All posts by Rob Jackson

Chemistry/Forensics Academic (Reader), researcher in Computational Solid State Chemistry; blogger, trombone player, CAMRA member.

Rest in Peace Vi – a tribute from Angela

My mother-in-law Violet Jackson passed away peacefully aged 100 on September 25th 2020 at a care home in Kent. She had only been a resident in Kent for seven weeks, having lived independently in her own home, located in the village of Wenhaston in Suffolk until early August. Vi was not a happy woman in […]

Rest in Peace Vi

A trip to London (31 July – 1 August 2020)

Normally a trip to London wouldn’t deserve a blog post. But the trip I have just returned from was my first visit since mid-February, when we went to the Tutankhamen exhibition (and wasn’t it fortunate that we managed that then, given what has happened since?)

Anyway, ever since lockdown was eased, and hotels could reopen, I have been planning a trip to London, just to see what it was like. The train from Stoke was fine. Passengers have to occupy window seats with the aisle seat unoccupied, to ensure social distancing, and that’s fine with me. The train was actually about 10 minutes late arriving at Euston, because of speed restrictions due to the hot weather heating the tracks, but it didn’t matter as I didn’t have a fixed schedule.

On arrival at Euston, I noticed the relative emptiness of the station, normally heaving on a Friday afternoon. I headed for my hotel, noting that the Doric Arch pub at Euston is still closed (normally a good place to visit if you have time before a train). My usual hotel, the Tavistock, was still closed, so I had booked the Royal National next door. I had stayed there before, but not for a few years. It charges slightly more per night than the Tavistock, but the rooms are much the same. On check in I was asked for photo ID, which is a new thing (luckily I had one!), and told about the breakfast arrangements (you collect a boxed breakfast from the Café).

Leaving the hotel, I walked towards Russell Square, looking at what was open and closed. Basically coffee places and some small cafés were open, but the pubs I passed were mostly closed (more on that later). My first planned stop was the Russell Square Café (now called the Caffé Tropea), which was open, with outside seating only (which was no problem on a hot afternoon). I consider this to serve some of the best coffee in London, so I was appropriately caffeinated once I set out for a walk around the area of Bloomsbury near the British Museum, basically just to see what it was like. Everything was quiet; the museum is still closed, and rather to my surprise, the Museum Tavern was also closed (it is normally very busy, and not just with museum visitors), and it is large enough to open with social distancing enforced. That was one of my potential stops on this trip, but not this time. After the walk it was time to return to the hotel to cool down for a while (it was very hot, and when London is hot, the heat is unrelenting).

After a short rest, it was time to head out again, this time to a timetabled appointment! I checked out the area around Woburn Walk, noticing that both the Woburn Tandoori and Mabel’s were closed (rather to my surprise, since they both have local clientele and are not completely dependent on passing trade). Then it was back down Upper Woburn Place, turning left to pass Russell Square tube, calling into Tesco’s, and continuing to the Lamb pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street. I think I have been frequenting that pub since 1980, possibly earlier. Since they reopened, they have worked on a table booking system, and I had booked a table online. I then spent a nostalgic hour drinking beer, and thinking of my past visits. Somewhat disappointingly the Young’s Special wasn’t available (not brewed yet apparently), but the Ordinary (or Original as it’s called now) was completely acceptable. After that it was time to return to the hotel for dinner (which I had brought myself), although it did appear as if the ‘London Pub’, next to the hotel, is serving food – I saw the menus but nobody actually eating.

I had originally intended to do some more exploring the following morning, but it was clear from yesterday that there are very few options – one of our favourites, the National Portrait Gallery is closed for example, so I decided to return a bit earlier. The train back to Stoke left a bit late, but was fine. Once again, Euston Station was quiet.

