a remarkably versatile performer who appeared in scores of films and TV programmes over the years, including numerous stints on Jackanory, on which he revealed himself to be a superb reader of children’s stories, and providing all the voices for the TV series of The Wombles. Rest in peace, Bernard Cribbins (1928-2022).

Reading about his death and looking at pictures of him taken during his long and varied career got me thinking about something I’ve wondered about many times over the years, namely what is it about certain faces that makes them appear kind?

I know it’s a subjective judgment whether or not someone has a kind face but it does seem that many people do agree on it. I certainly think Bernard Cribbins had a kind face and it stayed with him all through his long career. Among actors, Tom Hanks is another prominent example. His face has clearly influenced the roles he has been cast in. No doubt you can think of others.

This is not just about showbusiness of course. I have met many people in the course of my life who have what I’d describe as kind faces, but what exactly is it about their faces that makes them so? It seems to involve a certain shape – softer features perhaps, not too angular – with rounder eyes and an easy smile. Other than those vague considerations I really don’t know. I have looked back through the personal library of kind faces in my memory and they don’t really have much in common at all. Whatever it is, it’s not the same thing that makes a face handsome or beautiful or sexy, though those are also of course subjective. For me there has to be a hint of danger for someone to be very sexy; a kind face is perhaps too bland.

Anyway, I remember many years ago talking with a (female) graduate student in a pub in Cardiff about this subject. In fact we started talking about which men in the Department we thought were the most handsome – I’d better keep quiet about that bit – but got onto a more general discussion. She had – and presumably still has – what I’d call a kind face, and I told her so when the subject came up. She was very aware that people thought that too and wasn’t entirely pleased about it. She said her face made people assume she was extremely emphatic and proceed to burden her with their personal problems even if she didn’t know them very well. I’d never thought of that downside before then.

In Macbeth, Duncan says “There’s no art / to find the mind’s construction in the face”, and there’s no necessary connection between a kindly disposition and a kind face. No doubt there are successful criminals, con-artists and the like, who trade on their apparently kind faces to manipulate their victims. On the other hand, in a world that can be incomprehensibly cruel, it can be nice to see a kind face even if it’s just a superficial relief.

Any theories on what makes a kind face and/or other examples of people who have such please use through the box below.

Life and Chemical Imbalances

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , , , , , on July 21, 2022 by telescoper

Although it has weighed on my mind in recent weeks, and I have mentioned it on this blog a couple of times, I’ve managed to avoid writing too much about the fact that exactly ten years ago I was languishing in the high-dependency unit of a psychiatric hospital. Today I saw that there’s an article doing the rounds about mental health issues so I thought I’d use it as a pretext for getting some of the memories of that time off my chest.

The article I mentioned above has the rather misleading title Depression is probably not caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain – new study. What the article argues is that there isn’t a simple cause-and-effect relationship between depression and the chemical serotonin. There may well be a biochemical explanation of depressive illness that involves serotonin, but it’s obviously very complicated. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Very few things in neuroscience are simple.

Unfortunately some people are misrepresenting the piece by claiming that it proves that a widely-used class of anti-depressant drugs known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs; the best-known of which, Fluoxetine, is known by the trade name Prozac). This class also includes Citalopram and Paroxetine (trade name: Seroxat), both of which I have been on. The latter is not available on the National Health Service through a General Practitioner, but must instead be prescribed by a consultant psychiatrist because of rather serious side-effects.

I refer you to an explanatory article Dean Burnett who explains that nobody really knows how these SSRI anti-depressants work, and why it is not surprising that they can have unexpected side effects. I hope that the articles I mentioned above help make it clearer what is involved being on medication of this sort. These drugs are in widespread use, but ignorance about them is spread even wider.

Anti-depressants are not only prescribed for the treatment of clinical depression but also for, e.g., anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is for these things rather than depression per se that I have taken SSRIs. Nobody really knows why anti-depressants work against depression (although there is clinical evidence that they do), and there is even less understanding why (and, in some cases, evidence that) they are effective for these other conditions. Like many treatments they seem to have been discovered empirically, by trial and error.

