Sunday, 11 November 2012

Letter to a Grand-Daughter

Dear Little One,
You made it!
You got here on the night of Halloween, trick and treating us all.
Tricking your parents by stopping and starting in your journey, treating us all by your eventual safe arrival. So much power was in your birth, creating such pride in and for your mother, who did everything possible  to deliver you safely, giving the most profound, life-changing experience to your father and, for your paternal Grandmother, an unexpected sense of making sense, of bringing things together, when you arrived on the sixth anniversary of your Grandfather's death.

Now you are here, tiny and seemingly  fragile, but with a voice that can fill the house and prehensile fingers and toes that can hold on for dear life.

I was privileged to be near you in your first week, witnessing the joy and love and anxiety and utter exhaustion; the package that comes with every new baby.
Already you are teaching us things you like, things you don't like.
You are uncurling from your scrunched-up warm darkness, feeling air and strange movements, hearing noises that have been muffled but are suddenly sharp and clear, opening your eyes and seeing.... seeing what?
Shape, light and darkness certainly, for you are looking carefully at a black and white picture your mother has placed in your crib. It's a stegosaurus. You'll know more in a few years, but at the moment it's something eye-catching.
On your seventh day I saw you were suddenly transfixed by a large plant silhouetted in the bathroom window.
'What? What is THAT?' you seemed to think as you turned to look again. I told you it was a house-plant, and I'll explain more fully another time, but within a few more days you will know it's there and look for it again. You will know that the house-plant may prelude a warm bath, in which you can unfurl like one of those Japanese paper flowers when dropped into water.

You know a great deal already.
You know you like food and warmth and being held close, especially in your sling where you can be jiggled about and swayed just like in the old days.
You like movement of all sorts, in the car, in someone's arms. Rocking and patting are good things, ensuring that you are the centre of  your universe, as is your right - at least for some time more.
You know that you can get the good things started again by having a bit of a shout. People will do what you want when you shout.

It won't always be this way, so make the most of it.

What you cannot know yet is how fortunate you are, to be born into a life where you are so appreciated, so loved, and, above all, to have such wonderful parents.
If only all new-borns could have such advantages the world would be a happier, better, safer place.

Enjoy it all, Little One, but try to get a bit more sleep!

Love from Grandma.

Friday, 26 October 2012

The Tale of the Timid Traveller

Got the visa, got the moon-boots, got the coat that will cope with minus twenty degrees, and the gloves that I hope will keep my fingers connected to my hands in those sorts of temperatures. Got the floaty dress for the party in a centrally over-heated Moscow apartment and the nice thick underwear for walking by the Black Sea.
 Not got the swimwear for a quick dip (or at least, not taking it). There are limits, even if the Black Sea is hovering above freezing and a daily dip is good for you.
Ready, willing and still quite surprisingly able, I shouldn't really use the word 'timid' - but it makes for good alliteration.

You can see from the oddments above that I've been around the block a few times. Not only got the moon boots but also got some dresses and slave bangles (another traveller's tale there) from the Middle East, slippers from Central Asia, a Russian shawl and, throughout the house, countless European odds and ends and things full of memories.

Yet I am lacking, and I'm not sure how I can define the lack.
There are members of my family, notably my nephew, pohanginapete, for whom travel is an art and whose curiosity about the wider world is insatiable.

I travel.
I have travelled quite widely over the years, but always (or nearly always) in an extremely prosaic manner.
I have travelled for work reasons, and I've travelled in order to visit people I love.
I have enjoyed a great deal, and been badly frightened a few times. I've been lost and locked in and locked out and lost the keys for the luggage in a remote German village (so now I don't bother locking it).
I've eaten some weird things, some of them with my fingers, and I've drunk some fairly horrible and unidentifiable stuff to go with it all.
I've been a patient in hospitals where English is never even thought of, and where the treatment for an infected insect bite involves an unwashed soldering iron.
I have been delighted by mountains and cities older than time, by the green waters spilling from glaciers, and by the sunsets in an arid landscape. I have seen the desert bloom after rains.

Then I come home again, and all the time I am away from home, where ever my home may be, I have a mental retreat. It is a quiet room with a polished wooden floor. Even the nail-heads in the floor are polished to silver by the countless feet passing. There is a wide armchair, covered in worn tapestry, and there are fat velvet cushions in a deep rose colour.
I sit in the chair beside a log fire. It's a dull fire, mainly soft white ash which shifts slightly with a whispering sound, but there is warmth.
I sit there for a while.
I can sit there in the middle of the desert, or near a snow capped mountain.
I can sit there while a droning plane carries me vast distances.

Then I come home, really home, to the home we created as a family, and which now contains mostly just me, but is still there for everyone else. There I find the insatiable curiosity and endless fascination which perhaps should extend into the wider world is thoroughly satisfied by the patterns of growth and change in the garden, by my family and friends, by reading and writing and drawing, and by the work I do within my small community.
Things that grow deeper every time I do them.
Worlds within worlds.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Year's Last Fling

More magic in the woods, the stubble fields, the ancient church-yards, the hedgerows, for October 10th is a significant day.
Eat-a-Goose Day, Don't-Pick-Blackberries Day, Chuck-Lucifer-Out-Of Heaven Day.

Yes, I know that Michaelmas is now September 29th, but that is a recent change brought about by Henry VIII and the Church of England, when it all got mixed up with Harvest Festival and ploughing the fields and scattering.
Old Michaelmas, the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels was October 10th, a more robust event, when good old angelic warrior Michael leaped into action to protect against the darkness and the fears of the night.
It was the day when he had his final ding-dong with Lucifer and threw him out of heaven. Lucifer landed in a blackberry bush and in his tantrum trampled and spat all over the blackberries, which is why they should not be picked after tomorrow. Devil's spittle may be organically sourced, but it's not good digestively.

The geese, which should be eaten tomorrow, will have been fattened on the stubble of the harvest fields. Everyone used to know that eating goose on October 10th provided financial protection for the rest of the year. Failure to observe this tradition could explain the sort of mess we find ourselves in today.
Queen Elizabeth I knew it, and was reputedly eating goose when the news of the Armada was delivered to her. She continued with her meal, just as Drake continued playing bowls, because people had the right priorities in those days.
(A memorable quote from an essay my father was once delighted to have marked contained the reputed quote from Drake: 'The Armada can bowels can't'.)
There were Goose Fairs and Goose Day.
Geese mattered.
How many do we see today?

So the year turns, the days shorten and cool, some birds leave us and others arrive, the fruits ripen. In the garden the most magnificent final fling is the Michaelmas Daisy, so called because its flowering is seen as the final and finest horticultural defiance against darkness.
There is no better place to see this defiance than at Old Court Nurseries and the Picton Garden, situated at the foot of the Malvern Hills, where the photograph above was taken a few days ago.
In glorious October sunshine admirers of the Autumn Flowering Aster wandered the winding paths around this enclosed space, dazed by a sea of blues and mauves, pinks and purples. The 400 or so species here represent the National Collection of this plant.

I have a few in my garden. I want more, but I need to organise better.
I want to have flowers all the year, but above all I want the late season defiance, the raising of the floral fist against encroaching cold and darkness.
Maybe it's my age?

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Learning Curve

Where have they gone, the  gleaming Silver Cross coach-built prams, gently bouncing on their sprung leather suspension systems? Where are their silken canopies with the fringed edges?
Where are the little Viyella vests tied with tiny ribbons, the fine cotton nightdresses, the knitted bootees, the smocked dresses that took half an hour to iron?
Matinee coats and matching bonnets........where are they?
Where, in particular, are the hand-embroidered delicate lawn Christening robes, like the hem of that in the photograph? It's about eighty years old now, but I doubt it will be worn again.

Some of them might be on eBay, but most of them are long consigned to the tip and I learn, in my impending Grandmotherhood, that babies no longer have prams.
They have travel systems.
They don't wear little vests tied with white ribbon,
They have body suits.
I won't even mention the nappies, even though I still use a couple of thirty-three year old muslin squares as dusters.

