Sunday, 19 December 2010

Sleigh Bells and Sprouts.

The stockings are ready - not just ready but hand-quilted, and I sit here, knowing that Heathrow is closed for incoming flights, and very far-flung family and friends are possibly in departure-lounges half a world away. Those in the same country are snow-bound, ice-bound on dangerous road surfaces, so here I sit.
There's not a lot more I can do.
The one positive thought is that if no one else arrives I will not starve for a couple of years. I might weary of turkey and mince-pies, but I will not starve, except for the company of those keenly awaited.

It gives me more time to think about explaining a very traditional English Christmas to two guests from far away, one of whom doesn't speak English.

Stockings? Well, they are essential. You hang them up beside the fireplace, and during the night some portly old gentleman manages to squeeze himself down the chimney, out through the door of the wood-burning stove - yes, it is lit - and then he puts presents in your stocking.
The stove is hot, burning-hot because of the yule log, which is actually a great iron-hard hunk of the old gatepost and it will smoulder for days. The yule log must burn until Christmas morning, so he has to get past it with a load of liqueur chocolate. Tricky.
And by the way, he travels through the air, on a sleigh, with bells. With reindeer.
No one ever sees him, except in department stores and garden centres from late October onwards.

We have this vast turkey. No one is really all that keen on turkey, especially the red meat, but we have it, golden and glazed and stuffed with nuts and herbs and sausagemeat and apricots. The guest from far away who spent last Christmas with us was so enchanted by the stuffings that she ate them for breakfast, so this year there are even more exotic stuffings. Perhaps I should have replaced the turkey with roast beef or salmon, but now it's crouching there in the freezer. Biding its time. Like me.

What everyone seems to prefer is 'pigs-in-blankets'. We all like them, but we only have them at Christmas.

No one (but me) likes sprouts. We have sprouts, lots of them, and I'm not following the adventurous recipes for alternative cooking. Boiled sprouts and the attendant aroma is deeply traditional. So deeply that the smell lingers for days, despite the yule logs and the cinnamon candles.

One of us likes Christmas pudding, so we have a great big one and he can have it cold for breakfast on Boxing Day. We all have to have a bit though, with brandy butter (yuk!) and if all is going well I manage to set fire to it before serving. Sometimes it is possible to choke or break a tooth on the coins hidden inside. Flaming Christmas pud!

We have crackers and will explain the jokes to our guests, which may not be easy, cross-culturally and bilingually. It is also fairly obligatory to wear the flimsy paper hat and appreciate the plastic toy.

Mince-pies are as essential as tinsel and fairy lights, even though no mince is involved, and no fairies either, as far as I know.
The Christmas tree holds memories old and newer - glass ornaments several generations old, and cardboard angels made at Playgroup. We mustn't be without it, nor without the dangerous scramble in the depths of the attic to find the treasured ornaments in their unmarked, unidentifiable boxes.

And so we wait, the turkey and I, in our own private Advent.

Happy Christmas, everyone, and may all your journeys be possible.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Earth stands hard as iron, water like a stone, and the solitary heron steps its cautious path across the deep-frozen lawn.
Always solitary, always cautious, creeping like a badly-furled umbrella away from the pond, knowing it to be yet another fruitless journey, yet another waste of precious energy.
On the far side of the lawn it heaves itself into the grey air, a metallic flopping bird against a cruelly metallic sky.

I have pangs of conscience.
We created a wildlife garden, deliberately attracting creatures to come and live near us. We created cosy little habitats, log piles for the wood lice, small woven roosts for the wrens, a pond for countless insects as well as fish and frogs. There are little houses for hedgehogs, nettles for butterflies, thick hedges for bird shelters, ivy on the walls, roses round the door.

I put out food, all the time, seeds and nuts and chunks of fat.
The heron came regularly to the pond to pick out a rudd or two. Stocking the pond with self-renewing native fish is the equivalent of putting other food on the bird-table.
Attracting birds to the bird-table creates the equivalent supply for buzzards and sparrow hawks.
You can't really pick and choose the visitors to a wild-life garden.
You supply bounty, free for all.

The garden becomes over-populated as a result.
Perhaps those who should have gone somewhere warmer have stayed around, seduced by the ready supply of food?
Perhaps too many have bred, reproduced themselves over-enthusiastically and unrealistically?
Do creatures become over-dependent on my generosity, and it is really generous or a form of self-indulgence?

Robins look good on Christmas cards, but are unpleasantly determined creatures in real life. If food runs short they will fight to the death for it.
The blue tits and great tits are still coming to the bird-table and the food holders, but I haven't seen a wren for days now, nor the long-tailed tits who daily came in a chattering, dipping family flock.

Have I created a false haven and lured them to a death of cold and starvation?

I pick up the ski poles and venture out to the shops.
I am going to buy sardines for the heron.

Right or wrong?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Ring out, wild bells!

The bells rang loud and clear over the flat expanses of the Severn Estuary last weekend, as we celebrated the marriage of my younger son and his wife.
Splendidly, admirably unconventional they had actually been married some two months earlier, in a totally private ceremony on the Isle of Skye.

Equally unconventially the bells that rang out were those of the fire alarms, triggered by the fountain fireworks on top of the cup-cake tower. (Special thanks to those who dealt with them swiftly and tactfully.)

The celebration was the occasion for friends and families to come together and, in many instances, to meet for the first time.
I am full of admiration for this bride and groom, who had the courage to do what was right for them, rather than be ham-strung by the Big White Dress, the Cars, the Reception, the Flowers, and the countless 'duty' invitations.

