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.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

In at the Shallow End

Late evening in the kitchen, and the swimming gear dangles, damp and depressing after a bad day in the pool.
How I hate this swimming lark, but how determined I am not to be defeated by it all.
Then I think, 'Defeat is all right. It will give me more time in the garden'.
But no, I will struggle on.

I was quite excited when I found out that at my local pool people over 75 could have unlimited swimming for £10 a year. When I told my younger son he said, ' Come on, Mum. Everyone in Malvern is over 75. You'll not be able to stand in there'.
Well, he was wrong. Not everyone over 75 wants to swim. And neither do I. At least, I do, but I hate this process of having to master skills that seem to require far more coordination that I possess.

Recently, in a small warm pool in Wales, with lots of grab rails and ladders I could do widths and lengths and float and glide and swim a length underwater. I didn't splash or flounder. I even felt a touch of triumph, once or twice, and the very kind instructor told me I was good. How positive is that? How reinforcing? And how incredibly childish, to need such reassurance in the mid 70s?
Not childish, or rather child-like in the most basically human way. How much better we all feel and respond when we think we are being good. Doing well, accepting approval are things we all need throughout our lives, and when you live alone such things can be in short supply.

However, in the small warm pool in Wales a length is equal to considerably less than a width in the impressive local pool.where a length zooms so far into the distance that it makes my goggles steam up.
A leisure pool is nothing like a swimming pool.
At least not to an insecure old biddy like me.
For starters I can't climb down a ladder, which is my preferred way of getting into water. I have to walk down a sloping tiled 'beach' and when I totter into deeper water there are no comforting rails along the sides.
There is a wave machine, there is a great plastic tube that hurtles people into the deep end. This is fun, apparently.

There is, in compensation, another kindly instructor, and he and I have the vast, echoing, shimmering acreage of turquoise water to ourselves - apart from our own private life-guard, up there on a high perch.
I tell the instructor what I think I can do, and then I find I can't do any of it.
I can do the arms bit.
I can do the legs bit.
I can't do them together. I can't balance, I can't breathe. I gibber. I haven't gibbered for a very long time, but I gibber in the glittering water, and then I can't do anything at all.
How elderly. How humiliating. I wished my son was right, and that it was a case of standing room only. But this is a private lesson, and there is nowhere to hide.
Absolutely nowhere.
The instructor and I formulate a sort-of plan, but I suspect that he sort-of thinks I will give up after such an uncomfortable time..
But I won't.
Even though at that point two dinky four year-olds appear for their private lesson and immediately go into efficient front and back crawl modes.

As I creep back home down the hill, toting a soggy bag of towelling and with knees like jelly, I know that I must creep back up again.

P.S. I've found a ladder. I can get into the water without gibbering. Things are looking up!

Monday, 6 July 2015

Letter to a Granddaughter: Peas in a Pod.

Dear Small Grand-Daughter,

High on a list of my wishes for you is a creative imagination, along with good health and happiness and all the usual grand-motherly concerns. Imagination can be the spice of life, creating magic from the humdrum, peace from the turmoil, fun from the banal......and last weekend, joy from pea-pods. Who would have predicted that shelling peas could be such a wonderful entertainment; for you as the pods went 'pop' and for your parents and me as we watched you quivering with anticipation.......'Do it again, Annie. Do it again,'?

Then you decided that each pod contained a family of peas; mummies and daddies, babies, uncles, aunties, cousins, grannies, so each had to be checked out, and some families were found to be larger and more complex than others. After that came the need to taste uncooked peas, and perhaps their pods as well. It takes quite a time to prepare lunch this way, and perhaps it's only grannies who have the time and patience to do it.
So, thank you for giving me a weekend to spend with you and your widening horizons, and to give me the realisation that grannies are good things with lots to give, even if they can't run about very much.

The question, 'Why?' has become significant lately. Sometimes it is used as a delaying tactic when you've been asked to do something else, but more often it is a real need to know, fuelled by imagination and by your great enthusiasm for books and stories.
We worked through some of your favourites, looking at why things happened the way they did. Peter Rabbit, for instance, had been specifically told not to go into Mr. McGregor's garden, but defied his mother and did so. A few weeks ago you told me that Mr McGregor was 'not kind' shouting at Peter, chasing him and taking his little coat and shoes. This time you worked out that it was Peter who was not kind, eating the vegetables that Mr. McGregor had grown, and that Peter was a bad rabbit, taking things.
Similarly you now think that Goldilocks was wrong, going into someone's house, eating their breakfast, breaking a chair, sleeping in someone else's bed without asking them. You used to think the bears were not good, coming back and frightening her, but now it's Goldilocks who is not kind, frightening the bears.
Not kind.
Not kind at all.
Kindness is important.

