All posts by Howard Osborne

A curious person in a curious world

Demystifying your tech (with a bit of help from Confucius and Tolstoy)

There must be a word for that simultaneous feeling of awe, helplessness, bafflement and frustration we feel with the technology we rely on, or at least there should be.

Don’t get me wrong, technology is great. There’s an affordable gadget or app for almost anything and most of the time, they just work.

Until they don’t.

Take smartphones: I have a drawer of old phones which haven’t broken, but are now too slow doing the same things they used to do in a flash. The apps need a newer operating system, which can’t be updated and so they go in the drawer. Not to mention all the little gadgets – fitness trackers, satnavs, wireless routers…

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Farmers in the Indus Valley 5,000 years ago must have been flummoxed (perhaps that’s the right word…) when their ploughs broke. They probably couldn’t fix them by themselves either and would need to start being nice to the local blacksmith, but at least they had an idea of what was wrong.

I bet they didn’t get broken-tech deja vu. My phone stopped working when I dropped it in a rock pool, so I opened the cover only to find another cover underneath. It replayed that feeling of opening the bonnet of my broken car, only to find another cover underneath.

And let’s not get started on data – the information being gathered by all our technology and sent who knows where. Of course I’ve consented to it – who wants to read all the terms and conditions?

However, Confucius can help us:

Give someone a fish and feed them for a day, but teach them to fish…

Technology is the post-industrial fish that we should learn to catch, even if we would prefer to go to the supermarket.

So, I wanted to go ‘fishing’, but what type of metaphorical fish should I catch and what tackle should I use?

For my ‘fish’, I decided I wanted to make something that could help me improve at fencing. I took it up after visiting the Engarde fencing school in Haapsalu, Estonia and I am rubbish. Maybe a bit of tech could help me.

At this point, it’s worth noting that I can write code, so I have a bit of a headstart. Nevertheless, I tried to approach this from the point of view of someone who might know nothing.

For the ‘tackle’, I picked out three different prototyping platforms.
– Arduino
– Raspberry Pi
– BBC Micro:bit

Arduino

Arduino was originally made to help students at the Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, Italy to produce their own electronics. The hardware is inexpensive and there is plenty of help to get you writing your own software.

Because they made everything freely open for others to copy, there are a number of companies who offer Arduino compatible components.

I bought a Bluefruit Feather from Adafruit to provide the brains and communication and a Propmaker to measure my movement.

The two bits needed soldering together, which I made a complete pig’s ear of. But despite the ugliness, the board did work.

Adafruit provided instructions on how to get your devices up and running along with some examples. After running the sample code I decided to get cracking on my own thing which is when I realised the problem.

My gadget needs to be able to talk to other things. All the samples were for the device but there weren’t simple examples for the thing it needs to talk to, like a smartphone. This device would do that using Bluetooth, in much the same way a fitness tracker would.

Eventually I got there but it took a lot of digging around and trawling not just through Adafruit documentation but also that of the manufacturer, Nordic, who make the chip that sits on the Bluefruit board. I also read up about Bluetooth standards.

By then end, I felt like a Bluetooth ninja and it had one unexpected outcome.

The next time my partner’s fitness tracker failed to sync with the app on her smartphone, I felt myself taking the side of the little device. Now I had learned how heart monitors and fitness trackers talk to smartphones and was seeing its point of view. I empathised and sympathised with it.

Or as Teo Tolstoy put it:

Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner. (Understanding everything is forgiving everything)

Then, just as things were fitting into place, the accelerometer stopped working. I guessed it was because of the abuse it received at the end of my soldering iron – again, I was taking its side.

Conclusion:
This platform is best suited for people who really want to dive deep into electronics, have some coding knowledge and have the skills to write that software that will talk to it as well.

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a charity based in the UK to make computing and electronics accessible. The devices they make are small cheap Linux (an alternative to Windows or Mac) machines with plenty of accessories for electronics projects. There are also lots of examples to work on.

This was perfect for me, I have regularly worked with Linux machines over the years and so starting this up and communicating with it was like talking to an old friend.

However, again, I struggled with Bluetooth. Things became easier when I changed libraries but I found the process a bit tricky and again, the key was making something (in my case on an Android phone) for the Raspberry Pi to talk to.