People came together in a relaxed way, shared the cooking and washing-up, the eating and drinking, dancing, laughter and talking (and even a few tears).....and then the sweeping up and recycling of the empties the next morning.

It was the most heartfelt and sincere event I have attended, and I don't think I'm biased!

By way of contrast - how about this?

Big wedding - Almaty, Kazakhstan style.
You get the biggest stretch limo you can find, deck it with flowers, fill it with Bride's huge white dress (plus Groom), add a convoy of only slightly smaller cars filled with vodka-fuelled family and friends. Then you drive the whole convoy round the city, blowing hooters and whistles, stopping at major scenic points for group photos.
You and your stretched party will not be the only ones doing this. The city will be brought almost to a stand-still by almost-identical parties most Saturdays.
You will stop off in the park to release a cage of pure white doves.
Up they swirl into the sky, in a symbolic and romantic sort of way.
But these are homing doves, a neat cottage industry, returning home in time to be boxed up for the next wedding party.

Much as I admire lack of convention I nearly started a tradition at my own wedding.
My husband's Best Man had left his button-hole rose on the kitchen table. I tucked it into my bouquet and passed it to him as I drew level with him at the altar. The congregation apparently saw a rather charming gesture of a bride taking a flower from her bouquet and passing it to the Best Man. Several people told me that they had repeated this gesture at another wedding.
They had not heard what I said to the Best Man.
Of such stuff is tradition made.

Perhaps in future years it will be traditional for the Groom to wear a leopard-skin track-suit for his break-dancing at the reception.
One can but hope so.

(Thanks to Alex Vickers for photographing cup cakes before the alarms went off.)

Sunday, 24 October 2010


I left Kazakhstan in 27 degrees of heat.
A day or so later and snow is forecast.

There will be frantic activity up on the ski slopes above the town. Almaty is hosting the Asian Winter Games in a few weeks time, and there is still much building of wooden hotels and chalets to be done up there, ready for the influx.

Near to my son's glass tower of an office block a terrifyingly perilous ski-jump rears into the sky. He hopes to be able to watch people hurling themselves down it from somewhere near his desk.
His own skis are ready, near the door of his apartment.
I try not to think too much about the slopes he will be attacking.
I'm not sure that it was such a good thing to have seen them; the rocks, the tree-stumps, the brand-new, untested chair-lift network.

It is only days since we sat in warm sunshine on the terrace of this Georgian restaurant. Fragrant woodsmoke drifted across the steep valley.
Two caged wolves paced nearby, their yellow eyes fixed on us.
All too close to them was a sort of pets' corner of rabbits and chickens. My son fought hard against the urge to pass the wolves a couple of chunky little rabbits.
Kazakhstan is said to have more wolves than Canada, although I'm not sure how anyone can prove that. I just hope those particular wolves will either be released or fed as the snow falls on the mountains.

Snow will be falling on the spacious avenues of Panfilov Park, just one of so many beautful tree-filled spaces in Almaty.

The leaves will have gone.
But life will continue in the little wooden houses in every side street and back lane, where they sit comfortably among the new glass and chrome and the old Soviet blocks.
Every ex-Soviet block has its own courtyards, with play equipment for children, drying racks for the washing and benches in the sun where you can sit and chat with your neighbours.
Every wooden house has its orchard, its vegetable patch, and many near the city centre have a cow or a couple of goats.
We have so much to learn about life-style.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Postcards from Kazakhstan

Beauty comes at a cost.
This is believed to be the largest wooden building in the world, built without a single nail. It is a very small part of the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension in Almaty, and it is built of wood to withstand earthquakes. Almaty sits on a major fault line.

In the past Almaty has been devastated by earthquakes and drowned in torrents of mud and melt-water rushing down the steep mountain valleys into the town.
Now the water is channelled along every street, irrigating the trees as it flows.
It provides water features and fountains everywhere. It makes the numerous parks lush and rich. It makes the city a lovely place to walk.

But then a lake, high in the mountains, empties itself down a valley and takes more than two hundred houses along with the rocks and mud and the great walls of melted snow.
This happened from Lake Esik in July 1963.

Now the lake is a fraction of its former size, still a favourite place for picnics and a starting point for hiking, but its earlier dam, thought to be protective, was swept away completely, and the valley is empty.

Fountains and water everywhere.

In the morning I sit near the fountains in the apartment gardens. It is over twenty degrees. I am wearing a tee shirt and a cotton skirt.
The little Kazakh and Russian toddlers living in the apartments also trundle out into the sunshine, escorted by their nannies and babushkas.
Everyone else is dressed as for the ski slopes, padded coats, scarves, boots.
Every toddler wears a woolly hat.
I get some analytical stares from impassive almond-shaped eyes.

Every toddler who can sit unaided is pushed in a chariot.
These chariots are shaped like cars or motorbikes, brightly coloured and fitted with numerous devices that dangle and rotate and chime and generally entertain their passengers.

Round and round they go.
Round and round the fountains.

After a few mornings of this the toddlers and nannies and babuskas relax about the strange white-haired old lady wearing barely adequate clothing.

I am approached by a tiny toddler in a spangled gauze skirt, a red velvet jacket embroidered in gold, red fur hat, gold tights, red patent leather boots.
She leaves her pink plastic chariot with the gold dangly bits and totters over.
She extends a shrimp-sized finger towards the zip on my bag.
I slide it open, saying, 'Open', and closed, saying, 'Closed',
I repeat it a few times.
'Closed', I say, and look at her expectantly.
The shrimp-finger points again.
'Open!' she commands.
There are cheers and applause from the watching nannies.
'English!' they say.

Forget learning Russian.
I am teaching English here!

