Saturday, 21 December 2013

Christmas Greetings.

Here you are, Zhoen, you've shown us yours, so I'll show you mine.

A little tree, for Little E, so it has to be unbreakable, uneatable and  mostly unreachable. There's another, much bigger version in the hall with lots of bling and flashing lights and decorations old and even older. Things made more than thirty years ago at playgroups, and things from Little E's Great-Great Grandmama. All the traditions in one fell swoop. The coming of new light in the form of Grand-daughter, and light from the memories of time and people long past.
The year has turned. It is the time for candles in the darkness, and peace at the end of a difficult period.

I haven't had the decorations out for what feels like a very long time.
Last year I had four Christmas and New Year celebrations in different parts of the world, and the year before that my son and daughter-in-law hosted the whole event. In previous years it was a time marked by sadness after my husband's accident on Christmas Eve, and for many years prior to that things were very tricky at Christmas. They always are when you live in a churchyard.
My husband worked in the church, and on Christmas Eve he usually worked right through the night, finally emerging from the vestry in time for Christmas dinner and wanting nothing but a hot bath and a long sleep.

Spare a thought for those who work at Christmas, in whatever capacity.

But this year........well, Grand-daughter likes a bit of bling and sparkle and she shall have it!
So will the rest of us.
And so may you all have sparkle and joy in whatever form you need.

A very Happy Christmas to you all.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Letter to a Grand-Daughter now she is One (and a bit)

Dear Small Grand-daughter,

There is no need for you to know about the disconcerting things that have happened to you recently. You can relax, safe in the knowledge that you have been protected and loved and cared for with immense skill.
(But I, your very concerned Grand-mother, have been unable to write this blog, nor write anything else, nor concentrate very well on anything else for the past weeks.)
And you, oblivious, have carried us all along with your cheerfulness, your joy in life, your enthusiasm for fun and your increasing ability to create it, your enjoyment of music and soft toys and whacking things with a mallet, and your interest in other people.

You are such great company these days, finding everything fascinating, needing to comment on everything you see and do.Your favourite word is 'Daddy', and every sight of  him is something wonderful. How clever your mother is, to ensure that it's Daddy who is shouted for in the night (and how clever of your Daddy to not always wake up, no matter how loud the shout).

It's been a tough time for the many people who know you and love you, but hopefully we can all move on and look forward to your first fully-aware Christmas. I know you were here last year, but you were a little bundle with a big voice, needing mainly your mother who was meeting almost all your needs, leaving the rest of us as admiring and devoted spectators.
This year you will know the lights and the colours and the smells and tastes. You will know the thrill of tearing off wrapping paper and finding treasure inside, of glittering decorations and flickering candles. We will be infected by your joy, seeing things afresh through your eyes, for you bring new life and hope to us all.

Happy, happy Christmas, Little One,
and profound and grateful thanks to the skilled people here.
With love from Grandma.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013


Yesterday, a happy telephone conversation with an old friend.
We knew one another over forty years ago, when we were Bright Young Things in an exotic situation.
Many years later a number of serendipitous events led to our meeting again, and now we write (on good paper, with proper pens) and send one another books and other things of mutual interest, and we compete by telephone.

We compete over who can walk upstairs without hauling themselves on the banister rail, who can rise swiftly from a chair without using the chair arms, who can read without spectacles and over other such accomplishments which become increasingly significant when one is over seventy.

It is very good to be able to ask someone of the same age if it's normal to feel tired at the end of the day, if it's acceptable to feel timorous about motorway driving, if it's usual to be reluctant to leave one's comfort zone.
When you're this sort of age there seem no clear guide lines on what is all right and what might be the beginning of a decline, mental and/or physical.. There is so much promotion of youthfulness in mind and body, so much emphasis on activity and so few people who are prepared to be really honest about their fears and failings.

I look back over the distant views of my life and marvel at my physical energy and creative strength.
I'm so grateful that I was once, long ago, a Bright Young Thing, skimming around with two simultaneous jobs and doing up houses in my spare time. What spare time?

What spare time do we have now, my old friend and I?
Now there is nothing to spare and everything to value; the warmth of the sun through a window, the pleasing patterns of pens and papers on a desk, the smell of wood in the log pile, the morning walk along basically the same route which looks completely different every day.

We live quite a distance apart but our lives are so similar, our huge appreciations of minutae, our love of our respective homes, our respect for the young and our complete lack of envy for those who have it all to come.

I ask him, "Is it all right to feel exhausted by nine o' clock at night?"  He says," Of course it is. What on earth can happen after nine o' clock to make it worth staying up?"
We might both have answered very differently a few decades ago, but now if I want to know what's happening I go to bed with Radio 4..
"Is it all right to feel timorous about motorway driving?" I ask, and he says, "I'm never going to drive on a motorway again."
My life is not quite as simple, but I feel that it's all right to express reluctance, although I buy a SatNav and do it. But the feeling that I'm not alone in being suitably reluctant is a good one.
"What about leaving the comfort zone?" I ask. "Why do it?" he says, which is a good point. Of course I will do it, but I make sure I know why I'm doing it.

My youth seems long, long distant, and I can (mostly) appreciate the gentleness of ageing. As the looks go, so does the eyesight. As the strength declines so does the urge to use it. The more one slows down the more there is to appreciate in the finer details. As one faces the sadness and losses that death brings, so much more does one value the remaining friendships.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Letter to an Eleven-Month Old.

Dear Small Grand-daughter,
In a house that is silent but for the ticking clocks and the faint hum of electrical things at work I sit near to your alarm. The red light glows steadily, and the green lights do not flicker. You are sleeping upstairs and your parents are out, celebrating their wedding anniversary.
Their third wedding anniversary, nearly your first birthday.

Your first birthday, the seventh anniversary of my husband's death, and very sadly I am your only grandparent.
In this quiet house I sit and think, and promise I will do my best; my best to be the sort of Grandmother found in traditional tales, who makes and bakes and creates and reads and writes for you.
The sort of Grandmother who encourages growth, and who can watch you for hours, developing in your own special way, becoming such a strong little person.
The sort of Grandmother who can say 'no' when necessary for your safety and 'yes' when necessary for your growth. Who can stand back as well as step in.

A few months ago I thought you would hurt yourself in learning to crawl. You didn't. You just got on and did it when you knew you could.
Now you are so nearly walking, but doing it with considerable care, testing hand-holds, checking reaching distances, lowering yourself carefully back to ground level if you're not sure.
I respect your judgement, your self-knowledge, which may seem a strange thing to think of someone not yet one year old.
But I do.
I respect your baby dignity.

I enjoy your company.
In the morning we let your parents have a lie-in, and you and I enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the sunshine.
Very leisurely, as you select fragments of toast and fruit and breakfast cereal one at a time, commenting on each, occasionally passing scraps to me and looking for my reaction.
I realise that your father may not have been given this level of relaxed individual attention when he was your age. I had to multi-task, providing for several others, working to a tight time schedule. I would probably have mopped at his buttery hands and cleaned up the high-chair tray if he was taking too long and I had to get his big brother to play-group.
But you and I can take our time and appreciate the fact that no two squares of toast are the same, each being worthy of examination and exclamation.

