Saturday, 17 December 2011

In Appreciation of Sons.

Long ago, younger son reluctantly dressed for a Victorian party at school, his older brother investigating something more interesting beyond the camera's reach.

From before their births these two have stretched me in every possible direction, physically, emotionally, intellectually, financially.
I feel very privileged to have experienced life with them.
They have taught me so much, and taken me to places where I would rather not have gone, as well as to a great many wonderful, enriching places.

From the very beginning they were such distinctive personalities, and as they grew I appreciated more and more their essential differentness from me.

They were always looking outwards, upwards, beyond. Where I was often preoccupied with the next meal, the ironing, the next day at work, the next bit of commissioned writing, they were immersed in the past, in dinosaurs and Vikings, medieval armour and Robin Hood.
Their heroes were truly heroic - Mighty Mouse, who could conquer the world, Superman, Spiderman, ditto. Seemingly innocent creatures with huge hidden skills, the power to transform and to right wrongs, punish the wicked, ensure that good triumphed over evil.

They looked out to the stars, to the limits of space and time. They had duvet covers that were printed to look like the control panels of space ships and their bedroom curtains were emblazoned with silver and gold stars and planets.
Their interests extended under the sea, to the creatures that live in wet darkness, eating each other. Predators were great!
They looked to the future, beyond the horizon, beyond the petty restrictions often imposed by home and school. They knew their world was huge and they wanted to be out there, fully immersed.

My husband was used to peace, time for reflection, studious reading.
I liked the miniature, the delicate. Jane Austen and Barbara Pym were my favourite authors.
They liked things big: dinosaurs, jungles, sharks, whales, earth-moving machinery, waves, mountains, Knickerbocker glories - the bigger the better. For bedtime stories they wanted Hobbits and He-Man, Transformers and King Arthur.
So my husband and I had our horizons widened, deepened, extended in every direction.

I learned about marine biology, astronomy, the effects of zero gravity, geology and so immeasurably much more.
They learned some reasonably good cookery skills and, just before leaving home, how to iron a shirt.
I hope they also learned that they are hugely loved and appreciated.

Happy Christmas to all Mothers and Sons.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Giving Myself Away.

For the first time in about forty years I will not be 'doing' Christmas. My son and daughter-in-law will be taking over, and I hand on the responsibility with a mixture of feelings, one of which is relief.
It will be strange not to be in charge of the sprouts.....and the parsnips, and the roast potatoes, stuffing, brandy butter and turkey. Not to have control of the quantities, the timing, the furniture moving, the bed-making. Not to do what I always do, which is to plan meticulously for Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and to forget that a range of people will need feeding for the days before and after the Main Event.

What this freedom does is give me time to think about what I really want to give to those I love, and rather to my surprise I find I want to give things that are personal and have real importance to me. Things that I have hoarded over many years. Things that I have been rather possessive about.

Is this what is called 'growing old'? Or even 'passing on'?
If so, I do it with the deepest sort of pleasure.

I have given a lot this year, some of it my late husband's, and now most of it my own. Significant books and jewellery, tools and picnic sets. It has given me a warm glow to find a new home for some rather esoteric choral music, and to discover a shared interest. Giving is not just for Christmas, but the time of year creates an important focus.

The photograph above shows a silver and jade bracelet, and will be a gift with a huge history. It belonged to my Aunt, when she and my Uncle and my infant cousin were living in Malaya during the Second World War. They had to flee from Penang to Singapore to escape the Japanese invasion, taking only a handful of belongings. My aunt was wearing the bracelet, and it travelled with her to the docks at Singapore, where she and her little son managed to get on to a ship. They did not know where the ship was going, but it happened to be Tasmania. My Uncle did not travel with them. He spent the rest of the War in Changi jail.
The bracelet eventually travelled back to England, my Uncle returning years later, blinded through malnutrition and unable to work ever again or even to speak about what had happened to him during those years. He was in his early forties.

Soon the bracelet will be returning to the Far East, and actually to Japan. It will go in happiness and peace, I'm sure, and I need to think that it will make a most positive ending to a sad and painful story. It is part of my family history, but there is no one else to tell it now.

I must say no more. She doesn't know she's getting it yet.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Golden Opportunities.

So here I am on a sunny Saturday afternoon, enjoying the sweeping and collection of these golden leaves, when the phone rings. It's that helpful man from India, for the second time this week, telling me that my computer has many faults and that he, and he alone, will be able to fix them for me. Just before I disconnect him I tell him that I have no computer, a statement which fellow-bloggers may realise is a lie.

I am working steadily on the rockery with the secatures when the phone rings again. This time a joyful voice tells me I have won a free, all-expenses paid holiday in Florida. I don't say a thing about Florida. I just switch off.

I feel needed, loved, wanted. So many people want to give me things, do things for me, improve my house, plan my funeral, spice up my sex life, lag my pipes, give me free pizzas.
They telephone me, e-mail me, push messages through the front door.
I'm not even going to mention that Doctor/Lawyer/Lord in Nigeria who wants to give me huge amounts of money if I help him by giving him my banking details. I suspect he is not being faithful to me. I know he's e-mailing quite a few of my friends and acquaintances as well.
Ditto the Spanish Lottery, which I keep winning even though I never buy a ticket. They want to send me my winnings, but need my Bank details, of course. However, we're talking euros here, so I'm uneasy.

People really want to help me. Banks that I have no connection with are keen for me to confirm my contact details because - oh no! there have been suspicious activities on my non-existant accounts. Some of these non-existant accounts have now blocked me, and need me to reauthorise things. It becomes surreal.
Then there is the viagara - tons of the stuff swilling about, waiting to be picked up for absolute bargain prices, and the Rolex replicas, undetectable from the real thing, which I must order now if I'm to receive them in time for Christmas.

Through the door the offers pour in for double glazing (a glance at the house will show that it's already double glazed), for special offers on food and drink, from people who want to clean the place, resurface the drive, remove trees and hedges.
This morning even Waitrose, fairly dignified Waitrose, is offering me £5 if I'll go back to shopping with them after they have been closed for a week (but, to be fair, I will have to spend £50 first).

I feel valued and cherished, but I have more important things to do. I return to my own trees and hedges, unplugging phones as I go.
Out there I discover that my very local badgers have started a new latrine area, right in the middle of one of my better flower beds. Even they need me, want to be closer.......

For proper serious information on dealing with spam and computer-related problems, see the very helpful advice by 'Mouse'

Monday, 31 October 2011

Letter to a Dead Husband.

I thought of you as I photographed this, and I said to our elder son, 'Dad would have loved this'. He said, 'Yes, he'd probably have fallen out of the cable-car trying to see it better'.

It's the beginning of a new shed, half way up a mountainside in Kazakhstan.
You never went there. You never knew that your son lives there now, although you visited him in Moscow where you were entranced by the drainpipes, great gleaming drainpipes that disgorge snow and slush over the pavements.
You liked drainpipes and sheds and the practicalities of building useful structures.
Especially sheds.
You would have really enjoyed this one. You'd have been determined to get up the ski-slopes for a proper look, and you would have have wanted to join anyone who was building it, to see how they make the logs interlock securely.
These things mattered to you.