Conclusion:
This is a great platform for software engineers who already know Linux. There’s a lot of help for beginners but a project like mine would probably put most newbies off.

BBC Micro:bit

Micro:bit started as an initiative to make sure every Year 7 school kid in the UK could have a go at programming and electronics.
Plug it into a computer and get started using blocks. Then when you feel more confident (or frustrated with blocks) move on to writing JavaScript or Python.

There are plenty of starter projects to get familiar with the features. Crucially, work has also been done to provide simple connectivity to other devices such as Android. A programme is provided by MIT to make it easy to write code for your Android device using blocks.

Having both parts of the puzzle was the game changer. Rather than needing to dig deep to understand Bluetooth, the examples just work and you can get on with what to do with the information once it’s on your phone.

There are working examples on how to show the information on screen or upload it to a spreadsheet in the Cloud. I decided to use my existing knowledge to make a nice Android app with some pretty graphs.

I also made something to hold the Micro:bit while I’m practising. In entrepreneurial fashion, I have named it the smartSock(™) (I made it from an old thickSock).

Now I have no excuses for not being a fencing champ. Touche!

Conclusion:
Pretty much anyone should be able to get started making their own things and learning how technology works. How far you take it is up to you.

It’s nice to know that the next generation, at least in the UK, will grow up learning how to make their own tech, even if they do end up buying most of it. And it’s not too late for any of us to have a go.

We may not end up making anything that useful (I doubt my fencing will really improve), but at least we will learn how these things work. And by doing so, perhaps be more at one with our tech.

Meanwhile, it’s time for me to get practising my fencing moves.

The body chemistry of the best road in the world

I’ve never been into cars. Correction, I’ve never been into fast cars. 

I live life in the slow lane, especially now I have an electric car. Battery anxiety means never accelerating faster than a three-legged donkey.

So what would I make of what Jeremy Clarkson called the best road in the world?

I went to Romania’s Transfăgărășan to find out.

My first glimpse of it appeared whilst still deep in the Carpathian Basin. I turned a corner and then caught my first sight of the mountains marking the edge of Transylvania.

In the flutter of anticipation, I felt like I should be providing a Clarkson-esque commentary on the relative merits of my hire car. I also wondered if I should have splashed out and hired something a bit sportier than a VW Polo.

That flutter dissipated as the miles passed – driving through village after village, past horse drawn carts, over train tracks and dams with the mountains only seeming to grow inch by inch. I realised that when I first saw the mountains, I wasn’t close, they were just very big.

But eventually, I did get to the start of the Transfagarasan.

I soon passed a performance car going in the opposite direction and felt the roar as he puts his foot down.

Then more cars came and I started to pass parked cars on either side stopping to take a picture, have a pee or buy little roast chickens.

A kilometre from the summit, the traffic came to a standstill. Tour buses turned the narrow path between the lines of parked cars into a single lane road and we all crawled to the top.

For the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the drivers of performance cars especially the ones with foreign number plates. How far had they come to sit in the sort of jam they could have had back home?

At least they could stop trying to drive fast and instead look at the nice scenery, which then begs the question. What’s the point of driving in dramatic places if you can’t take your eyes off the tarmac? Is driving on high bendy roads without falling off really that much fun?

But then I suppose it’s about chemistry. The search for the ultimate adreneline rush. I realised that the first performance car driver I came across had floored it out of pure fustration, after finally getting to an open, albeit flat and straight road. But even frustration produces adreneline, so he got what he came for.

This is where being a natural slow driver helps. By not getting riled by traffic the body is free to release a nice dose of seratonin brought on by being in such a special place.

My fellow traffic jammers spend the time trying to work out what’s missing.

The road had been ordered by the paranoid president Nicolae Ceaușescu in response to the invasion of Czechoslovakia 1968. Ceaușescu felt vulnerable and wanted to be able to move armed forces into Transylvania quickly. Building it was hard and dangerous. Offically, 40 people died building the road, but accounts of those who built the road have subsequently been pieced together and the true count of lives lost is into the hundreds.

So given the monumental achievement, where is the monument or memorial – the physical thank you?

Perhaps the road in itself is the monument.