Eventually we move into another room when there is a large coffee table, exactly the right height to support you in your standing practice.
Round and round you go, your hands, still buttery I realise, making a pattern of perfect prints on the glass surface.
Any other person doing this might have their prints wiped off smartish, but a week later yours are still there. It is right for you to imprint this house, just as the rest of the family has done. So I photograph them........then I wipe them off, because not all my visitors would appreciate their significance. But I want a record of your imprints, just as I have your growth record notched into the kitchen door frame (and you're already twice as tall as the late dog. All family members get notched here).

I may not be able to run about so much these days, but there is the happy realisation that we can explore and chat and read books, listen to different sorts of music and do so many, many other things because what I can really give you is my time, my listening, my hearing.
And my respect.

Happy, happy exploration, Little One,
With love from Grandma.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

A Great Day In.

Greatly inspired by these suggestions for an eccentric day out, I turn my attentions to having a great day in, especially as it's wet and windy out there.
My house can offer a variety of attractions for all the family, or even just for me on my own.

The World of Marbles: marbles featured heavily in my younger son's collecting habits. There are two large and heavy tins full of them sitting upstairs. They have been used as decorative items, but before his daughter's next visit they must be hidden away. She's very mobile and will have a go at eating most things.
As I put them into the tins I realise how attractive they are, and how many different sizes they come in. There are technical names, such as steelies for the heavy metal ones (so well able to break a window), and other special names once known to me, but now lost in the mists of time. The sizes range from small to whopping, or even ginormous.
Some are in clear glass in lovely colours, some have coloured glass spirals inside. There are some that are irridescent, and others with bubbles and clouded patterns.
I think maybe it would be nice to classify them, by colour or size, which would involve making separate bags for them, which, in turn would involve a trip to The Lost World of the Attic. I could play all day.....
Then I realise that there is already a specialist marble outlet and it's here.

Lost is a great start to a title. If Heligan was just Heligan instead of The Lost Gardens of Heligan it would be considerably less romantic.
The Lost World of the Attic: is a potentially risky place, approached by means of a ladder. I once was stuck up there when the ladder fell down behind me, and my husband was out for the day. The ladder is now chained to the wall, but there is still a frisson of anxiety as I head up into the heights..
Up there is a world of memories and muddle, a great collection of the sort of toys they don't make any more ( or if they do they cost a fortune). Things made from wood like the rocking horse that belonged to my grandfather, and the sturdy Brio railway ( happily still in production). Things that don't need batteries, and that don't bleep and jingle and flash.
There are some unique clothes from Saudi Arabia, from the time I lived and worked there. There are slave-girls' anklets and bracelets and beads that were made in the middle of the desert. Grand-daughter may need them for dressing-up in years to come.
There is bedding. Oh, so many duvets and pillows which have been to university and back again, but may still be needed if and when there is a great gathering here.
There are computers and boxes and boxes of things to go with them. I am banned from disposing of these. 
They are not mine to dispose of.
There are also keyboards.
The Pareto principle still operates here.
Believe it or not I have been sorting up here for several years now, and never fail to find something else of interest, something that evokes strong memories. Moreover, I have a great view into the neighbourhood gardens.

The Magic Wardrobe: is in my bedroom. I have three wardrobes in there and two of them are fairly well-organised. The third is full of things to be sorted, not the important paper-work, but the letters and cards and things the children made, and things my husband and I gave each other. Things that are still important although it sometimes seems a life-time ago and sometimes feels like only yesterday.How can I discard things like that?
It is possible to be quite lost in here, and to lose track of time, and I fully understand why C.S.Lewis chose a wardrobe as the starting point for one of his most magical books.
C.S. Lewis was a close friend of my elder son's Godfather, who is the author of Jack - the biography of C.S.Lewis. See what memories are triggered?

The kitchen is not without its possibilities for adventure and exploration. There is The Drawer, something every kitchen should have.
The Drawer: is the place where you put things that have no other appropriate place. Occasionally, on a wet and windy day like today, I empty it out in a determined effort to establish some sort of order. There are lots and lots of special tools, all of which will be really useful one day.
There is a pair of wide-pronged forks for lifting cooked poultry out of the roasting tin (why didn't I remember when I was trying to lift the Christmas turnkey with a plastic spatula?), and a special brush for cleaning mushrooms before peeling them. Somewhere there is bound to be a special gadget for peeling mushrooms. There is a little tool for pulling the green bit out of strawberries, and there's a truly impressively engineered fork for getting pickled onions out of the jar. I don't have, have never had any pickled onions, but it's a really nice fork. 
I find a very useful thing for loosening the lids of jars. In fact I find three of them, all for the same purpose, all different, and so I keep them because I don't know which is the best. There are several tin-openers all different, which again I need to keep for the same reason. There is a really antique tin opener, with a cast-iron head of a bull and a sharp and rusty blade.
It is a collectors' piece.
I am a collector.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Empty Sky.

In the garden this evening I look up at this and I listen to the silence.
All through the summer the swifts and swallows and martins have screamed and scythed their ways through the warm air and I have watched their acrobatics, sometimes so high that they are specks against the clouds, at other times barely skimming over the vine arch.
There has been great and noisy activity in recent days, and then......then they have gone. Off on their vast journeys, following the winds and the stars and who knows what other invisible forces that draw them back to warmth and light.

This is the turning point of the year as we begin the dip into darkness.
Different birds will come, and if you visit places like Slimbridge you will witness the drama of other great migrations as so many birds make a refuelling stop on their vast journeys.
So the skies are not empty, only of the swallows and swifts who, for me, symbolise the changes in the seasons. I am so happy to see the first arrive, and so sad to realise they have left again. I wish them safety on their perilous flight. It just feels empty now, with the sort of feeling that autumn can induce.

I remind myself that I have a splendid crop of beans, and the sweet peas are still blooming busily enough to provide me with a vase full every day. The grapes are changing colour, even though I treat the vine with all the brutal force I can summon, attacking it with shears and loppers.
It thrives on punishment.

I have Russian tomatoes ripening. One of my Russian friends supplied me with tomato seeds as I was leaving Southern Russia in January, and thanks to a kind friend with a greenhouse we raised and distributed a great many plants. Some of the Russian plants are of the beef-steak type and others are plum tomatoes. They are huge and healthy, like Russian shot-putters, but I think they need a few more weeks of Black-Sea type temperatures (40 degrees or so). They, too, migrated by air to their new homes in Middle England, although they may not do so again unless the summers become warmer.

My elder son has migrated back to Central Asia, half a world away.
Even Grand-daughter has had her first flight, enjoying the turbulence of the return trip.
So my heading is wrong.
The skies have actually been very busy indeed.
They just feel empty.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Panda Food for Thought.

I have not forgotten Tian Tian and her plight. As you can see, she is welcome in my garden at any time.

I have seven different types of bamboo growing here, spread around the garden. But, I should add hastily, they are not spreading varieties, but clumpers. They will eventually increase in girth, but only slowly, unlike some types which you need to plant and stand back as they race away.

Bamboos are very special plants, as bizarre in their habits as the Giant Pandas who feast on them.
Like the pandas, they have strange, sometimes self-destructive habits. Some may only flower once every few decades, even once a century, and after flowering they may die. In this way whole forests can be wiped away, and the pandas who need them must travel to a new habitat.
The bamboo in the photograph was grown from seed after a plant I bought flowered and died in its first year with me.Luckily it is easily grown from seed.The specimen above is about fifteen years old and eight feet tall, so a forest can be reborn at a speed which makes it almost possible to watch.