I think you knew that our younger son would become more like you, become something of a Shed Man, an enthusiast of alternative energy sources. We had to dissuade you from attempting to colonise the nearby railway embankment with wind turbines based on old bicycle wheels.
You never knew that this son is married, has been for over a year, and that you have a beautiful daughter-in-law.

You were the ultimate recycler. Your garden structures are still safely here, built of old railway sleepers, recycled carved stone, and a vast range of materials pulled from roadside skips.
Oh, how you embarrassed me with your inability to pass a skip without removing something from it. But your buildings are still here, uniquely so, and, dare I say it, improved by my ministrations? I keep the stained glass windows free of cobwebs, I have stained the insides in subtle National Trust colours, I have put in rattan furniture and cushions and I hold tea- parties in there. You would be rather disapproving I'm afraid. The sheds have lost their masculine edge. Some things have changed because they have to.

Exactly five years ago, almost to the minute as I write this, you died.

It was a morning like this, with hazy sunshine and glorious glowing autumnal colours.
For me I think it felt like the peaceful end of a life richly and unconventionally lived; an appropriate end to a period of confusion and distress. But I am looking back over five years of a different life, and my perspectives have changed. It really may not have felt like that at the time.

For you, as one of the most devout Roman Catholics ever, it was miraculous timing. You would be up there for the greatest annual heavenly celebrations, All Saints on the first of November - the great get-together of those purified and safely arrived.
If, by any chance, you had been delayed there was another celebration on November the second, All Souls, for those on their way, but not yet fully purified.
I have the strongest possible feeling that your time with us would have provided valuable if somewhat unexpected elements of purification. That's what marriage and parenthood do for us all.

As well as our thoughts of you on the mountains, your son and I lit candles for you here:

(Cathedral of the Ascension, Almaty, Kazakhstan)

You would have been totally captivated by this wonderful building. It is made entirely of wood.
You are with us in our thoughts, in places where you have never been as well as in all those you knew and loved so well.

Monday, 24 October 2011

On the Silk Road

(Traditional Kazakh restaurant. The small 'confessionals' behind fretted doors are private dining rooms.)

Almaty feels fresh and clean. Lorries with powerful water canons cruise around, blasting leaves and any other debris into the deep channels at the road sides. Then I notice that there is hardly any other debris.
There are no polystyrene food cartons, blobs of compacted chewing gum or piles of dog mess (in very sharp contrast with most towns in England), but there are dogs, a few, very few, taking their owners out on leads. There are many more, living independently in packs, being fed but not turned into pets, being tolerated everywhere, viewing humans with mild interest and vague expectation.
My son's freezer accidentally defrosted, and we put a pile of burgers out by the wheelie bins. Within minutes they vanish.
In one of the many beautiful parks a girl lies flat on the grass, photographing her Chihuahua. The tiny dog wears a lace frill round its neck, and has a minute, mouse-sized diamante harness. Behind her, in the shade, sits a pack of free-range dogs. Their leader appears to be a great grey chap, unnervingly like a wolf. His companions include a look-alike Papillon, and a look-alike Jack Russell. The pack relaxes in the shade and observes with interest.

Here, on the ancient trading route of the Silk Road, cultures and traditions mix as they have done throughout time. The new financial centre looks like Canary Wharf. There are shops full of bling, and every bit of technology a modern heart could desire. On every road just out of town there are stalls selling fruits, vegetables and the fermented mare's milk that promotes health and beauty.

(The business and financial centre, Almaty.)

Then there is the Green Market, said to be the largest covered market in Central Asia. My son takes me there to browse, but photography is not allowed.
On the stalls outside there are beautiful displays of dried fruits and nuts. Further in are fresh fruits and vegetables, polished and arranged to perfection. We buy bowls of raspberries and of the most delicious mountain strawberries.
Everything here gives evidence of the prosperity of this country, its land and its people. We are invited to sample. We are something of a target audience.

Deeper inside the market the stalls are laid out in long specialised rows. One whole row is devoted to honey and honey products, beautiful glistening chunks of honeycomb, and translucent jars of honey in every shade of amber.
The meat stalls are grouped together with helpful picures of animals - sheep, cow, chicken and rather a lot of horse. There are many bits of animals that are unrecognisable, entrails in see-through plastic bags, and slabs of fat.
There are stalls full of cheeses and other dairy products, and a whole aromatic section of herbs, spices and seeds, many of the herbs freshly picked. The stall holders offer medicinal advice along with their herbs.
The covered market meanders into different sections, clothing, electrical goods, tools - a glorious mixture of Barcelona Food Market and Birmingham's Bull Ring. People-centred trading at its essential best, catering for real needs and wants as it has done throughout the centuries.

We wander through Almaty down to the wooden cathedral. A clutch of babushkas sit on the pavement, huddled in beige anoraks, old fur boots and headscarves, their begging bowls on the ground in from of them. It is over twenty degrees, but all the Kazakhs are dressed in winter clothing.
I notice one of the babushkas is chatting on her iphone.
A place of paradox.

Friday, 21 October 2011

High as a Kite.

I pull back the curtains in my son's apartment, and this is what I see.

These mountains curve into the great Tien Shan range, which in turn climbs into the Himalayas. Afghanistan is nearer to me here than Scotland is when I'm at home. Kabul is but a few mountain peaks away.

A few days later we go so much higher that I cannot talk and walk at the same time (something of a temporary respite for my son, I think). We go up here:

(Chimbulak, site of the Asian Winter Games last year.)

and from here you can look across into Kyrgyzstan, and then on and on and on into China.

I am so aware of the immensity of this landlocked place. It is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded, enclosed by huge mountain ranges and seemingly limitless plains. I have experienced vast landscapes before, and mountainous ones as well, but when the two collide, as they do here in Kazakhstan, their power is awe-inspiring.

There was a heavy snowfall on the mountains a few days before I arrived, but now the snow is melting from the lower slopes, the water rushing down into the town of Almaty, where there are fountains and cascades and the greenest grass I have ever seen.

I am enchanted afresh by Almaty. I visited at the same time last year, when it seemed exotic and remote. This year it feels friendly and almost familiar. I begin to feel at home here.
It is the cleanest place I have ever seen, immaculate, cared for, burnished. At a very personal level I am enchanted by the fact that within hours my arthritis has apparently disappeared, and I can (almost) bound up the marble staircases without touching the handrails. (Alas, this state of affairs is not to continue, but I make the most of it while it does.) The mountain air is so clean it tingles in the lungs, and I am as high as a kite. Almaty itself is high - a thousand metres above sea-level before you start on the mountains which are only minutes away from the town centre.