Gone are the days of lying-in, of extended convalescence after child-birth. I did not experience any of that, but my mother did. A couple of weeks of bed-rest on a light diet, then a gradual return to gentle exercise and, ideally, not venturing out in public until one had been 'churched'. My mother may have baulked at that, but probably not at the extended rest period.
'The Churching of Women' appears in the prayer books, a prayer of thankfulness for deliverance and preservation in face of the great danger of child-birth. The baby doesn't get much of a mention, except in Psalm 127, when during the brief service, children are likened to arrows in the hands of the giant, and 'Happy is the man who hath his quiver full of them'.

This makes me feel distinctly elderly, but it's not really so very long ago that pregnancy and childbirth were seen by many  as an illness, a weakness, something to be concealed, something vaguely shameful. Thirty or so years ago we wore smocks like marquees in an attempt to conceal the bulge beneath, whereas now the bulge appears proudly emphasised in tee shirt and crop tops.
Forty or so years ago and fathers waited in the waiting room until they were told who had been delivered, whereas now they attend classes and learn all about breathing and birthing positions, and take photos of the emerging head with their mobile phones.

I am learning, for which I am thankful.
I am also concealing a secret stash of traditional toys, nursery rhyme books and even a seventy-two year old smocked Viyella dress.
I wish I still had the Silver Cross pram, but it was used by at least two other families after we had it, and it was third-hand then.

Good job the parents-in-waiting don't read this blog!

Saturday, 15 September 2012

In It Up To The Elbows.

Late summer sunshine, an unexpected day out 'here' in a wonderful garden, and I find myself unable to resist hauling hanks of blanket-weed out of someone else's fountain.

Of course, there is something quite fascinating about blanket-weed, an algae which floats and bubbles and strangles and spreads itself throughout a pond, and which can cost gardeners a small fortune to control. There are lots and lots of remedies, from floating a bale of barley straw to staining the water black.
I favour the RHS's nicely worded remedy of 'twirling it out with a cane'. I'm sure there are many cane-twirling members of the RHS (the black-tie-and-tails image fits wonderfully) and I have my own plentiful supply of canes from my bamboo grove.

At the same time, I have to admire an organism that can colonise so rapidly and effectively, turning a garden pond into a vat of pea-soup, and spreading its silky hair filaments into a thick blanket.
I know of someone, equally fascinated, who thought the stuff might be spun and woven.
It can't be.
Perhaps there is someone who has tried to cook and eat it?
Please let me know.

So this was a day off from gardening for me, and within a couple of hours I am up to the elbows in blanket-weed, hauling heavy, irresistible ropes of it from this beautiful fountain pond, never even thinking that the owners might be cultivating it for a purpose. Sorry, Spetchley Park owners, if you were!

Then I realise, of course, that my companions, both avid gardeners, are at it as well, tweaking out the odd dandelion, the occasional metre or two of bindweed. Gardeners cannot keep their hands to themselves, dead-heading without even realising that they are doing it.

Some days in my own garden I go out the take some melon peel to the compost bin and an hour passes before I realise it. Suddenly I find that I have a great canvas bag full of prunings and weeds and I will have to make yet another trip to the tip. But then I can't justify using petrol to take just one bag full, so I stay in the garden and fill two more giant bags........and then I realise it's getting dusk.
And I only went out to the compost bin.

A few months ago I thought I could no longer manage my garden, and was seriously considering downsizing. It was news of a coming grand-daughter that changed everything, and made me determined the keep the family house and the family garden going.
Somehow, the garden creates its own energy and passes some of it on to me.
The growth rate this year has been phenomenal, all that heat; then all that rain, then more late warmth. If I have time to sit in the garden I can hear things growing, especially the bamboo.

And the grand-daughter is growing too, for now she is nearly here, and the (blanket-weed-free) pond will have to be fenced off fairly soon, and somehow I have the energy to to twirl a cane and not only weed my own pond, but get involved in someone else's.

Friday, 24 August 2012

What a Heel!

Here is Achilles, on a bad day, in a bad mood, thinking about beating up someone, famous for his volatile temper.

He had a lot to be angry about, back then in Ancient Greece.
Son of a nymph and a king, his fey mother held him by the heel when he was just a small baby and dipped the rest of him into the river Styx so that he would be immortal. Then, just to make sure, she anointed him with ambrosia (not the tinned rice pudding) and put him on top of a fire to burn away any mortal parts of him.
Luckily she was interrupted by King Peleus, the baby's father, but she was so enraged by this that she left both father and son.
King Peleus, unable or unwilling to care for his son, found a Centaur, half man, half horse to be the ideal guardian and tutor, and so it went on.

 Achilles, not surprisingly, also developed a raging temper and grew up to be extremely active in the Trojan Wars.
Eventually he was killed by an arrow shot into the one mortal bit of him - the heel, the one bit that hadn't been dipped in the Styx. This possibly happened during battle, possibly during a tricky love affair, possibly involving poison from a specific enemy, but it was that big tendon at the back of the heel that caused the problem. Without it the foot won't work, and it is always known as the Achilles tendon, a point of vulnerability for even the strongest.

Thinking about it now, it is not surprising that Achilles was vulnerable - and his poor mother, surely a bad case of post natal depression? Then the clearly inadequate father, and the totally unsuitable fostering arrangement; how could the poor lad ever be thought normal.
Yet he was.

He was a leader in the Trojan Wars, a star of the Iliad, a slayer of an Amazonian Queen (although a bit half-hearted about this one, and regretting it later), an upholder of Gay Rights, he was admired, even worshipped in antiquity and survives today in Greek philosophy and mythology.
But there is still that heel, still that point of extreme vulnerability that makes him famous today, and I think he would truly hate that fact. Known more for a bit of sinew than for all those macho exploits.

We all have bits of sinew holding our bones and muscles together at a practical level, and when something, some small part fails it can have a drastic effect.
We all have our points of vulnerability, and I think I know mine well enough to avoid or deflect the arrows most of the time - but they still catch me out occasionally.

So this is written for a son and his Achilles tendon, from a concerned mother.
We all have our points of weakness.

I realise there are lots of versions of Achilles' life story, but only one (or two) tendons bearing his name.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Marked for Life.

Here is the top of an oak sewing table. My father made it for my mother, long, long ago, when they were still at the stage of trying to impress one another. Last year my son put a glass of water on it, with the resultant white ring. He was apologetic when he realised the effect of water on old wood. I could have sanded and  re-polished it, or even asked him to have a go at polishing and removing the stain himself, but I didn't.
Now, from time to time, I see the mark and am happy to remember that my son was here, sprawled in a chair with a glass of water. He's not here very often, after all.

Today something triggered a conversation with a friend about honourable stains, marks that are made by life, for life. So many of these are part of my home, part of my life, not pretty, but stained and scarred, marked with honour.
What makes honourable scars? I think it is the process of living, and the feelings and memories that are enshrined in the scars. Some might be created in anger, and there are places in this house which bear witness to powerful passions - yet I feel that these are honourable in their way,  sad evidence of what can happen when  parents are pushed that bit too far, and when everyone is exhausted. Cautionary tales.

Would I ever want to live in a place that was pristine? Well, actually, it might be quite refreshing once in a while, but it would also be impersonal, featureless, whereas this place is a home, built up over the years, scarred by the years, just like me. Full of memories.

The door-frame in the kitchen is notched with the growth records of the family and a few selected friends, including a dog. Every so often I paint around it carefully. Everyone seems to have stopped growing now, upwards at any rate, but nearly every time there are visitors in the kitchen they notice it and comment, and my sons still like to check that they were taller than their father by the time they were in their mid-teens.

There are marks and wounds throughout the house.
There's the place where the ballpoint pen leaked on the leather of a rather valuable desk, and I can still see my husband, dabbing at it ineffectually with a handkerchief loaded with spit, hoping that no one would notice.
There are a few hand-prints on ceilings  where tall, teenaged sons tried to out-leap each other. At one point there were even footprints, too (on ceilings!) but the kitchen has been redecorated and now they are both over thirty they probably could no longer manage it. (I don't think they take much notice of this blog, but if you are reading this, my sons, this is not a challenge.)