After crawling to the summit and through the Bâlea Tunnel, the road cleared as I passed from Transyvania into Wallachia.

At the bottom, is the lake created by the Vidraru dam.

As well as the shameless Dracula tourist stuff.

I got some sweetcorn, coffee and breadstick rings called covrigi.

It was while I was munching on the covrigi that I had a nagging feeling. I had been on the ‘best road in the world’ but had I really experienced it? If the UK’s M25 was traffic free, wouldn’t become the best circuit in the world?

I looked at the satnav for a route back to where I was staying in Transyvania. There were two recommended routes. They involved going round either side of the Southern Carpathians and in both cases it would be quicker than going back over the top. If only Ceausescu had had Google Maps, he could have chanelled that effort into things that might have stopped him getting lynched.

I decided to let the crowds on each side of the mountains go home and then I might just get a clear run.

I went to refuel the car for my second go.

As the sun dipped behind the hills, I set off again this time heading north.

In the foothills, I got stuck behind a Dacia Logan weighed down by a roof box which slowed to a snail pace on each incline. There were hardly any places to overtake and I didn’t want to risk meeting a frustrated driver the other way.

Then we were joined by an Audi, who judging by the distance between him and my bumper, really wanted to get past. Overtaking both of us was near impossible.

This was great. Three of us in a pack, just like Top Gear. All we needed were walkie talkies, bad haircuts and some guitar-based rock on the stereo.

And then the magic was broken.

We came to a straight bit of road. The Audi changed down and left the two of us in a plume of oil smoke or was it frustration-fueled adreneline? I also overtook Captain Slow and made my way back up alone.

The traffic had all but gone. There were no queues and I was at the summit in no time. Now was my chance to do this iconic route properly.

Then I got back in my car and prepared to leave my comfort zone with the adreneline pump primed.

However, after a couple of bends I got stuck behind another slow driver. Then BMW joined behind. We were back in a pack of three and as I looked at the lower hairpins bends, I could see another pack of three. A pattern emerged. One slow driver followed by a cautious driver with an impatient petrol-head stuck fuming behind the two of them.

I pulled over to leave my pack and waited for some space to develop. After a while I knew I would have a clear run and set off. 

But even with this chance of a lifetime, I knew couldn’t go really fast. Who knows who would be coming the other way. I value living too much so I followed the pattern of my life and went at a sensible speed.

How lucky I did.

As I got to the tree line, a wild bear felt free to lollop across the road in front of me.

And so instead of adrenaline, I made do with a little dose of nature-induced serotonin.

The literary oasis of Massolit

Cities aren’t the most pleasant places during heatwaves and Budapest is no exception. So it was a relief to wander into the cafe/bookshop Massolit a spend a couple of hours in its shaded garden.

Massolit (the name of the literary society in Bulganov’s classic The Master and Margarita) is stacked high with books in English, French, German – all seem like gems.

With books everywhere, there’s just enough room for a counter which is filled with cakes and a coffee machine. The #IstandWithCEU sticker in the window shows where the people here fit on the political spectrum. The Central European University was recently hounded out of Hungary by the government.

I picked up a book on the politics of Transylvania which is where I was heading next and made for the garden round the back.

Judit, who looks after cafe, came out with some gardening gear and looked at the rampant herb patch.

‘I need to sort this all out today’ she sighed.

She saw the book I had bought and asked me what I thought of it so far. We then talked about the Transylvanian problem.

After the First World War, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was carved up into a series of new countries and formalised in the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Over a million Hungarians who lived in Transylvania found themselves now living in Romania.

99 years later, with both Hungary and Romania being part of the EU and their citizens having the freedoms that go with it, surely this should all be water under the bridge?

Apparently not. As prime minister Victor Orban put it at a recent rally to commemorate Trianon: ‘while time heals wounds it does not heal an amputation’.

On Alkotmány Street, which leads up to the beautiful Hungarian Parliament, preparation is underway to build a 100 meter long memorial etched with the names of the 12,000 municipalities that had been in the Hungarian part of the Empire and, to quote one journalist, ‘torn from the motherland’. The monument will contain an eternal flame which will be sunken below ground so that it always burns below the surface. Whatever the metaphor, I’m sure the homeless will be particularly grateful for it in winter.