I fantasise about buying one of the little wooden houses, just off each of the main streets. I could have an orchard and a cow and some chickens, and perhaps do English teas in the garden. Then my son reminds me that the glorious colours will fall from the tree-lined streets and the fountains will be turned off before they freeze. The arthritis kicks in again, and I'm not quite so confident about skating and skiing.
But I still find this place delightful, in every sense of the word.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A Long Day's Journey into Night.

During my time away I have not had access to Blogger. I have missed reading and writing, and hope to catch up soon.

I am travelling from darkness into darkness, turning away from the light, turning eastwards all the time. I begin, as I so often begin, at this little ginger-bread station, its paintwork as thick and heavy as syrup. The place vibrates with the noise of this very early morning train, the birds are silenced. Pools of light fall on old stone, bars of light bounce off the black windows.
Opposite me, in the dark glass I see a white haired woman, writing briskly in a Moleskine notebook. It is me, seen from without, being processed.

There is something paradoxically liberating about being processed. Today I put my life into the hands of people totally unknown to me, and I trust them implicitly to carry me vast distances - across bits of England, over the North Sea, Belgium, Germany, and Poland. Over Russia and into the vast emptiness of the Central Asian Plain.
This sort of trust is illogical, but the process has started.
"Have a nice day", says the train driver.
I seem to be his only passenger.
I will, I trust.

An hour later and light grows over the Oxfordshire countryside, black trees against a pale sky. Colour has not yet returned to the world. I trust it will.

Another hour and I transfer to the RailAir Link bus to Heathrow. I wait in a small queue of people with very serious luggage.
The man next to me is in a puffy padded jacket (it's now a mild morning in England) and has a huge bag bristling with words like 'Extreme' and 'Intrepid'. A pigeon, one of the manky, crippled variety who hang out at stations' Costa outlets, veers in badly controlled flight and barely misses colliding with the intrepid traveller's face. He throws up a padded arm in horror. We laugh about it, and I ask him where he's going.
"Everest Base Camp", he says.

Eventually, a grey take-off, and then through murk into glorious sunshine. I forget that it's always up there, somewhere. The ground is hidden so I pass over a world that changes from battle-ship grey, through blue white and silver, through shades of peach and apricot as we fly on and on into the dusk. There are occasional billows and boilings of cumulus; fatly innocent powder puffs seen from above, but bringing winds and storms to the earth below.
By late afternoon in England it is evening over Russia, and suddenly the dense carpet of cloud rolls back to reveal the spangled web of Moscow, twinkling wide and far. Far, far below; Moscow, threads of light stitched on to black velvet. A magical glimpse, and then the carpet rolls back and there is only moonshine on the great dark wing beside me.
Almost everyone else in the droning, gently rocking vehicle is lulled to sleep, wrapped in airline blankets and stretched over three or four seats of the sparsely populated cabin. Only I sit looking into the darkness of the Ural Mountains and the vast emptiness of the steppe beyond it.

Monday, 26 September 2011

A Weekend In Wales.

Rain, of course.
Fine, drifting, misty rain that obscures the hills and swirls gently down the valleys.
We can't see very far ahead, but there is always a castle to visit. Where ever you are in Wales, there will be a castle towering into the mist, crumbling into the damp grey earth. The past is always right beside you in Wales.
In this particular castle, which happens to be Raglan, my son and daughter-in-law take refuge on the hearth of a massive, dripping kitchen chimney, where they dance about a bit to keep warm. Then we go down into the undercroft, where there is a roof and a bit of dryness.

Later, back at the cottage, the little garden is green and dripping, and then suddenly diamond-spangled as the sun comes out. The only sounds are the irregular thumps of small hard pears, falling from an ancient tree, the croaking of crows, and the mewing buzzards floating high.
A light breeze bowls along the lane, lifting leaves, and a cascade of pears thuds to the ground.
The outdoor tables and chairs are crunchy with thick grey lichen, and a few autumnal wild-flowers, mallow, coltsfoot, cranesbill and herb robert sprawl in the long wet grass. The grey stone walls are mossed with fat green cushions.

A distant engine; a two-tier trailer of sheep arrives and is clankingly opened, metal ramps lowered. The sheep hesitate, poised between freedom and security. Then one steps out, and a clattering flurry pours down into the little muddy lane. Down the valley, over the stream, into the field. The dog circles, eyes fixed on the slow, the wayward, the hesitant.

In the west the heavy grey clouds come to a slow rolling boil again, and the sun shines white through a haze of mist.
The crows fly away to the east, shouting raucously to one another as they go, and in the trees behind me a squirrel natters and shrieks at a threat that only he can see.

Green and grey, damp, dripping and spangled, unpredictable and timelessly lovely. This was a weekend in Wales.

P.S. Nearby is a wonderful craft gallery, selling the work of talented local artists, like 'this one'

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Making Sense.

This is a stinker of a jigsaw, so many shades of murky brown, random splashes of colour, broken fragments, crumpled fragments, uneven surfaces. When it comes together it is a simple picture of the interior of a garden shed. Not unlike mine, although mine is currently tidier.
I'm only doing it so that I can pass it on to someone else, and it's so mean to pass on a jigsaw with bits missing.

The good thing about jisaws is the thinking time they offer; the meditative, rambling sort of time, which is just what I need at the moment.
I've mentioned previously that I have found communication difficult because I seem to have entered a whole new phase of thinking and being - which is absolutely great when you are seventy-one and three quarters!

My life has sometimes been murky brown with crumpled fragments, and sometimes randomly splashed with bright colour. Very often it has been a mixture of both. But recently a strange sort of clarity has emerged.
I am working as a volunteer at 'a local Hospice' and suddenly it feels as if the jigsaw is completed.

There is a complete reality here that I have not experienced in any other place. There is no need of, nor place for pretence. No one has to keep up any sort of appearance for any sort of motivation. The motivation of this remarkable place is contained in its motto, 'Caring for Life', which is exactly what we all do. We can all just be ourselves and enjoy each others' company for as long as possible.
I do lots of different things here. I load and unload the dishwasher very frequently. I make lots of cups of tea and coffee, I hold quite a few hands, I laugh and smile more than I do in most other places. There is a great deal to smile about.

I'm doing some other, more specialised jobs that my previous training has made possible. Then I'm being trained for more. It's impressive when an organisation is willing to put expensive training into someone of seventy-one and three quarters.

Sometimes, obviously, there is sadness. When that happens we are in it together. Always, there is honesty and dignity, and caring for life.
The jigsaw comes together.

Monday, 15 August 2011

A Different Place.

A difficult time.
These are a few of the books belonging to my husband. I don't want to say 'late husband'. He was a carefully punctual man. I don't want to say I have 'lost' him, which is a term used by many who don't like to use the word 'dead'. I have not lost him, nor is he late. He died but the evidence of his past life is here, in our home, and the memories are everywhere.

Nearly five years after his death his books are boxed, ready to go to a new place. I am grateful to have found an appropriate home for them; a home that wants the complete collection, and where they will be kept, still under his name. A glance at the titles may indicate that this is a specialised collection, mainly of theology, with some philosophy and a great deal of devotional material. Not everyone would want it but for those who do it is a great resource.