Many of my bamboos came from Jungle Giants, a very interesting nursery which supplies a wealth of information  as well as a wide range of plants.
I think my garden is now mature, like me, and I can simply appreciate what I have seen grow there. With the bamboos there is a lot more to appreciate than just sight. There is wonderful flickering movement and soft noise, like rain falling. They give stature and form to the garden all the year round, and now I also have a constant supply of canes of any size to act as support for other plants. Indeed, I may put up a sign at the gate to say 'Pick Your Own Bamboo Canes'.
I am not using them to their full potential, but in time I may be inclined to build a fence, or a little tea-house for Grand-daughter, or another oriental-type bridge. The possibilities are there.

In this country bamboo is not as appreciated as it is in the Far East, where bamboo groves are an aid to contemplation, symbols of strength and uprightness.
'Strength and uprightness', I think as I potter in my own bamboo grove
Exactly what I need as the arthritis kicks in.

Friday, 9 August 2013

In Sympathy with Tian Tian.

                                              Portrait of Bundles of  Panda Joy by National Geographic

I have to stop reading the news. It's all getting too much, emotionally, when one had barely recovered from the tension and excitement of that Other Birth.
Now I learn that Tian Tian, the Giant Panda up there in Edinburgh (rented out from the Chinese Government), may be pregnant.
She is moody, off her food, and won't cooperate about having a scan.

Well, fair enough.
Many of us will be able to recall the nausea, the tiredness, the mood swings, but few of us will have had to face the indignities suffered by Tian Tian.
Public artificial insemination by different donors, endless speculation about our partner's abilities, doubts about our own capabilities. People are already questioning her mothering skills, and foster parents are lined up before pregnancy is confirmed.And if she does give birth her offspring will belong to the People's Republic of China and will be returned there at the age of two.
I wouldn't co-operate either.
But there is huge money in panda production.

If Giant Pandas find it so uncongenial to reproduce that they can't or won't, perhaps we should try to see things from their viewpoint?
Are they telling us that they don't want to be in zoos? Could it be as simple as that?
Do they reproduce when left well alone, free-range in their bamboo forests?
Or are they telling us that they have had enough of the whole business, and if people want pandas they are going to have to engineer them for themselves?
A friend who has recently visited captive baby pandas in China tells me that in order to obtain the necessary ingredients for artificial insemination the panda keepers have to fire up the prospective fathers by showing them Panda Porn, because male pandas basically can't be bothered.

Tian Tian and her partner, Yang Guang have been together for two years and had two attempts at mating, but their hearts were not in it. They obviously just don't care, either for each other or for the whole idea of sex and parenthood. And looking at the outcome of a panda pregnancy in the first few weeks - would you?
Admittedly the birth may be comparatively easy - Tian Tian might not even notice, but an new-born panda does not tug at the heart strings in the way that some other tiny animals may.
Infant pandas, as opposed to new-borns, are the toy-makers' dream, cuteness personified, but they clearly do not create the same sort of enthusiasms in their parents.

Why is it all so unattractive for them?
Surely  pandas are trying to tell us something?

Meanwhile, back at the zoo, one of the pandas' keepers feels that, 'it's all just going to explode'.
Poor Tian Tian.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Nameless fears.

Here I live a simple life, with hardly an app in sight - and then I come across this, and my humble upstairs loo seems such a blessing, such a source of relief and relaxation.

Imagine, if I'd been about to upgrade, at the cost of just under four thousand pounds, to a lavatory that I could control from my smartphone (if and when I buy it).
It's such a temptation, isn't it? A lavatory that you can control while sitting on make it play music, or puff warm air and warm water, or flush itself and spray deodorant (sorry, I mean activate fragrance release). I could have been so motivated, because as one ages it's a nuisance to have to reach for the flush handle, and a bit of music and fragrance is always nice.

I have a rack of books on the back of this door, but you have to lean slightly forwards to get them. I have short stories, poetry, a book of Beryl Cook's painting and several Viz annuals (which I have to remove before younger visitors arrive) among other treasures for short-term reading, so this small room is not without resources. Admittedly, I would have been hesitating over the music bit of the app, because I actually prefer Radio 4, or Chopin or Bach, and I would need to ensure that these are available while enthroned.

So, anyway, thank goodness I hadn't indulged in the smartphone, the app, or the luxury loo because I know what would have happened. The several smartphoned visitors to this house would have increased my water bills and caused me considerable discomfort and concern as the music, bidet and fragrance release functions were activated with  potentially amusing consequences. Family weekends would have become hilarious for some, expensive for others.
How we might all have laughed and cursed.

There might have been others, not even visitors, but casual by-passers, activating apps as they stroll past, on the off-chance that they will catch some luxury loo owner in situ. This is an affluent neighbourhood, with a very high-tech establishment just down the road. The news report describes this as a 'security hole' which is a fearful prospect.
In olden days there used to be fears of rats coming round the U-bend, but now it is cyber-criminals attacking our most basic functions. The thought that my lavatory could be a security hole is worse than a rat-attack.

Thank goodness, as it is I can relax with my simple wooden seat and enjoy the Beryl Cook artwork.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Blooming Where I'm Planted.

Gillie left a comment on my previous posting and included the thought-provoking idea of 'blooming where I'm planted'. I realise it's something I've always tried to do, although at a few times in my life it has become rather more a case of making the best of a bad job.
Sometimes I have been where I didn't want to be, more often psychologically than physically.
For the past twenty or so years I have been mostly here, at home in my Victorian house, in my labour-intensive garden, mostly alone in the last six years of widowhood, surrounded by memories and echoes.

The family house, once rather crowded, is now comfortably spacious.
My husband's workshop, which I wrote about here......... well, look what has happened. Most of the plastic boxes containing nails and screws, the containers for lengths of string, the countless drill-bits and other assorted bodging and hitting tools are still in place in their wall-mounted compartments.
But the main space of his workshop has become a store-room for baby equipment.........the pushchair, high-chair, bouncing-about-chair, the baby bath and other essential items in pastel colours.
What was a severely, somewhat guarded masculine space has bloomed into something quite other.

There is much sadness in the thought that my husband and grand-daughter will not meet. He would have been totally captivated by her, a willing slave, as indulgent with her as he was with his own infant sons. But I wonder if he would have emptied his work-shop for her baby gear. I suspect he would have built another shed for the purpose.

But he has built a shed for what will soon become her purpose.
He built Walnut Cottage for our sons. It was their playhouse, but then it became a bike store, and later still a wheel-chair store. Now it needs to become a playhouse again.

The pattern of my life here feels like the seasonal changes in the garden, from the growth and freshness of spring and summer, to the ripeness and maturity of autumn before tipping back into the quiet solitude of winter. I appreciate these seasons equally.
I need them equally in my life.

I am blooming, not exactly where I'm planted, but where I am irrevocably rooted.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Another Morning.

4.30 a.m. and dawn breaks outside my bedroom window. I am woken by the light, and then alerted by a cat stand-off in the road. Two of them contesting each other's right to be there. Vocal protest, postural threats, neither able to break eye-contact. Luckily, no traffic. Then a distant dog-bark gives them the excuse they need to turn simultaneously and run in opposite directions, dignity and social position more or less intact.