Parliament also voted to make 2020 a year of national cohesion, meaning cohesion with the parts of the former Empire. Votes like this have become particularly easy to win as the ruling Fidesz party was able to change the constitution which was in part helped by giving citizenship to Hungarian speakers who live in other countries.

Whilst some may have applied to get a Schengen passport and the easy US visa that comes attached, others do want to be part of a greater Hungary.

So, populism aside, why is Triannon still a burning issue in Hungary when Germany (or at least West Germany) and Austria came to terms with their losses?

Judit puts it succinctly: ‘People here didn’t get time to grieve. The regime just required them to just forget.’

In the recently spruced up little park which adjoins the garden, an old couple pick figs from the low hanging branches. They had been planted a few years back by a neighbour. Judit, looking a bit agitated – she still hadn’t set to work on the herb patch. Nevertheless, she took the time to talk to the old couple.

Amongst the figs there were also some new bird boxes. Judit sighs, ‘They look good but they are no use’.

‘The local government put them up but birds don’t just need a place to nest. They need things to eat, other places to fly to.’

She has a point, Pest, the eastern part of Budapest is densely populated and there is little greenery.

I wonder if that also isn’t the problem with Massolit. Like the nice little park that’s too isolated for the birds, isn’t this little liberal oasis too isolated from the rest of Hungary.

Shouldn’t the people here be out in the rural heartlands, like the old missionaries who went out on a cart with a bible. Shouldn’t these guys be out persuading the disgruntled masses to discard Victor Orban’s so called ‘illiberal state‘?

Perhaps they could take along a few enlightening books. Better still, take some coffee and cake. George Orwell found out on the Aragon Front in the Spanish Civil War the best recruiting tool was buttered toast. But I stow that thought and instead ask Judit what she has learned about the people who come to the cafe. 

‘You know the first thing most people ask me? Do you have a charging point for my phone and my laptop. When we started eight years ago, people used to come in and talk to each other. Now they just stare at their devices. They are in their own bubbles.’

Bubbles within a bubble?

It must be a bit annoying creating such a nice place and then see everyone who comes in just glued to their screens. But maybe her annoyance that people aren’t chatting to each other in the cafe and my annoyance that they aren’t preaching to the masses are both misplaced.

Who knows what these guys are doing and who they are chatting to.

Meanwhile, I can sit here, enjoy the shade and learn more about where I am heading by reading a good book, with a nice slice of cake and coffee.

If only I had somewhere to charge my phone. 

London to Transylvania – cultivating the art of travel

As Greta Thunberg pointed out earlier this year, we need to use planes less and trains more. So how would I get on going to Transylvania by train instead of plane?

Booking:

Booking was actually a bit of a pain.

Sites like loco2 and thetrainline may have clever algorythms to show cheap or quick routes, but when travelling this far, the quality of the journey matters and that requires human judgement. This is where the Man in Seat 61 comes into his own. Based on one of his suggested routes, I split my journey into three parts.

Part 1: London to Munich – the pleasures of first class travel

For the first part I caught the Eurostar to Brussels and then German ICE to Munich changing at Stuttgart. With a price difference of £30 between first and second class, it was a no-brainer to go first class and sit with the other half spending the journey eating well, sipping chilled wine and watching Europe pass by in a bit of style.

Arriving into Munich at 9pm, I had a couple of hours to wander down Neuhauser Strasse and mix with the crowds enjoying a sultry evening out.

It had taken all day to get here and if I was on business, I would have been able to work productively for the whole journey. As for the price, I paid £169 which is a lot more than a budget airline early flight. But when you start looking to set off at a civilised hour, the prices are similar.

I can’t imagining flying this distance again – it will be the train every time.

Part 2: Munich to Budapest – a squash and a squeeze

Eager to push on further towards the Balkans, I caught the sleeper train to Budapest. After a day of first-class travel, it was now time for me to have a second-class sleep, literally and metaphorically.

I was the first to get in to the €79 couchette – a little compartment with four benches that had been flipped down to become beds. Then in came a middle-aged man. We grunted acknowledgement before doing our bedtime prep – in my case, delving to the bottom of my bag for a toothbrush.