I live through the paradoxes of death and bereavement. Nearly five years, and yet I still have the feeling that he'll be furious when he comes back and finds his books are not here. Not if, but when.
There is no sense in this, and I know it. Yet it happens, this bizarre fusing of reality and complete illogicality, not just to me, but to many who lose a husband, a wife, a life-partner.
The worst thing that people say to me is that they are sure that my husband is watching over me. It is said with the best intentions of giving comfort, but it's bad because I have that feeling anyway, and I know, in my practical, common-sense way, that I must work hard to create a new and different life, to stay positive, not to be a nuisance. In doing that I know that I'm doing things that would cause him annoyance, anger even; radical surgery on his favourite tree, throwing away boxfuls of old newspaper-cuttings and now, worst of all, giving away his beloved books.

If I believed in any sort of after-life I would not find it comforting, for with his deeply held religious convictions he will have streaked ahead in the spiritual race to sanctity, while I will be floundering about on some dark and indistinct shore-line, and this is somehow an even greater separation than death. Few things make proper sense in widowhood, except for simply getting on with it.

Widowhood is a shockingly different country. After the inevitable drama of death the reality begins to hit, but it may take years, or it may take forever. You do not 'get over' the death of a life-partner, but you do learn to live a different way. You simply have to do so.
Marriage was the country where I lived for nearly thirty years, secure, happy, busy, fulfilled, engrossed, irritated, exhausted, light-hearted, miserable - the whole spectrum of human emotion experienced when living with another. I find, somewhat to my surprise, that somehow I can accept the huge changes, but it is the trivial losses that hit hard. Every time I asked if he wanted a drink my husband would respond by looking at his watch or asking, 'What time is it?' It drove me mad, but now I find myself thinking, if not actually doing the same thing.

Widowhood happens in a second. That second when the breath and heart of another person stop, and from that second you are changed. You are perceived differently. Externally, nothing much has changed for me. I have the same address, drive the same car, use the same shops, the same library, and yet everything is different.
At first I was beguiled by busy-ness, keeping the bleakness at bay with a host of distractions. Now my life seems to have become focused into islands of silence, peaceful silence, balanced by the voluntary work I love, and times with people I am lucky enough to love too, in person, by telephone, by e-mail.

I send this out into space today, because my husband's books go tomorrow, and it seems, once again, like an ending.
I send it deliberately for others feeling the bleakness, and it goes with the message that endings can often be beginnings as well, and life in this strange place goes on.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

R.I.P. Piggo

This waterlily in my pond is shown in loving memory of a dear, clever friend with whom I had a tremendous relationship many years ago. The memory is triggered by the latest post from my nephew 'pohanginapete' who so often proves inspirational from whichever corner of the earth he happens to be. The glazed smile on the face of the glistening pig in his photograph put me so much in mind of my dear Piggo that I had to go and sit by the pond for a little quiet contemplation.

Piggo came to me as a gift from a farmer friend. He (the piglet) was the bullied runt of the litter and was not expected to survive en famille so moved in with me. I was teaching small children in a slightly unorthodox situation (weren't they all in pre-OFSTED days?) and we all thought this could be an educational opportunity for pigs and people.

Within days Piggo proved himself to be the ideal pupil. He snoozed loudly in a box under the table until it was milk-time (yes, small children had free milk at school in little bottles with straws) when he would trot out for milk, biscuits, a few pig-nuts and a scamper round outside. The process was repeated at lunchtime and mid- afternoon break, and then he would clamber into the back of the car and come home for a good meal and a bit of television.

More easily trained and cleaner than a dog, Piggo had few bad points. Short-sightedness went against him. He loved television but liked to sit within a few inches of the screen, so that it was difficult for anyone else to see. He loved the car, but again short-sight meant his snout was constantly against the window, which became a little smeary. Well very smeary, actually.
He loved routine, and in a school situation this was ideal, but weekends were boring for him without the regular interjections of milk and snacks. He pattered about on his little sharp trotters, looking for biscuits and would dig in the garden in an attempt to find them.

Sadly yet predictably, his downfall was his growth rate. On a regular diet and generally enjoyable regime, with both mental and physical stimulation, he grew at a prodigious rate.
He went back to the farm. He probably did not know he was a pig at that stage, although I'm sure the realisation came when he met the family again. My farmer friend was particularly compassionate, at least as far as I knew. Piggo continued to watch television, and retained his enthusiasm for car travel. If anyone left a car door open in the farmyard they would find Piggo in a passenger seat. The way to get him out was to turn on the television in the farm house.

I did not want to know of his ultimate end, but like at least some of the pigs in Ecuador, his early life was full of cheerful interaction and piggish enjoyment.

RIP Pigs!

Tuesday, 9 August 2011


Incomprehensibly, terrifyingly, parts of our major cities descend into anarchy and violence.

Here in Middle England, we try to keep a sense of proportion.

So here is today's local headline.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Promises, promises.....

Once upon a time, sixty years ago to be precise, I was asked what I would like if I passed the Eleven-Plus Exam, this being the test that sorted out the Grammar School entrants from the Secondary Modern, the potential learners of Latin from those doing Domestic Science.
Savage, life-changing stuff.
Archaic stuff that formed one's destiny at eleven years of age.
One's parents were naturally anxious and prepared to bribe.

I said I wanted a Scottie dog.
For years I had wanted a Scottie dog.
I had a stuffed toy one that I used to haul out for walks on a real lead and who was distinctly the worse for wear as a result.
Of course I wanted a Scottie dog.

This was not what I was supposed to say, and it was suggested that I would like a new bike, or even more ballet lessons, or a toy theatre with real curtains and lots of glove puppets.
Tempting, but no.
Only a Scottie would do. He would be a boy called Mac, and he would have a red collar and lead.

So it was (reluctantly) agreed.
I would practise the intelligence tests, be sensible about vocabulary (sharp is to knife as sour is to honey/lemon/bread 'Yes, I know you can say lemon is sharp, but stop trying to be smart!'), learn, really learn all the tables including the nine and the seven, brush up on long-division of furlongs, write proper essays about A Day in the Life of a Sixpence, pass the Eleven Plus.....and have a Scottie! Oh, yes, and go to the Grammar School.

I passed, but I did not have a Scottie. My parents put up a raft of excuses about incovenience and not being able to find the right dog, and the upshot was that I ranted about their failure to keep a promise, and thoughout the next sixty years I have obviously told and retold this tale of cruel injustice, childhood disillusionment and parental infidelity.

I must have told it more often than I realised, because this morning a Scottie arrived, and you can see him above, clearly on guard in his red collar.
He is beautifully made, in classic Scottie pose, by Jane whose wonderfully crafty and artistic blog is here: 'Jeeandme'

And just to drive home how often I have told this tale, here below is another Scottie, minutely cross-stitched into a tiny cushion in my dolls' house (which is another story to be told).