It is already warm, and I think of getting up and doing the ironing before the real heat of the day kicks in, for it does feel like a kick.
We are not used to this in England. The odd couple of days, yes, but not for any length of time. Not with temperatures over 30 degrees and the sky dotted with little clouds that barely move.
I think about the ironing, and then I think about not ironing.
My son is staying for a few days before heading off to distant lands again, so I think about food instead, and how I can prepare meals without cooking.
Then I go back to bed and try not to think of anything, but instead am unexpectedly swamped by sadness

I miss people.
I miss people who have moved away geographically, and those whom death has taken. I miss loves requited and unrequited and the complexities and richness they brought to my life. I even miss myself when young. I think I'd like another go at being young and try to do it better.
But then I see the complex web of cause and effect, and see that I could make very few changes without altering the essential pattern, and there is nothing I would want to change in the essential pattern.

I didn't expect it to happen, this getting old business. It crept up on me when I wasn't looking.
Like the cats, I was posturing, keeping eye-contact, maintaining my status and all the time age was creeping stealthily up behind me, so that when I turned to flee I couldn't.
I could walk with a certain dignity, but it had got me and I couldn't run anywhere.
So now I suppose I walk towards it, hoping that, like the dawn, it brings promise as well as threat.

On the whole, it would have been better to get up and do the ironing.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Early Next Morning.

I awake early, make a cup of tea and amble out in my nightdress to enjoy a few magical moments, like yesterday.
As I round the corner I see that my strawberry patch, source of pride and considerable enjoyment, has been appreciated by others.
Overnight the badgers dug out a bumble-bee nest.
That's wild-life gardening!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Early One Morning.

This is a section of my complex garden. Complex, labour-intensive, demanding.
At least once a year, just about now, I think I can't cope with it any more.
Everywhere I look I see weeds. The vine grows visibly, strangling everything it touches. To prune, or rather hack it back, I have to clamber up on a stone wall, and use a stepladder. Ground elder romps through the fence between me and a railway embankment, as do brambles and goose-grass and many other undesirables.

Every day I need to work here. I have to so something to try and keep control.
Some days I'm out here for hours, other days an hour is all I have.

I could be on a cruise.
I could be lolling about on a beach in Cornwall.
I could be on a plane, travelling to visit far-flung family.
But I'm not.
I'm face-down bum-up in the garden, finger-nails that have never known a manicure clogged with earth.

Then, one morning, this morning, I wake early. I make a cup of tea and go outside, still in my nightdress, and am surrounded by magic.
There is dew on the grass and the air is filled with bird-song.
The Crambe Cordifolia (on the left of the picture, by the lamp-post) sends wafts of honey-scent across the lawn. There are glowing jewels of colour in the herbaceous beds and on the rock-garden.
Stipa Giganticae shines golden and shimmers into the slightest breeze.
The sun is warm on my back, and no one except the birds and a visiting kitten can see me in my nightdress.
For half-an-hour I experience perfection.

No pain, no gain.
I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Letter to an Eight-Month Old

Dear Small Grand-daughter,
You were eight months old yesterday, and you are making so many determined efforts to be independent. Your efforts currently take you backwards as you attempt to crawl. You are poised, rocking in baby push-ups on hands and knees. When you realise, as you will at any moment now, that in order to move forwards you will have to move your hands you will probably pitch  forward on to your nose and it won't be pleasant. None of those who love you can prevent this shock and possible hurt.
It is essential for growth that we make mistakes and learn by them.
In learning to sit we fall backwards, in crawling we pitch forwards, and in walking the bumps and bashes are immeasurable.
At the moment you are still factory-fresh, protected and unmarked.
It can't stay that way.

So much of growth and learning can be disconcerting, shocking, even painful. It's going to stay this way. because it's also essential, valuable and wonderful.
I think you are already learning that life can be quite an emotional mixture.

I have been with you for a few days, enjoying proper interaction now, a lot of chat and play, some clear questions as you look for information, lots of reading and book-study (manual and oral), many, many smiles and laughs, and then some real tears because I put on my spectacles and changed from someone who is now familiar into a stranger with a different face.

You can control things. At the moment I must not wear spectacles, and your father may not wear a hat because that changes his shape, too, as the spectacles change me..
You can tell us very clearly what you like and dislike - most visibly and graphically in the way of food.
You like noise and music, especially making music with your father. You watch his hand movements and copy them, then resort to a closed fist for greater effect.
You approve of (almost) everything your mother says and does, and you like to keep an eye on her all the time, swivelling to watch her as she moves around, stilling when you hear her voice from another room.
You like cats very much and want closer contact, but fortunately they are more agile than you.
You want to see everything, be involved with everything .........and so you hate your essential daytime naps and resist them with every fibre of your being.

Your hands, which three months ago were a source of wonder to you as they moved around, are now precision tools which can pick up tiny items, a fleck of spinach or a scrap of fluff in a pincer grip and then flatten them with an open handed swipe.
Such power!
Your vision, which a few more months ago was limited to black-and-white, bold colours and shapes, can now follow the erratic flight of a bee in the garden and detect small changes in familiar items.
Your hearing is acute and you are distracted by unfamiliar sounds. Yesterday we sat together at the kitchen table, just listening and quietly commenting on sounds, a distant motorbike, a helicopter, the tattoo of fingernails on the table top, the crumpling of metallic paper, bird song.
Everything is new and fresh and interesting, and now it's beginning to make sense.
I wish you safe adventuring and endless learning, Little One.

With love from Grandma.

Monday, 17 June 2013

On Fathers' Day.

In the evening the sun came out, and my younger son, on the first of his Fathers' Days, was able to go for a walk with his wife, while his brother took photographs and his mother did the washing-up and baby-sitting duties.
Prior to that he had changed a couple of uncomfortably full nappies, spooned an assortment of foods into his small daughter and had a quick nap in the middle of the lawn, even though it was cool and starting to rain.
He had a bad night, a very early morning, and a number of joyful, laughter-filled hours in which small daughter trampled on him, played the keyboard with him, chewed whatever he was trying to read, patted his head, swung on his hands and broke into rapturous smiles whenever their eyes met.
A day pretty much like many others, in fact.

Fathers' Days are not that old.
I never experienced them in my own childhood, but a couple of decades back my sons spent a school afternoon producing heavily decorated cards, and were also persuaded to part with pocket-money on chocolate bars.
 ('Do you think he'll share it?'
 'Oh, I'm sure he will.'
 'Perhaps I'll put a note on it to remind him.')

This year my older son visited the place where his father's ashes are buried, and at dinner-time both of them fondly remembered their intense dislike of his morning cheerfulness, bursting into their bedrooms singing, 'Morning has Broken', but at the same time bringing them cups of tea.
I hadn't realised about the tea. In my own jaundiced early morning state I could not have trusted myself not to tip it into their tousled beds.
The early morning cheerfulness seemed like a trial for all of us.

I have tended to feel cynical about the commercialisation of these 'special' days, seeing them as opportunism yet again, but  yesterday was special, with so many confused memories of my own father as well, and my feeling of regret that I knew so little of him as a person because his interests and enthusiasms were always elsewhere.
But the celebration of the day felt right. There were memories of old fatherhood, with all its good and bad and confused bits, and there is the real joy of seeing new fatherhood, growing and strengthening with every soggy nappy, early-morning wake-up call and radiant recognition by a happy little daughter.

And now the early-morning cheerfulness is back - fresh, irresistible and so very welcome!

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Good Parking

                                         The Kyoto Garden, Holland Park.

Two days in London, and hardly a shop in sight (well, only for basic foodstuffs).
Two days of wonderful greenery, magnificent gardens, a spectacular river trip, and a brief skirmish with the paparazzi because we had forgotten that Her Majesty was due at Westminster at the same time as us.
This is parking in London at its very best. In glorious sunshine as well.