As Dean Burnett explains in his article, SSRIs work by increasing the level of Serotonin (a monoamine neurotransmitter). However, taking an SSRI increases the level of Serotonin almost immediately whereas the effect on depression takes weeks to register. While low Serotonin levels may play a part in depressive illness, they’re clearly not the whole story.

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2012, I experienced awful problems largely as a result of trying to come off the medication I had been on since the previous autumn. The withdrawal symptoms then included shaking fits, insomnia, visual and auditory hallucinations, nausea, and hypervigilance.

The effect of this extreme collection of withdrawal symptoms was that I didn’t eat or sleep for a couple of weeks. My mental and physical health deteriorated steadily until my GP referred me to a psychiatric hospital just outside Cardiff. When I arrived there they took one look at me and put me in a high-dependency unit, under close supervision.

I think they thought I was suicidal but I really wasn’t. I was just so exhausted that I didn’t really care what happened next. I was however put on a kind of `suicide watch’, the reason for this being that, apparently, even while sedated, I kept trying to pull the tube out of my arm. I was being fed via a drip because I was ‘Nil by Mouth’ by virtue of uncontrollable vomiting. I guess the doctors thought I was trying to sabotage myself, but I wasn’t. Not consciously anyway. I think it was probably just irritating me. In fact I don’t remember doing it at all, but that period is very much a blur altogether. Anyway, I then found myself in physical restraints, so I couldn’t move my arms, to stop me pulling the tube out.

Those days are painful to recall but I was eventually moved to a general ward and shortly after that I was deemed well enough to go home. Fortunately, I recovered well enough to return to work (after taking a short break in Copenhagen). I signed up for 6 weeks of talking therapy. I had to wait some time before a slot became available, but had appointments once a week after that.

At the end of the summer of 2012, I was offered the job of Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University. I moved from Cardiff to Brighton in early 2013 to take up this new position. I hadn’t been there for long when my old problem returned. The stress of the job obviously played a role in this, and I soon realized that I couldn’t keep going without help from medication. It was then that I was tried out on Paroxetine, the dose being gradually increased until I was at the maximum recommended level (60mg daily).

While this medication was effective in controlling the panic disorder, it had some unpleasant side-effects, including: digestive problems; dizziness; difficulty in concentrating; fatigue; and the weirdest of all, a thing called depersonalisation, which I still experience (in a relatively mild form) from time to time.

I found myself living a kind of half-life, functioning reasonably well at work but not having the energy or enthusiasm to do very much else outside of working hours. Eventually I got fed up with it. I felt I had to choose between staying in my job as Head of School (which meant carrying on taking the drugs indefinitely) or leaving to do something else (which would mean I might be able to quit the drugs). I picked the latter. The desire to come off medication wasn’t the only factor behind my decision to stand down from my job at Sussex, but it played a big part.

I knew however that Paroxetine is associated with notoriously difficult withdrawal symptoms so, mindful of my previous experience in 2012, I followed the medical instructions to the letter, gradually cutting down my dose over a couple of months during the course of the Autumn in 2016. I still had significant withdrawal symptoms, especially the insomnia, but not as bad as before.

In 2016 had no idea that I would move to Ireland in 2017. I’m glad to say, though, that despite the isolation and stress caused by the pandemic, and workload issues generally, I’ve managed without any form of anti-depressants since then, though it hasn’t always been easy. Let’s just say that I am greatly looking forward to reaching the end of my term as Head of Department of Theoretical Physics at the end of next month…

A First Course in General Relativity

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on June 30, 2022 by telescoper

This morning I received delivery of a brand new copy of the Third Edition (left) of A First Course in General Relativity by Bernard Schutz. I bought the First edition (right) way back in 1985 when I started out as a graduate student. Not surprisingly there is a lot of additional material in the 3rd edition about gravitational waves, which had not been discovered when the first edition was published. I notice also that Bernard has lost his “F”…

 In fact I have known Bernard for quite a long time, most recently as colleagues in the Data Innovation Research Institute in Cardiff. Before that he chaired the Panel that awarded me an SERC Advanced Fellowship in the days before STFC, and even before PPARC, way back in 1993. It just goes to show that even the most eminent scientists do occasionally make mistakes…

Anyway, the arrival of this book is a double coincidence because I’ve been thinking over the last couple of days about starting to organize teaching for next academic year. This isn’t easy as we still don’t know who is going to be available. We’re interviewing tomorrow for one of our vacant positions, actually. Yesterday also the University Bookshop sent out a request for textbooks to stock ahead of next academic year.