So thank you so much, Jane and Beth, for using your skills and humour to make a sixty year old promise come true!

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Talk Sport!

For the past ten days I have heard a wealth of information about sport, predominantly football. I have heard it in the garden, in the kitchen, in the bathroom. It has enveloped me in waves of enthusiasm, regret, excitement, speculation and sometimes quite raw and painful emotion.
This is because the outside paintwork of the house is being decorated - very carefully and well-decorated by one and sometimes two men.
The radio is plugged in before the paint-brushes are lifted, and because doors and windows are open I can hear too.
So, probably, can some of the neighbours.

Because they are such good workmen I do not complain about the incessant sporting babble, but when they are sitting in the van eating their lunch I switch off the paint-spattered radio. They minute they return it is switched on again.
I walk past on my way down the garden and turn down the volume a few notches. When they descend the ladders the volume is increased again.

Am I a wimp?
My mother would not have permitted such intrusion, but, thinking about it, workmen would hardly have had radios in her day.
So - I listen on.
I listen to their (shouted) conversation as well. I can't avoid it. They have to shout because of the volume of the radio. Their talk is not necessarily connected to the topic on the radio, which might be about some other sport, but is exclusively about football.
From early morning to mid afternoon they talk about football; the strategies, the merits of different teams, and what they would do if they were in charge of said teams.They discuss the failings and short-coming of players and managers. They reminisce about games in the past and voice their hopes for games in the future.

I am not unfamiliar with obsessive masculine behaviours. As the mother of sons I often felt excluded from a single-minded world. My sons, when small, worked their way through various obsessive phases - dinosaurs, robots, deep-sea life, Vikings.
I remember speculative discussions such as, 'If Tyrannosaurus Rex was alive today do you think he would be able to drive a digger?' (And if not, why not. Give three clear reasons.)
These obsessions were intense but short-lived, and they never involved sport.
Thank goodness!

Playing sports is an excellent idea for those with the inclination. (However, I spent lacrosse lessons lurking in the shrubbery, hating the competitive element of compulsory school sports.)
But listening to talk about sport, endlessly and repetitively, is becoming very, very wearing, and I cannot imagine that any woman would want, or be able to sustain this level of exclusivity. Some other interest or topic would surely crop up after ten minutes or so?

I'm also running out of tea-bags.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Rhubarb is Better Than Palm Trees.

'Zhoen' has just shown her tiny garden, so I'll show mine.
This is a tiny area of my garden, but a most valuable one. I can step out of the back door and pick loganberries, strawberries, fresh herbs, raspberries, and soon, tomatoes. I have a productive blueberry bush in a pot, which doesn't show here. But best of all, I can pull a few sticks of rhubarb.
I love rhubarb, and the place where it grows used to house a Chusan Palm.

The rest of my garden is complicated and labour-intensive. I like to grow large, spectacular things, and the Chusan Palm was one of them. I was very pleased with it until I realised it was beginning to peer in at the kichen window, blocking the light.
A friend up the road was making a Mediterranean type garden and needed a large feature plant, so I told her that if she could dig out the palm she could have it. (How very convenient for us both!)
She came, with her heavy gang, one of whom still has not quite recovered, and within an couple of hours the palm tree was safely bedded in up the road. (I had consulted various gardening resources which stated that it was unlikely that this this could be done, but it can, if you take a large enough root ball. The palm is still flourishing, two years on.)
I filled the resultant large hole with compost and a crown of rhubarb.
Two years on - Rhubarb Fool, Rhubarb Tart, Rhubarb and Loganberry Crumble.

This little space wouldn't do for a family, but it is more than enough for me and my guests. Next year I'll do more with salad crops in grow bags, and I'll plant more herbs in the crevices of the paving, but I won't need to increase the space, which is about two metres square.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Family Trees and Shrubs

Last weekend my elder son wore The Kilt for the first time as formal dress at a friends' wedding, although it was not the right tartan, and he was disappointed to find that the blade of the sgian dubh had been sealed for Health'n'Safety reasons. He and his brother have well-documented rights to their clan tartan, and their father (even though he was a third-generation New Zealander) was always keen that they should know their family history.

I am quite keen that they should not know their family history from my side, or at least not all of it, not the bits of which I deeply disapprove.

Then I think, who do I think I am? What rights of approval and disapproval do I have over my own family background?
When people agree to appear in the BBC television series, Who Do You Think You Are? there are inevitably some shocks in store (which make for better viewing figures, of course).

I do not want to think that I am dependent on my ancestors for being who and what I am today. Certainly there is genetic inheritance, and there are socio-economic factors which have affected me, but their lives were completely different, even one generation ago.

So I am doing what parents always have done and will do....selecting the good bits and giving credit where it may possibly be due. Such as, 'You are so like your Grandfather, he had a photographic memory', and 'Your Great-Grandmother was talented in art and music'.
I edit out the bad bits, the bits I found out about too late in life to challenge the perpetrators; the double-dealing and low cunning, the shady behaviour in War-Time, the general mess and confusion of family life including episodes of what can now only be called cruelty, but which might then have been interpreted as 'character-forming'. Possibly.
Times change, our knowledge and understanding changes with it.

My late husband believed that he had inherited the ability to whisk egg-whites with his bare hands, his father allegedly being able to do so, and no doubt other members of the clan before him. One entertaining afternoon this genetic skill was proved not to have been inherited, but our sons were told of hardiness, endurance and other traits which were certainly needed in days long past; in Scotland, in the days of the early settlers in New Zealand, and on the long sea-journey between the two.

Family history becomes a sort-of myth, where people are mostly well-intentioned and fairly honourable. There are amusing anecdotes, and entertaining sepia photographs. I hope I am not being unrealistic in wanting to keep it that way.
Parts of it are true.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Growing Places.

I've been away for a while, visiting some gardens.
I've been to two wonderfully academic botanical gardens, where plants are being researched and bar-coded and redefined. You can see one of them 'here',.
I've been to some other gardens of the 'lost in time' variety, beautifully structured, historically interesting places that are being cleverly restored.'Aberglasney' is one of them.
I've been to a richly eccentric garden, festooned in bindweed, where the extremely confident owner said, 'Just ignore the weeds. I do!'

Then I came back home.

My own garden is the place where I learn all the time.....and not just about plants.
It was starting to get me down, my garden.
There is a vine, which spreads itself around, over an iron arbour, over the neighbour's fence, over half the neighbourhood if I don't control it properly. An untended vine can allegedly cover an acre in an unchecked growing season.
In order to control it I need to clamber about on a stepladder with a set of very sharp pruning equipment.
I have a steep rockgarden, full of interesting plants, but also full of bindweed and - even worse - ground elder. In order to control this I need to climb among the rocks, again with nice sharp tools. There are some members of the family who indulge in this thing called 'bouldering'. I am not one of them, but I do appreciate sharp tools.
I need to kneel in order to get close-up and personal with all the weeds in the herbaceous bed, but in the various processes of climbing and clambering I fell and landed hard on both knees. For a couple of weeks I could not kneel, not even on my special padded lift-up-sit-down geriatric kneeling thingy.

