Tuesday, 22 October 2013
Yesterday, a happy telephone conversation with an old friend.
We knew one another over forty years ago, when we were Bright Young Things in an exotic situation.
Many years later a number of serendipitous events led to our meeting again, and now we write (on good paper, with proper pens) and send one another books and other things of mutual interest, and we compete by telephone.
We compete over who can walk upstairs without hauling themselves on the banister rail, who can rise swiftly from a chair without using the chair arms, who can read without spectacles and over other such accomplishments which become increasingly significant when one is over seventy.
It is very good to be able to ask someone of the same age if it's normal to feel tired at the end of the day, if it's acceptable to feel timorous about motorway driving, if it's usual to be reluctant to leave one's comfort zone.
When you're this sort of age there seem no clear guide lines on what is all right and what might be the beginning of a decline, mental and/or physical.. There is so much promotion of youthfulness in mind and body, so much emphasis on activity and so few people who are prepared to be really honest about their fears and failings.
I look back over the distant views of my life and marvel at my physical energy and creative strength.
I'm so grateful that I was once, long ago, a Bright Young Thing, skimming around with two simultaneous jobs and doing up houses in my spare time. What spare time?
What spare time do we have now, my old friend and I?
Now there is nothing to spare and everything to value; the warmth of the sun through a window, the pleasing patterns of pens and papers on a desk, the smell of wood in the log pile, the morning walk along basically the same route which looks completely different every day.
We live quite a distance apart but our lives are so similar, our huge appreciations of minutia, our love of our respective homes, our respect for the young and our complete lack of envy for those who have it all to come.
I ask him, "Is it all right to feel exhausted by nine o' clock at night?" He says," Of course it is. What on earth can happen after nine o' clock to make it worth staying up?"
We might both have answered very differently a few decades ago, but now if I want to know what's happening I go to bed with Radio 4..
"Is it all right to feel timorous about motorway driving?" I ask, and he says, "I'm never going to drive on a motorway again."
My life is not quite as simple, but I feel that it's all right to express reluctance, although I buy a SatNav and do it. But the feeling that I'm not alone in being suitably reluctant is a good one.
"What about leaving the comfort zone?" I ask. "Why do it?" he says, which is a good point. Of course I will do it, but I make sure I know why I'm doing it.
My youth seems long, long distant, and I can (mostly) appreciate the gentleness of ageing. As the looks go, so does the eyesight. As the strength declines so does the urge to use it. The more one slows down the more there is to appreciate in the finer details. As one faces the sadness and losses that death brings, so much more does one value the remaining friendships.
Thursday, 3 October 2013
Dear Small Grand-daughter,
In a house that is silent but for the ticking clocks and the faint hum of electrical things at work I sit near to your alarm. The red light glows steadily, and the green lights do not flicker. You are sleeping upstairs and your parents are out, celebrating their wedding anniversary.
Their third wedding anniversary, nearly your first birthday.
Your first birthday, the seventh anniversary of my husband's death, and very sadly I am your only grandparent.
In this quiet house I sit and think, and promise I will do my best; my best to be the sort of Grandmother found in traditional tales, who makes and bakes and creates and reads and writes for you.
The sort of Grandmother who encourages growth, and who can watch you for hours, developing in your own special way, becoming such a strong little person.
The sort of Grandmother who can say 'no' when necessary for your safety and 'yes' when necessary for your growth. Who can stand back as well as step in.
A few months ago I thought you would hurt yourself in learning to crawl. You didn't. You just got on and did it when you knew you could.
Now you are so nearly walking, but doing it with considerable care, testing hand-holds, checking reaching distances, lowering yourself carefully back to ground level if you're not sure.
I respect your judgement, your self-knowledge, which may seem a strange thing to think of someone not yet one year old.
But I do.
I respect your baby dignity.
I enjoy your company.
In the morning we let your parents have a lie-in, and you and I enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the sunshine.
Very leisurely, as you select fragments of toast and fruit and breakfast cereal one at a time, commenting on each, occasionally passing scraps to me and looking for my reaction.
I realise that your father may not have been given this level of relaxed individual attention when he was your age. I had to multi-task, providing for several others, working to a tight time schedule. I would probably have mopped at his buttery hands and cleaned up the high-chair tray if he was taking too long and I had to get his big brother to play-group.