Friday, 15 October 2010

A Letter from Kazakhstan.

I need not have concerned myself too much with Olga and Vladimir, although it is useful to have a few, a very few, phrases and polite greetings.

Valentina the Cleaner came yesterday, and we needed no formal phrases. She had picked me some apples from her garden, demonstrating ably how she had reached up and picked them....'This one? Niet! This one? Ah yes, this one is good for the Mama. Tak, tak, tak.'
In return I presented her with a pot of Gentleman's Relish.......'Put it on bread, small, small, little thin.......' . My son has no toaster. I mime putting bread under the grill.
'Ah ha!' says Valentina. 'X Factor!'
Universal understanding.

Valentina irons my son's shirts most beautifully. She mops and polishes the tiled floors. She talks to me, and I tell her I can't understand a thing she says, but indicate that I am full of admiration for the quality of her work.
She admires the quality of my son.
She says he is very, very bolshoi (big), which is true. Valentina indicates that big mothers make big sons. She looks me up and down and we agree that I am bolshoi, too. (But not as bolshoi in some dimensions as Valentina.)

Valentina polishes the furniture, the ceramic hob, the worktops. She arranges coasters in a star pattern on the table. She stands back to admire the results. She checks the chandeliers. There is no dust.
I sense disappointment. I think she would like more sparkle, more glitz, more of the razzmattazz that rich folk can buy downtown. Stuff like gilded indoor fountains, bear-skin rugs, fancy whips with a deer's leg as the handle.
Nice stuff. The top floor of TsUM (the Harrods of Almaty) is full of temptation.

Before she left Valentina came and sat with me for a while. We chatted in Russian and English with an almost total lack of comprehension on both sides.
Then she began to sing. The volume increased until the chandeliers rattled. She threw back her head and let rip.
I applauded.
'X Factor!' she said again, and I realised that she may be over-estimating my power and influence back in the UK.
But when Simon Cowell comes to Kazakhstan Valentina should be right at the front of the queue.

Today I sit here, in my son's spotless apartment, overlooking snow-capped mountains.
I can hear children playing in the school playground next door. The shouts and squeals and laughter of children at play creates an atmosphere that is universal. I think I can understand what they are shouting and squealing about, whether it is in Russian or Kazakh or English (but it certainly won't be in English).
These children look cleaner and more formal than many I see in England. They are smartly dressed. Their school shirts are blindingly white and their blazers well-brushed.
When the whistle blows and the children are summoned back inside I can hear the band practice from the military academy just up the road.
I can hear the call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

Multi faith, multi ethnic. Full of trees and fountains and sparkling mountain air.
This is a beautiful place.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Not Getting to know Olga and Vladimir.

I'm off quite soon, off to visit my son who lives and works in a remote part of Central Asia.
In the meantime I struggle with Olga and Vladimir.

I need to get to grips with these two, because for some of the time I will be free-range in a very foreign place. I want to be able to wander around and chat to people while my son is at work.
I will take my small-scale sketching things, because I have learned that the way to attract a bit of company is to sit and sketch.
If you want to keep people away you sit and write in your Moleskine notebook, but if you produce a sketch book and a little box of water-colours you have someone sitting beside you in no time at all.
At least, that is what happens in England.
What will happen in Kazakhstan, I wonder?

Which is why I'm working on Olga and Vladimir.
They are Russian, but many people in Kazakhstan speak Russian.

Olga and Vladimir meet at a business conference.
'Hello!' they say to each other,'What is your name?'
They exchange names. They tell each other how nice it is to meet. They agree that Moscow is beautiful. They agree it is time to part. They say goodbye with no apparent qualms.
That is Lesson 1 Part 1 of the multi-disc set of Conversational Russian. It is called Getting to Know People.

I don't feel I am getting to know Olga and Vladimir, but will press on.

Olga and Vladimir meet again. They remember each others' names. They ask each other how they are. They are both well. They part again, but now I sense a lingering regret.
Things begin to warm up. Olga wants to find the way to the Post Office. She wants to buy a stamp. I expect she needs to write home to say she may be away longer than expected.
Now she wants to find the Bolshoi Theatre. Is she going to buy tickets and invite Vladimir?

By Part 2 Valdimir and Olga are in a restaurant; beer, borshch and salad for Vlad, red wine and chips for Olga. Oh, and an omelette. And white wine instead of red. Then coffee with milk and tea with lemon.
They summon the waiters repeatedly. 'Young man!' 'Young woman!' they cry. Olga changes her mind about the chips, the wine, the tea. Vladimir asks for the bill. It's really not promising.

I knew it!
By Part 4 Olga is off to the football stadium and Vladimir? Well, Vladimir is heading for the hospital. He is on the number ten trolleybus, three stops away from the hospital.

They never get it together. They buy samovars and matroshka dolls, but separately.
They make an attempt to go to the Puskin Museum but it is closed on Mondays, and, of course, it happens to be Monday.
Vladimir has a mild dose of man-flu and goes to hospital, but is told to take an aspirin and stop fussing. Olga loses her handbag and is locked out of her room.
The pair of them go to supper with another colleague where they partake of three bread rolls, a half kilo of cheese, tomatoes and three bottles of beer.

One wonders about the quality of the conference as well.
I expect things are different in Kazakhstan.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


One step outside the garden door, and autumn is there.
It is there in the goose-pimpling air, the heavy cold dew on the lawn. the filaments of cobwebs highlighted by the low level sun.
As the day warms it is there in the blushing tomatoes. the fattening grapes and the competitive scrambling of birds in the thickness of the vine.