I was reflecting on the fact that I’ve been doing research in cosmology and theoretical astrophysics since 1985 and teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students since 1990 but I’ve never taught a course on general relativity. This may or may not change next year when teaching is allocated. There are many textbooks out there but, prompted by the arrival of Bernard’s new book, I was wondering if anyone reading this blog has any other recommendations, suitable for final-year undergraduate theoretical physics students, that might complement it on the reading list for my first course in general relativity, should I happen to give one?

Suggestions, please, through the comments box below!

REF 2021 Results and Ranking

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , , on May 12, 2022 by telescoper

The results of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 have now been published. You can find them all here at the REF’s own website because they are presented there in a much more informative way than the half-baked “rankings” favoured by, e.g., The Times Higher.

To give some background: the overall REF score for a Unit of Assessment (UoA; usually a Department or School) is obtained by adding three different components: outputs (quality of research papers); impact (referring to the impact beyond academia); and environment (which measures such things as grant income, numbers of PhD students and general infrastructure). Scores are assigned to these categories, e.g. for submitted outputs on a scale of 4* (world-leading), 3* (internationally excellent), 2* (internationally recognized), 1* (nationally recognized) and unclassified. Similar star ratings are applied to the impact and environment. These are weighted at 60%, 25% and 15% respectively in the current incarnation of REF.

You can find further discussion of the REF submission rules, especially concerning changes with respect to 2014, here.

The way the star ratings are often reported is via a Grade Point Average reflecting the percentage of in each band. A hypothetical UoA that scored 100% in the top category would have a GPA of 4.0, for example. One that had 50% 4* and 50* 3* would be 3.5, and so on.

In the 2014 REF institutions were allowed to be selective in the number of staff submitted so the GPA wasn’t really a very appropriate measure: some institutions chose to submit only their very best research in order to get a high GPA. The funding allocated as a result of REF turned out to be highly weighted towards 4* so this was a sensible strategy for them, but it made the simple GPA-based rankings even more meaningless than usual. That didn’t stop e.g. The Times Higher making such rankings though.

This time the rules on selection are stricter so the GPA is arguably more relevant, though many institutions have achieved selectivity anyway by moving certain staff onto teaching-only contracts. Staff on such contracts do not have to be submitted. I note that the main REF website does not use the GPA at all but instead gives profiles like this:

I show the example of Sussex because of my bad memories of the last REF (the 2014 exercise). I had moved to Sussex in 2013 at which point preparations were not well advanced and although everyone concerned worked very hard to put together the best submission for Physics & Astronomy we had to face the problem that our staff numbers had grown significantly in 2013 response to an increase in student numbers. While new staff could bring publications with them they couldn’t bring impact or environment, and while the outputs scored well the latter two categories didn’t so the Department of Physics & Astronomy did poorly in the ensuing rankings.

It must be said however that the primary purpose of the REF (allegedly) is to allocate blocks of funding- the so-called QR funding – to support research in the UoA concerned and while the GPA at Sussex was disappointing the fact that the money depends on the number of staff submitted meant that we got a substantial increase in QR dosh. Note further that the formula for allocation of funds to 4*, 3*, etc is not even specified in advance of the exercise: it is likely to be highly concentrated on research graded 4* and that the funding formula will probably different in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. A ranking in terms of money earned is likely to look rather different from one based on GPA.

Another, even more fundamental, problem with the GPA is that the scores are so close together that the differences are of doubtful significance. In the Physics UoA, for example, the gap between top GPA (Sheffield) and 5th place (Bristol) is just 0.05 (3.65 versus 3.60) respectively. I see also that Cardiff is ranked equal 18th (with Imperial College) on a GPA of 3.45.