Then the door opened and in came the biggest suitcase I had ever seen. After some puffing and panting, in popped a head followed by the rest of the body. The young guy who owned the mega-case looked around and unsurprisingly, realised it was far too big to go anywhere. Undeterred, he gave the case another shove and the room was now full. Then in came the pram, carrycot with a freshly-born baby in it and last, but by no means least, the haggard new mum.

It was at this point I realised the value of literature. The tome in question, A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson tells the tale of an old woman who complained that her house was too small. A wise man told her to bring in all her farmyard animals and then she realised how big it had been in the first place.

I had now resigned myself to sleep deprivation and just putting this journey down to experience.

However the other middle-aged man, who we’ll now call Mr Grumpy was a man of action and complained to the Hungarian train guard. He tried to explain what was wrong in German. The wife then chatted to the guard in Hungarian. He look at Mr Grumpy, shrugged and walked away.

Within a few minutes of the lights going out, I heard an odd rustling and then a thin bluish of light emanated from the opposite bunk. It was the light of a computer screen. The dad had decided to start watching a film on his laptop, while eating the remains of a Burger King meal and using a pack of Pampers as a pillow. Incredibly, the others were already asleep and Mr Grumpy was even snoring.

In the nicest possible way I told the dad that there were some seats further down the train he could go and sit in if he didn’t want to go to sleep. He shut the lid, stashed the remnants of his meal by his pampers pillow and perhaps we could all now get some sleep.

I must have dozed off but woke up feeling like I was in an airless sauna. We had stopped at Salzburg for a two hour wait and all power was off, which meant the ‘aircon’ was off. When it had been on, the baby stuff piled on top of it had limited it to a waft of not-so-hot air. Even that now would have been wonderful.

I got up and spent the two hour stop looking out of the window at a rather boring station.

At 7 o’clock Mr Grumpy left and with all hope of sleep gone, the family and I spend the rest of the journey talking about stuff.

Stuff, in their case meant talking about baby and dad meeting the grandparents/in-laws for the first time.

In my case, it meant talking about how nice it is when kids are grown up and you can leave them at home.

As the train’s brakes squeeled and we pulled into Budapest, I realised that this had been travelling. Being thrown together with other people in a smaller space than you would choose for a bit longer than you would like – and loving it? Well, at least not hating it.

One of the pleasures of train travel is being able to stop off at places on the way. I wanted to go and see Budapest’s Seventh District and and also get a good night’s sleep. So, I checked into a boat-hotel on the Danube that was moored up opposite the Parliament.

Being in Budapest also gave me a chance to learn more about Transylvania, my ultimate desination. How so?

In 1920, Hungary was carved up under the Treaty of Triannon and Transylvania was award to Romania. The complex history of this area still hits raw nerves so I used my train-free day to learn more from the other side of the border by visting a good bookshop and talking to the very nice people working there.

Part 3: Budapest to Sibiu – meeting like-minded souls

After my day in Budapest, I spent the evening sipping Tokej and watching a firework display from the boat’s deck.

Then, it was time to think about actually getting to Romania. I booked myself on to sleeper to Sibiu in Transylvania for €49.

This time, I was sharing with two other middle-aged blokes, one Swiss, the other Canadian and both teachers. They were using the free time that summer holidays (and understanding families) provide to do some exploring by themselves.

The Swiss guy had tried taking his two sons interrailing the previous year, but they preferred being at home with their friends and smartphones. So with an accommodating wife and two relieved kids at home, he was free to do some wandering through the Carpathians.

The Canadian guy was due to travel round Spain with some friends in a couple of weeks but before that he wanted to do the ‘Orient Express’ and travel to Istanbul by himself.

After a decent night’s sleep in a cool and comfortable bed, I got up and watched Transylvania slowly trundle past the window with my two new pals.

‘You know’ said the Swiss guy, ‘I had some walking routes planned, but seeing this – perhaps I’ll just set off from the station and see where I end up.’

The art of arrival?

Stepping onto the platform at Sibiu, it felt like I had come a long way, which at a Romanian train’s pace, I suppose I had. But as I walked up Strada General Magheru, I had little flashbacks of the places I had been and the people I had met.

If I had come by plane, I would have saved time and money, so why did I feel richer?