In the peace and seclusion of Walnut Cottage we ventured into thoughts of why people ask you not to do things, and we reached a sort of conclusion that it is because Mummy and Daddy don't want you to be hurt. This was clearly the case with Peter Rabbit.

Then you cooked a few meals in your cottage - fish and cheese with tomatoes and carrot juice - yum! You fed your new horse  who is called 'RideaCockHorse' and you are a Fine Lady when you sit on him, although Banbury Cross defeats you somewhat.
You made a lot of (private) phone calls on the remote control for the old t.v. because we couldn't find your official plastic phone. 'Hello...yes, I'm Annie's house. Yes, cooking now....... I'm too busy. Bye!'
This afternoon many people call you via the old remote control, people you know, people from books and nursery rhymes. The witch from Room on the Broom really needed a quick word, but again you were busy in your house, working hard, keeping an eye on the plastic babies in their cradle, constantly mashing up juice in the little liquidiser.....'Tomato or orange, Annie?' 'Have you any cucumber juice?' 'Oh, you are silly, Annie!'

At least  a year ago I found myself marvelling at how much you knew, and how you were making sense of the world.
Now I'm really marvelling, and I have to remind myself that you are someone whose age can still be counted just in months (32).
How on earth has all this happened?

Thank you for teaching me so much, and for reminding me constantly of the simple joys to be found in life.
With love from Granny (Annie).

Monday, 29 June 2015

Indignant of Middle England.

Here I go again.....the equivalent of last week's door-to-door pressure selling. Now someone has found me a buyer so I can move house. Well, not really move house, but move into one of their so-called Assisted Living Apartments.
Extremely thoughtful of them, but the sale presents a few problems, the main one being that my house is not on the market and their hopeful purchaser is going to be disappointed. They might have asked me before they found this buyer, but I guess that someone, somewhere found my date of birth and decided  that at the age of 75 I must be past making any sort of rational decision.
This potential sale offers me a worry and hassle free time with no estate agent fees, no removal fees, free valuations, a guaranteed price and a contribution (unspecified) to solicitor fees. You bet!
I wouldn't need removal fees because I'd have to sell the furniture. None of my Victorian family clobber is going to fit into the tiny retirement rooms. Free valuations? By whom? Presumably by the same agency that gives the guaranteed price. What on earth does it all mean? (Don't tell me, I think I know.)

But it also claims that I can start enjoying 'a more colourful assisted living retirement'. Now this might have its moments?

As with the countless helpful schemes involving computer repairs in exchange for bank details, Nigerian diplomats wanting somewhere to put their money and other too-good-to-be-true offers there must be people who respond to this sort of thing. There must be senior citizens who receive a letter like this and make a decision to downsize and move. Other retirement facilities in the area have been offering M&S vouchers to anyone who will go in and have a look round. Just look round, no pressure, no signatures needed? Enough vouchers to buy a new cardigan.
Similarly does anyone suddenly decide they really, really want a conservatory or double glazing because someone rings up and offers amazing prices in return for an instant decision? Well, they must do, or else people wouldn't keep trying it.

When I was in Madeira a couple of years ago I was puzzled by the boat trips which promised 'No Time-Shares'. Then I learned something of the degree of pressure applied by Time Share Salespersons to visitors when they were captives on a boat cruise.
What with the dish-cloths and the assisted living it's starting to feel a bit like it here.

To cool down I look a a photo my son sent yesterday: It's of the giant waterlily at Kew.

Then I remember how, as a very small child, I loved the photo of this in The Children's Encyclopaedia. There was a little girl sitting in the middle of a leaf.  Magical! My parents took me to see it in its real and humid flesh, and again I was filled with indignation at not being allowed to clamber into the pool and sit on Victoria Amazonica.
Nearly seventy years on.
Still indignant.
Still in Middle England.