The armchair in the kitchen, beside the range, has supported more bottoms than I will ever know. So many hands other than ours have come in straight from the garden and rubbed dirt into the chair arms. So many other muddy feet have scraped along the stretcher between the chair legs. For many years during my professional life I wrote about antiques. I know patination when I meet it. It takes a century of dirt and hard wear to build up glowing scars like that chair has.

Some of the more flamboyant scars have been repaired. There were teenage excesses that are better not recalled, but still lurking just beneath the surface....those incidents with the poker and the fire in the sitting room, for instance. Well, the  brass poker is still badly dented.

There is still glue and solder on a carpet up in the attic where younger son spent hours assembling extraordinary circuits, and there is a chipped and scarred rocking horse who has been ridden too hard by generations before and after me. My grandfather stretched the leather reins, as did my uncle and my father after him, and they finally came apart while my sons were riding. Perhaps I should have it restored, have the scars painted out, the leather replaced for the grand-daughter now on her way. Or perhaps she should also hold the battered old reins used by her great-great grandfather?

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Lucifer and Friends

Lucifer stands proud in my garden - that tall, very bright red 'Crocosmia'.
Before Lucifer became a by-word for Satan it was the name of the morning star, Venus, shining bright and clear at dawn. That is what Lucifer, the plant, does so well, brightens the mornings, and the afternoons and the evenings. Perhaps especially the evenings when it glows in the dusk.

Lucifer has spread around my garden and has travelled into many other gardens I know. It is so easy, so dramatic, such a joy to pass on to friends and neighbours.
A large part of the pleasure of gardening is to pass things on, to share favourite plants, to exchange a bowl of loganberries for a bowl of blackcurrants. So Lucifer appears, shining brightly in a garden down the road, across the road and over the hill.
I hope I have not be-devilled my neighbours' gardens.

It seems sad that the name of Lucifer, originally something shining and beautiful, should now be generally recognised as devilish.
There are many plants more directly named after Satan, many of them poisonous, barbed, threatening, bright red, horned, long-tongued or otherwise weird. Poor old Crocosmia Lucifer only got the name by being bright red.

Creeping Devil is apparently weird. It's a cactus that lies flat on the sandy ground of the Arizona desert and creeps like a caterpillar, dying at its rear end, growing forward from the front. Weird, but also practical because a cylinder on its side gets more light than one standing upright, and the Creeping Devil is basically a horizontal cylinder.

Devil's Beggar Tick is a nuisance, an irritant, having hooked seeds which attach themselves firmly into clothing, preferably socks. But also clever, because it uses animals and people to distribute seeds well away from the parent plant.

The Devils Walking Stick has very sharp thorns. It is related to Ginseng, and apparently (do not try this at home) a paste made of its poisonous seeds will kill head lice.

Devil's weed, of the Datura family has dangerously poisonous fruits. Devil's Ivy, an attractive houseplant is altogether poisonous, as is the Devil's Backbone, which is related to Jacob's Ladder.
Devil's Tongue is a name for both an very hot pepper and the Snake Palm tree, which grows with a trunk as sinuous as the serpent in the garden of Eden. We don't understand why these plants need to create strong poisons in their systems, or grow in convoluted form or generate such heat in their fruits that they can take the skin off  your mouth, but there will be very sound and sensible reasons if we could but find a key to them.

Here are the seed-pods of Devil's Claw from South Africa. Well, you can see the fingernails, can't you? Obviously devilish, but also useful as an anti-inflammatory and a help to those with arthritis, so not all bad. Imported, ground into pill form and sold by those promoting natural health cures, so not very Satanic after all.

Can any plants be all bad?
Some are poisonous, some are potentially dangerous, but that is undoubtedly because we do not have the knowledge to understand their properties and powers. There is so much we do not know - isn't it wonderful?
So I drink my early morning cuppa and admire Lucifer, the morning star, shining clear and bright and vividly red on even a dull damp morning.

And on a personal note, the roubles did not get squandered in Southern Russia. The paperwork failed us at the last moment. The passport has been nowhere in the last weeks. At some stage I will saunter beside the Black Sea in my gauzy dresses (probably not from November onwards though!).

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Carry On Planning.

Here I go again, with some measure of luck.

My offspring are so good to and for me.
When I had children in my middle age (or even a bit more, as I was 39 and 42 at the time) people said they would keep me young. I never believed that, and still don't.
What they do is to give me a good shaking out of old age.

There are a few roubles here, and a passport with a Russian visa, but I don't know if they will be heading anywhere with me in a few days time.
Over the years I've done a fair bit of travelling, and I like to be sort-of organised. Now, in fact, I like to be really quite organised.
But my sons, one of them in particular, catch planes with the same sort of nonchalance that I nip down to Morrison's. They are citizens of the world, as are so many young people these days.

Their father made just the one journey by air in his lifetime, and that was to travel to Moscow to see our elder son when he was working there.
I have travelled a lot more, but always in a pre-planned way, usually to work somewhere involving visas and complicated travel  that had taken some time to arrange.

Holidays in my childhood involved such complex issues as sending luggage in advance by rail (and it actually used to arrive, can you imagine?) and booking first sitting in the restaurant car (Brown Windsor soup, a roast with lashings of gravy, apple pie with custard or trifle, also with custard). Packing meant layers of tissue paper and things washed and specially folded weeks in advance. ("No, you can't wear that, it's ready for packing - wear your school uniform instead.")

Holidays for my children meant the caravan in Wales, crab-fishing, messing about in a dinghy, interminable board games and building dens with all the cushions while the rain drummed steadily on the roof.

Whereas this holiday, now..........
In a very few days I may be travelling with my elder son to visit his lovely Russian girlfriend and her family in Southern Russia..
May be, because the decision-making goes down to the last possible minute, in a manner only  made possible by modern technology.
There are problems, of course. Passport and visa problems, of course. Weather problems, also of course. The area we are visiting made a fleeting appearance in the British news a week or so ago. There have been terrible floods and a great loss of life there. Then the news disappears from our sometimes parochial-seeming  British service, and it is difficult to find any sort of up-dated account.
But could there be problems for young international travellers having to cope with ageing  parent anxious about being abandoned in the departure lounge ? 
No, not allowed.

Without my sons I would probably vegetate quietly in the garden, visiting friends and being visited, baking for visitors, feeding the birds, the badgers and the foxes, pottering round a bit, doing my voluntary work and my daily writing and drawing.
As it is now I have bags packed for a quick exit, a twelve hour journey and a few hours time-shift. I also have the freezer packed, the beds made, everything organised for the influx of visitors that will result if this trip is postponed at the very last minute.
The very, very last minute.

I thank my sons for towing me into their fast-moving lives, for including me, for making me believe I can easily keep up with them.
But have they kept me young?
I think they are preventing me from being old, which is not quite the same thing.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Carry On Looking Hard

As if in subconscious defiance against the perpetual greyness of this English summer I seem to have moved into colour with my daily drawings. I didn't realise until I looked back through my visual diary, which I first wrote about 'here', back in February, when I was relatively new to the discipline of daily drawing.
In a determination not to let my daughter-in-law down (she gave me this Sketch-a-Day book for Christmas) I have not missed a day this year (and she says that's got Christmas sorted for me for the next umpteen years).
I should have noticed because my miniature pencils are dwindling, especially the greens, and I can't find any replacements.

Then I wonder if it's such a good thing to look back through what has become not just a series of little drawings, but a visual journal of my little life.
It is all about plants and the garden, small snatches of life elsewhere, the corner of an office, a view from the attic window, a sleeping dog, the seating pattern in a train, the fish tank in the dentist's waiting room.
It seems too small, but then I console myself by realising that I can't draw the most significant things of all, which are people.
I can sit and stare at a leaf for ten minutes, but it's not possible to do it to a person (unless you pay them to be a model, that is, or unless you go to art classes and draw with other people).