So, to my conclusion: a trip to London is possible – the trains are OK and hotels are available, but you need to have a programme for what you are going to do, and to check in advance if places are open. I had done that for the places I definitely wanted to visit, but there were others I might have visited as well, unplanned. Many pubs are closed, which means they can’t be depended on for somewhere to call in for a quick drink when you are out and about. And one small negative point – places offering takeaway food and drink are all fine and good, but you need to have somewhere eat and drink! Outdoor seating is a bit restricted now due to the ongoing pandemic. If you can take it back to your hotel, that’s great of course, but otherwise, doing it while walking isn’t ideal. But we are already planning a trip once the British Museum reopens, and there is an interesting exhibition to visit.

More thoughts on life during lockdown

Since the UK went into lockdown on 24 March, I have posted occasional updates, mostly about how life has been affected, and what the effects have been on my work. Now we are slowly emerging from lockdown (in England at least), I thought I should write about some issues that arose, before they are forgotten, mentally buried by all the new things that will distract me in the months to come.

Going back to March, when it all started, I was worried about whether I could fulfill the expectations of my job, given that we have never felt the need to get broadband installed in our flat. Initially I wasn’t supposed to go to my office, but I had lectures to record and put online! In those first few weeks I researched WiFi dongles, and bought 2, one of which worked (the O2 one; I now have a redundant Vodafone dongle that has never worked). I bought a WiFi antenna, which also didn’t work, although that will hopefully be a useful investment for the future, the problem being the distance of my flat from the nearest WiFi router. Finally our IT services came to the rescue and provided me with a MiFi device, and after about a month I managed to negotiate a permission letter to use my office from time to time, and with those I was largely sorted.

Another worry in those early days was food shopping and pharmacy provision. We didn’t know which shops would be open, and in particular whether our campus supermarket would remain open (it did), and perhaps more importantly, whether our pharmacy would, since we both have prescriptions that we collect from there. Buses were still running to our local towns, and we have continued to make use of them. My car battery went flat through lack of use, which led me to need to call the AA to jump start the car, and to purchase a solar battery charger! In the end we developed a workable routine, using the campus supermarket for basic items, and going into town for specific provisions (Angela has developed a good relationship with an independent butcher, for example, who has stayed open throughout). And we were much relieved that the pharmacy stayed open. The campus newsagents/post office closed, but will reopen next week, but sadly our branch of Blackwell’s will not be reopening, meaning the university won’t have a bookshop until such time as a replacement can be found.

On a more positive note, those early weeks of lockdown were great for mental de-cluttering, and I was able to turn my attention to several long neglected tasks, think about future research projects, and have useful online chats with research collaborators. We were also able to enjoy spring on the campus, and it was really beautiful, as well as having an ethereal quality owing to the fact we seemed to have the campus mostly to ourselves.

Then, in early May, the marking started coming in, and I have had had about 6 weeks of pretty solid marking of coursework and exams. I’ve commented in detail in other posts that marking online definitely takes longer, and it seemed interminable at times! I finally finished on Friday of this week, and spent yesterday uploading marks. Actually being able to get the marking done was a definite worry, and I’m glad to have managed it. We just have the inevitable exam board meetings ahead, and I have one remaining external examining assignment to do, which will of course be online, and this somehow makes it a bit less stressful.

Before concluding this post, I shouldn’t forget that before I became inundated with marking, I agreed to co-organise an online conference, to take place later in the year. The background is that every two years I aim to attend a conference in the EURODIM/ICDIM series, and this year ICDIM2020 was due to take place in Guangzhou, China in November. Clearly that won’t happen now, so myself and a colleague volunteered to organise this conference online. We made good progress on the plans, but then I had to stop to get the marking done. Now I have a chance to get back to this. I probably wouldn’t have felt able to even consider taking something on like this in normal life. But it will be an interesting experience, and it ensures our research community have a chance to share their latest results this year.

Looking ahead, I hope to return to the de-cluttered mental state that I had in the first few weeks of lockdown, but without the worries mentioned above. I need to get back to my research, before planning for next academic year kicks in, which will happen all too soon!