I say these things just to illustrate how much more subtle the criteria for success are compared to a simple GPA. It’s even hard to tell on an objective basis who to congratulate and who to commiserate.

Anyway, back to Sussex I see that Physics & Astronomy has done far better on environment and impact than last time round and the outputs (95% of which are either 4* or 3*) are comparable to last time (96%) so by those measures they have done well although this might not be reflected in a GPA-based ranking. Sussex is 26th in the rankings with a GPA of 3.35, if you’re interested, which is better than last time, though they will probably be disappointed at the presence of 2* elements in their profile.

Indeed, looking through the Physics list I can’t see any UoA that has a lower GPA this time than last time. The pot of money to be allocated for QR funding is fixed so if every UoA does better that doesn’t mean every UoA gets more money; some institutions will no doubt find that their improved GPA is accompanied by a cut in QR funding.

I’ll end by re-iterating that, having moved to Ireland in 2017, I’m very glad to be out of the path of the bureaucratic juggernaut that is the REF. In its first incarnations (as the Research Assessment Exercise) it did fulfil a useful purpose and did, I believe, improve the quality of UK research. Since then, however, it has become an industry that is largely self-serving. I quote from an article in the Times Higher itself:

The allocation of QR funding could be done in a much simpler and fairer way but the REF is now such a huge edifice it will resist being replaced by something smaller. No doubt before long the staff who spent so much time preparing for REF 2021 will start work on the next exercise. And so it goes on.

The changes in ranking that now occur from exercise to exercise are generally small in magnitude and in number. In other words, huge effort and cost are being invested to discover less and less information.

P.S. For completeness I should say that I am glad we don’t have an equivalent of the REF here in Ireland, we don’t have an equivalent of the QR funding either. This latter is a serious problem for the sustainability of research in third-level institutions, and it is not addressed at all in the recent proposals for reform.

On Researchfish

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth, Science Politics with tags , on March 18, 2022 by telescoper

One of the things I definitely don’t miss about working in the UK university system is the dreaded Researchfish. If you’ve never heard of this bit of software, it’s intended to collect data relating to the outputs of research grants funded by the various Research Councils. That’s not an unreasonable thing to want to do, of course, but the interface is – or at least was when I last used it several years ago – extremely clunky and user-unfriendly. That meant that once a year along with other academics with research grants (in my case STFC) I had to waste hours uploading bibliometric and other data by hand. A sensible system would have harvested this automatically as it is mostly available online at various locations or allowed users simply to upload their own publication list as a file; most of us keep an up-to-date list of publications for various reasons (including vanity!) anyway. Institutions also keep track of all this stuff independently. All this duplication seems utterly pointless.

I always wondered what happened to the information I uploaded every year, which seemed to disappear without trace into the bowels of RCUK. I assume it was used for something, but mere researchers were never told to what purpose.

When I left the UK in 2018 to work full-time in Ireland, I took great pleasure in ignoring the multiple emails demanding that I do yet another Researchfish upload. The automated reminders turned into individual emails threatening that I would never again be eligible for funding if I didn’t do it, to which I eventually replied that I wouldn’t be applying for UK research grants anymore anyway so there. Eventually the emails stopped.

Now, four years later, it seems the software is no better. That’s not surprising as since everyone has to use it on threat of excommunication there is no incentive to improve it.

Yesterday I noticed on Twitter – not for the first time – an academic complaining about Researchfish. It was however the first time I saw this sinister reply from the company that runs the system:

I’m out of the UK system for good, so I can say what I think. To put it mildly I don’t think this response is at all appropriate. Researchfish would be better off trying to engage with the research community to improve its system, especially the awful user interface, than threatening the people who criticize it.

(And there are other software providers, you know…)

Update; unbelievably, with this crass “apology” they’ve made matters even worse!

Update: “ResearchfishGate” has now been covered by Research Professional and the Times Higher.

And now here’s their second attempt at an apology:

Apart from the very weird prose style, I’ve yet to see much evidence for what is claimed in the second paragraph…

Irreversible Changes

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Mental Health on February 12, 2022 by telescoper

There’s a feature on Facebook that reminds you of things you posted there on the same day in previous years. It’s often a pleasant thing to be reminded of past events involving your friends but occasionally the memories are not so nice.