I've had a go, in my discreet way.
I was captivated by a couple in a cafe recently. He was eating a big wedge of carrot cake, using both hands to support it, and she, in her tiny shorts and gold sandals was sending text messages on her tiny phone. While she was thus occupied he leaned over and lifted her slice of carrot cake with both hands and transferred it to his own plate. She reached out, eyes still on the screen, found her plate empty, sighed, sipped her coffee and continued to text. I managed to capture some of the action, and the colour of his face and her shorts, which matched, as did the magnificent convex curve of his frontage and the corresponding concave of hers, but I was aware I  really should not be doing it.

I managed to capture the mutual admiration of a man and a swan as they gazed at each other on the riverside, although I think the swan was possibly more fixated on the sandwich being slowly eaten. But they made a good pattern against the hypnotic swirling of the beige river, and they were sufficiently engrossed in one another as not to notice me.

Then I went to a day-time screening of 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel',and I'm pleased to say that I managed to capture something of the great froth of white haired audience against the rich red flounces of the safety curtain.

So I've used some reds and dark pinks and beige, but mainly my artistic endeavours seems to be blues and mauves and endless, endless shades of green from the dank and dripping vines, the collapsing herbaceous beds, the sodden lawn, the fruit-free tomato plants.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Walking With a Friend.

Sunday morning, a morning of sunshine after weeks of rain, a morning full of birdsong and warm air and a meadow full of wild flowers.
My friend and I walk 'here', a fascinating place with a rich history as a military hospital, a pioneering psychiatric hospital, and now a nature reserve.

My friend  and I have a great deal in common. We like a lot of the same things, although she has something of a penchant for poking her nose into other people's business, a trait I do not share.
She is younger than I am, and blonde, and probably has a more illustrious family tree. Her name is Hannah, and you may have realised by now that she is a Labrador Retriever.

We wander along the paths through the woodlands and over the meadows. She is sometimes just ahead, sometimes just behind, but never far away.
She likes to greet people, but not necessarily their dogs, whom she tolerates politely. She is not very keen on children, and will often take a detour to avoid them. People wearing sun-glasses make her uncomfortable, and I remember  my deaf friends telling me how difficult it is to lip read people wearing sun-glasses. Dogs need to read whole facial expression, too.
There are some parts of the woodland where Hannah feels uneasy. As we approach she goes slightly stiff legged and walks carefully behind me, allowing me to encounter any dangers first.
Hannah is not a guard dog.

This beautiful plot of land has known great sadness.
People have suffered here, and there are parts of the woodland where the hairs rise on the back of Hannah's neck and all along her spine, so that she looks like a Rhodesian Ridgeback. She sticks close to my heels, looking to neither right nor left.
This is the site of the old hospital mortuary. Hannah picks up some sort of vibe and just wants to get past the place, not to linger for even the most interesting scent.
I feel sad too. A sense of gloom hangs over this stretch of woodland, but Hannah's behaviour emphasises my own feeling. Which comes first - the dog's reaction or my own?

We both step briskly out of the woodland and through the gate into the meadow where she bounds and pirouettes with joy - instant transformation in the open sunlight.

She knows what is coming, but bounces and grins and waits for permission to go.
There is water ahead, usually a stream with shallow pools, and she can hurl herself into it with the sort of abandon that occurs when a happy Labrador senses water. She can hit the water and flop down into it, then race through it, biting at it, laughing at it, revelling in it, a joy as infectious as the gloom of ten minutes ago.

I can share her enjoyment, the enjoyment of sunshine, an open space, freedom, the view of the hills. I do not need to join her in the water, although she would clearly like me to do so, and cannot quite understand my reluctance. She comes and shakes herself close to me, demonstrating that water is good, wetness is great, a damp car is going to smell heavenly.

Hannah is not my dog. She is a friend, and a much valued friend because whenever I have the urge to go and find myself another dog to rescue I call on Hannah. She reminds me, in the best possible way, that owning a dog is a great big responsibility, a great big expense. It involves limitations and forward planning, and I've done all that for many years. I must not do it again, because I have other important commitments. If you take on a dog it has to come very high indeed on your agenda, especially when you live alone.

So Hannah and I walk together.
And I'm also very grateful to another good friend who happens to be Hannah's owner.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Just Waving - Not Really Drowning.

Raindrops keep falling on our heads in England, and here, in very Middle England, we sit boldly on our hilltops, eyeing the rising levels of surrounding rivers and watching the grey clouds scudding overhead.
We are not afraid of weather, and there are always lots of us who go to celebrate the invisible sunrise at the solstice. Come rain, hail or snow, you really have to admire the 'Druids'.
I am not made of such stern stuff.  I have never, even in my distant youth, danced in the dew of a summer solstice, but here is my own brave, slightly defiant smile in the face of adversity.

  • My hostas - just look at them above - have never looked better. It is too cold and wet for the slugs to come out.
  • We have lots to talk about. In England we always talk about the weather, and this year we can make plenty of jokes about that summer we had in May, and about hosepipe bans. We can be companionable and smile and raise our eyebrows at each other as we go scurrying down to the shops in the teeth of the gale. That is unless we are having to hang on to the umbrella with such grim determination that we can't see where we are going and we bump into one another. But that can be companionable, too.
  • We are saving a lot of money by not having to purchase sun-block.
  • We don't have to worry about what to wear. We wear something warm under something waterproof, with Wellington boots as standard footwear. There are some stylish and jolly amusing Wellies printed with ducks and frogs and daisies.
  • Lots of plants look beautiful, sprinkled with the diamonds of raindrops. This balances out those that have been beaten into submission by gales.
  • The ducks in the park are very happy.
  • No one has had to pack away their winter clothes nor change the duvet for the summer-weight one. Or if they have they've changed back again.
  • I felt a bit guilty, buying a new folding umbrella because I forgot the old one the other day. I spent four pounds, but it has earned its keep ten times over.
  • People have lots of extra interest, wondering if they are going to be able to play/watch cricket. Or not.
  • I had these very special sunglasses, made for wind-surfing. (How I got them is another story.) One of my sons said, "Wow, Mum, those are cool surfers!" and I just said, nonchalantly, "Yes, I know." They were on the passenger seat of the car, and a friend sat on them, but it really doesn't matter. To be honest, I could barely see through them in this gloom, and even I realise that they are not so cool in lashing rain.
  • We are not woken by blinding sunrise, forcing its way through the blinds at 4.30 a.m. In fact we can leave the blinds open and hardly know if it is night or day. It becomes not unlike the White Nights of St. Petersburg, and we can go into a gently meditative state and start looking for the Northern Lights.
  • Friends asked me to water their garden while they were away for a fortnight. Not once did I have to touch a tap, but I did go round every other day to tip water out of pots to try to stop plants from drowning.
  • This soft and gentle grey air (when the wind drops), this soft and gentle rain (when it comes vertically, not horizontally), this soft and gentle grey light - all are kinder to the eyes and the complexion than harsh sunlight, and really the gloomier and dimmer the light the kinder it becomes for women over a certain age.

But if, by any chance, the sun should break through the dark and billowing clouds we will all tear off our woollies, waterproofs and wellies and start complaining about the heat.
Visitors heading this way for Those Games, be aware!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Seeing Eye to Eye

                                                                     Google Image

Every day I put out food for the many wild creatures that have moved into my garden, often with a kernel of doubt that I may be creating artificial conditions and thus encouraging unnatural behaviour patterns, always with a sense of responsibility that having started this pattern I must continue it.
Wildlife does not come cheap in this place!

A wide variety of birds hang about all the time, making noisy disputes when the bird-table is topped up. I have the identifiable residents, the jackdaw who has pestered me over the past few years, and some of his flock who have distinctive white patches in their wings. I thought I had two pairs of blackbirds, but a recent wildlife programme 'Springwatch' casts doubt on this, having found that a garden may be visited by a great many more pairs that the one or two assumed by the human residents. I have thrushes and wrens and countless little brown numbers in between. I could not begin to count them, and after Springwatch I realise I couldn't estimate them either.