And finally, I am very grateful to have got through this unscathed, and I am very aware of how fortunate I’ve been compared to many others. Seeing lockdown through on a university campus has had many advantages, as I mentioned in previous posts.

Three months into lockdown

With lockdown having been in force in the UK for just over 3 months, it’s definitely time for an update.

I’ve been marking exams and coursework for the last 4 weeks, but I’m hoping to finish by the end of the coming weekend (28/06/20). I posted earlier about online marking, and I’ve continued to use Adobe Acrobat, and I’m pleased to say it’s getting easier to use with practice. But marking exams online can still take at least twice as long as with physical papers, and I don’t think that is sustainable.

Not much has changed in my immediate locality, although more people are using the university grounds for recreation of various kinds. Earlier this week Boris Johnson announced that pubs and restaurants could reopen in England on 4th July, and that’s a much needed step. Hotels can open from that date too, but there remain issues with travel (although I’m planning a trip to London in July just to see what is possible). I was interested that a colleague from Serbia can travel home for a holiday, since all restrictions have been lifted in his country, but that certainly doesn’t apply in many other places! We are slowly emerging from lockdown in the UK, but it will be a slow process.

Regarding my work, I heard today confirmation that all our lectures next year will be online (I had expected that this would only be the case until Christmas). This does seem a slight over-reaction, but at least we know now and can prepare. How other things, like project and lab work will be managed is presumably still being discussed.

I’ll update again in July when things start to open up a bit!

Thoughts on online exam marking

I’m literally drowning in exam marking just now, as no doubt are others in my position. The issue is that it is all taking so much longer than ‘normal’, and in a short break from it (needed because my head felt like it was exploding!) I discussed with my wife why this might be the case.

When you analyse it, it’s quite simple. For normal exams, you have a pile of paper scripts, and the model answers/marking scheme printed out. You just mark each paper in turn, referring to the model answers. You can see your progress as the pile diminishes in height. Contrast this with online marking, where every paper has first to be downloaded as a PDF or Word document, and your model answers are in another document. When marking, you are continually switching between the exam script and the answers. If the student scripts are PDFs, it isn’t trivial or quick to write on them (even with the full octane version of Adobe Acrobat; I know that tablet PCs can make this process easier, but it still takes longer than simply writing by hand). And then there is the fact that students have more time and tend to write more, so there is more to read. It all adds up,and I estimate it is taking me at least twice as long as usual to do my exam marking.

If it was a one-off situation, it might be easier to accept, but currently it looks like we’ll be doing the same for at least the first half of next year. Our current exam system simply isn’t designed for this, but there is not likely to be much incentive to change it.

Finally, if anyone has any clever workrounds, they will be gratefully received!

My social media trends

Social media has become even more important during the lockdown, and now is a good opportunity to review my accounts. I monitor them during normal times, but usually don’t have time for much analysis. So let’s have a look.

Twitter: I currently have 5000 followers, but this has been in steady decline for some time. Yesterday, 31/05/20, my followers number fell below 5000 for the first time since June 2016! The decline has partly been a result of several Twitter purges, but I do get some ‘reactive unfollowing’ from time to time, since I sometimes post political material, and not everyone agrees with it! Hopefully the numbers will remain stable, but only time will tell.

Facebook: at the start of lockdown my Facebook friend numbers went down a bit, because things were a bit emotional over people’s responses to the situation, but now they have recovered and are on the increase. 569 is the current total.

LinkedIn: I don’t post very often on LinkedIn, although my blog posts go there. My connections have been steadily increasing in number, and are currently at 980 (which surprised me).

So Twitter is my main concern at this point, and I will be looking to get some more followers. I always follow back, but that on its own is no longer an incentive, it seems. My aim will be to attract interest by more interesting content, and less politics, because my sense is that is generally a turn off at the moment!

Keeping on going

At the beginning of lockdown I had the intention of posting regularly (maybe once a week), and was initially successful. I posted about technological expectations of home working, about how life hadn’t really changed that much for me personally, and, at the beginning of this month, about a temporary relapse, when I felt very negative about everything. Well, now we are at the end of May, and have been in lockdown for nearly 10 weeks, it is certainly time for an update!