Coming back home is such a wonderful thing.
I had to sit in the garden for some time, sniffing the honeysuckles, and the Crambe Cordifolia,(which smells like honey) and watching the swallows screaming across a deepening blue sky. I needed to look at the plants, so many given to me by friends and therefore full of memories. I looked at the summerhouse, built by my late husband from recycled materials and remembered how mad I used to be about his habits of hoarding those same junk materials.

The garden makes me take stock of myself, and to appreciate my life here and now. To leave it would be unthinkable, yet has to be made thinkable, for I have had my three-score years and ten, and I live alone. I have to grow and learn a bit of commonsense, at last.
It is no longer sensible to clamber about on rocks and stepladders with sharp implements, or at least, if I do so I must tell someone what I'm doing.
I must learn to arrange for help when I need it, and to accept that I begin to need it.
There are such things as mobile phones which I should take with me, up on the rockery, up on the pergola.
There are special tools with long handles to ease the kneeling. There are people who can help, if I could but learn to ask.

The acceptance of age is not easy. I am not concerned about the sagging bits, and I actively like the white hair, but it is the garden that teaches me my limitations and makes me grow into them.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Nearly Missed It!

Trundling around on the bus, as I do from time to time, I'm free to read posters and look in windows and indulge in so many activities that are not possible when driving.
So this morning I was delighted to see that I have not quite missed National Flea Month, which is May.
Just a few days left for the action, then.

National Flea Month, also billed as Flea Awareness Month, should really be called Flea Extermination Month on the posters displayed in the several vets' practices along the route of the 44 bus.
It seems to be about getting your pets de-flead in this month of great flea fertility.
Which is understandable, and good for cats and dogs and vets, but could we not also be celebrating a creature of immense power, durability, adaptability and ingenuity; a species which has probably been around for longer than we have, and has travelled the world?

A flea can lay 50 eggs a day, and so produce another thousand of its type in three weeks. It has specialised and adapted so finely that there is a specific moorhen flea, never mind just those that like dog, cat or human blood.

Standing on its tiny flat feet it can jump 200 times its own body length, and it does this, not by muscle-power, but by using a special protein called resilin.
Now why haven't humans learned how to harness a power like that? Imagine the saving in time and fuel. On the other hand, imagine the confusion of mass-landing sites, with all the young commuters leaping over to Canary Wharf every morning.

It has learned to combat its enemies with a tough little body, hard enough to withstand scratching and deliberate mashing by its unwilling hosts.

Its babies, immature larvae, are smart, too. They can lurk in cosy places, under the sofa, in the carpet, and emerge when they sense the vibration of a passing potential host. This is equivalent to a human baby deciding to pop out when it knows there's a smart new nursery ready and the weather is going to be good for a few weeks.

So in the few remaining days of this special month perhaps we could show some true appreciation, celebration and respect for the flea.
I'm not sure how, but I'll do my best to think of something.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Corvus Rules - OK?

Once upon a time, three years ago if I remember rightly, I took pity on an immature jackdaw who seemed to have taken up residence on my bird-table.
I say, 'took pity' but actually I capitulated to a very loud and fairly constant clamouring for food. I guessed he had been abandoned by his parents, or deemed old enough to fend for himself.
Aaaahh - poor little chap!

I say 'him' because, as the mother of sons I found something familiar in the assumption that the matriarch figure was the provider of food and attention. But he could easily have been a girl. It only really matters to another jackdaw.

Every time I went out into the garden he would follow me, shouting loudly, flying back to the bird-table, shrieking if it was empty, flying to me again, blue eyes (that's how I knew he was young) fixed in a steely glare, so that I went into the kitchen for a bit of grated cheese or a few sultanas.
He had me trained within a very few days.

He became a source of entertainment to visitors, with his constant querulous presence, but a source of disruption to conversation. A peaceful evening in the garden was punctuated by his harsh croaking yells, sometimes so loud and so constant that my guests and I would go indoors.

Then he learned to look in through the windows, slithering and flapping on the narrow stone window sills, banging his beak on the (luckily) double-glazed panes.
He worked his way round the ground floor, kitchen, study, sitting-room, looking through the windows with first one eye, then the other. When he saw me he would yell again. And again.

One morning I was sitting up in bed, having a cuppa, when there was a slithering outside and a glaring face at the window. He was able to work his way around the upstairs as well. He knew I was in there somewhere, and so was the constant, but diminishing food supply.

He knew me, and had me trained. He was suspicious of others bearing food, although he would accept it, having first made a visual check that nothing was available from me. He did not shriek at other people, nor follow them round the garden, nor lie in wait for them.

Autumn came, and winter, and I forgot about him, but the following spring he was back, with partner. He taught his partner to use the birdtable, but she (and I say 'she' in a purely speculative way) was never that impressed by me, and certainly didn't want to peer through the windows at me.
However, the new challenge was over roosting sites. It seemed my roost was his roost, and he wanted to move in. So determinedly did he try to move in that I had to keep doors and windows shut, and to hang a bead curtain over the kitchen door for the occasions when opening was necessary.

This year he is back, icy white eyes glaring in a familar way. He is back and so are half a dozen others, so the partnership obviously worked. He knows me still, and has the occasional shriek at me, but is generally busy arguing, bossing, shouting at the rest of the family.
He watches me in the garden, and is familar with the tools I use, not seeing them as a threat. He watches me through the kitchen window, and knows about saucepans and suchlike.
I thought I would photograph him for this blog-post, and have been trying for several days. The minute I raise the camera he yells and dashes off.

Just how clever are these amazing rooks and crows and jackdaws? How can they be so observant of us that they note such a small change in behaviour? A big shiny saucepan, a pair of shears, a spade are safe in a human hand, a small shiny camera is not.
The small shiny camera makes a little chiming sound when it is switched on. Today there's a starling making a perfect imitation of the little chime.

I'm never alone in my garden. There are countless beady eyes and super-sensitive ears trained on me all the time.

(The photograph of the jackdaw in my garden was taken by Pohangina Pete some years ago, so it's probably an ancestor. Pohangina Pete's camera is backed up by rather more patience than mine!)

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

What on Earth......?

Prompted, as I so often am, by a comment from my writer/photographer/philosopher nephew,'Pohangina Pete' I stretch my mind from thinking about what slugs are for (in my previous post) what I am for.
A dangerous business, possibly leading to depression and sleepness nights. Easier to think about slugs.

Once there seemed little doubt about my purpose in life. As a wife and mother, a bread-winner, a dutiful daughter, my purposes were clear and clearly endless. Or so it seemed.
In retirement and widowhood life changes, and needs to change.
What am I for now?

I am a mother, a mother-in-law, a niece, a cousin, an aunt and a great-aunt; no longer central in the scheme of things, but there consistently, marking a space of familiarity and safety.
No longer first with anyone, but reliably someone who knows where the old photographs are kept, where there might be a bike-pump, a favourite scarf, a special book.

