Sunday, 7 February 2016

Book Club

A few years ago - five? six? or probably more? we started a Book Club for people who live in our small road on the edge of our small town. The idea was to restrict it geographically so that no one had to drive and we could have the occasional bottle of wine if we felt like it.
Initially fourteen people wanted to be part of it, but over time and for various reasons the numbers declined and for several years now we have remained at a steady ten. We are all women. We didn't intend that sort of restriction on membership, but it has just happened that way. Perhaps men are not so interested to be part of such a group? It would probably be daunting for any man to join in now, which is not what we intended. We meet monthly, and people volunteer to host.

We read. Of course we read lots of books that we suggest to each other, or that are suggested by other people, other sources. The reading triggers some animated discussion and personal responses. Sometimes there are uncomfortable thoughts. Always there is a wide range of responses, through which we learn a lot about each other and even more about ourselves.

I'm not going to supply our reading list, only to say that it's very diverse and very democratically selected.
At first we got books from our local library which supplied a list of books with multiple copies so that we could order well ahead. As a group we went through the lists and made our selections, and then I often had to make multiple visits to the library to try and collect the right number of books at the right time. Books were on loan throughout the County and were often not returned on their due dates or had generally gone walk-about.

So then we decided to buy copies, enough for us to share around, on-line or from charity shops, and to spread out the reading time we organised a DVD session every other month. Where possible the DVDs are linked to the reading. We put a pound in a pot each time and the idea is for the host to use that money to fund drinks and biscuits. But often there is a fair amount in the pot, so we save up and have a bit of a party.

Those are the sort-of bones of the group, but it has become so much more than that.
We are mostly close neighbours who used to smile at one another and say, 'Good morning', and now there is the most supportive  web of friendship. We don't see one another for days on end, but we have the knowledge that in the background there is always someone to help, always a listening ear, always someone with the kettle just about to boil.
For people who live alone, and quite a few of us do, this sort of support  is invaluable. I cannot tell you how much this group supported me through tough times, and how much that means to me now.

We do other things.
We exchange plants, give each other fruits and vegetables, make each other go for walks, admire each other's gardens, have days out and laugh a lot.

Not everyone reads all the books, and the reasons why people find a book difficult are just as interesting as the reasons for enjoying it. (I can't get into fantasy or the Watership Down sort of anthropomorphic writing, while others in the group love it.)  Sometimes people simply don't have time to read, but they come along anyway and just enjoy the friendship and the herbal teas.

Book Groups, even one as informal as ours, make you read and think about things that you might not do otherwise. They can be challenging in several ways, but as a means of getting to know your neighbours I don't think they can be beaten.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Storm Gertrude

Here are son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter on a beach during a brief respite from Storm Gertrude earlier this week. There was just time to splash about a bit and draw a few sand-pictures before diving into the vehicle and heading back to the  warm and comfortable log cabin while the wind howled around and the rain cascaded into the already sodden fields and bulging rivers. But it was warm, or at least mild, unlike Gertrude's dramatic visit to America. And everyone is used to rain in Wales. Even when it comes with roaring winds the sheep go on steadily munching and the many ancient castles go on steadily crumbling, and the beaches....well, the beaches are as wonderful as ever, with all that firm, clean flat sand.

I haven't been able to walk on a Welsh beach for a long time, and I was so grateful to have the opportunity do it again. I could walk all day on a sandy Welsh beach, even in the teeth of a gale. Perhaps especially in the teeth of a gale when the surf is rushing up the sand.
This beach is at Tenby by the way, and sometimes it looks like the photos in the link. Not always, though, and certainly not the other day.
We also went here, which, to my mind, is even better, smaller, with a working harbour and lots of rock-pools.