Train vs plane

Flying me to Transylvania would have put about 160 KG of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. By taking the train I consumed about 30 KG. That saving had come at a quite a price.

I had spent nearly £300 as opposed to around £50 to catch a plane. Airlines are subsidised as they don’t pay tax on fuel and won’t have to pay for the environmental damage caused by the additional CO2 in the atmosphere.

But it had taken me days to get here and it wasn’t easy to plan. For all the efforts of sites like loco2, organising train travel is harder than by plane. This is in part because so many places are connected directly by plane, but also because algorithms that try to plan multi-stage journeys are good at time and cost but lousy at quality of the experience.

While tech struggles to produce high quality routes, it can help with your time on the train. Train travel to places that are several days away could be filled with films and things to pass the time but why ‘pass’ it when the journey could be one of the best bits of your time away. Technology can help with this. Eurostar’s Odyssey shows that journey’s can be contexualised. Perhaps the next big thing will be apps that guide us through rather than to places.

What train travel really offered was the ability to stop. In my case, it was seeing something in Budapest, but there were plenty of alternatives and in each case, the train would have pulled up into the heart of the town or city and not some out of the way airport.

What the train also offered was the opportunity to spend time a lot of time with other people. This could be a great experience or an ‘experience’…

But my enjoyment was in large measure down to my attitute to what fate had delivered. Poor Mr Grumpy.

In any event, I learned that travelling well is an art, and one that’s worth practising.

Do Budapest’s Ruin Bars help Ruin Liberalism?

I love Budapest’s ruin bars and in particular, Szimpla Kert, the oldest and arguably finest example.

Converting a dilapidated old factory into a hip bar isn’t anything new. But the idea of renovation by making everything worse is.

Arguably, the apparent ruin is more of a trompe l’oeil. The buildings are structurally sound and filled with greenery, quirky art and every surface is available for you to leave your own mark.

And what’s particularly appealing is that the alternative approach isn’t just skin deep. With a farmers’ market and shop, sustainable urban living is being actively promoted. You can even buy yourself a Victor Orban candle to burn.

So what’s the problem?

It was my second time in the place that I noticed something not quite right.

On my first visit, I had been looking at the place. Now I was used to it, I started looking at the people in it. They all had something in common. I confirmed my suspicions when I spoken to a member of staff. Just about everyone was a tourist. Locals go to the more conventionally decorated Kisüzem.

Everyone, like me goes home with the impression that despite all the talk of Hungary being an illiberal state, it’s actually fine and you can be who you like – perhaps living around the corner in a secessionist apartment with flaky paint and high ceilings.

It’s a wider problem with Budapest’s Seventh District, the old Jewish quarter. The graffiti, buildings covered in stickers, vegan street food and an air of ‘anything goes’ might be a pull for some but shows a nervous local population that anything could happen without the guidance of the current regime.

So should ruin bars close?

Of course not. But visitors should not be allowed to come away with a feeling that all is OK when it isn’t. Perhaps first drinks should be free but only if you can give three examples of why the EU Parliament is seeking to apply sanctions.

However, there is an alternative. Go to Szimpla’s sister bar in Berlin.

The sundial that became a moral compass

“Lay me quietly in the earth, place a sun-dial over my grave, and let me be forgotten.”

– John Howard, on his deathbed January 1790

How do you memorialise someone who should be remembered, but has explicitly said they don’t want a memorial?

For the creators of the memorial to John Howard in Kherson, Ukraine, the solution was to take his dying words literally.

John Howard was a curious chap, as Tessa West observed in her biography. As a single-mined man of means, who today may well have had Asperger’s Syndrome, he was the Greta Thunberg of his day. Shaped by his own experiences of incarceration at the hands of the French, once he was in a position of authority in Bedford, UK, he set about inspecting the local prison. What he found was not only squalid, but dysfunctional. The state did not pay prison warders, so they had to make their money from the inmates, which created a cycle of debt and misery.

After coming up with some practical solutions, which could be applied to both prisons and hospitals, he published his findings. They became a bestseller and this spurred him on to set off around Europe knocking on the doors of prisons and telling the local bigwigs what he thought.

But rather than alienating himself, he seems to have been become something of a celebrity. This may have had as much to do with his reputation of also being a brilliant, albeit self-taught, doctor and was asked to help cure the sick while he was in the area.