I was visiting my son, who lives very near to Hyde Park, one of the many Royal Parks in central London.
We walked, admiring wonderful trees and shrubs, through the park to Holland Park, which is not Royal, but might as well be by virtue of its surrounding wealth. It's in the Royal Borough, anyway.
How enjoyable to be in a great city and to walk, by way of leafy lanes and exquisite small streets, from one magnificent open space to another.
How enjoyable to eat lunch out of doors in Holland Park while a rehearsal for the current opera is taking place a few feet away.
And then to wander along to the Kyoto Garden with its high waterfalls, rocks and traditional Japanese planting, a gift from the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce in 1991.
Admittedly the sunshine helps a lot.
As does the time of year.
As does the company.

The next day we moved up a notch in scale and went upstream, up the Thames to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, inadvertently arriving at Westminster just ahead of Her Majesty and Entourage, but still managing to get through the crowds and to the boat at Westminster Pier.

Here is the iconic view, just before we met the paparazzi: Westminster Abbey, the clock face of Big Ben, and, just to the left, the London Eye. And a big red bus.

London, sparkling in the sunshine, green and fresh and beautiful.
The Queen out for the morning too, and my son, knowing how to give his old Mum a good time. I hope Prince Charles can do as well, but I know he couldn't do better!

Sunday, 19 May 2013


I think I want one of these.
I'm not passionate about it, but I do my best with recycling, and now most of the town population has one I'd quite like one too. It would save a few clanking trips to the bottle bank
All the houses around here have one, except for our little bit of the area, the bit where the road bends and goes under the bridge. I think we got missed off the map.
Some of my close neighbours have one, but they had to ring up and make a bit of a fuss and wait for quite a while.

So the other morning, feeling full of recycling zeal and with not too much else to do I thought I'd have a go and also ask on behalf my next-door neighbour to save an extra phone call.

It's not straight-forward, trying to be green.
I have to be assessed.
I asked if the assessment involved making a phone call and a request, but I was told no,  it depends on my personal circumstances.
At this point I became more interested.
What personal circumstances?
I would have to be assessed to see if the special new van could access my road.
'It's already accessing my road', I said, 'Some of my neighbours have wheelie bins.'
But I still have to be assessed. My house and my circumstances have to be assessed, and then a decision will be made about whether I get a bin or stay as a bag.
'I have a flat drive area with space for a bin,' I said.
Not good enough.
Further assessment is needed.
I capitulated. Fair enough.
'Could you assess my next-door neighbours at the same time?' I said. 'They want a bin too.'
This is impossible. They must make separate application. There may be confidentiality issues at stake here.

So I'm waiting to be assessed. Should I bake a cake, wear my best clothes, tidy up the front garden? What needs do I have, and how can a wheelie bin be judged to meet them?
In the meantime, in this tense hiatus, I hear nerve-wracking stories. Wheelie bins are micro-chipped and are able to record the quality and quantity of their contents. Should I remove the labels from the cheap wine bottles, or does cheaper wine indicate greater need?
I hear tales of people falling over, under and even into wheelie bins, of wheelie bins being out of control on sloping driveways, of them causing damage to parked vehicles and garden furniture.
It's all so much more complex than I realised.
Maybe I'll fail the assessment and stay as a bag.

Update - June 1st.
I feel sure I'm getting closer. I've passed the assessments, and one of my neighbours now has two recycling bins and is trying to send one of them back. Things are moving, even if not as expected.

Update - June 5th.
After a couple of days away I return to find a letter welcoming my new wheelie bin, saying the Council hopes we'll be happy together, and also saying it will be emptied this morning.
BUT - no wheelie bin!
The story rolls on.

Update - June 10th.
Still no bin for me, but my neighbours, both having some physical problems, were told that their wheelie bin could be collected from the top of their garden steps (and returned when emptied). Now they have been assessed (following a failure to return the empty bin to the garden), and the  four steps are judged too hazardous to be negotiated by the Bin Operatives. Life becomes unspeakably perilous!

Update - June 13th.
Someone in some office has ticked the wrong box, saying I have a bin when I haven't. What a surprise!
I now have a reference number so that the next time the bin doesn't arrive I can quote the number. Then what.....?
This Council uses a logo which claims it is 'Committed to Excellence'. How would it be if it was 'Committed to Confusion'?

Update - June 17th.
My neighbour (he of the confidentiality issues) makes one call to the Council Hub and receives a wheelie bin the next day. A lorry comes along the road, laden with wheelie bins, but none has my vital reference number. Do I quote non-delivery, or do I just forget the whole thing and either dump my empties into someone else's bin or throw them over the fence into my neighbour's garden now that he has a bin? Am I dealing with sexism, ageism or just everyday daftness?

Update - June 19th.
Neighbourhood wheelie bins emptied this morning, including that of a neighbour who didn't want one and had not requested one.
I don't care. 
A kind neighbour had offered space in hers, and as there were bottles of Chateauneuf du Pape and  Pouilly Fuisse left over from elder son's visit I thought it would be ok, (also Bishop's Finger,  and Old Peculier from younger son, but still not image-harming).
My descent into paranoia continues.
Thank you, Linda.

Update June 22nd.
I am delighted to announce that this morning I was safely delivered of a wheelie bin. Absolutely no one was to blame for the six-week delay. It was all the computer's fault. Of course!

Monday, 13 May 2013

Family on the Rocks.

The restorative power of Welsh rocks........
Nearly all our family holidays when our sons were young were in Wales. In a specific area of Wales where we kept a caravan for many years beside this, which was endlessly interesting for small and even quite large boys and their father.
I liked it, too.

Tywyn boasts not only the Talyllyn Railway, but also the only working Wurlitzer organ in Wales. What a place! There are beaches and rivers, waterfalls and mountains, sheep, rain, sun and honey ice-cream.
There is a timeless magic about most of Wales.

The rocks and the beach in the photo above are not the same small area, but are the same small country with the same wind and rain and sun and restorative powers and I watched my son, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter (in her back-pack) walking across the pristine sand. My son was warming up after a quick swim in the roaring surf, his first for ten months.

It's been a tough ten months for my daughter-in-law, both sons and for me by transference and maternal anxiety. Some very painful things have happened, but they are all still smiling and being wonderfully positive. I  am so proud of them all for their courage and strength - and I don't just mean by wading into a foaming sea when the temperature is in single figures.

My daughter-in-law is an excellent organiser. She is keen on a company called Under the Thatch and organised for us to have a few days in a charming farmhouse high in the hills. So high in the hills, so windy, that when I arrived I had real difficulty in opening the car door.
Inside the house was warm and there were spectacular views over rolling hills. We could watch the lashing rain in comfort. Then the sun came out, as it nearly always does, and there was a magnificent rainbow, arching low over acid green fields.
When the rainbow faded we could watch lamb Number Seventy force her way through the wire fencing into the house garden where the grass was even more lush. No other lamb could do it, but Number Seventy did it at least once daily, and got back in time to butt her mother off the ground in a demand for milk.

We did things.
I did my daily drawings. I drew sheep in the rain, more sheep in less rain and multiple studies of different aspects of sheep. Then I drew a castle.
We read the leaflets in the house. We could have gone to a watermill to have a tour and then to watch the process of wheat being ground into flour. We could have gone to a woollen mill to have a tour and buy a blanket.
We did other things. We visited a National Trust house and garden and discovered that even a Barbour is not totally impervious to Welsh rain.
We walked beside a river in sunshine and saw a castle and some beautiful beaches before the rain started again.
But the best thing of all was seeing and hearing six-month old grand-daughter helpless with laughter at the sight of a log-fire and the sound of logs going 'pop'.
You can't get more restorative than that.