Not only was I aware of  the joys of being on flat sand again, but I was also made very aware of my changed status. Now that Little E is talking (constantly, endlessly, entirely engagingly about everything possible) I realise that family conversation involves everyone calling me 'Granny', and I end up calling son and daughter-in-law 'Mummy' and 'Daddy'.
Yet, when I went recently to collect Little E from Nursery she introduced me to the group by my Christian name, saying firmly to one of her companions who called me 'Nanny', 'She's my Annie (Granny), not yours!'
So if she gets it so straight, why don't we?

I reflect on the concept that possibly Grannyhood causes a sort of softening of the brain, as allegedly in pregnancy. I regress. I am in danger of ambling around thinking about fairies and dragons, talking rabbits, frogs riding motorbikes and small furry things in jackets and dresses. Granddaughter, meanwhile, is also investigating astronomy, geography, numbers and human and animal anatomy.

As she reaches forward I seem to lean back. I appreciate the luxury of handing over responsibilities, of having someone else doing the driving and making the holiday booking. In essence, of being able to share in Little E's state of  awareness and fascination with the world without the constant tension of having to do something about it all. To take a back seat, literally.
How restful to sit back and watch the scudding clouds and think that Peter Rabbit must be getting awfully wet out there!

Sunday, 27 December 2015


The day after Boxing Day in a quiet and mostly slumbering household. A star from Berlin shines out against a sky just becoming light on a mild, damp morning. Birds sing outside, thinking it is Spring. The rhubarb reaches out through rich earth, and spring flowering bulbs creak steadily upwards.

Inside the house all is calm.
The smaller of the two Christmas trees has lurched about a bit since the chocolate teddy bears were removed. There are still a few paper hats, remnants of ribbon, tinsel and wrapping paper on the floor, under furniture and lurking in odd corners. A pair of very small slippers disguised as mice hides under a sofa.
The recycling bins are stuffed to bursting.

Family have come and gone, and come and stayed.
The weeks and weeks of preparation have been worth it, every moment.
Granddaughter explained how sad she felt on Christmas night. She really, really wanted Father Christmas to come back again so that she could see him and say thank you, (well. it was worth a try, wasn't it?).
She really, really wanted to do it all again.
Even I am prepared to do it again, even now, even before the turkey carcass has been dealt with.

I hope your Christmas time is as good.

Happy New Year to you all.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

If You Go Down in the Woods......

It was a lovely day in the forest, the soft mulch of fallen leaves, the deep patches of rich mud tugging at the boots, the sunlight sparkling through the over-arching trees. We followed the trail of coloured ribbons; round the bushes, through the thickets, under the straggling brambles, over the mossy fallen logs, until we arrived at the cluster of Hobbit houses.
There was the smell of wood-smoke, mingled with dampness in the clearing as small gnomes staggered and scampered in their Mini-Boden sweaters and Scandinavian salopettes. Little Luciens and Berties, Rubies and Aramintas, attended by their Eco-friendly Mummies explored the dangling wind chimes, the percussion instruments made from empty plastic milk cartons (plastic!), old tin lids and chunks of bamboo.
Sheltered beneath a massive well-used parachute they were encouraged to paint and print their little hands on to a giant Anti Global-Warming banner, and the Mummies were urged to come and march with the banner and the little gnomes.
The hand-prints were all in the most natural of colours, shades of raw earth: beige, olive green, sludge and mustard.The paints had been hand-made, ground up from earth and bark and berries, totally, utterly natural.

For this is one of the many Forest Schools, earnestly run, carefully giving their little middle-class patrons the chance to get down and dirty in the name of saving the planet.

There were other things to do, of course. Drawing with locally made charcoal and pieces of genuine chalk rock seemed popular. There were paint brushes and a jar of water, and one small Bertie mashed up some charcoal into the water and took a deep and obviously satisfying swig of the mixture while his Mummy was talking about bamboo fibre nappies. ("Tell me, Chloe, have you ever, ever, used a disposable nappy?")
There is the opportunity to paint stones, peel fruits, finger paint, jump along stepping stones, walk through a tunnel, and to generally have an awfully big adventure in the forest.