The grapes are not good for people.
An enthusiastic friend made wine some years ago. It was awful; bitter, harsh.
I tipped the remainer of the bottle down the sink, where it fizzed and foamed and left the sink sparkling.
Good for stainless steel.
An American friend made grape jelly, but it was so sweet that we might as well have eaten a bag of sugar.

So now the grapes are there only for the birds, and I wait for the Fieldfares to come for their share.
In the meantime starlings, blackbirds and sparrows argue and scamble for fruit, nipping off ripe and unripe indiscriminately.
An athletic-looking cat, new to the neighbourhood, watches from a fence-top.

The blackbirds have spent the summer colonising the garden. They are proprietorial about its contents, spending so much time trying to prevent others from eating that they can hardly feed themselves. They posture and fight - male to male, female to male, father to daughter.
The other birds eat on, noisily, fussily.

Bounty for the sparrow-hawk, too, plummeting into the vine, pinioning a shrieking victim.
The other birds rush panic-striken away and the sparrow-hawk plucks and rips in silence.
Such passion and brutality in a small town garden.

Overhead, on the edge of the hills, a family of buzzards spiral and mew. Two adults with three offspring this year.
Just watching.
Their chance will come.

The sky is empty and silent of the scimitars of martins, swifts and swallows, screaming high in the summer evenings. I try to note the day they vanish, to wish them safety on their perilous, incredible journey back to warmth.

One night soon, if I am very lucky, in the still and chilly dark I will hear autumn in the rush of migrating birds, high, high in the cold starry sky, following flight paths older than Man.
The birds are always ahead of us in their knowledge of winds and weather for their unimaginably vast migrations.

Earth is making its slow tilt again; here towards darkness while the other side receives its share of warmth and light.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Pareto in the Attic.

There has been a lot of interest and a certain amount of disbelief about the keyboards in my attic. I do not exaggerate; well, not all the time, and for those of you who urged reduction of the collection, here's an recent photograph.
My musical son came home for a day and a night.
The charity shops did well, as did a local school running an after-school music club. Now there is this modest collection, plus one or two others lurking in a spare bedroom. I haven't really counted.

'The Pareto Principle' fits well. Eighty percent of the stuff in the attic was owned by twenty percent of the people living in the house at the time the collection was amassed.
Now something like eighty percent has been assessed as superfluous, twenty percent remains. As there is now only one person living in this house there remains eighty percent of other peoples' belongings filling twenty percent of the attic.
There is a lot more room in the attic, even with the eighty percent.

Pareto did some interesting work. Eighty percent of effects come from twenty percent of the causes. Twenty percent of pea-pods contain eighty percent of the peas. People wear twenty percent of their clothes eighty percent of the time, eighty percent of our phone calls are made to twenty percent of our friends. Which indicates that we get more of a buzz out of dealing with our enthusiams, and focusing on those activities which give us the best outcomes, which, in turn, is hardly suprising.
When we get it right we get eighty percent of our happiness and satisfaction from twenty percent of our activities. That includes being able to see a bit of floor space in the attic. Deeply satisfying, as was my time with my son. Very satisfying to do something together, even as mundane as visiting the local rubbish tip.
Perhaps in retirement we could boost that a bit and get a ninety/ten result, except that it is impossible to measure happiness as a percentage of anything.

But the most profound aspect of Pareto's work tells us that eighty percent of the world's wealth and resources are controlled by twenty percent of the population. If that.

P.S. For those of you keen on circuit bending - here's my son

Sunday, 8 August 2010

On Reflection.....

A little while ago 'Pohanginapete' responded to a comment I left on his blog.

'Often I've thought,' he wrote, 'that the turning point in a person's life must come when curiosity no longer outweighs reflection; when we begin living in our own history we begin the process of no longer creating it.'

Oh, cor blimey, gadzooks, what a wake-up call!

He was not to know that I had spent the previous five weeks in a welter of self-pity, recrimination, reflection....wallowing, in short. Living in the past, trying to see the past in a different light, wishing I had done or not done this or that - and then this or that would not have happened, or would have happened differently.

Oh yes, the perils of recollection.

How do you downsize, ridding your life of clutter, without the attendance of a life-time of associations? Everything I touch in this house triggers memories. Three and a half years since my husband's death and I finally take his unworn shoes to the Oxfam shop.
The practical de-cluttering is hard enough; but then there is the emotional.

Finally, I can be ruthless with personal papers and letters, but I have to read them all, just to make sure that I haven't missed anything important, any memories my sons might want to record.
The reading brings laughs and smiles and terrible shocks; for life was not always as I thought it to be. Sad things, once read cannot be unread, just as regrettable words, words spoken in anger and frustration cannot be unsaid.
With the best will in the world, we are isolated individuals, and there is an inevitable point when apology is no longer possible, and history cannot be revised in a more favourable light.

I can make copious contributions to the Oxfam shop. I can shred papers. But how much interior mental clutter must I retain?

In this situation it is relatively easy to use distraction as a means of avoidance.
I'm quite well versed in the processes of bereavement, I can acknowledge its stages in myself. I hope I can be of some help to others. I work for 'Cruse Bereavement Care'. I can occupy myself, stay busy, think of others.
Distraction has its uses.
Usually, in the past, my thoughts wriggled through a cacophony; family noise, work noise, trying-to-shop-in-lunchtime noise.
Now they bubble up from silence.

This, for me, is the turning point in life. The silence.

I realise I wrote about this when I first started blogging 'here'.
It remains a challenge, greater now than ever before.