Monday, 15 April 2013

But is it Art?

Interesting visitors, supplying me with interesting reading.....and then there's my own prosaic writing.
One of the themes of the interesting reading is about the need for self-reinvention.
The interesting person who gave me the book is heavily involved in Art and Fashion; her view is that when the two come together, as they must, the Person becomes Art.
One view is that what artists have as basic material is Themselves, and so it may be considered entirely justifiable to enhance the Self, to make the Self more exotic, more desirable.
If it is thought more interesting to have been born in Paris, then one says one was born in Paris, and if one's sister remembers it as New York..........well, 'Sisters remember things differently'.

So when is a fib not a fib, but an art form?

I don't like giving too much of myself away. I managed a bit for Molly on her blog, and I have a good many journals, some bits of which I may use in various ways. I love a good story, I am not averse to telling a good story, and sometimes I spice things up in the cause of a good story.
It could be a family trait.

I could tell you now, for instance, disclose for the very first time that my uncle always claimed to have Spanish ancestry, having been washed ashore in a crate of Seville oranges, just like Cheburaska. I have not made capital out if this piece of exotica, but I realise it affected me throughout my childhood, never knowing for sure whether I had Spanish ancestry too, and thinking that perhaps the little Spanish Infanta in those melancholy portraits was really my great, great, many times great grandmother. It added a certain magic to my early years.

The same uncle also had a rather more detrimental affect on my infancy. Somehow he acquired a number of cast-iron plates from a zoo, giving names and details of the animals. He attached a plate reading, Beaver, native of North America to the hutch of my pet rabbit and managed to convince me (I was a gullible five year old), that my rabbit was really a North American Beaver, and I was the only child in the village to have one as a pet.
So I went to school and told the others.
Artistry on his part?

I keep my own observations in my Moleskin journals. I am delighted by the tiny details of everyday life, by the sight this morning of a robin beating the hell out of a sultana below the bird-table........but when I read that  detail again more analytically  I could think, 'Actually, it was just pecking at it so that it could swallow it'.
But I don't change anything. I prefer my original version.

I can make people laugh.
Am I an art form?

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Letter to a Five Month-Old

Dear Small Grand-daughter,
Five months!
It is hard to believe that you have been here for only five months, such a complete person, so clear in your needs and wants, and now so interested in everything around you.
Is it possible that your age is still measured in weeks when I think of what you have learned since your birth?
Is it possible to think of you in terms of weeks when I think of how you have changed our lives, and when I see what you have managed to acquire?
Your parents used to toss a few things into their hatch-back car and go off for a day. Now you and they travel in their camper-van, and even that is not always enough for your equipment.....the pushchair, the travel cot, the changing mat and all its accessories, the changes of clothing, the toys, the jingly things you like, the owl with rustling wings. You sit in your padded seat, surrounded, protected, safe in your red coat with black spots, a ladybird.

Weeks it is, and only weeks since your parents could have a lie-in at the weekends, and I was careful never to ring too early. Last weekend I came downstairs early to find you and your father sitting beside the fire, reading a book about a pig and a frog who apparently have a meaningful relationship and are trying to find a way to live together. You were both rather interested, in your different ways.
Later in the day a couple of your father's old school friends came to visit. One of them brought his son, a week or two younger than you, a cool dude in two-inch long Nike trainers and a pirate bib patterned with skulls and cross-bones. You and he glared at each other, but how wonderful to see these men proudly displaying their babies. Oh, how the very young and innocent can change lives.

Your parents went out for a meal, the first time in five months that they have done so without you.
I felt the most interesting weight of grand-motherhood as we spent a few hours together. Not only is there the joyfully huge responsibility of caring for you, but the extra layer of responsibility towards your parents. Grand-motherhood seems weightier than motherhood, lovelier, infinitely precious.
With age I become more aware of the fleeting quality of life and the preciousness of time. I want to hold it back a bit, to say, 'Don't change too much. Stay like this a little longer'. But you can't and you won't.

You beam when you see me, and that is the most amazing thing.
I know your father used to do it too, and still does on occasion, but from you it is more profound. Because I don't see you so very often I am deeply touched by your interest in me, and in my house. You want to be held and carried round to look very carefully at everything.
There is a great deal to look at in this house. You know where there are prisms in a sunny window, and you have seen the magic of rainbows fluttering round the room when the sun shines. As you are carried into the room you twist around to see them.

There are specific things in each room that you know are there, and you know how to turn towards them - the clocks, the mirrors, the Chinese cat that waves good fortune your way. You know where they are, yet you have only visited here a very few times.
Only weeks.
How can you possibly know so much?

What entrances you most at the moment are your hands and feet. You analyse your hands, moving regally from the wrist. You can grasp both feet and get them up to your mouth. Your hands and feet must seem as magical as the fluttering rainbows.
Your life is full of wonder and discovery.
Long, long may it stay that way.
With love from Grandma.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Responding to Zhoen.

A few days ago, in her almost-daily meditative blog, Zhoen wrote here about salt and pepper and I threatened to show her something of my collection of condiment sets.
So here you are, Zhoen.
A very small part of the collection!

She may well ask 'why?', as I do myself.
Well, the little Dutch couple with the windmill, standing on their original box, were a wedding present to my parents in 1937. They were never used, and were hidden away for many years because they were made in Japan, and the British did not have a good association with the Japanese in the 1940s.
Many, many years later I found the other little Japanese Dutch girl with her goose and her windmill, and  added her as a matter of interest.

So why the Dutch influence?
These sets are Marutomo ware, and for a great many years the Japanese only wished to trade with the Dutch and the Chinese - hence the clogs and windmills are a 1920s, 1930s hangover from much longer-established trading traditions.
Why condiment sets?
Goodness only knows.
I know why I have collected them. They don't take up much room on a shelf in the kitchen, they are interesting and quirky and colourful and funny.
And empty.

I have a salt mill and a pepper mill. People may use them if they wish, but I am not very happy if they reach for them before even tasting the food I have carefully seasoned. They are filled with Malden salt and good black pepper, whereas these little things would be used for fine-pouring table salt, dusty white pepper and a wet paste of English mustard. Not usable at all, so their little cork bungs are still immaculate.

What you see is the tip of a small iceberg of three-piece condiment sets. Several English potteries made and still make them, as did and do German and many other European factories. So I have three-piece sets of timbered cottages, loaves of bread, little mills with attached water-wheels, birds in a nest, fruit and vegetables in a dish, wrestling elephants, posing dogs, flowers in baskets, sea-shells think of it, and it's likely that someone has made it into a condiment set.

Why, indeed?

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Lizards, Cane-work, Fruit, Flowers and Embroidery

A colony of little solar-powered lizards flatten themselves against the warm black volcanic rocks. As they reach optimum temperature they raise themselves on their four tiny legs and scamper off, zig-zagging between the cobbles on their frantic lizardy business. I sit so still that the flowers on my skirt interest one of them who skitters up for closer examination, then skitters down again for a quick look in my handbag.
These little creatures are brownish-khaki with white stripes and vary between four and eight inches in length.
I am in Madeira, so they may be Portuguese or Madeiran, because the origins of many things here seem to be open to debate. I sit still in warm sunshine while they continue their important businesses, turning over tiny scraps of leaf and finding things infinitesimal but delectable underneath.
I hear that it's snowing back in England, so I sit some more, only discovering too late that I have burned in the hot sun and stiff Atlantic breeze.
More active humans pass by and the lizards flicker into the myriad cracks of the stone walling but they, in turn, generate shrieks of horror from the German ladies tramping past.
Everyone seems scared of everyone else. But not of me. Old ladies can be invisible.