Early on in the month, the first batch of marking came in. This year my module on Digital Forensics was made available for more students to take, so I have about 100 case studies to mark. Progress has been slow, but I’m more than half way through. Then on Friday the first exam marking appeared in my inbox, and more is expected in the coming weeks. So I’m definitely busy.

Also on Friday my university announced its plans for next academic year. Essentially we’ll be teaching remotely for at least the first semester, although students will get some lab classes/small group teaching depending on their subject. Since I don’t run labs, it looks as if my teaching will be done remotely at least for the remainder of the (calendar) year (including undergraduate projects, if they run). That at least gives a basis for planning.

Regarding life in general, I am remaining positive, and trying to do things that have been neglected because I’ve been too busy in normal life. That includes sorting out blog posts! I am typing this post on my old Google Nexus, which I have had time to get set up again. Musically I’m playing the piano regularly, and thinking about starting some trombone practice (using a practice mute of course!) I expect June and the first part of July to be dominated by marking and some external examining, and then I can start planning for next year. I haven’t mentioned research, but that will return soon, once the marking is complete.

Of course I miss travel, conferences and my various musical activities, but they will return, and I will appreciate them all the more when they do. But for now, life is OK, and I do appreciate how lucky I am compared with many others.

A temporary relapse

So far, my lockdown posts have been broadly positive, concentrating on those aspects of the situation we are in that I can turn to my advantage. But at some point there had to be relapse, and this happened towards the end of this week. I’ve been thinking about what brought it on.

I think that two online meetings I ‘attended’ during the week, a Chemistry Course Management Meeting, and a Forensics Student Voice Meeting didn’t help. Both served to underline, if it were needed, the long term severity of the situation, and this was compounded by an email from our Vice-Chancellor on Friday, setting out 5 scenarios for the academic year to come, ranging from ‘business as usual’ (unlikely), to a continuation of the current lockdown. Quite how we are going to teach lab based subjects like Chemistry and Forensic Science if any level of social distancing continues is open to question (and I have registered for a ‘meeting’ next week to discuss how universities will respond to these challenges).

Another irritant was a post I read on social media, where a retired person was waxing lyrical about the lockdown, and how they hoped it would never end (and that they would never go back to the way things were, pre-lockdown). Although retirement isn’t that many years away for me, there are still things I want to do, and I couldn’t disagree with this post more. Even when I do retire, I will want to be able to travel, and to get back to being able to take part in musical activities, for example.

The net effect of all this was a building of a feeling of resentment, particularly focused on things I miss, including travel and scientific conferences. I haven’t attended many conferences in the last couple of years, partly because I went through a period of travel anxiety (see posts from 2018, but now thankfully gone), and also because there hasn’t been much that has appealed to me, given that I use funds I have built up over a number of years, and want to make sure they are well spent! So now it is clear I won’t be able to attend a conference for some time, somehow I’m missing them more.

However, after about 24 hours, the resentment passed, and I am back to feeling I can continue to make the best of the situation. Being able to finally finish a paper which has been dragging on for weeks has helped – I could never have done that in normal times, at least not as quickly. No doubt the negative feelings will return, but at least I’ll know they won’t last long.

Some personal consequences of the lockdown that are worth keeping

Although the consequences of the lockdown are very worrying for countries, for their economies, industries and work places, and for peoples’ livelihoods generally, I have tried to take some positives from it. Some of these are even worth carrying forward when normality returns, as I’ll discuss at the end. They include:

  • A slower pace to life, and less mental ‘clutter’. I’m still busy, but I can think things out more clearly
  • Less time-induced mental stress
  • Regular exercise is easier to schedule and achieve
  • Time to look at every issue, and not having to put things off for a future time that may never come
  • Time to catch up on reading, and listening to/playing music
  • Not having to deal with the increasing vagaries of bus travel
  • No ironing to do, with t-shirts and joggers being standard wear now.