I work on creating new, meaningful history - as opposed to distraction.
I ask my younger son, now that he has his own house, to come and remove the twenty four keyboards he still has in this attic (I do not exaggerate, he does something called circuit bending). He asks why, and I say I might want to move. He is somewhat shocked.
I tell my older son I'm coming to visit him. He lives in Kazakhstan. He promises me a business class ticket.

I cannot help but live in my own history. I would never be able, nor would I wish to discard it, but, hopefully I can build on it.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Ladies who Lunch.

Like so many other things in life, this caught me unawares.
An enjoyable lunch with an interesting group metamorphosed in my mind into something else. A category: Ladies who Lunch, the implications being firstly Ladies and then Lunch.

Lady-like behaviour was an important factor in my childhood. Politeness, good table manners, social skills, knowing one's place. The opposite was 'common', which could involve shouting, pushing, wearing the sort of clothes that allowed flashing of the knickers, showing off, making onself conspicuous. Common always had charms.

A little later, incipient ladies were more specifically trained: doing the flowers, laying the table, using the correct form of address for a bishop. Ladies-in-training were made to walk around with books on their heads and were given badges as rewards for good deportment. Would anyone dare to treat any eighteen year old like that today? What was wrong with us I wonder now? Why was there not some sort of rebellion?
There wasn't.
We went overnight from being school-girls to being middle-aged ladies, wearing hats and gloves and rubberised roll-on corsets and suspenders and stockings (not, you will clearly understand, from even the remotest thought of kinkiness, but because tights were yet to be invented. Kinkiness had been invented, but was never spoken of. Teenagers had not been invented, either).
Common, meanwhile, was wearing bras with the cups stitched into rigid projectile cones and was smoking and gasping in the back row of the cinema. Common was likely to become pregnant any day or night, but Ladies did not fully understand about such things,and certainly would not dream of gasping at the Hunt Ball.
Common continued to exercise its furtive charms.

Lunch - proper lunch, something you sit down to eat off a plate, not something eaten on the hoof or at a desk from a paper bag - luncheon implies 'not working'.
Luncheon needs at least a double set of cutlery and matching plates and proper, starched damask napkins.
After-luncheon coffee requires matching cups and saucers, not chipped 'humourous' mugs with pictures of sheep and pigs. It will need a polished silver dish for the chocolate mints. Oh, heavens!
Ladies who lunch are at leisure in the middle of the day. They are free to enjoy like-minded company, an attractive starter, a light but beautifully presented main course with a chilled glass (or two) of Chablis, and an amusingly delicious pudding.

Ladies who Lunch are coming to my place at the weekend.
Too late in the day I realise I'm not a lady and I don't usually lunch.

The garden is out of control in the heat, and I am nearly defeated by it, but they will want to see it - and peversely, I will want to show it off. So (despite my promises to my sons) I have already clambered on the shed roofs to prune the vine, taken a machete to the bank at the bottom, and done my back in getting ground elder out of the rock garden with a crow bar. (Is there a manufacturer who makes lady-sized machetes, crow-bars and chain-saws?)

The Ladies will probably want to use the loo, which means I ought to scour the house from top to bottom. Really I should have redecorated and recarpetted.
I must find a cure for the dog's flatulence, (she's such a friendly old thing and loves company) and fill the house with flowers and scented oils in case I can't.

All I have to do then is cook a totally delicious meal that no one else has thought of, being at the same time sure that it will not cause allergic reactions or weight increase.
Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Write Every Day

Here's a response to 'PohanginaPete',whose wonderfully diverse photographic blog appears almost daily. I'm proud of the fact that he's my nephew, and that we share a sort of addiction to writing.

It is an addiction, in my case. Throughout most of my life I have kept journals and diaries, and their purpose has been to clarify my thoughts. I have never intended them to be read by anyone else, and, for that reason, many have been consigned to the bonfire.

Seeing one's thoughts go up in flames has been a truly cathartic experience.
After the traumatic year of my husband's death I wrote pages of grief, anger, misery and self-indulgence. There is no longer a place for those feelings in my life, although there was a burning need to express them at the time. Burning was the right word, and the right end for them.

The pages above are from one of my journals of 1968, when I was working in Saudi Arabia.
They have been lost in the depths of the attic for forty years, and when they emerged during a down-sizing clear-out I was amazed. Did I really go there, do that, think that? I must have been a more adventurous and interesting person that I could ever acknowledge.
I liked myself better, because of these faded pages.

Throughout the first years of their infancy I kept daily diaries for my sons, trying to record not so much of my own feelings (which were totally overwhelming at times) but their own developing skills and actions. If blogging was possible then I would have used it for them. The nearest thing I've seen to it is the record being built here, 'Bud of a Bud' which will give a little girl the loving details of her first years.

Many years on and some of my writing comes back again in unexpected ways. The rediscovery of ancient journals has lead to the rediscovery of ancient friendships, and their development into new joys.
It is possible, with some very slightly judicious editing, to give back to my sons an interpretation of the day-to-day living of their first few years; at times hilarious, at times very touching, at times demanding and exhausting, but feeling real and as honest as I could be.

The words go from the brain, into the hand, through the pen, on to the paper.
When I pick up the pen I seldom have a clear knowledge of what it will produce.
Sometimes the words stay there, in the Moleskine notebook, in the smaller notebook in the kitchen, the smaller-still one in the handbag.

Many of them go deeper and wider and end up in different form.
The journals of '68/'69 became published work which led to a second career in writing, but I actually had my first writing published when I was six years old.

Truly addictive.
As essential as breathing.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Community Spirit.

Isn't it great to DO things with friends?