I am sitting in the President's Garden in Funchal.
What a kind President.
He has beautifully labelled and manicured gardens, and when the gates are open anyone can stroll in and enjoy  them. The only thing I'm not too keen on is his collection of Macaws in an aviary. They scream constantly, and have an avian monopoly on the place. Madeira is not on any of the great migration routes and there are not so many other birds around apart from sea-gulls and pigeons, so the Macaws are unchallenged as they shriek their messages over the marina.

I have not been here before, and I am captivated by the drama of the landscape and the fecundity of the rich red earth, so rich that it goes on producing fruit, flowers and vegetables all through the frost-free year. Three crops of potatoes a year, bananas by the ton, papaya and sugar-cane, all grown on steep terraces on precipitous hillsides. The work is all done by hand, the land being too steep for machinery.

Willow is grown, often to spectacular heights in the damp mountains. Then it is peeled and boiled and hand-woven into baskets and furniture and mirror frames as well as into a  veritable zoo of creatures, including anatomically correct dogs.
Camacha, in the hills above Funchal, is the centre of the cane-work business. It remains a cottage industry, with workers being paid by piece-rate, but the village is now dominated by showroom, shop and parking facilities. Madeiran crafts are threatened by much cheaper imports, mainly from the Far East, and the makers attempt to protect their products marking them with a seal of authenticity under the IBTAM ( Instituto be Bordados, Tapecaria e Artesanto de Madeira). Conservatory furniture remains expensive and difficult to transport back home.

                     A  few of the thousands of  embroidery patterns stored by the factory of Joao de Souse Viola, Funchal.

Sadly something of  the same may be said of the other Madeiran craft of cut-work embroidery, which was probably at the zenith of  its fame in Victorian times, having been made popular by the Great Exhibition of 1851. The emboiderers are still home-workers, paid by  the stitch, although the 'factories' print the cloths, prepare the threads and market the finished products. These 'factories' now hope to survive on customer loyalty, with a client base of rich customers for whom they make personalised items such as table wares of specific sizes, embroidered with armorial bearings. Their work is of very fine quality, but however much I love my grand-daughter I am not able nor willing to pay upwards of £80 for a baby-sized dress.

As I continue to sit among the lizards I look at all these giant, rampant plants that I fail to grow at home. Things that struggle in a conservatory reach up to twenty feet here - the Bird of Paradise flower is a tree, as is Aloe Vera, and Agaves are great succulent things that people carved their names into. Bougainvillaea clambers everywhere, turning walls purple, and orchids bloom happily in flower beds - and yet it is still technically winter.
There are dates and passion-fruits and mangoes and there is, of course, Madeira wine.

The lizards and I like it here.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Responding to Molly.

                                                                                            I lived here, long ago.

A little while ago Molly issued a challenge. I couldn't respond to it at the time, but now perhaps I can see and feel my way into the murky past - something I am usually reluctant to do.

I am from confused memories of air-raid sirens and droning aircraft and a fear of fire in the night. From  a time when there were unfenced pits and ponds and crumbling, glass-sharded buildings to trap the unwary explorer. From a time when knees were scabbed by tree-climbing but hair was constrained into plaits, doubly secured with rubber bands and hair-ribbons.
A place and time where things were rationed, and there were coupons, and clothes were handed down from cousins who were older and larger and very differently shaped.
From a time when food was valuable and had to be eaten no matter how much it was hated, and where there were little children starving in far off countries who could be saved by the scraps I refused to eat, so that the guilt was compounded.
From a time when the long-anticipated taste of chocolate was found to be actually pretty disgusting (until the sweet tooth grew).
A time when so much was scarce that inventiveness was rife.

I am from a joyful, illogical time when ten-year old girls could roam wild and free on battered bikes, only having to return home as it grew dark, but then be caned at school for a failure to learn the nine-times table.
An incomprehensible world of limitless freedoms and savage restrictions.

I am from the magical world of the written word, and the endlessly captivating charms of the spoken word on the radio. A time when the images and visions were all my own, and there was mystery around every corner.

Then, a bit later, I came from a world of deep segregation, boy from girl, clever from not clever, child from adult; a place where our separate worlds seldom collided until, at the age of eighteen, there emerged fully-formed, middle-aged adults from the scarred chrysalis of childhood.

Monday, 4 February 2013

More Signs of the Times

(Nearly) always something to raise a smile on my morning walk!

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Pick the Mushrooms - Don't Drink the Water.

                                                                             Black Sea coast below Krymsk.

On the internal Russian flight with Ural Airways we are offered sweets and sick-bags before take-off. It's not a good sign. The plane is a rather old Boeing, because planes in Russia have a much longer shelf-life than in many other countries. However, my son assures me, there are positive aspects; the planes have been proved to work and their pilots have many years of experience in flying the same models.

It's a good flight. The Russian couple sitting beside me see that I'm writing in my notebook and assume I'm a famous author from England.
London, they know,
Kate Middleton, they know.
Manchester United the husband thinks I must know.
Manchester City? No?
Mobile phones with lots of photos save the day for their communication with me. I see their summer-house, their daughters, sons-in-law, grandson.
I see their fishing trips. The fish.....amazing! I am suitably impressed. I do this in England? No? No lady fishing? That is strange.
I see the mushrooms, baskets full of them. I go to forest for mushrooms? No? No mushrooms? England is strange.
I am strange. I do not know Kate Middleton, I know nothing about football, I do not catch my own fish nor pick my own mushrooms, I don't live in London. Strange!

Between  discussions of fishing trips I've been able to glimpse great rectangular areas of rich black earth, vineyards stretching out the horizon. It's like the Vale of Evesham on steriods. The Krasnodar region is rich, fertile, productive.
Then we land. Many people applaud. It's traditional on internal flights, like the sick-bags.
After the bitter cold of Moscow the air feels soft and balmy.

We drive through a golden sunset into the darkness of Cossack country, full of wines and fruits and people passionate about their land, their heritage.

                                                                                War memorial, Novorossiysk.

Terrible battles were fought here, not only over the valuable land, but over the even more valuable access from the sea. There are war memorials on so many streets. War is vivid in so many memories, such an intrinsic part of family history that it feels as if it happened a few weeks ago.

                                                                             Novorossiysk - view of the port.

In the morning I pull back the curtains and there is the Black Sea, not black at all, but green and golden, the distant horizon dotted with oil tankers.
Novorossiysk where I am now, is Russia's second largest port. There is massive development. High rise flats tower over tin and wooden houses, great glass and marble palaces spread along the coast line.
Nearly everyone also has a summer-house, a plot outside the town where they can grow fruit and vegetables, an apartment near the sea, where they can swim, a wooden cottage in the hills where the summer air is cooler than the 40 degrees common in town.
We are invited to one such summer-house, not far from town, but in a little ravine with views out to sea and cool breezes blowing in from the hills behind it.
Last summer there were severe floods in the area. This summer-house lost part of its garden as waters from the mountain rushed out to sea. Fish from the carp pool ended up on the roof. They are rebuilding and restocking. We ate fish from the new pool.