There are no hedgehogs here these days, which is a sad loss, and this year I have not had any starlings either, an equal loss. However, I have badgers at the bottom of the garden and they are served supper as dusk falls.

Yesterday I was at home in the late afternoon. I  moved to a window to open it, and in doing so startled a fox, out in broad daylight, pathetically searching for fallen scraps beneath the bird table.
Before it bolted away it made full eye contact with me for a number of seconds.
It was a most powerful experience.
When a wild animal knows enough about you to hold that sort of eye contact there is a feeling of real communication, although whether it was fear, or challenge, or a sort of anxious request I could not tell.
I interpreted it as anxious request, because for an animal to be so near to the house, so early in the evening, it must have been desperate, starving.
The thought that there is a wild animal in my garden desperate enough to virtually beseech for help is hard to bear. Perhaps I'm being anthropomorphic, but those long seconds of eye contact have a profound effect.

It was not the animal photographed here, but a thin creature beset with mange - but the look in the eyes was the same.
So now there is at least one additional guest for supper, whose meal will be available rather earlier than the later evening service for the badgers.

I still don't know if I'm doing right or wrong, but I'm pretty sure that if I lived a few centuries ago I would be branded an old witch, living alone, surrounded by my familiars and talking to the birds.

Leslee of 3rd House Journal has written a clever and thought-producing poem, 13 Ways of looking at a Fox,which you can find 'here'.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Location, Location, and, oh yes, Location!

Yesterday I sat in a train, heading for London.
It was a glorious day, with a clear blue sky, and wonderful fresh greenery everywhere.
I thought London was not the best idea in such idyllic weather, but I was going to see people I love, so of course I would go.
I would go in rain or fog or snow to see them in their new apartment. Of course I would go.

At every station more and more people packed themselves into this little three-coach train.
Many of them had giant cool-boxes, and all of them were dressed for hot weather. There were acres of flesh and some shorts and skimpy tops which revealed a great deal too much, especially when their occupants slumped asleep.
I sat disapprovingly, feeling and possibly looking, like Edith Sitwell. People who really live in hot places cover themselves up, not strip off.

Further down the line and more people clambered in, tripping over the cool-boxes and finding nowhere to put their own immense bags but balanced on the seat-backs beside other passengers' heads.
Suddenly there were faces painted in red and white. There was a group of women, dressed in union jacks, there was bunting and red,white and blue ribbons.
The couple beside me explained that there were two BIG matches that afternoon, one at Wembley, one at Twickenham.

Luckily, at Oxford another three-coach train was connected and some of the cool boxes and giant bags were transferred.
We arrived, all of us, at one of the major London stations. It took a little while to get out, but my son was there, waiting. He's very tall. I could see him over all the face-paint and banners and cool-boxes, but I was still thinking that London was possibly not the best place to be.

Within minutes we were in the new apartment, protected from road noise by tall trees, a sense of coolness and filtered light, tall windows, high ceilings.
Within a few more minutes we could walk away from noise and busy-ness, down beside the canals. A choice of restaurants and cafes, a selection of shops, chemist, dry-cleaners, small supermarkets neatly tucked into a grassy amphitheatre.
Then we could walk, in shade and breeze and flickering sunlight along a choice of canal paths that cut through the centre of the city. A fascinating walk beside houseboats and narrow boats, with people strolling and jogging and pedalling along on 'Boris Bikes',  There are boats painted with 'roses and castles', with complete gardens on their roofs. There are waterside pubs, and leafy green community gardens. You can walk along to the London Zoo, or see 'Lord Snowdon's Aviary' for free from the tow path.

You can be at a major rail and underground terminus in minutes and Heathrow in half an hour. You could be in any of the great  museums or art galleries, or any of the famous shops in the same sort of time. You could stroll along to the major parks, or sit by the Thames, or go along the Mall and see what's occurring at the Palace.
And then you could get away from it all again in a tree-lined street or beside a leafy canal.

I now understand, completely, why an apartment in this area costs about three times as much as my family-sized place in Middle England.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

A Little Life.

Yesterday, in the sudden warmth, a puffed-up infant blackbird crouched on the bird-table, fluttering, quivering, squawking at its resigned-looking parent. There was still the remains of a yellow gape in the infant beak, and the seemingly smaller parent wearily pushed food into the demanding mouth.
The parent bird flew off, and the fat infant decided to feed itself, which it could do perfectly well.
Then a couple of sparrows landed nearby, and the infant reverted into a fluttering, beseeching, gaping cushion. The sparrows turned their backs, and rightly so.

This morning, in a cool mist that presaged considerable heat by afternoon, I went out to fill the watering cans. On top of the clipped bay tree beside the shed lay a large, fat, speckled infant blackbird, claws curved against the cool air, eyes filmed, life over. It must have flown into the glass of the summerhouse window and broken its neck.
Such a little life.

All over the garden there are miniature dramas and tragedies as young creatures learn to live independently.
My neighbour's adolescent cat, whose name is Frank, spends a lot of time hanging out here.
A few months ago, in very cold weather he learned that no one can walk on thin ice, and more recently he decided to  have a little look in the nearby badgers' sett. He exploded from the tunnel, looking twice his  normal size and barely made it over the fence in his frantic rush for home.
But he is back, and in his wake are the tiny corpses of two baby field-mice. They have ventured away from home and been tortured, played with and killed by a giant with scimitar claws. Or perhaps they died of fright on meeting Frank, as Frank could well have died meeting the badgers.
It's all learning by experience. We all have to do it, and sometimes the cost is very high.

In the pond a few tiny newts are dicing with death as they may or may not evade the one surviving goldfish, who in turn is the sole survivor of a very harsh winter and repeated heron attacks.
Baby birds flutter everywhere, and I know the sparrow hawk is visiting daily, but he/she too has infants to raise.
Yesterday a friend and I watched a newly emerged dragonfly dry its crumpled cling-film wings in the sun, and I wonder who has eaten it for lunch today.

This really sudden heat has galvanised life in the garden into a frantic action, or perhaps the warmth has made me sit out there, just looking. Every time I spend more than a few minutes out here I see something remarkable, something unexpected, something sad, something beautiful. So much of  my own admittedly little life is being lived out here.

I  am sometimes made to think that I should get out more. I should be doing more sociable things with 'U3A' as so many of my friends do. They are always off somewhere, doing Tai Chi, visiting Provence, learning a language, being taught to use Photoshop.
But I am here, in my garden, marvelling at growth and life and death.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Walnut Cottage

A quarter of a century ago two small boys used this play-house in all sorts of ways, but mainly, being boys, they used it as a weapons store. They had interesting sticks and stones, and jars containing mixtures of sand, water and food colouring. There were plastic spacemen, tractors and dented Dinky cars. They had books and drawing paper and a big box of felt-tipped pens with all the tops left off.
They had the table you can see here, and little chairs, plastic crockery and a teapot that really poured.
They entertained friends here, with sandwiches and biscuits and cakes, and the teapot filled with orange juice to pour all over themselves and each other.
People got shut in and shut out, fingers were pinched in the door and there were howls of rage and indignation. Small girls visiting tried to instil a sense of order, wanting to clean the windows and make people sit down and eat nicely.
It was a good hiding place. I even hid in it once or twice myself with the sherry bottle when things got really tough.

Then, inevitably, the play-house became more useful for bikes and toboggans, and sadly and much later, as a wheelchair store. More recently it housed all that stuff that is waiting to be taken to the tip. A sad little dumping ground. But not for much longer.

A few weeks ago I went out to the little house with a thick black pen, and I wrote the name Walnut Cottage on the door. The little house is due for a shake-up, a clean-up, a thorough revitalisation in the spring sunshine, because a new occupant is coming.

During the cold dark winter I have been thinking seriously about downsizing. Perhaps it is foolish, or even selfish to maintain a family-sized home and a complicated labour-intensive garden now that I am alone. Perhaps I should be sensible and make the move to a smaller place while I am still capable of it, the dread always being of leaving a mess for others to sort out.
So I was looking.
I was thinking.
I was planning to be sensible.