Eventually his travels took him to Kherson in the new Russian lands where he finally contracted gaol fever (typhus) and died. The funeral was grand, as was his grave and ultimately his sundial memorial, which was built a couple of decades later.

Having been restored in 1990, the sundial has been maintained pretty well which, given the difficult times Ukraine has been through, is a mark of how it is valued.

So what possible use has a sundial now – they were out-of-date even when the memorial was built?

For anyone who likes their time-pieces to have features, this comes well-stacked. First, it is two sundials for the price of one, as the monument is an obelisk with a circular wall which is great for those who like precision or perhaps anyone who happened to be passing by in a newly invented hot-air balloon.

Second it is adorned with a nice picture of a slightly grumpy gilded John Howard.

Third, it comes with a number of inspirational mottoes.

  • ‘Alios salvos fecit’ (He saved others)
  • ‘Vixit propter alios’ (He lived for others)
  • It also says in Russian ‘Rest in peace, People’s friend’.

On my visit it also had two red carnations from an unknown admirer.

But there is one final feature. After visiting it, you become sensitised to other thoughtful monuments.

In Slavy Park, amongst all the heroic Soviet stuff, two memorials stand out despite being rather hidden away. Who could walk past the suffering of this mother who, presumably lost her son in Afghanistan and now seeks solace in religion without a twinge of sympathy?

And who could see this monument to the Chernobyl catastrophe and not just remember their sacrifice, but also that we are all part of the same world.

Back in the UK, John Howard’s wish to not be remembered has also been ignored. Here he is in Bedford.

He seems to be thinking a lot about something.

In his shoes, I’d be thinking why am I standing on top of a bunch of cherubic kids playing around with theatrical Greek comedy masks?

This makes more sense when you know that the statue was created by Gilbert Allen who also designed the Statue of Eros in London’s theatre district. So in one way this is more in line with John Howard’s wish. It isn’t really a monument to him or his life’s work and, judging by the people walking past, he has well and truly been forgotten.

He should also be satisfied that in nearby Cardington, there is little clue that this was where he lived. However, this may be because his works have been overshadowed by a more recent event. A clue is in the village sign with the big grey sausage in the sky. The R101 airship was housed nearby and after it crashed in France in 1930, the 36 who died were buried here in the graveyard.

However, John Howard has left a legacy here which you can still see today.

A set of cottages which he had built to a high standard made sure that locals could live decently. He charged the going rate in rent which covered the cost of repairs and maintenance. He used his wealth to create the conditions for decent living, but it was then up to the people themselves to keep up to it.

As for his former home, there is little to signify who once lived here other than it being called Howard House.

But Howard’s name does live on in a more significant way through the charities that have been established to promote better prison conditions, such as the Howard League for Penal Reform.

One mystery remains. Why did he want a sundial placed over his body?

Was there a sundial in that garden? Was he trying to recreate a little piece of his home in this distant land? Or was he just expressing his exasperation at local timekeeping.

We will never know.

What we do know is that one person can make a big difference, on issues that might at first seem unimportant to the rich and powerful.

We also know that no-one in Kherson has an excuse for being late because they don’t know the time – as long as it’s sunny.

Learning Swedish in the Ukraine

Four times a week, in the village of Gammalsvenskby in Southern Ukraine, villagers of all ages gather together at the end of the school day. It’s time for their next Swedish lesson. Why?

The clue is in the village’s name:

Gammal – old, svensk – swedish, by – village

Gammalsvenskby is an old Swedish village.

240 years ago, as the Russian Empire expanded southward into Ottoman territories, settlers were needed to populate the newly conquered lands, known as Novorossiya or New Russia.

One group ready to move was the thousand-strong Swedish speaking population of Dagö, an island in modern-day Estonia, who were in dispute with their landlord. The long journey south was arduous and half of them died en route. Cultivating the new lands was difficult and within two years the population was down to 136, but they recovered and made a prosperous village.

The Bolshevik Revolution, civil war, famine, purges and finally the Second World War decimated the village. Most villagers who could leave, went ‘back’ to Sweden or on further to Canada but a few stayed on. Now there are only three ladies left for whom Swedish is a first language, but a new generation of Swedish speakers are emerging. I went to the school to meet their teacher Larisa and some of her students.