Instead of the usual fighting over discarded food, stalking and molesting each other, and picking on the weak and maimed, these pigeons were enjoying a spa experience in the city-centre, riverside fountains this morning.
In warm sunshine.
Bathing their contaminated little feet, enjoying the cool spray on their manky old feathers.
Looking better, feeling better.

A sense of calm purpose enveloped them.
Later in the day they won't be able to get near the fountains. The toddlers will be there (also bathing their little feet, but we'll pass over that thought). But in the early morning sun the place was theirs, and they had come together in a crowd, aware of each other, offering protection in numbers, but each enjoying their own experience.

Elsewhere in this early morning, the same community spirit was strong. A great many senior citizens, equipped with Cool-Boxes and sun-hats were making their purposeful way over the bridge to the cricket ground. This is Worcester, I'm talking about, and it is clearly a Big Day.
The same sense of calm purpose was there, the same intent to enjoy the shared experience.

It is said that many of us have three types of community; family, work and other.
'Other' is what we chose to join in with, paddling in the fountain, watching cricket, learning French, playing golf, volunteering for a service.
Not all of us are fortunate enough to have these varieties of community, and many of us lose all or parts of them at different times. It happens, for instance, with retirement, bereavement and when the children leave home. Life gets out of balance, communities change and there is a sometimes difficult and painful period of readjustment.

We don't generally choose our work community (unless we own the whole set-up), and we don't choose our extended families. Blessed are they who find deep compatibility and harmony therein. Challenged are the rest of us.
However, we can chose the 'Other'.
It takes energy and discrimination, and, in my case, a fair bit of trial and error.
I'm working on it; the need for shared enjoyment and the appreciation of calm purpose.

This morning I watched the pigeons. Contaminated feet or not, they got it right today.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Accidental Gardening.

There are many uninvited visitors to my garden. Most of them are welcome; only a few are not.
I like to let things happen, to create an environment and stand back and watch.

These primroses crept in quietly last year; just a couple of tentative leaves in a sunny spot at the foot of a bamboo clump. A year later and they have really got their roots down and claimed their territory. By next year I hope their offspring will be settling in.
There are no other primroses anywhere near, so how did they arrive?

The opportunism and tenacity of many plants fills me with admiration. Some travel around the garden, from one side to another, from top to bottom, without any help at all from me. They grow in places that the gardening books tell me are wrong for them - too dry, too wet, wrong soil. No one told the plants, and they don't seem to mind one bit.

This happy combination of violets and cyclamen has tucked itself into the gravel beside the back doorstep. These violets (viola Labradorica) have a reputation for clumping, but have instead arranged themselves into scattered groupings with cyclamen hederifolium, which in turn have travelled around the garden, appearing in all sorts of unexpected places.

I couldn't have done better myself. Indeed, if I had tried to transplant and arrange them they would probably have died on me.

I admire the rampant sexualtity of geraniums (the perennials, not those half-hardy bright red pelargoniums at their best in public parks). They have wonderful mechanisms like medieval sling-shots, which catapult the seeds across the garden, making sure they reproduce themselves a hundred-fold. They are understandable, but I cannot understand how Solomon's Seal (polygonatum multiflorum) travelled from the back garden to the front, and having settled at the front, also moved across the garden from side to side. I'm delighted. I love the plant, but it comes in a big pot from the garden centre. It's a big plant. How does it saunter about like this?

Last year a wild orchid appeared in a patch of decorative grasses. An orchid! I don't know if it has survived the harsh winter, but I'm hoping. I'm hoping there may even be more than one.

We constructed a pond many years ago and watched as within a matter of days there were pond-skaters all over the surface. Within two months there were frogs, damsel flies, dragonflies, and a grass snake, and within three months the heron had found it.

Clever, opportunistic wild creatures as well as plants, watching our activities, biding their time, staking out their claims, and creating the sort of garden I could never make by myself.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The Joy of Pets

In a previous post I wrote a lament for Little Cat, so sadly missed after a fatal accident, and for her owners, E. and S.

E. and S., braving the risk of allergic reactions, went to the local Cat Rescue and were introduced to Hercule and Captain Hastings, two feisty bloke cats, allegedly brothers (although two years apart in age), allegedly devoted and inseparable.
I cannot help but feel that the Cat Rescue saw them coming and seized a golden opportunity!

Hercule and Captain Hastings spent their first night in their new home fighting in the kitchen. Hercule is black and white, but can boast a ginger beard and moustache achieved by biting his devoted brother.
They spent their first day spraying around the house, paying special attention to S's wardrobe, which is open-fronted.
They have continued to spray and fight, but the good news is that the vet says their teeth are so bad that they will probably fall out, and the biting will become gumming, just a token gesture of brotherliness.

The even better news is that the thorough distraction of having them around has eased the pain of the loss of Little Cat.
"I think they will both learn to purr soon," S. tells me.
Well, that's something for everyone to look forward to.

Some more encouraging news is that Hercule and Captain Hastings are now sleeping together.
I bought them a nice, comfy, suitably blokeish, suede-type double bed to celebrate.
The nice, comfy etc. bed was in a carrier bag in my kitchen, and my dog managed to be sick all over it the other night.

Why do we do it? I asked in my previous posting. Why are we motivated to take these little animals into our homes?

'Why indeed?' I wondered as I mopped the kitchen floor with disinfectant and washed the new, comfy double bed.
Then I discover why the dog has been sick.
When she found the packet of biscuits in the shopping bag I had so carelessly left at a low level she did not stop to remove all the plastic wrapping.

Bunty regrets......possibly.

Saturday, 27 March 2010


No longer relatively retiring.
I am now retired.
For a couple of years after my husband's death I vacillated around, back to work, sort-of retired, back to work again. Hence the Relatively Retiring blog-name.