But on Mothers' Day I was told that I am going to be a grandmother, and everything changed.
At that stage my grandchild was the size of a walnut, hence the name Walnut Cottage.
How can it be that a walnut-sized person has the ability to change everything?
And yet it is so.

Of course, the play-house will be needed, as will the family-sized house and the complicated garden. The long top landing is needed for the Brio railway, safely stored in the attic for exactly this purpose, the paths around the rockery are perfect for a tricycle, a pedal car.
I will need to fence off the pond....but not just yet.

Walnut Cottage, Ollie Gark the big bear and I wait in the sunshine, which suddenly feels full of joy.

Monday, 30 April 2012

What a Grey Day!

After worrying weeks of dryness, empty water-butts, threatened hosepipe bans, wilting plants and general anxiety the rains came.
 The rains came as we splashed our way to the Royal Horticultural Society's flagship gardens at 'Wisley', in Surrey, and they continued throughout the day as we travelled over racing rivers, the Thames, the Avon, the Severn, and down motorways made opaque in the spray.
The rains gurgled and gargled and dripped on these beautiful gardens, and the plants drank deeply and gratefully while their admirers sat beside the windows in the several restaurants and cafeterias, drinking coffee and proclaiming excitedly at a possible sense of  lightness in the dark grey swirling sky.

So I went looking for grey to complement the day, and was captivated by the colour and structure of these wonderful plants.

It was magical in the great glass house, where people in their sodden rain-wear steamed gently with the plants.

Outside, more greyness in the crevice garden, created in vertical slices of stone and grit, where alpines can feel so thoroughly at home. The rain drains almost straight through, as on a mountain side, and the plants colonise cracks and crevices.

I love the greyness, the range of colour embedded in something that apparently has so little, but for those who like a bit, or even a lot of brightness there was the wonderful display from the Orchid Society of Great Britain

Wisley, like the other very special gardens of the RHS, the National Trust, and the countless smaller private gardens open to the public are places for families and fanatics alike. Places where there is a tremendous wealth of specialised knowledge, extreme erudition and very good scones.
There are people with large, expensive-looking cameras and large expensive looking pushchairs.There are people with magnifying glasses and classification books full of Latin terminology, and there are small children playing hide and seek between the palms.
Then there are people like me, looking at grey things, and people exclaiming with joy over a small brownish lump which happens to be a very rare orchid.
A wonderful place on a grey day.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Baring All

No, not just a series of puns about bare and bear, although this is a selection from my number of English bears, most of whom are about the same age that I am, which makes us all vintage at the very least.

The google-eyed character in the front is a guest from Russia. Not strictly a bear, not strictly an anything really, he is known as Cheburashka, (Чебурашкаand he is the one who interests me most at the moment. He demonstrates the power of vulnerability, something I'm having a bit of a struggle with myself.

Cheburashka is loved by Russian children, and he stars in books and cartoon films.
He was accidentally transported in a crate of oranges from his native tropical home and ended up in Moscow. When the crate was opened he was found, numb with cold and cramp, unable to stand or even sit, but his gentleness made him instantly loveable.
In England we might open a crate of bananas and be bitten by a poisonous spider;  but in Moscow a crate of oranges housed a charming little Thing.

This particular Cheburashka sings a synopsis of his story when his chest is pressed. He says his softness and gentleness make him lovable. People didn't understand him, but because of his vulnerability everyone grew to love him. Everyone responds to kindness and gentleness, even in odd little creatures. Perhaps especially in odd little creatures.
(Cheburashka occasionally lives with a crocodile, but this is not mentioned in his song, and it does nothing to detract from his charms. There are many of us who might appreciate the company of a crocodile at times.)

When I'm not gardening or otherwise messing about at home I am frequently to be found working as a volunteer 'here'. I do lots of different jobs and in all of them I am learning to be so much more responsive to vulnerability, both in myself and, much more importantly, in others. I am hugely privileged to be working with people who extend a hand and admit to needing a bit of support. I can take the hands and offer the support, and in doing so I receive infinitely more than I can ever give.
For so many people in my age-group of over 70 the 'stiff upper lip' was important. As a child the two greatest rules I had to obey were not to be a nuisance, and not to cling. This is not a criticism of my parents, but an observation of how things were. But now things are different. Of course emotion is recognised, feelings can be discussed, pain can be shared, weakness can be revealed.
Oh, the power of vulnerability! How brave we have to be to admit it. How lovable it makes those who can do so, and how vulnerable we all are, even if some of us can still hide it rather well.

So, long live Cheburashka, and may his message of gentleness and vulnerability spread beyond Russia!

For those who care about bears, the photograph shows (from top left clockwise) large Merrythought, House of Nesbit, sheepskin Tinkerbell, small Merrythought, Cheburashka and Wendy Boston.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Not Playing the Game.

It's early days, but I am already planning my escape. I thought it might be necessary to leave the country, and indeed this might still prove to be the case.
Although my son is no longer living in Kazakhstan the idea of a yurt on the Central Asian Plain has distinct appeal.
But for the time being my plan is to stay here, at the bottom of the garden.

Past the lamp-post, over the bridge, through the bamboo thicket and I enter, not Narnia, but a wi-fi, television, telephone and radio-free summer-house. I can hide in here with some good books, a tea-pot and lots of writing and drawing materials. I can't even hear the doorbell unless I try really hard.

Already there are ominous signs. There are Union Jacks and replica medals appearing in shop windows. There are kits to make cup cakes with those interlinked ring symbols on top. There are tee-shirts and other jingoistic rubbish items for sale.
It is worse that last year's Wedding, and that's saying a lot.

It's worse, because it's all about competition, about beating other people, about being the best at the expense of others. Sport on its own is bad enough, but Olympic sport is truly distressing to my mind. However, I think I am quite reasonable really, and I accept and even strongly suspect that others may feel differently. The problem for me is that those who think differently are going to take over this country for most of the summer, and it will be really hard to escape their domination.

It distresses me because for every winner there have to be hundreds who are made to feel that they are losers. The competition is already so ferocious, with hopefuls being eliminated left right and centre, and it can only get worse as the pressure builds. No matter how many quotes are made about it being the taking part that is as significant as the winning, this is not so. It is the winning that matters. Coming second or third is not exactly triumphant, even though it's better than being fourth.

The paralympics are perhaps even more savage, with people pitted against one another in a frantic effort to be the best, physically.
It takes years of training and all hope is dashed in seconds.
At least with things like cricket people can spend a few hours in the sunshine and have a decent tea afterwards.

But I write as one who increasingly dislikes any form of competition, and as one who finds it increasingly hard to avoid witnessing it.
On many evenings you can, if you wish, witness competitive cooking on television, or competitive home improvements, or dining experiences, or bed-and-breakfast catering.
People get very emotional, upset and angry. There are tears and shouting and the occasional tantrum which presumably makes for good viewing.

I write as one who had a brief foray into Britain in Bloom, which is competitive planting on a grand scale, where whole towns are pitted against one another.

Perhaps I should also add that I write as one who spent many games lessons lurking in the shrubbery. That fact may be rather noticeable.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Relief is a One Way Ticket.

Yesterday my son landed at Heathrow on a one-way ticket.
For the past six years he has been working in ex-Soviet countries, first Russia, and more recently Kazakhstan, but now he is back in England, in the sunshine, jogging in Hyde Park, and even having a bit of a lie-down on the fresh spring grass.
I haven't actually seen him.

I hope I have always supported my sons in their careers and life-styles, and been proud of their adventurous spirits, but until today I did not fully appreciate the cost of having off-spring quite so far out of reach.
I realised the effect of this because I went to the dentist this morning and very nearly fell asleep in the chair. Even while I was being de-plaqued and polished, I nearly nodded off.
Then I came home and fell asleep in the sunshine in the garden. Now I am awake and a sort of dull mahogany colour with sparkling teeth, which is really quite unnerving.