Then there is a real live fire, lots of flaring twigs in a real fire pit, and things can be toasted and spread with home-made jam or even peanut butter out of a jar (just like at home). There is tea, disappointingly ordinary, bog standard tea for the Mummies and the one attendant Granny, and fresh water for the little gnomes.

The Mummies and the gnomes (and even the Granny) all get frightfully dirty and have to get changed and cleaned up before getting back into the Volvo.
And then it's a bit of a chore, getting through the school-rush traffic and the city centre in time for tea.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Letter to a Granddaughter: Butterfly in Pyjamas.

Dear Small Granddaughter,
Here you are in essential morning style, pyjamas and butterfly wings, flitting around as I prepare your breakfast. You alight at the dolls' house and do a quick rearrangement. The tiny plastic baby is meant to be cared for by a little fat pig and a small red bear. You comment on the fact that the bear and the pig have been drinking wine. The empty bottle is on the floor of the miniature sitting room and the baby is alone in his nursery. You fit him into his high chair and remonstrate with the pig and the bear... "This baby is hungry. He hasn't got a nappy. You are not looking after him.....come on, baby, I'll look after you."
I call from the kitchen, "Would you like porridge?" 
"I don't know," you say. "I'm too busy now."
The porridge will keep warm until the baby is sorted and the empty glasses and bottle tidied, but then, suddenly you are in the kitchen, jumping up and down, wings quivering. "Porridge, please, and some toast and marmite, and....what's that?"
"It's a nectarine."
"I can jump very high. Can you hear me jumping?"
"Oh, yes. I can hear you. Would you like a nectarine as well?"
"I can jump just like Mr. Jeremy Fisher. Look!"
"What about the nectarine?"
"Can you jump like Mr. Jeremy Fisher? Can you jump as high as me? Can you?"
"Not now, but I probably could when I was nearly three."
"When were you nearly three?"
"A very long time ago."
What a good question, but I choose to ignore it because 'why?' is the  standard response to so many things these days. We will concentrate on porridge instead. And the nectarine.

In three weeks time you will be three. How amazing is that? That little fragile bundle who studied her moving hands with rapt attention is now bursting with opinions and thoughts, and can dance and sing and jump like Mr. Jeremy Fisher (although this is an ambitious concept as you've been watching The Royal Ballet: Tales of Beatrix Potter)

You love books and are frustrated by not being able to read just yet.
"Tell me the words," you say, pointing to the pages, and then, "Now tell me the words in your head," meaning, make up a story. Such an enjoyable difference between words on the page and words in the head, and I find myself thinking the same thing: "Tell me the words in your head, Little E."

You have travelled by air and paddled in Portugal, eaten French ice-cream and slept in tents and yurts. You have made new friends and learned to share and play. You like to be kind to others. Sadly it is becoming rather obvious that I have slowed down a lot and you take my hand and do your best to help me. I find this most powerfully touching. You are becoming an experienced, lovely little person.

You need to make sense of the world, and your way to do it is to act it all out:  You say, "You be me and I'll be you. Now, do you want porridge?" and "Daddy, you be Mr. Jeremy Fisher, and I'll be the big trout"
"Mummy, you be Daddy and Daddy can be Annie" (Granny). Challenging for all of us. Do I really ask everyone about porridge all the time? You give us all such food for thought.

Of course, it's not all sunshine. Storm clouds gather when you are hungry or tired. You refuse to eat or drink or have a cuddle, and you may lie on the floor in noisy protest. You are not like your father in this. He went in for much quieter negative protest, but then would have to shout out, "Look at ME! I'm sulking!" But you are finding a way out of the big holes you sometimes dig for yourself. After refusing everything you may revive, smiling and say, "I've had a good idea. Let's share!" (whatever it was you'd just been refusing.). Good idea. Charm trumps tantrum. A useful lesson for life, and a difficult one to maintain, especially when you're nearly three.

But charm or tantrum, I hope you'll always be able to tell me the words in your head, Little E.