I wanted to talk to them about why they were spending their free time learning Swedish. Although Larisa speaks very good English, she was clearly determined to do the best by her students and made sure this was going to be a lesson. Of course we could all talk, but we would do it in Swedish …

I know some basic Swedish, thanks to my other half and her relatives, but now I was in at the deep-end and wondered if I’d be thrown enough linguistic buoyancy aids to ‘swim’.

But I needn’t have worried. With help from Larisa and the patience of everyone, we had a pretty good chat.

My new classmates…

So why are my new fellow classmates learning Swedish? For one 15-year-old girl, it was clear, she wanted to do broaden her horizons and travel to Sweden to study and then maybe work. But for the older students, learning Swedish was a chance to connect with their roots and not just in an abstract way.

Links between the villagers who stayed and emigres (or their relatives) have been fostered through Svenskbyborna, an association based on the Swedish island of Gotland. Every year, Swedes come to the village, many retracing their ancestors’ footsteps, and spend a few days living with one of the families.

I ask what feels like a cheeky question. All Swedes speak English right? So why not learn English and then it would be easy to take in guests from other countries as well? Of course, this would be a sensible idea in the same way it would be sensible for everyone to just give up their own languages and speak English or perhaps Mandarin.

As it stands, non-Swedish visitors to Gammalsvenskby are few and far between and are certainly unlikely to arrive on a tour bus. A couple of years back, Larisa saw a guy standing at the bus stop who clearly wasn’t a local. She asked him in English if he was a tourist. “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller” was his Livingstonian reply.

It was time for me to say goodbye to my new classmates and go for a wander around the village. Gammalsvenskby, which is part of the wider settlement of Zmiivka, also includes three other old villages which had been set up by German settlers. However, none remained after the Second World War so the only evidence they were here is in the buildings.

Zmiivka commands a dramatic view of the Dnieper river and is mostly made up of modest single story houses. Each has a garden to grow fruit and veg as well as a yard for chickens, geese and an apparently mandatory dog.

The most striking buildings in the village are the Soviet-era library and the cultural centre. For a community of around 2,400 people, they are much grander than you might get in Western Europe, but therein lies the problem – maintenance. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the more recent hostilities with Russia, buildings like these have fallen into disrepair.

Whilst repairing the village’s public buildings may feel urgent to a visitor, for locals there are more immediate concerns. Since the war with Russia and the loss of the coal mining areas in Ukraine, heating homes during winter has become a real worry. So the
Svenskbyborna association is looking to provide practical support with planting fast growing willow which will make them more self-sufficient, not to mention the environmental benefits.

The association is also planning to set up a museum in the village which they hope to open in May 2020.

As a longer term aim, they have looked into possible land reform to make sure the locals have more than basic subsistence plots. However first things first: a democracy project has been initiated to empower the locals in the village to take charge of and run whatever the association helps to provide.

It isn’t just the buildings that need work. Last summer water from the village wells was sent to Sweden for analysis and found to be not fit for drinking.

So who will carry out the work? A quarter of the villagers are pensioners and about 100 people from the village are currently working in Poland, probably back-filling for the Poles working in Germany, UK or even Sweden. But in the long chain of migration, the village has it’s own immigrant, Enoch from Zimbabwe, although I unfortunately didn’t manage to track him down.

Wandering around the village on a spring day it’s hard not to feel optimistic, albeit slightly impatient that the village hasn’t already opened its museum and thereby had a means of sharing it’s story with the wider world. After all, the Swedes are just one chapter of a story that goes back to neolithic times.

For the Greeks this was on the Amber Road that connected the Black Sea with the Baltic. Archaeological digs have found treasures here which are kept in the Kherson Museum. The story of the Scythian, Tatar, Cossack, Russian, Ukrainian, German and yes, Zimbabwean settlers should to be told.

By telling their story, there’s an opportunity for everyone, visitors and locals to learn about what makes this village special. It is also a chance to rethink our understanding of migration, nationhood and what it means to belong somewhere.

So when the museum opens, I intend to be it’s first visitor – as a tourist and not a traveller.