I never do these things; dozing off during the day, but I suddenly realise - the relief is immense. Vast. As vast as the distance between here and Central Asia.
And now I can barely put one foot in front of the other, so I sit stretched out, like the Pasque flowers on my rock garden.

I hope I never let it be known, this low-level anxiety. The one thing I have always believed in is giving my children freedom, but this in itself can create in them a feeling that I may not care enough. Such a tightrope, such a delicate balance. As a parent you can but do your very best and hope it is enough, hope you are giving the right messages.

Yesterday, when my son telephoned with news of his arrival on English soil, I said something of how relieved I was, something of the anxiety, which was always made so much more complex by the need to have visas.
'I was always concerned,' I said, 'That you might suddenly need me and I wouldn't be able to come straight away.'
'Yes, Mum,' he said. 'I might have needed emergency trouser repairs.'

Which puts it all into the right perspective, somehow!

Friday, 23 March 2012

Like a Virgin.

The broadband service obtained via Virgin Media became slower, and slower, and slower and virtually packed itself up. This was some weeks ago. I was left without Internet access for several weeks, because at first I thought it was my computer and it cost me £50 to confirm that it wasn't.
Fair enough.
But then Virgin Media told me there would be a charge of £170 to call out an engineer if that same engineer decided it was not a Virgin Media problem after all.
On the advice of the computer technician who had identified the problem I decided to change to BT broadband. He knew of other people in this area who had experienced the same problem of Virgin Media service slowing to a standstill, and had the same problem of the threatened call-out charge.
Fair enough, still?

I did the right things. Virgin Media supplied the MAC code to enable the change, and the process went ahead with only a few glitches.
Then I received a message from Virgin Media Payments, saying I owed them just over £30, about £6 for telephone calls, the remainer as a cancellation fee. I wrote back, enclosing a cheque for the £6 worth of calls, although I did point out that these were incurred by making calls to their Customer Services department, where I received repetitious, inaccurate information. I also pointed out that, according to Virgin Media's own terms and conditions, the cancellation fee did not apply in my case, as the MAC code had been supplied by them and used in the setting up of the new account.
Still fair enough?

No, apparently not.
This letter was deemed to be a Complaint, and was sent from Virgin Media Payments to Customer Complaints. I have now been promised someone who will take personal ownership of my complaint, attempt to resolve it in full, and make contact with me within two weeks. They want me to be a happy Virgin again.
Unfortunately no one at Virgin Media Customer Complaints seems to be in contact with Virgin Contact Management who, within six days of my letter and cheque, are threatening to send The Boys round to collect what they reckon to be their money from me, in person, at my home.

I telephoned Contact Management, explaining that someone in the same firm, different department, was investigating the situation. Was it reasonable, I wondered, to threaten in this way while a complaint was being investigated? Especially as I had paid what I actually owed?
Could I be given any sort of guarantee that these threats against me (there are more than just sending in The Boys) would not be implemented while there was an investigation apparently in process?
No, there are no guarantees. It's standard Virgin practice, I was told.

I am a fairly articulate 72 year old, living alone, but with two very large sons, one of whom is a lawyer, and the other with amazing strength gained by wild-water swimming. Both of them are exceptionally tall.
Don't mess with My Boys, Virgin Media.

But even I, with all these assets, feel threatened by the idea of a stranger arriving on my doorstep, demanding money. It is ridiculous to fear a knock on the door in the evening, but I do now.
And if I can be made to feel this over £24 which I reckon I don't owe anyway, what must more vulnerable people feel?
It is tempting to simply pay to get rid of the bullies. This is how bullies always work, by frightening people into submission.

So I write this nasty little cautionary tale on behalf of others who are bullied and frightened into submission, while I try not to be so myself.

Six hours after publishing this I received a message from Virgin Media Customer Complaints to say that I no longer owe them any money.
Thank you, Customer Complaints, but have you told Virgin Media Contact Management this, or is there still a risk of The Boys coming round to visit and attempt to collect payment?

And, just for the record, I didn't owe you any money in the first place.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Now and Then

It must have been about twenty years ago that I was given this mug. Best Mum in the World it says around the rim. It's chipped now, but still sits beside my desk, holding a selection of working tools. A precious relic, even if my sons, then aged about ten and thirteen, slightly marred things by telling me it was from the dogs.
There are other valued relics in a drawer, cards probably made under a certain duress at playgroup and primary school, later cards with entertaining poems and messages:
We promise we will not fight all day
'day' deleted, 'this morning' inserted.
'promise' deleted and 'try not to' inserted.
Flowers hastily felt-tipped over the deletions.
They were wise even in those early years, not making promises that were well-nigh impossible to keep.

In my own childhood Mothering Sunday started off with a damp fistful of celandines artfully arranged in an eggcup, placed on a breakfast tray with lukewarm tea and burned toast, carried gingerly into my parents' bedroom where my mother waited in trepidation for the whole lot to slide into her lap.

These are the things that I remember most vividly; the hand-made things that take effort and time and thought. These things are so compatible with the early traditions, domestic servants being given a bit of a break in the middle of Lent, the opportunity to go home for a quick visit, taking a few flowers along the way.

Later for me came some beautiful bouquets, thoughtfully, expensively sent - and my subsequent protests against commercialisation of a basically lovely old tradition. (But thank you all the same, my sons.)
Later, for my mother too, came more expensive gifts, meals out and other appreciations of her mothering, but after her death I found a ribbon-tied packet of hand-made cards from me, including a graphic depiction of the Titanic:
'Happy Mother's Day Mummy, and I hope you like this boat'.
She obviously did.

So, Happy Mothers' Day to all mothers and mothers-to-be who have yet to appreciate the joys of the hand-made card, the hand-picked flowers and the soggy breakfast tray.
These are the treasures that will out-live the commercialisation.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

It's Raining Men.....

I have always believed in a basic equality of the sexes. Both men and women are capable of changing nappies, cooking a meal, driving a car, fitting a plug, earning a living, doing a bit of grouting.
And then my horizon changes.

I need men as I have never needed them previously, but I must immediately qualify that by saying that what I need is the physical strength that men represent.
Whatever happened?
I'm a mere seventy-two years old, and suddenly I have trouble getting the top off a child-proof bottle.

So I face facts and admit that I'm weak, not because I'm female, but because I'm old. I know quite a few men who can't get the top off a child-proof bottle of paracetamol - and they are old too.

I face facts and pay for the tough jobs, like emulsioning ceilings and painting guttering twenty feet up in the air, and I pay men to do them because there are not so many willing and able women.

Then I really have to bite the bullet and pay a lot of money to have a chimney relined. I admit that I am not able to haul a great sinuous length of stainless steel up on to the roof and slot it down the chimney.
Would I ever have been able to do it?
Would I ever have wanted to do it?
Possibly yes, when I was under thirty years of age and could have saved myself a thousand pounds by doing so.
Was I ever capable of doing it?
Almost certainly not. I would have cracked a load of slates and probably fallen off the roof in the attempt. But I just might have considered myself capable.

Now, mellowing into old age, I am becoming prepared to admit my limitations, my slight helplessness, my wimpish femininity.
A geriatric girlie, at last.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Looking Hard

At Christmas my lovely daughter-in-law, knowing me to be a scribbler at all levels, gave me this special sketch book. Entitled 'One Sketch A Day - A Visual Journal', it is exactly that. The space for each day's small sketch is numbered, and there are a year's worth of spaces.
I started on Christmas day, and have drawn a quick sketch every day since. I am determined to complete the year.
I've drawn in the house, in the garden, in the place where I work as a volunteer, at the bus-stop, at the station - anywhere my daily routine has taken me.

I am seeing things differently. I am looking very, very hard at the details of my life, at the complexities of everyday objects, at the miraculous patterns of leaves and twigs, flower buds and fungus. It takes no more than ten minutes a day - maybe fifteen if I indulge in a bit of colouring-in, but in that time I feel my thoughts and vision changing.

Jenny Woolf, in her lovely travel writing, describes 'here' the happy effect of discovering previously unnoticed details in the background of her own photographs. It's easy for this to happen in photography, impossible in drawing.