With love from Annie.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Passing On

Around seventy-five years ago this  hand-embroidered silk dress was made for me in China, and rather surprisingly managed to make its way to England in the early years of World War 2. I was born just after the outbreak of war, and have vivid memories of my clothes when I was a young child. I remember the textures as much as anything, for I grew up in a time when clothes were scarce and everything was passed on, passed down, recycled, remade. But this dress, with its matching embroidered knickers was made especially for me, and sent right across the world for me. Sensational stuff, and a source of considerable pride to my mother.

I hated this dress. I hated the matching knickers even more. I had to wear the whole slippery outfit for any occasion when I might be on show, when my mother's visitors were coming, or when members of the family needed to be impressed. My mother would instruct me to flash the matching knickers. I was probably no more than four years old, but I felt terrible.
I used to hide this dress, but it was always found again ('However did it get there?') I also collected any scrap of string that I could try to use as a belt. I loathed the way the dress drooped and sagged, and tying a belt round it helped a bit. However, that was counter-productive, as was the hiding. Being silk the dress had to be meticulously laundered and ironed, and tying string round its middle did not help at all. It holds some uncomfortable memories, this little dress, but I kept it all the same, or rather my mother did, for I found it again after her death. It evoked such a storm of memories for me that I kept it, too. Looking at it now I can't believe how young I must have been when it generated such powerful emotion.

At the time of the 70th anniversary of VJ Day I have been thinking a lot about my uncle and aunt, who sent the dress for me, and who suffered terribly at the fall of Singapore, where they were living at the time of the Japanese invasion. My uncle spent the years of Japanese Occupation in Changi Prison, and was never able to speak about his experiences. My aunt and infant cousin managed to get on to a boat without even knowing where it was going. They ended up in Hobart, on Tasmania.
The dress and knickers came to England, and look who was wearing them yesterday:

Granddaughter, knowing nothing of wars and conflict and uncomfortable clothes and shortages, liked the seventy-five year old dress and even the matching knickers. She would have kept them on all day, but was persuaded into something more robust and also made in China. Some day she may be interested to know the history of the little dress, but not for many years.

A long walk down memory lane for me, and a sadness that my uncle and aunt could not see another generation in hand-embroidered silk, nor get a quick flash of the embroidered knickers.
I know they would have loved that.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Some More Things to Do With Sheep (for Zhoen).

In her almost-daily blog posting Zhoen has been meditating on a theme of sheep, so I have allowed my own sheepish family to come out of the wardrobe and be photographed in the garden for her.
These are TinkaBell bears, made of sheepskin.

I have a collection of English teddy bears, most of them being around my age, or even older. Because of fabric rationing during the time of World War 2 the few manufacturers still making soft toys turned to sheepskin. In 1946 a sheepskin soft-toy business was started in Worthing, Sussex, by John Plummer and Dudley Wandless with one member of staff. They became very successful, and made other things for children, such as baby linen, playsuits and tents - not all made of sheepskin - until 1972.
Teddy bears were their most popular item. Over 70.000 were made annually during the 1960s, and many went to Canada.
The trade label (usually sewn into the foot) is TinkaBell, and they were made in eight sizes.

 I have five different sizes here, plus a real oddity - the orange and black character with green eyes and a studded leather collar. Fifty shades of orange? Goodness knows where he's been, but he in distinctly unplayed-with condition. The others are natural sheepskin. They are all quite heavy and bulky, with wide flat immoveable heads and jointed limbs. The small one in the striped outfit reminds me of my elder son in his Rugby playing days. Not that he has a wide flat head, of course.

Many teddy bears are cuddly, but TinkaBells are very butch and straightforward. You'd have one in bed as a guardian (although possibly better as a door-stop), but not to cuddle and confide in. A TinkaBell wouldn't be listening. He'd be thinking about the next meal or the next Rugby match. But comforting, in a familiar sort of way.

Anyway, they can go back in the wardrobe now they've had a little airing, but TinkaBell doesn't really seem the right name, not even for the one in the pink frock.