When I was at work I thought how wonderful retirement would be; the freedom, the glorious freedom to do this or that or even nothing; to sleep through the yelling of the alarm clock, not to have a weekly dead-line, not to have appointments and meetings at hourly intervals.
When I was juggling family life with one and sometimes two careers simultaneously I yearned for peace and isolation. I wanted to take a long hot bath all by myself without someone pounding on the door, asking for food, a lift to a friend's house, or provoking an argument about the use of a games machine.
I wanted to concentrate in a meeting without having to think about supper, and without continually glancing at my watch to see how long I was overdue at the child minder's.
I wanted uninterrupted time with my family without being called to the phone about one or both jobs.

Now, I have it.
I have the time, the peace, the freedom, the isolation. I don't need to worry about supper, and I can have a long hot bath all alone whenever I wish. The phone may not ring for a couple of days.
In the having of it there is terrible loss.

I miss my former life; all of it. The noise and anxieties, the frustrations and arguments, the constant need to meet the demands of others.
I miss it, and did not realise that when it went a sense of identity would go with it.
Retirement is not easy, and I have found that you have to work just as hard to stay afloat as ever you did in the work-place and in the all-in wrestling match of family life.
Only now it is a lonely battle, which others do not see.

You do not let others see lest you become a drain, a responsibilty.
You wake in the morning and think, 'Why bother?', and then you put your energies into bothering, being positive, thinking of others, staying afloat.

Being retired.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Death of a Little Cat

Why do we do this? Why are we motivated to take these little animals into our homes, teaching them how to be clean, letting them learn the warmest places, the most comfortable places, feeding them, entertaining them while they entertain us?

Why do we let them into our hearts?

There is no sense in it, but we do it over and over again.

Each time one of my dogs has died I have said, 'Never again!' and given away the beds and bowls, collars, leads and waterproof coats. And sooner or later (generally later) I have gone out and bought more. A new dog has moved in.
My last two dogs both came to me for an allegedly short time, at the end of their lives, to have a comfortable death. The current one snores loudly in the kitchen as I write this, two and a half years after she came here.

In their childhoods my sons experienced so many pet deaths that my younger son kept a Book of Woe, recording the loss of dogs, gold-fish, rabbits, guinea-pigs and stick insects. Each loss was painful, each as bad as the one before, but I thought I was doing the right thing in letting them have pets at the cost of losing them. I thought it was right for children to experience death, that the death of a pet might somehow make it easier to cope with human deaths, when they arrived, as they surely would.

We did not have cats because of family allergies, and I was aware of feeling relieved. Goldfish generally stay in their tanks (although we did have one who persistently leapt for freedom and subsequently swam backwards after spending some time, unnoticed, on the carpet). Dogs have to be under control. The rabbits and guinea-pigs were in a walled garden and couldn't get out (although predators could get in, sadly and messily). Stick insects stayed put, and it was not always easy to tell if they were dead or not.

Cats are different, independent, free spirits. They bestow their favours upon us when they choose, and withdraw them when they choose. They are fearless, able to squeeze into tight corners, through narrow gaps, climb dangerous ledges, clamber on to slippery roofs. They are terribly vulnerable. The emotional cost of cat ownership is great.

So this is not my cat, but a little cat very like it lived with people I love until a couple of days ago. She brought them so much pleasure for a few short months.
I met her only once, recently. I felt extraordinarily privileged that she bestowed her favours on me, giving me toys to play with, carrying a leaf from the garden all the way upstairs and giving it to me in the bedroom. I thought she liked me, and I was perplexed by how important that thought was to me. She was charming, fearless, entertaining, inquisitive and determined.

A few days later and the little cat is dead, the saddest of accidents, the terrible cost of freedom.
Her life was short, but full of meaning and she will not be forgotten.
But the experience of death does not get easier.

This is for S., E. and K.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Earth Not Moving.

This is a wall; a very special wall.
It is part of a garden wall at Eglinton, in Scotland, and even more special and more specialised, it is part of a heated garden wall. The square stones cover flues which channel warm air through cavities in the double skinned wall. The warm air was created by a series of small furnaces in workshops manned night and day by gardening staff - the more lowly orders, such as the apprentices. Woe betide anyone who let the fires go out, because the exotic fruits luxuriating in the warmth on the other side of this wall would be destroyed by the fall in temperature. Peaches would be damaged in the crisp Scottish air. People would lose their jobs, and not just their jobs, but their homes as well, living, as people did a century ago, within the patronal community of the Great House.

The walled garden is a place of magic, especially in its neglected and over-grown state. Those of us reared on the story of The Secret Garden retain its image forever, the locked place which nature has reclaimed and to which order is gently restored by children (it is often not that simple in real-life, but it's a wonderful story).

Much of the charm of the great Cornish garden of Heligan, abandoned when so many of its staff were called to serve in the First World War, is created by its commercial name of 'The Lost Gardens of Heligan'. Lost. Sleeping. Shrouded in mystery, like Sleeping Beauty's castle, waiting for its awakening and transformation. The plain name, Heligan, does not have the same emotive pull.

In real life, the walled garden was equally transformative, but as a result of prodigious hard work by many skilled people. Without the benefits of air or even land transport skilled gardeners could do what Tescos now achieve on a global scale. They could supply fresh fruits, vegetables and often flowers every day of the year. Not merely fruits and vegetables in season, although that was clever enough, but also out of season - apricots, grapes, nectarines and sometimes pineappples could adorn the tables of the rich, even during the winter months.

