“Better than birthdays”


Even if I think about it very hard, I don’t remember the specifics of birthdays as much as the emotions – clutching excitement, a great feeling of being important and cherished, candles yes, cake yes – images-12but overwhelmingly special.   I have friends older than me now who cannot enjoy birthdays any more. They are just evidence of time passing. Funny cards don’t make them smile and they decry presents as “unnecessary.”   And as you get older, especially if you live alone, and for very often for good reasons – getting enough exercise, eating properly, seeing somebody with whom you can exchange at least greetings and probably chat – life becomes ritualised, even as in this case the ritual of denial.

It took me ages to accept that I was so used to shopping for hordes, that I bought too much and it was a frightful waste.   And then I noticed that I was in danger of “it’s Monday, I must do …” whatever it was.   Why should every Monday be the same?18fde72   So I began to consciously welcome changes to routine.   A warm memory of my mother is when I welcomed her to the flat in which I was living with my first husband, deprecating my efforts to make her comfortable and she hugged me “Forget it. I don’t need all that.” As she got older, her needs became simpler. It was a good lesson.   And some of my friends live a distance away and some have schedules that are very demanding. So what we have come to is rather wonderfully that any day could be your birthday, any settled pattern can be thrown to the four winds.

I don’t see as much of LM who has been my representative and my friend for 20 years as I would like (she should be paid for living) but to her among other things I owe my introduction to Lord Dodo’s loose leaf cookery book, an enormous white hydrangea in a matching basket, the most beautiful flowers for Christmas/New Year/or any other excuse: care packages of salads, soup, bread and anything else that caught her eye, and the steps,cc579b3b-76e7-49bd-9aa5-941566e21264-jpg-_cb317968543_ the solid platform short ladders you need when you can’t stretch easily any more.   Definition of a friendship – when your friend arrives with something useful out of the blue.      You get all those feelings I described of myself as a child.

Pam the Painter came to lunch on Friday and handed me a small china mug with an English bullterrier on it (and it is, as my father would say “a good one” ie the right shape) and a witty comment and I got all wet eyed.   She found it in her parents’ house during monumental clearing out and thought I might like it. I do.

"meet Jimmy Choo"

“meet Jimmy Choo”

On Saturday Percy Snowdrop (a film academic who teaches in the north) came through and I went him to meet him near the British Museum. He has a small carefully chosen collection of drawings and pictures (he started at art school) and he showed me on his tablet his latest acquisition – a signed drawing, a wonderful drawing by Jean Cocteau.  2013_2_l_ange___jean_cocteau_textiles_coussin_1_det_pdf_ht As he is the only person I know who would want such a thing, I don’t know who was more excited.   And I know that he got ploughed over by his editor this year and consigned a book into limbo he had deeply believed in.   Part of my admiration for him is that he loves to teach and I cheer for the self belief that drawing embodied.

I go to the market most Saturdays, I pick up this and that in independent chemists, I do the laundry.   Not this week. I bought a book and a card and I sat and drank tea and ate apricot tart and told stories and heard stories and saw him off to Kings Cross.

When I was a kid, there was a song which began “A very merry unbirthday to you,” which became a family sentiment, if you forgot, were late or away for a birthday.   But I like this version even better.   I don’t give a damn about the years, they are going to come anyway.   I care about contact and thought and pleasure and joy, mine and everybody else’s.   The world is hard, it always was. Welcome to better than birthdays.sparklers-5

wfl(which front line)

Is “lol” laugh out loud or lots of love ?   Anyway I would like to thank the Sussexes

for a headline which caused me to laugh out loud buying the paper in the convenience store this morning  – “Harry and Meghan quit social media” – and a man I’ve never met before, busy restacking a shelf, came racing over to ask what I was laughing at, so I showed him. And we had a conversation of mutual accord, beaming at each other round our masks. 

I have long believed that social media, the love affair with the mobile phone, little children taught to use screens from their earliest beginnings, records on line – all of it – is some kind of fashion,

aggressively marketed for the rewards of Croesus.  Of course I can theorise about it but I doubt very much that anybody reading 700 words approx. of neat wordage wants pseudo intellectual whiffle. 

Every time our relatively simple tech has pre menstrual tension, Pam the Painter – she bigtime corporate PR in an earlier life – and I take turns to tell each other how what we really long for is paper and pencils, carbons and a typewriter.   In the old days (yes, we say this to each other, giggling) we remember how much was done with half the kerfuffle.    I am just waiting for televisual notice from a lugubrious fellow in a bad suit who will turn out to be the Cabinet member for “stuff” telling us the grid’s on the blink, the banks have fallen

and the government has had to make the painful choice between keeping us warm and letting us liaise worldwide about the conspiracy theory in Wuhan, the Putin variant or why Orange Man is right.  Which will take two weeks.

And once again it is the middle ground that is missing.  Choice is being eroded.  A woman I like pointed out to me a year ago that, to manage my life, I might have to have a mobile.   The Fire Fairy (so named because of the colour of her mind let alone her hair) – deep in alternative medicine, serious reflection on the law and the meteorology of our threatened life – wouldn’t waste the time of a policeman on demonstrating about the conspiracy of the virus.  Oh, there’s a virus all right.  And like most viruses it mutates. 

Smart beast.  And the model with which we are trying to contain it doesn’t work.  And the present powers that be have taken too long to make decisions which might have been more effective which, coupled with the over medicalisation of our perception of ourselves, have made the system stagger.    Not so much Happy New Year as same old, same old.