I am here for keeping the family home in good shape, the beds made up, the meals ready for visitors. It is no longer the primary home, but it is still the place where memories are stored, along with the piles of stuff in the attic that no one is prepared to take to their own primary home.

I am here to be a friend, to make people laugh, or at least smile, and I am here for caring about people - lots of people, and actually caring for some of them.

I am here to stay upright, to try not to fall off the ladder while pruning the vine; to stay fit enough to go to 'medical school', and to try not to create problems for others.

I am here for arguing with the County Council about consessionary bus passes, among other things.

I am here, trying to be good at last, an old-fashioned notion involving purity of heart. When horizons are restricted, choose the good bits.
I am here to accept my changed role in life with as much grace and calm acceptance as I can muster. (I loathe than poem about growing old disgracefully.)
Not a very impressive justification for being. Quite slug-like in fact.

The photograph through the cloisters in Worcester cathedral was taken by my niece, Josephine.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Slug's Eye-Level.

In the garden I try to be compassionate towards all creatures great and small.
I believe in organic gardening, eschewing artifical chemicals, letting the garden and its inhabitants find their own balance.
I feed the birds, feed the plants (on chicken manure), nuture the soil, compost everything compostable.

And then I face the slugs.

After weeks of unseasonable heat and dryness we have had glorious soaking rain, and the wonderful fresh greenery leaps back to life.

And so do the slugs.

They have hauled their slimy little bodies out of whichever damp crevices of the rockery they found for survival. They have got the old protective mucus going and now they are at it again.
This is a hosta leaf today, shining with health and succulence. By tomorrow it will probably be little more than a rib.

I really try to believe that most creatures in the garden bring some benefit. Even wasps pollinate things - I suppose?
But can anyone tell me what slugs are FOR?

Perhaps they are thought to eat decaying matter and tidy the place up? But they don't. They eat fresh young plant material faster than the plant can grow.

They might be useful for feeding thrushes. But they're not. They coat themselves in offensive mucus to make themselves inedible.
For a few years we had free-range bantams in the garden. They mopped up the woodlice and the snails, but they were appalled by the slugs. They went into a state of shock when they met one and would stand on tip-toe, staring pop-eyed, clucking anxiously before turning tail and running away.

Hard to believe, but it was thought (in Southern Italy) that swallowing a whole live slug would cure a gastric ulcer. It didn't, although the exact processes of this discovery are better left unexplored.

I know there are various strategies involving salt, crushed egg-shells, copper strips. I personally have faith in a strong pair of gardening gloves and an old tennis racquet (although sometimes they stick to it or, even worse, get sliced into slug goujons by it).

It still doesn't answer the question of what they are for.

Sunday, 1 May 2011


The word 'commoner' has been revived, heard and read repeatedly in recent weeks. It seems to have come with quite an emotional charge, of the 'I'm better than you' sort, and yet, within that crowd in Westminster Abbey there were only a very few people who were not Commoners.

Her Majesty isn't one, but Prince Harry possibly could be because within some definitions a Commoner is anyone who is neither the Monarch nor a Peer of the Realm.
Which means virtually all the rest of us.

The term is so ancient, and so hedged about with terrible English snobbishness and one-up-man-ship that its definition becomes quite emotional.
This sort of acute social awareness seems peculiarly English, perhaps British, but I know only of the English variety, and the out-dated English variety at that.
Perhaps it happened because of having to live packed together on this over-crowded island, and having to be so much more aware of place and position.
Perhaps because it has been so instilled into previous generations.
Recent experience has taught me the foolishness of trying to explain such a nebulous system to a niece from New Zealand.

My grandparents, and those before them, knew their places and stayed within them.
My parents knew their places but made the rules slightly more flexible while still being able to place their contemporaries socially after hearing a couple of sentences spoken.
I was brought up to know my place and tried to disguise it, and I doubt if my sons have any sort of place awareness at all.

Living, as I do, beside this wonderful stretch of ancient Common Land, I would have held rights and privileges in days long gone.
Being a Commoner was a most positive thing, and is still.

There were Grazing rights (one cow or two sheep, I believe, possibly also a few geese); Piscary rights - the right to fish the shallow and murky pond over the hill where the dogs now swim.
There were very old rights of rights of Turbary or sod cutting, and Marl, or sand and gravel collecting, and I could probably have turned out a couple of pigs in autumn for Mast rights, so that they could scoff acorns and beech mast and any other fallen nuts.
All year round I could have Estovers, fallen branches and dry twigs to keep the woodburner going.

Today I and countless others can wander the Common at will, and in so many areas of the country it is the failure of people to keep up their Commoners' Rights that has made 'Conservators' essential to properly maintain the open spaces.

So, long live the Commoners and their Commons, and those who care for them and protect them for others.
And if one or two of them become Less Common I wish them even better life and luck!

Saturday, 23 April 2011

A Different Viewpoint.

Warning - not for the squeamish. This blog-posting may contain controversial material.

I have always had something of a yearning for medical school, but in my days of 'O' and 'A' levels the choice between arts and sciences had to be made at a very early age. The old, and in so many ways admirable Grammar School system channelled its pupils into inflexible 'Arts' or 'Sciences'. Once in one of these channnels it was very difficult to change. I ended up as an 'Arts' pupil, with lots of English and Latin and Humanities and only 'General Science'. I should have been doing Biology and Physics, but I didn't and then, for 'A' level, I couldn't.

At several critical points in my life I explored the possibility of attending medical school, but it never quite worked out. There was another career, and marriage and parenthood, and a great many other good and satisfying things. But the leaning towards medicine has never completely left me.

At last, at 71 years of age, I have the opportunity.

My younger son was here a few weeks ago. He checked my application form for me, and countersigned to say I knew what I was doing.
'Go for it, Mum,' he said. 'If it's what you want, you go for it!'

My older son was told during a telephone conversation,
'Are you sure about this?' he said. 'Is this a fully rational decision? Have you thought it through, all the implications?'
I told him I had, that I was being quite grown-up and sensible, and he laughed.
'Good for you, Mum!' he said, just like his brother.

So now my application to attend the medical school of the nearest large teaching hospital is being processed.
I can't start just yet.
I have to wait until I'm dead.
Then, when I'm dead my body will go for anatomical study and dissection by medical students.

Medical schools need bodies. How else can student doctors learn the real and delicate intricacies of the human body? To me it seems the ultimate good sense to make proper use of something that would otherwise be burned or left to decompose in the ground. It seems the last act of generosity, the last thing I can give.

For anyone interested the information about body and organ donation in the UK may be found 'here'.

There are strings attached.
The Human Tissue Authority does not want flabby, saggy, fat-filled old bodies that are difficult to dissect, so I will have to become fitter.
The Authority does not want bodies that have been through a post-mortem examination and had essential bits removed, so I will try to die as neatly and predictably as possible.