But you and I can take our time and appreciate the fact that no two squares of toast are the same, each being worthy of examination and exclamation.
Eventually we move into another room when there is a large coffee table, exactly the right height to support you in your standing practice.
Round and round you go, your hands, still buttery I realise, making a pattern of perfect prints on the glass surface.
Any other person doing this might have their prints wiped off smartish, but a week later yours are still there. It is right for you to imprint this house, just as the rest of the family has done. So I photograph them........then I wipe them off, because not all my visitors would appreciate their significance. But I want a record of your imprints, just as I have your growth record notched into the kitchen door frame (and you're already twice as tall as the late dog. All family members get notched here).
I may not be able to run about so much these days, but there is the happy realisation that we can explore and chat and read books, listen to different sorts of music and do so many, many other things because what I can really give you is my time, my listening, my hearing.
And my respect.
Happy, happy exploration, Little One,
With love from Grandma.
Sunday, 15 September 2013
Greatly inspired by these suggestions for an eccentric day out, I turn my attentions to having a great day in, especially as it's wet and windy out there.
My house can offer a variety of attractions for all the family, or even just for me on my own.
The World of Marbles: marbles featured heavily in my younger son's collecting habits. There are two large and heavy tins full of them sitting upstairs. They have been used as decorative items, but before his daughter's next visit they must be hidden away. She's very mobile and will have a go at eating most things.
As I put them into the tins I realise how attractive they are, and how many different sizes they come in. There are technical names, such as steelies for the heavy metal ones (so well able to break a window), and other special names once known to me, but now lost in the mists of time. The sizes range from small to whopping, or even ginormous.
Some are in clear glass in lovely colours, some have coloured glass spirals inside. There are some that are irridescent, and others with bubbles and clouded patterns.
I think maybe it would be nice to classify them, by colour or size, which would involve making separate bags for them, which, in turn would involve a trip to The Lost World of the Attic. I could play all day.....
Then I realise that there is already a specialist marble outlet and it's here.
Lost is a great start to a title. If Heligan was just Heligan instead of The Lost Gardens of Heligan it would be considerably less romantic.
The Lost World of the Attic: is a potentially risky place, approached by means of a ladder. I once was stuck up there when the ladder fell down behind me, and my husband was out for the day. The ladder is now chained to the wall, but there is still a frisson of anxiety as I head up into the heights..
Up there is a world of memories and muddle, a great collection of the sort of toys they don't make any more ( or if they do they cost a fortune). Things made from wood like the rocking horse that belonged to my grandfather, and the sturdy Brio railway ( happily still in production). Things that don't need batteries, and that don't bleep and jingle and flash.
There are some unique clothes from Saudi Arabia, from the time I lived and worked there. There are slave-girls' anklets and bracelets and beads that were made in the middle of the desert. Grand-daughter may need them for dressing-up in years to come.
There is bedding. Oh, so many duvets and pillows which have been to university and back again, but may still be needed if and when there is a great gathering here.
There are computers and boxes and boxes of things to go with them. I am banned from disposing of these.
They are not mine to dispose of.
There are also keyboards.
The Pareto principle still operates here.
Believe it or not I have been sorting up here for several years now, and never fail to find something else of interest, something that evokes strong memories. Moreover, I have a great view into the neighbourhood gardens.
The Magic Wardrobe: is in my bedroom. I have three wardrobes in there and two of them are fairly well-organised. The third is full of things to be sorted, not the important paper-work, but the letters and cards and things the children made, and things my husband and I gave each other. Things that are still important although it sometimes seems a life-time ago and sometimes feels like only yesterday.How can I discard things like that?
It is possible to be quite lost in here, and to lose track of time, and I fully understand why C.S.Lewis chose a wardrobe as the starting point for one of his most magical books.
C.S. Lewis was a close friend of my elder son's Godfather, who is the author of Jack - the biography of C.S.Lewis. See what memories are triggered?
The kitchen is not without its possibilities for adventure and exploration. There is The Drawer, something every kitchen should have.
The Drawer: is the place where you put things that have no other appropriate place. Occasionally, on a wet and windy day like today, I empty it out in a determined effort to establish some sort of order. There are lots and lots of special tools, all of which will be really useful one day.