I should add, time to enjoy the Spring, which has been particularly beautiful this year, although that’s more of a one-off.

To what extent these can be applied when normality returns is open to discussion, but I think that by applying the principles of Mindfulness, which I learned when I was getting a lot of anxiety worries, the first two can be achieved. The problem with scheduling exercise is my infinitely variable timetable during teaching periods, but with thought and determination, it can be done. Having time to deal with every issue is probably not something that will be realistic post lockdown, but I’m enjoying it while I can. Reading and listening to music can only be done when I have time, but maybe actually scheduling time for them is an answer? The point about bus travel doesn’t apply to me so much as to Angela, who uses the buses to do shopping and to travel to do her hospital radio show. During the lockdown she has recorded three radio shows so far from home, with one pending, and she has decided to continue to do this in future, to save trying to work with an increasingly poor bus service. To this end, we will make much more use of our car to do shopping in future – again it’s just a matter of scheduling.

One thing the lockdown has done is to give time to think about things, and to try to come up with solutions for everyday problems. Certainly there will be no going back on some of these issues, and I’ll no doubt post any progress (or lack of it) in the future.

Unexpected recollections – Professor Denys Harding (1906-1993)

The Covid-19 lockdown is having some surprising effects, as I commented on in my previous post. One is the clarity of mind that I have at present, and the absence of the usual ‘brain fog’ resulting from trying to think about too many things at a time!

I’ve been waking quite early recently, and having some thinking time before going out for my walk, and this morning what should pop into my head but a memory from my childhood of my parents’ friendship with the psychologist and critic Denys Harding.

My parents moved from London to Suffolk in 1962.  We moved to a small village, Wenhaston, where my mother became head of the primary school, and where she still lives to this day. My father had been working as a technician in the Psychology Department at Bedford College (a college of the University of London which later merged with Royal Holloway College in 1985 to become Royal Holloway and Bedford New College).  Bedford College was In Regents Park, London, and I remember my father taking me there occasionally. The Psychology Department was led By Professor Denys Harding; it was a small department, and my father knew ‘the prof’ well (it seems academic departments were friendlier places then!)

When we moved to Suffolk, my father retired from Bedford College, and 1963, Professor Harding also retired, to his house (the old vicarage) in Ashbocking, Suffolk, about 26 miles away from where my parents now lived. I remember that we would visit Denys and his wife Jessie from time to time, and my main recollection is the geese they kept, which were quite frightening, and certainly as effective as any guard dog. Another recollection was the very formal way in which Denys and Jessie lived, with separate cloakrooms for male and female visitors, to which we would be ushered on arrival. And they really were cloakrooms – with hanging space for coats, and washing facilities as well. (An interesting footnote to this is that I looked up the house, and it was most recently on sale for £2.5M!)

I don’t know when I last met Denys, but it was probably not later than 1975, when I went to University. He was always kind to me, and I remembered this morning that he had given me a copy of Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’, to which he had written an introduction. And, miracle of miracles, I still have this book, which he signed for me (see photo below).

Denys died in 1993, a year after his wife Jessie. The obituary in the Independent provides a good summary of his working life, from his education at Cambridge, via various academic positions, to the Chair in Psychology at Bedford College. It notes that he was as much a literary critic as a psychologist (born out by his interest in Jane Austen’s works, for example).

This obituary was written by Dr Monica Lawlor, from the same department at Bedford College, who I also remember. Dr Lawlor visited us in Wenhaston several times. I naturally looked her up while writing this, and found that she died in 2013. There is a short obituary in the Royal Holloway and Bedford publication ‘Higher’ (scroll to pages 38-39). She was a Senior Lecturer in Psychology, with a special interest in Child Psychology.

Of course, back in the days when we visited Denys and Jessie, I had no idea of what I would do in my life. Quite what Denys would make of Higher Education now can only be guessed. But, looking back, perhaps there was a small influence there?