Over the past few weeks Facebook has been bringing back posts that I put up a decade ago, when I was experiencing serious mental health issues that had gone on for months. I ended up in a terrible state in summer 2012, resulting in me spending some time in a psychiatric institution near Cardiff.

Some time after that I wrote a piece for Time to Change Wales from which I’ve taken the following excerpt:

I realize how stupid it was for me not to have sought professional help before. It’s only now, looking back, that I realize how ill I actually was. I had almost left it too late. I know I’m not “cured”. I’ll no doubt have to confront this problem again. But next time I know what to do.

So why did I leave it so long? Fear of the stigma, perhaps. But I suppose also pride. It can be difficult to ask for help, to admit to yourself, your friends and your colleagues that you can’t cope, especially when you’re in a job in which you feel that people “expect more” of you. Difficult, yes, but not impossible, and certainly necessary. Don’t do what I did. Life’s too short.

Although I did not enjoy at all the experience of being in a high-dependency psychiatric unit, I was lucky that I got professional help in time back then. Even more happily, in recent years I haven’t had any problems of the same severity.

I have only just come to understand, however, how far I was irreversibly diminished as a person by that episode, not only in social settings but also intellectually. My ability to concentrate has greatly deteriorated, for example, and I have far less energy. The fact that I’m also getting old – another irreversible change – hasn’t helped!

On top of all this, bridges that you burned when you were not in your right mind can’t be rebuilt, no matter how much you wish they could. You can’t hope to go back to things exactly as they were. It’s taken me a decade to realize that it this is a positive: there’s no point in being haunted by the past and dreaming about undoing things that can’t be undone. Moving on is the only way to move forward.

I don’t know if these thoughts will help anyone else who might happen to read this blog, but I hope they do.

R.I.P. Jon Davies

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, The Universe and Stuff on December 1, 2021 by telescoper

Once again I find myself having to pass on some bad news. I was shocked and saddened last night to hear of the death of former colleague at Cardiff University, astronomer Prof. Jonathan Davies (shown left).  I understand he had been ill for some time, but had preferred to keep his illness private.

Jon followed an interesting route into astronomy. He left school at 16 to become an apprentice car mechanic and did a few other jobs before deciding to study for a degree in Physics at the University of Bristol in 1986, following that up with a PhD at Cardiff University where he spent the rest of his academic career teaching and doing research in extragalactic astronomy.

Jon’s main research interests involved low surface brightness galaxies and cosmic dust which he studied using observations at a range of wavelengths, using radio and infra-red as well as optical facilities.

Jon was always helpful and supportive to other staff in the School of Physics & Astronomy, especially new arrivals. For example, when I was arrived in Cardiff in 2007 I inherited a part of a module from Jon (the “Nuclear” part of “Nuclear and Particle Physics”) and he was very helpful in getting me started on it. I remember also having interesting discussions with him about the physics of the hyperfine transition in atomic hydrogen which produces the 21cm much exploited by astronomers but for some reason not covered in much detail by many quantum mechanics texts.

Jon Davies was a fine colleague and an excellent astronomer who will be greatly missed in Cardiff and beyond. I send my heartfelt condolences to his wife Anne and their family on their loss.


Back to the Veggie Box

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth on September 9, 2021 by telescoper

Still life with vegetables

Since I’ve now been reunited with my kitchenware, cooking utensils and whatnot I thought I’d try to sort out a routine that enables me to eat a bit more adventurously and healthily. I’ve been a bit lazy in that regard over the last few years.

Many years ago when I lived in Nottingham I decided on a plan to increase the quantity and quality of the vegetables I was eating by ordering a weekly box  from an organic supplier. The one I picked there was called River Nene who provided very good stuff all year around. When I moved to Cardiff I had to cancel the arrangement, and I remained predominantly inorganic while I was renting a flat there. When I finally managed to buy a new house and move in, though, I looked to reestablish the regular deliveries. I was pleased to find a company called River Ford, which is kind of affiliated to River Nene, and which undertook deliveries of organic produce in the Cardiff area. I kept that up until I moved to Sussex. I did resume for a while when I returned to Cardiff in 2016 but the company changed the delivery arrangements suddenly and without telling me and I couldn’t use them anymore.