There is a pair of wide-pronged forks for lifting cooked poultry out of the roasting tin (why didn't I remember when I was trying to lift the Christmas turnkey with a plastic spatula?), and a special brush for cleaning mushrooms before peeling them. Somewhere there is bound to be a special gadget for peeling mushrooms. There is a little tool for pulling the green bit out of strawberries, and there's a truly impressively engineered fork for getting pickled onions out of the jar. I don't have, have never had any pickled onions, but it's a really nice fork.
I find a very useful thing for loosening the lids of jars. In fact I find three of them, all for the same purpose, all different, and so I keep them because I don't know which is the best. There are several tin-openers all different, which again I need to keep for the same reason. There is a really antique tin opener, with a cast-iron head of a bull and a sharp and rusty blade.
It is a collectors' piece.
I am a collector.
Tuesday, 10 September 2013
In the garden this evening I look up at this and I listen to the silence.
All through the summer the swifts and swallows and martins have screamed and scythed their ways through the warm air and I have watched their acrobatics, sometimes so high that they are specks against the clouds, at other times barely skimming over the vine arch.
There has been great and noisy activity in recent days, and then......then they have gone. Off on their vast journeys, following the winds and the stars and who knows what other invisible forces that draw them back to warmth and light.
This is the turning point of the year as we begin the dip into darkness.
Different birds will come, and if you visit places like Slimbridge you will witness the drama of other great migrations as so many birds make a refuelling stop on their vast journeys.
So the skies are not empty, only of the swallows and swifts who, for me, symbolise the changes in the seasons. I am so happy to see the first arrive, and so sad to realise they have left again. I wish them safety on their perilous flight. It just feels empty now, with the sort of feeling that autumn can induce.
I remind myself that I have a splendid crop of beans, and the sweet peas are still blooming busily enough to provide me with a vase full every day. The grapes are changing colour, even though I treat the vine with all the brutal force I can summon, attacking it with shears and loppers.
It thrives on punishment.
I have Russian tomatoes ripening. One of my Russian friends supplied me with tomato seeds as I was leaving Southern Russia in January, and thanks to a kind friend with a greenhouse we raised and distributed a great many plants. Some of the Russian plants are of the beef-steak type and others are plum tomatoes. They are huge and healthy, like Russian shot-putters, but I think they need a few more weeks of Black-Sea type temperatures (40 degrees or so). They, too, migrated by air to their new homes in Middle England, although they may not do so again unless the summers become warmer.
My elder son has migrated back to Central Asia, half a world away.
Even Grand-daughter has had her first flight, enjoying the turbulence of the return trip.
So my heading is wrong.
The skies have actually been very busy indeed.
They just feel empty.
Sunday, 1 September 2013
I have not forgotten Tian Tian and her plight. As you can see, she is welcome in my garden at any time.
I have seven different types of bamboo growing here, spread around the garden. But, I should add hastily, they are not spreading varieties, but clumpers. They will eventually increase in girth, but only slowly, unlike some types which you need to plant and stand back as they race away.
Bamboos are very special plants, as bizarre in their habits as the Giant Pandas who feast on them.
Like the pandas, they have strange, sometimes self-destructive habits. Some may only flower once every few decades, even once a century, and after flowering they may die. In this way whole forests can be wiped away, and the pandas who need them must travel to a new habitat.
The bamboo in the photograph was grown from seed after a plant I bought flowered and died in its first year with me.Luckily it is easily grown from seed.The specimen above is about fifteen years old and eight feet tall, so a forest can be reborn at a speed which makes it almost possible to watch.
Many of my bamboos came from Jungle Giants, a very interesting nursery which supplies a wealth of information as well as a wide range of plants.
I think my garden is now mature, like me, and I can simply appreciate what I have seen grow there. With the bamboos there is a lot more to appreciate than just sight. There is wonderful flickering movement and soft noise, like rain falling. They give stature and form to the garden all the year round, and now I also have a constant supply of canes of any size to act as support for other plants. Indeed, I may put up a sign at the gate to say 'Pick Your Own Bamboo Canes'.
I am not using them to their full potential, but in time I may be inclined to build a fence, or a little tea-house for Grand-daughter, or another oriental-type bridge. The possibilities are there.
In this country bamboo is not as appreciated as it is in the Far East, where bamboo groves are an aid to contemplation, symbols of strength and uprightness.