It took many years of learning through hard and often monotonous work to master the skills required of a gardener in a walled kitchen garden, and to be able to control this small acreage, this miniature empire with its multiple micro-climates.
Each wall had a different temperature and could be used differently. The glasshouses, cold-frames and cloches all extended the temperature range by a few vital degrees, so that fruits and vegetables could be delayed or accelerated in their ripening and maturity.
It was a world apart, an independent place with its own staff, its own traditions and rules.
Sadly, it is a largely lost world today.

There are still walled gardens, and there is an interest in their revival.
A wealth of information may be found here: ' The Walled Kitchen Garden Network' and here you can contact enthusiasts, wanting to find and record lost gardens, and to advise in their restoration and protection. They are also keen to establish new walled gardens, as is a friend of mine.
Together we hope to fire others into a sufficient pitch of enthusiasm to begin a new project.

Oh yes! The sap is rising, but the earth in the walled garden does not move. It is cherished and fed and enriched, and one man's (and woman's) small acre becomes a great estate.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Earth Moving!


Rejoice! (part 1)

The earth moved this morning and the sun illuminated a corner of the summerhouse. I sat at the cast-iron table in warm sunshine and drank coffee. A friend came for lunch. We both sat at the cast-iron table and drank wine. The dog asked to have her sunbed placed on the steps, and lounged there - not yet panting, but certainly basking.

There is still snow on the hills, a small patch on the northern face, but still snow, still white and gleaming, still just sitting there, refusing to melt. Old wives' tales have it that when snow lies more will come to take it away.
Oh, please - no more.

It's been tough in Middle England, with impacted ice and snow up to the dog's chin. I've plodded around with the old ski poles and a son's huge snowboots - refusing to buy my own because I don't believe it will last more than a day or two.
Then, after a day or two, learning to be thankful that I have everything I need within plodding, skidding distance.
Appreciating the neighbours, all of us looking out for one another.
Loving the stillness, the peace, the traffic-free roads.

Then today, warmth came back, not creeping, but leaping so that infant daffodils reached out to it and the camellia creaked open its first flower.

Rejoice! (part 2)

The tool shed, normally overflowing with a clutter of metalware, is empty of almost everything but sunshine.
I have three garden forks, small, medium and large, two spades, a few assorted rakes and hoes, a lopper, a blower, a sucker, a mower. I have lots of hand-tools and a cache of things to hold up other things.

And all the rest, all the duplicated, inherited spades and forks and hoes and rakes and shears, have been oiled and cleaned and sharpened and have gone to my son and his girl-friend for their first 'allotment'.

I was introduced to the allotment this weekend. It has soil like rich chocolate cake and it has none of the choking, strangling weeds so prevelant in my own garden. The allotment has been loved and fed. My son and his partner are lucky first-time gardeners.

Allotments are special places for enthusiasts, for the inventive and the enterprising. They are the epitomy of recycling, where old carpets suppress weeds, black plastic sheets warm the soil and old plastic bottles make mini-propagators.Wheelbarrows and know-how are shared. On this allotment site there is a shop, supplying seeds and well-rotted manure as well as knowledge.
My son and his partner are already enthusiasts, and they have yet to plant their first potato.

I rejoice that the gardening gene, for so long embedded in my ancestors and me, has surfaced in one of my sons.
I rejoice that my parents' gardening tools will be handled by the next generation, and that E. and S. will learn from the soil and the weather, the rabbits and the caterpillars as people have done throughout time. I specifically rejoice in the knowledge that their rich soil will bring forth abundance - and no spuds will ever have tasted as good!

Saturday, 6 February 2010

The Ring Cycle.

I was intending to start a new blog, and I thought it might be called 'Old Hand'.
Then I decided to resurrect 'Relatively Retiring' which hit the buffers nearly a year ago because of repeated attacks by gremlins, trolls, whatever the term is for people who may or may not have known me, but who decided to be malicious in any event.

This was a technically interesting time, because I have experience of writing professionally and am used to criticism. But in the past there was always an editor between me and my readers, and the recent attacks felt much more personal.

So here is the old hand anyway.

It has done a lot of things, as well as writing. It has comforted and controlled, cooked and cleaned, gardened and painted, lifted, carried, held and been held. It is looking the worse for wear, and the other one on the other side is, too. In fact the other one looks worse because it's scarred and arthritic.

It used to have rings, this old hand. It had an engagement ring with opals, which are said to be unlucky and sometimes were. But at other times they seemed quite lucky, so it all balanced out in the end. It had a wedding ring, which had to be cut off when the finger suddenly went blue.
Well, it was that or the finger.
The ring was enlarged, and then became too big so that it was lost - forever I thought. Then it turned up in the bottom of a handbag, along with the till receipts and the crumpled tissues.

I removed my rings during the time that I was nursing my husband at home. My hands were so frequently coated with antiseptic gel that I feared for the opals. I put the rings somewhere very safe, so safe that I didn't find them until several months after my husband's death.

It felt wrong to put them on again.
I was no longer married.
Perhaps a wedding ring should be called a marriage ring?

I haven't worn the rings again again since I found them, but this has caused a few comments among people of my generation (I'm 70).
For example, "I didn't ask about family, because I can see you're not married."
"I didn't realise you're a widow. You're not wearing a wedding ring."

Is there a protocol about removing rings when the marriage ends, by death or divorce?
What message does such a ring convey these days?

Is life easier for younger people who have deeply committed relationships without the branding of rings and ceremonies? Or is it harder?

So I trundle along, pondering the great mysteries of commitment and life and death, wondering if I've locked the back door, writing post-it notes for myself, missing those I love and see no old, unadorned hand at most aspects of life by now.