There is great pride in the produce of the area. People know where all their food originates: carp from the pond at the bottom of the garden, vegetables from the rich earth, wines from home-grown grapes, champagne from the lake-side vineyard in the hills nearby.
Our dairy food, raw milk, butter, cheeses, sour cream, the eggs and meat all came from the family farm. The goose we ate at Russian Orthodox Christmas had been plodding around there a little earlier. Mushrooms, if you want them you go into the forest and pick them, or you go to the local market where they are piled in succulent baskets full.
But don't drink the water. In a land of richness and plenty the water may be unreliable. A land of paradox.

My flight companions found me strange. I find their country mystifying, magical, somewhat alarming.It's a country on a vast scale. Tragic things happen.
 A short distance away last summer, in the town of  Kryrmsk a devastating flood swept down the valley in the night, washing away homes and people. There had been weeks of rain in the mountains, and there were rumours that a reservoir above the town had been breached or even opened to protect the dam. These rumours have been strongly denied, and there remains no clear evidence about what actually happened. One of my Russian companions believes it is possible that a tornado out at sea picked up a huge volume of water and dropped it inland.

Death and violence come from the sky, from the sea, from the mountains, just as so many of the good things in life do.
No wonder my Russian friends knock on wood, cross their fingers, believe in astrology, and respect the spirits of nature.


Saturday, 12 January 2013

Signs of the Times

My first visit to Moscow was over forty years ago, deep in the Soviet era, completely controlled and supervised by the Intourist Organisation. We were not free to visit anywhere independently, nor to attempt to speak to anyone other than the Intourist guides.Self expression was dangerous, faith was underground.
I remember drawing back the curtains in the splendidly faded Metropol Hotel, just off Red Square and looking out over a small area of garden. The snow lay deep and crisp and even and no adult or child, nor even a dog had deviated from the assigned paths.
Some seven years ago my husband and I visited again, and were yelled at by police for not using a pedestrian crossing in the gardens of the Kremlin. The road was completely free of traffic, but we were made to walk back and use the official crossing point.

On this visit I sensed a tentative freedom in the city, even a slight lifting of the rules.
We visited the hauntingly beautiful Novodevichy Convent on a glitteringly cold afternoon. This, one of the city's oldest religious centres, developed from the 15th century, part of the city's defences as well as a convent and a sort of prison for ladies of high rank.There is an extensive lake outside the high, fortified walls, and muffled figures slid and tottered around on its frozen surface. Small children were being drawn along in little padded sleighs, the children themselves so engagingly padded that they looked like TeleTubbies. A couple of people sped along more efficiently on skis.

The signs at the edge of the lake forbade people to go on the ice.

Near to the main entrance of the convent the base of a buttress was covered in graffiti, admittedly most of it in  beautiful script.

Petitions to Saint Cyprian; 'A better job for Ludmilla', 'Health for my son'. The guards stand by, but the petitions are not removed, nor are people punished for making them.

On a little ornamental bridge there are dozens of brightly coloured padlocks clasped to the decorative railings. They bear the names of those recently married, or otherwise wishing to announce a relationship.

In a couple of places the railings have been broken, presumably to remove the padlock of those no longer locked in love. I wonder if these padlocks come with two keys, or perhaps no key at all, as an emblem of permanence?

High in the hills in the countryside a multitude of little flags flutter in the wind. Scraps of fabric tied to twigs and fencing, like Buddhist prayer flags. They are a sort of prayer flag, signs of hopes and dreams and wishes.

My kind Russian host rips up a perfectly good handkerchief and I tie on a few flags of my own for family members back in England. Grand-daughter now has her own little flag flying in Russia!

Then I notice that among the little flags are scraps of knicker elastic, lace and fragments of someone's tights.
Humour and the expressions of new freedoms.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

A Moving Time in Moscow

During my travels I have not had full access to Blogger and have not been able to post or comment, so my greetings are belated.

The Metro train rattles through darkness and stops at stations gleaming rose and grey, white and amber, marble and polished granite, bronze and brass, mosaic and elaborate plasterwork.
I cannot read their names, I cannot even recognise their names when they are announced, but I can recognise some of them visually. They are all different, all differently striking.

This is underground Moscow on New Year's Eve and we are heading for Red Square. So are thousands of others, many of them young men in thickly padded black jackets and furry black hats - Asiatic young men who come from Tashkent and other Central Asian towns to work in Moscow for a few years, perhaps to earn enough to return home.
So many young men, so similarly dressed seem frightening to my English eyes. Is it a protest, a potential riot?
'No,' says my son. 'It's their one night off and they're going to enjoy it'.

New Year in Russia is all the Winterfests rolled into one. Santa is here, the Madonna and Child are here if you look carefully; so are Mickey Mouse and Tom and Jerry and look-alikes of Lenin and Stalin.
Father Frost is here, big-time, in blue and silver with stuck-on stars and a big white beard. His helper, the Snow Maiden is also here, generally explained as his grand-daughter, but we all know that rich older men bearing gifts may have their nubile female attendants.

We have to push our way through the crowds. Red Square is closed in preparation for this most significant of Russian nights. Big screens are erected. President Putin will speak to the people at midnight and then....then there will be fireworks!

The snow starts and grows heavier. It is late, but all the shops are open and busy and the illuminated Kremlin buildings glow and glitter golden against the slanting snow. We duck into a maze of side-streets where my Russian companions know of a charming little restaurant hosted by a resident cat and dog. The cat, who is much larger than the dog, wears a bow-tie in honour of the occasion. The dog, a chihuahua, trots about anxiously - the risk of being trodden on is high. I greet him in English. He acknowledges me politely and sits beside me in the alcove. The cat in the bow-tie ignores me.

We return home through emptying streets and flying snow. Shop keepers are trying to hasten the last customers out. The Metro rattles us back to the suburbs. Father Frost and his lady-friend must visit every child in Russia tonight.
In every main road and quite a few side ones the snowploughs wait in silent ranks, ten, fifteen at a time, their drivers chatting and smoking in groups, waiting for the call to action.
In the meantime the gritting lorries are out in force, spraying a corrosive mix that turns the snow to brown sludge. Night or day, ice or snow, Moscow keeps moving.

There is no time to be lost, for we need to be ready at ten o'clock to bid farewell to 2012, with all its joys and pains and tedious bits. We raise our glasses of champagne to what is past.
The food is ready; smoked salmon, a cold roast, slabs of white fat, black bread, pickled herring and salads, beetroot and vegetables in vinaigrette dressing.

Friends arrive bringing more delicacies. There are very special mushroom gathered deep in a forest in Belarus....Cossack mushrooms. There are gherkins and fruits and then there are chocolates made locally and bought fresh from the factory. There is vodka, of course.
We eat and drink. There are many toasts, to our families, our children especially. There are photos on mobile phones and a few tears. The vodka flows. Ah, the past has been good to us.....and

On the television a hush falls over the vast crowds in Red Square and President Putin speaks to the people.
He says what all great leaders say, 'Be good, work hard, be kind to your family, be proud of your glorious nation.' Then the great bell of the Spaski Tower in the Kremlin strikes midnight. The national anthem plays out over scenes of beautiful Moscow in the snow. It is dignified and proud and moving.

Then the fireworks start, great earth-shattering detonations of colour and fire exploding into the night.
They go on....................
all night.

Happy New Year to us all - everywhere.