'Strength and uprightness', I think as I potter in my own bamboo grove
Exactly what I need as the arthritis kicks in.
Friday, 9 August 2013
Portrait of Bundles of Panda Joy by National Geographic
I have to stop reading the news. It's all getting too much, emotionally, when one had barely recovered from the tension and excitement of that Other Birth.
Now I learn that Tian Tian, the Giant Panda up there in Edinburgh (rented out from the Chinese Government), may be pregnant.
She is moody, off her food, and won't cooperate about having a scan.
Well, fair enough.
Many of us will be able to recall the nausea, the tiredness, the mood swings, but few of us will have had to face the indignities suffered by Tian Tian.
Public artificial insemination by different donors, endless speculation about our partner's abilities, doubts about our own capabilities. People are already questioning her mothering skills, and foster parents are lined up before pregnancy is confirmed.And if she does give birth her offspring will belong to the People's Republic of China and will be returned there at the age of two.
I wouldn't co-operate either.
But there is huge money in panda production.
If Giant Pandas find it so uncongenial to reproduce that they can't or won't, perhaps we should try to see things from their viewpoint?
Are they telling us that they don't want to be in zoos? Could it be as simple as that?
Do they reproduce when left well alone, free-range in their bamboo forests?
Or are they telling us that they have had enough of the whole business, and if people want pandas they are going to have to engineer them for themselves?
A friend who has recently visited captive baby pandas in China tells me that in order to obtain the necessary ingredients for artificial insemination the panda keepers have to fire up the prospective fathers by showing them Panda Porn, because male pandas basically can't be bothered.
Tian Tian and her partner, Yang Guang have been together for two years and had two attempts at mating, but their hearts were not in it. They obviously just don't care, either for each other or for the whole idea of sex and parenthood. And looking at the outcome of a panda pregnancy in the first few weeks - would you?
Admittedly the birth may be comparatively easy - Tian Tian might not even notice, but an new-born panda does not tug at the heart strings in the way that some other tiny animals may.
Infant pandas, as opposed to new-borns, are the toy-makers' dream, cuteness personified, but they clearly do not create the same sort of enthusiasms in their parents.
Why is it all so unattractive for them?
Surely pandas are trying to tell us something?
Meanwhile, back at the zoo, one of the pandas' keepers feels that, 'it's all just going to explode'.
Poor Tian Tian.
Monday, 5 August 2013
Here I live a simple life, with hardly an app in sight - and then I come across this, and my humble upstairs loo seems such a blessing, such a source of relief and relaxation.
Imagine, if I'd been about to upgrade, at the cost of just under four thousand pounds, to a lavatory that I could control from my smartphone (if and when I buy it).
It's such a temptation, isn't it? A lavatory that you can control while sitting on it..........to make it play music, or puff warm air and warm water, or flush itself and spray deodorant (sorry, I mean activate fragrance release). I could have been so motivated, because as one ages it's a nuisance to have to reach for the flush handle, and a bit of music and fragrance is always nice.
I have a rack of books on the back of this door, but you have to lean slightly forwards to get them. I have short stories, poetry, a book of Beryl Cook's painting and several Viz annuals (which I have to remove before younger visitors arrive) among other treasures for short-term reading, so this small room is not without resources. Admittedly, I would have been hesitating over the music bit of the app, because I actually prefer Radio 4, or Chopin or Bach, and I would need to ensure that these are available while enthroned.
So, anyway, thank goodness I hadn't indulged in the smartphone, the app, or the luxury loo because I know what would have happened. The several smartphoned visitors to this house would have increased my water bills and caused me considerable discomfort and concern as the music, bidet and fragrance release functions were activated with potentially amusing consequences. Family weekends would have become hilarious for some, expensive for others.
How we might all have laughed and cursed.
There might have been others, not even visitors, but casual by-passers, activating apps as they stroll past, on the off-chance that they will catch some luxury loo owner in situ. This is an affluent neighbourhood, with a very high-tech establishment just down the road. The news report describes this as a 'security hole' which is a fearful prospect.
In olden days there used to be fears of rats coming round the U-bend, but now it is cyber-criminals attacking our most basic functions. The thought that my lavatory could be a security hole is worse than a rat-attack.
Thank goodness, as it is I can relax with my simple wooden seat and enjoy the Beryl Cook artwork.