Anyway, I found a company called HarvestDay that provides a similar service here in Ireland that delivers fresh, seasonal organic vegetables direct from the farm to the customer. I decided to place a trial order to check them out before placing a regular order. The first box came this morning, delivered by a nice young man called Josh, and I am very pleased with it. Among other things there was a squash, Calabrese broccoli, spring onions and Cavolo Nero as shown in the picture.

There are several reasons why I choose to get my vegetables delivered this way.

First and foremost, organically grown vegetables fresh from the farm definitely taste far nicer than the bland varieties carried by most mainstream suppliers, including both supermarkets and local greengrocers. Once you’ve tasted how ‘carrotty’ a carrot should be you’ll never want to eat one of those supermarket ones that look too orange to be true and have no flavour at all.  This applies not just to carrots but to most vegetables: fresh organic ones are so much better.

Some supermarkets do carry organic ranges but the prices are usually astronomical, and they are often shipped in from all around the world. That brings me to the second point which is that all (or virtually all) the vegetables I get in my weekly box are grown locally. They’re correspondingly fresh and the environmental impact of bulk transportation is also lessened.

Third, the nature of the scheme is that all the vegetables are seasonal. I think it’s quite sad that people have largely lost respect for the seasons by virtue of the fact that you can get strawberries all year around in supermarkets. I think it’s good to celebrate the natural cycle of things by eating  the correct food when it happens to be ready. You wouldn’t want to have Xmas dinner every day, so why not be prepared to wait until October to eat fresh sweetcorn?  To every thing there is a season. There’s always something yummy to eat if you’re prepared to be imaginative with your cooking.

And that’s the final point.. If you place a standing order for a small box of vegetables every week, the composition varies from week to week and with the time of year. The company does email and post on its website the contents of the following week’s boxes, but I generally don’t look at it. When this sort of box arrives, it’s usually a mixture of staples plus things that are not so familiar, and often something I’ve never cooked before.  If it hadn’t been for the veggie box, I would probably never have found out about how to cook chard, romanesco, jerusalem artichokes and celeriac. I look forward to these surprises. Not knowing exactly what’s coming forces me to cook new things, and if I don’t know how to cook them there’s always google. That’s why I get vegetables this way rather than going to a shop. It forces me to be a bit less lazy.

Of course, the summer salads and lighter things have now finished and, with winter coming on, there will be more root vegetables. I think the heavier vegetables tend to put some people off a bit, but there’s enough variety to keep it fun. My practice is to eat the more perishable things first, then move onto the rest. If it looks like things are going to go off or be unused I usually chuck them into a vegetable curry, which can be frozen or eaten over several days. Spicy dishes improve with time.

Each box looks like a lot of food, but I always manage to eat most of it. I have to admit that not all my culinary experiments are successful, but more often than not I am pleasantly surprised. I tried curried beetroot a few years ago, with more than a little trepidation. It turned out to be absolutely delicious, even if I did have to ad-lib a bit with some of the ingredients. The only drawback was an unexpectedly colourful trip to the lavatory the next morning…

Remembering Charles Byrd

Posted in Art, Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , on September 4, 2021 by telescoper

Most of the belongings I’ve just had delivered to Maynooth are of sentimental rather than financial value so I suppose it was inevitable that I’d get a bit sentimental opening them up. The painting above is by a Cardiff-based Welsh artist called Charles Byrd and it was painted in 1963, the year of my birth. The story of how it came into my possession over a decade ago can be found here.

I unpacked this yesterday along with most of my other artwork but I haven’t decided where to put it yet so it’s sitting on my desk until I decide where to put it.

It was with some sadness that I found out recently that Charles Byrd passed away in 2018 at the age of 101. There’s a nice little tribute to him here. I found out reading it that in the least years of his life he lived in a little flat on Llandaff Road, very close to where I lived in Pontcanna, though I never met him, which is a shame because he seems to have been quite a character!

Rest in peace, Charles Byrd (1916-2018).