Things I have spent even ten minutes studying, looking at really really hard are now etched into my visual cortex, so that as I lie in bed at night I can still marvel at the complexity and perfection of a stalk of sprouts. (Fond as I am of spouts, I had not appreciated the way they spiral round their main stem, presumably reacting to changing light. How clever is that?) Oh, the joy of sleeping alone, to be able to lie in peace, conjuring images of sprouts!

The jackdaw shown in the sketch has also appeared in written form in my blog 'here'. A few days ago he posed unwittingly for the time it took me to draw him, becoming increasing irritated by my failure to move and provide food, occasionally stamping his feet and frequently shouting at me. I feel I have him pinned down now, in words and images. I know the way his feet work, and the fact that some of his feathers have frayed ends. He knows that if I am visible, even if immobile for a while, it is worth stamping and shouting, as food will surely come.

I have studied and sketched the elaborate canopy of the railway station, the details of a bridge in the park, lots of architectural fragments, some elaborate Victorian candlesticks that I've dusted for years but never really looked at, and lots and lots of details of my about-to-burgeon garden.
A great daily exercise.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Uphill Struggle.

Here are my son and daughter-in-law this morning, a glorious morning, plodding steadily up one of the many hills in the beautiful place where I live.
I sat in the sunshine, watching them, realising how closely their efforts resembled my own in recent weeks.
It's been a long, hard and infinitely tiresome plod to get back on line, and I have no intention of adding to the boredom factor by writing about it. I will just say that those 'change your provider with one click' adverts are a little misleading.

So, no blogging since mid-January, because I could only access my neighbour's broadband signal by crouching up against my bedroom window - which is all right for the odd emergency e-mail, but for nothing else.
After several weeks of not blogging I have turned to other writings, revisiting some old, unpublished works which appeared to me new and fresh, almost unremembered. I have become immersed in lengthier writing, and I have a new journal form as well. So I have to think, as all of us do at some stage, why write the blog?

The blog reaches parts that other writings do not; in particular, people whom I have come to regard as friends in cyberland. You know who you are, and I'm really sorry if you thought I had deserted you.
The blog is the most direct form of writing I have used. There are journals which are entirely my own, but over many years there has also been a surpring amount of published work. This has always had an editor between me and any readers, so that I have felt, and still feel at least one step removed from it.
The blog feels permanent, while other published work, even in book form, is essentially ephemeral. Unless the whole system collapses, or someone else manages to wipe out Relatively Retiring it will stay there, perhaps accessible to future grandchildren as yet unthought of (as far as I know).
The blog is intensely personal, and sometimes it is therapeutic. It is probably the one form of public writing which can be carried out in total freedom, although I, like many of us, have attracted trolls, or at least one particularly malicious troll who stopped me in my tracks for a while.

Having stopped, because of trolls or technology, it's not easy to get going again, but like my young folk here today, I will plod on. The pull seems irresistible.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Bored Games (or How Not to Go Minimalist in One Day)

A friend who has an admittedly small collection of books on how to declutter tells me that in order to do it properly you have to completely empty the room.
Easy peasy.
I did that the other day, after Mr T. the Decorator arrived on the doorstep asking if he could bring forward the proposed work on my sitting room. Bring it forward to the next day, he thought, whereas I had been thinking about it sometime in a couple of months, maybe when it was warmer, when the light was stronger, when I could possibly face the upheaval.

So, of course, I said 'Yes'.
And promptly broke all my New Year Non-Resolutions by climbing on a ladder to empty the top shelves of a high ceilinged room.
Down came the board games, the jigsaws deemed impossible, the big old art books of Flemish painters, the catalogues of exhibitions long past, the tattered story-book relics of my childhood with illustrations that I may want to look at again, my father's collection of books on wine (one of my sons might want them) and countless other treasures I haven't seen for years.
The room was emptied in a few hours. Decluttering is easy.

Stuff is dumped on the kitchen table, on the stairs, in the hall, in the study. On the kitchen table sit several clocks, a Victorian desk-set, a collection of cast-iron money boxes, a couple of tea-caddies, a big brass candle-stick, an Edwardian writing cabinet and a box my father made in order to impress my mother when they became engaged.
Do I want to keep them?
Yes. Of course I do, even if the clocks keep different times and chime throughout the night. The brass candlestick was a Christening present, the iron money boxes came from a family foundry.
Important stuff.

In the study is a great cardboard carton of board games, some probably missing essential playing pieces. I will have to check them all.
There's Monopoly.
My experience of Monopoly is that it goes on far too long and brings out the worst in competitive people. A board game that very quickly becomes a bored game for me. Monopoly can go to a charity shop, and so can many of the others, except for Pictionary, which is funny and fast and not very competitive unless you really want it to be.
I look at Escape From Atlantis, complete with its Atlantean Swirler, six each of sharks, sea-monsters, octopuses and dolphins, twelve boats with sails, 37 different plastic sections to build an island, and no less than 48 Atlantean tribesmen in four different colours. The little tribesmen must escape the sinking island and get to the safety of the coral reef, through a sea laced with danger.
Ah, the memories.... of wet afternoons in the caravan when it took half an hour just to set up the board, and less than a second for a frustrated loser to kick the table and collapse the lot.
Atlantis must stay, and Jenga and Scrabble even though I now play Scrabble on-line (anyone want to play?). There are a few other interesting things, when I look again. Othello is good, and someone might fancy Trivial Pursuit again one day.

The carton becomes marginally lighter,
The books, of course, are a different matter. What I will do is look at each one before I decide if it goes back on a shelf in the freshly decorated room or, possibly, to a charity shop.

Then there are the jigsaws. There are a couple by Thomas Kincade, Painter of Light with fiendishly complex villages and harbours full of twinkly lamplight. I do not like to be defeated by a jigsaw, so I might keep them for when the weather is too bad for me to get into the garden.......

Friday, 6 January 2012

All Change

The earth has tilted back towards light, there are snowdrops in the churchyard and the indoor jungle that is my porch bursts into abundant life.
Blackbirds are fighting in the garden about food and potential nesting sites and, presumably, sex. The place is full of birdsong in the mild air. Even in the darkness of evening there is a robin proclaiming his rights.
It feels like a fresh start, this year more than any other I can remember.

I do not do New Year Resolutions, knowing perfectly well that in my own case they don't last until Epiphany. This year there are things I will not do, which include not clambering unaided and unsupervised on the pergola and the shed roof, not treating myself to a chain-saw, not even a small lady-sized one, and (hopefully) not trapping myself in the attic in an otherwise empty house.
Additionally, I will try not to work until I'm dotty with exhaustion, not to watch day-time television, and not to eat anything made of wheat.

There are reasons for this.
In a wonderful coming-together of events coinciding with a new year, all of us, both sons, both their partners and even I have new jobs. Mine is modest but important to me, theirs are exciting and important to other people.
We don't read horoscopes. My older son tells me it's bad luck to do so, but if we had done we would probably have seen the stars lining up in auspicious patterns in the last few weeks. I hope all other Capricorns have had a similarly cheerful start to the year.

Fresh starts are invigorating.
In the depths of the old year I had a rather frightening health scare. It pulled me up very short indeed and made me take stock of many aspects of my life. It made me sort out the paperwork and tidy my knicker drawer.
It makes me appreciate who is really important to me, and to make sure I tell them so - one way or other. It's not easy, in a very English way, to tell people that you love them, so sometimes the approach in oblique and laced with humour - but I think they know.
It makes me appreciate more than ever my home and garden, and the peace and freedom that are there as well as the hard work that both take to maintain. The balance of peace and work is important and the danger is in overdoing the work so that it's hard to appreciate the peace. I must do better, but that is a vague sort of ambition and not a Resolution.
I value the ability to think and work from silence, and this becomes more powerful with time. What, in the early stages of widowhood, could seem like emptiness, now feels full of potential. I never know what I'm going to think or write next!

It makes me appreciate those who read here, and who are kind enough to leave a comments.
So, somewhat belated Happy New Year to you all.