I need to be a trim, relatively unscarred cadaver.
A great new ambition at 71!

The picture above is not for the faint-hearted, either. It's from the wonderful Xstrata Treetop Walkway at Kew Gardens. It sways and is see-through.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Treading Water

It has felt like treading water for several weeks now, and yet a great deal has been happening.
For one of the very few times in my life I have found myself unable to communicate; not unwilling, but unable, because some experiences go so deep that they slip through the mesh of conventional speech and writing. They swim silently, like the little fish in this, the Waterlily House at Kew Gardens. They circle, and occasionally break the surface tension, and then they slip down again, into the dark water.

I have been touched to receive some kind comments on my blog, hoping I'm still around. Then, today, I was helped by fellow blogger 'Zhoen' , who is hoping to start a new project.
I have started something new, too. My own new work is within the 'Hospice Movement.'

Zhoen has had similar experience within her own career, and writes of Hospice work, '....experience beyond words to capture. Too profound to pin to a board. The kind of humour that just doesn't translate to anyone who hasn't been there.....'

Exactly, Zhoen, and thank you.

The giant waterlily is significant, too.
As a child I was captivated by a photograph of a little girl, sitting in the middle of a leaf of the giant Amazonian waterlily, being upheld by the leaf structure over deep water.
My parents took me to Kew Gardens to see the real thing, where, to my extreme disappointment, I was not allowed to sit on a leaf.
Yesterday I went to see it again. It's a bit smaller, as this is Victoria Cruziana, and I am considerably larger. There is no longer the faintest hope of sitting on a leaf.

So I watch the little fish, circling happily in the dark water, and wait for the words to return, for great experiences to be assimilated.
I wait, with a huge sense of gratitude for the ever growing awareness of the richness of life and death.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

A Magic Box

I had Russian guests at Christmas, and was given this beautiful box. It is made of Malachite, from the Ural Mountains.
A special stone, a special place. There is no doubt at all that this box has wonderful properties.
I show it off to all my visitors, and the box has proven its powers already.

Visitor 1 was here a couple of weeks ago, much preoccupied by dental problems - couldn't pronounce 'S', couldn't bite into an apple, had to chew biscuits on the side. Visitor 1 is rather small, and we're talking missing front milk-teeth here.
"I wish," said Visitor 1, wearily. "I wish and wish my new teeth would grow."

I introduced the magic box.
"Hold it carefully," I said. "Close your eyes and make your wish."

A week later Visitor 1 rang up to tell me it had worked! The new teeth were emerging. They had frilly edges and were very, very sharp.
"That's a really magic box!" said Visitor 1. "Can I use it again?"

So there must follow some careful discussion about the nature of wishing, and possibly even the realisation that the magic always has to come from within yourself. What the box can do is clear your mind so that you can see your wishes, and it may even give you the power to do something about them.
This may be a little too hard for a six year old.
Or, then again, it may not.
Many six year olds are more clear sighted than worldly, experienced, over-qualified, pressured adults.

Visitor 2 may fall into the latter category and called in for a cuppa, over-worked, a bit sad, anxious, tired.
I introduced the magic box and took rather a long time making the coffee.
Visitor 2 sat by the fire, stroking the box and saying, "Isn't it amazing? It's like looking into a rock pool".
Then a few minutes later, "It's like looking into ferns in a forest as well."
I could hear the blood-pressure falling, and really did not want to produce coffee.

Visitor 2 was parted from the box with a certain amount of reluctance.
"Where did you say it came from?"
"The Urals, in Russia."
"Oh. Not local then?"
"No, absolutely not local."
"It's so beautiful.....and it has such a calming effect....."
"Yes, I know." (And it stays right here on this shelf.)

Большое спасибо, Ирина

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Every Plant has its Time.

The time for this plant is now.
It is Christmas Box, or Winter Box (Sarcocca humilis), and it grows in a quiet, sheltered corner of the garden where I generally forget all about it.
Then, one morning, this morning, I go out into tepid sunshine and the air is filled with a wonderfully spicy fragrance.

It doesn't look much, and its flowers are tiny and not very decorative, but its power is awesome.
Two small sprigs of it sit in the winter indoor jungle that is my kitchen table, and the house is filled with fragrance.
How can such insignificant flowers emit such strength?

In the depths of the winter garden it is possible to overlook the signs of hope and of new life. It is the slight warmth of the sun that triggers the scent, and I am reminded again of the miraculous adaptations in a small garden.
One corner catches the sun and holds the warmth. A few inches away, and the temperature falls and the wind blows across.
Even the smallest garden holds a myriad micro-climates, enabling plants to live at their own pace and to benefit from the good times.

Similarly, in the depths of a life it is possible, sometimes easy, to overlook the good things, the important things which have to power to enrich my days.

A little while ago (not so long before my 70th birthday) I acknowledged the fact that some doors were closing for me. I no longer think that I might be a ballerina or a concert pianist, but I still feel full of possibilities. I still think of some other people as being 'grown-up', whereas I might not be. Not yet.

So the good things, the sheltered corners, the rich soil of my life are my family, my home, my friends.
They are the morning sun in the garden, and a fat thrush eating sultanas on the bird table.
They are a good book and a wood fire, a happy telephone call and a hand reaching out to say 'hello'.
They are rooms full of scent from a drab little plant that I forget about until it comes back to life and brings me with it.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011


Look at this!
How I wish I could convey the smell, the rich, deep aroma of freshly cut wood.

I've written about my meaningful relationship with my woodburning stove previously. I can only say that this winter the relationship has grown deeper and more profound.

There is something wonderfully basic about having a store of fuel. Not just having it, but making it, handling it, stacking it, fitting it into the space, then shutting the door, keeping it dry, knowing it's there.
Last year I emptied the woodstore.

Last year, the last days of the year when the mercury fell so far in the tube I thought it had vanished.
The last days when nine small roach got trapped in the ice of the garden pond and died there. If they'd had the sense to stay at the bottom of the pond they would have been safe. But they didn't.
The heron, being fed on tinned sardines, rammed his beak into the ice again and again to get the untinned fish, but couldn't reach them. He sat, hunched just outside the window, too dispirited to fly away.

The last days when my sons finally arrived safely for Christmas and managed to break two toboggans (but luckily no bones) on the dramatically beautiful slopes of the hills.
The days when my guests wrapped themselves in duvets inside the house during the day-time, and when we all sat as close as possible to the wonderful little Danish stove.

It felt like all the magic of winter story-land, Snow Queens and Ice Maidens, and only a real, living, flickering fire could quell the cold and darkness of December nights.
By the end of the year the woodstore was empty, and I even bought some of those orange nets of logs from the filling station to keep the home fire burning.
So at the turn of the year the first task was of replenishment.

There was a window of opportunity, a couple of days of dry air and weak sunshine, and I sat in the woodstore, building my mosaic against the months of cold and darkness still to come.
A protection as old as time.
An achievement so basic it stirs the blood, and appeals to all the senses.
Keeping the darkness at bay.