Gosh it was nice to laugh.  And I wish those elderly children who beat it to California all the luck in the world, living in a staggering state at the heart of the Covid beleaguered citadel of the US of A.  And I loved America.  Really.  In life, you do what you do. However, what you have to accept, if you do what you do with a virus, is that some other poor devil winds up paying for it  – in skill and sweat to save your life,

or not. 

Two girls decided to go for a walk in Derbyshire.  They got in the car ( we presume they are in some sort of bubble, maybe not) and drove five miles to a beauty spot, to walk.  Where they were arrested by the police and fined £200 each.   What became clear in their interview is that “local” means different things to different people.  That what was presumed to be clear, isn’t.  Wal thinks if you get in the car to take the dogs to the park, to walk them – it’s local.   I think if you can walk to it, it’s local.   In the parlance of the pandemic, what does “local” mean ?    And if we have to ask so late in the day, you can see why the lockdown is inefficient.   Which means the police will be increasingly invoked to enforce it – without benefit of testing or vaccination, although they are front line.

body politic

No I don’t mean when you think you have learnt

that the Princess Royal had electrolysis or “that nice boy” is having an affair with a married man who happens to be your nephew.  I don’t mean when your daughter who has always planned to be a nail technician announces she is going to be a wildlife ranger – or the other way round.  I don’t mean putting your hand on to or into an insecure power point or the sinking sensation that accompanies  the opening of your credit card account.  Shock has a medical meaning

– look it up – it’s fascinating. 

Attending for the fourth in a series of eye injections at Moorfields, I recounted to my surgeon that the only thing I couldn’t work through and rationalise is the shock.  She asked what I meant and I explained.  So far, I leave the hospital, come home, eat something light – ideally soup, soup I make is the answer to quite a lot of things –  lie down, get warm and go to sleep.  That is what the body demands.  I am very pale and quite cold.  A minor form of shock.

But not this time around.  The doorbell rang – packet.   The telephone too.  Then the telephone again and the doorbell a second time.   Buns tells me he has learned to ignore these interruptions when they were not what he wanted.  I fear someone at the door to tell me something has happened to my son, while early life experience indoctrinated me into answering the phone.  I lay down – again !- slept for half an hour and woke so cold I thought I had a fever. 

Feet like blocks of ice. 

I went into the kitchen and put on the kettle for a hot water bottle which I still prefer to any electric device ever made.  Hottle in hand, I returned to the living room, closed the shutters (solid wood, good at keeping in warmth) but for a couple of inches, put the heat at my feet, the rug over me and eventually went to sleep.

Three hours later, I woke. Perish any thought of waste of time.  Either one of my parents would have said “Then you needed the sleep.” The body doesn’t do that unless it needs to.  Twilight was falling,

I like twilight.  I lit the candles on the mantelpiece, the big one in the kitchen, another in my bedroom.   I made what is called a nice cup of tea, unless you hate tea …  And I sat in the half light – still a bit through the window – and read the two newspaper articles which interested me.  And I moved through the evening with profound gratitude that my eye no longer felt as if it had half a heated metal box in it.

So often, words no longer mean what you thought they meant.  You have to ascertain not agreement but mutual respect (up to and including begging to differ) before using a word like, for example, moral. 

The meaning has narrowed, the wider meanings are ignored.  Nowadays moral is too often a word to do with sexual behaviour rather responsibility to the wider society , presumably because any sense of “society” and thus social implications doesn’t come readily to mind.   Perhaps it is a new definition of friendship that there are such words, the wider implications of which you understand even if you don’t accept, in the mouth of some people.  I count myself lucky to know about half a dozen, my kind of friends. 

I am sure my body is not a temple but I am sure it is a wood.   There was a wood near Acklam School when I was a little girl, with squirrels and dormice and all sorts of birds, things that slithered and things that crept, all with systems of life that interlocked and separated and permitted coexistence.    Discovery in the age of lockdown has to be wider than online workouts and overpriced exercise gear, puppies you shouldn’t have bought and children you shouldn’t have had.  Look at the wonder of the body’s ability to absorb shock and move back into gear, a million times more subtle than any screen and finer than any Ferrari.

sacred and stocking

For years worship was anywhere I could play Aretha Franklin singing Amazing Grace in which (happy blend of cultural ideas) her voice makes shapes in the air

St Peter’s, Exeter

as beautiful as the finest European cathedrals. Which takes me to the flagstones of an old church in South Africa (Tulbagh) for the low notes… and the stave church – all wood in Norway, nine hundred years old … free association is a wonderful thing.

Now I walk and pray in the street between my home and the convenience store where I buy my papers, and home again.   I love it in the dark of winter, because I love winter but it works just as well in soft light of summer. Or any other season and weather.  I commend silently to God’s care those I love, including family, friends and neighbours, the known and the unknown, the young who fear to be forgotten in Hong Kong, the stateless Rohinga, the ravaged poor round the corner and across the world, the creatures,

the land, the water and the sky.   

I don’t pray very formally remembering with affectionate laughter the late great Margaret Rutherford falling to her knees in Farewell Farewell Eugene to announce: “Now dear God, this is urgent … !”  Laughter is irreplaceable.

Pam the Painter has a saying “Put that in your bucket !”  meaning save the memory of that kindness, that compliment, that shining moment …. The bucket is year round.  But seasonally, I feel I might extend the metaphor and talk about the stocking.

Wal has recently found, through one of those Google in your neighbourhood schemes, a gifted Armenian seamstress called Sarah and he wanted to buy trouser material which meant a trip to a dream of a fabric shop, a family business called Joel’s. Wal and I haven’t seen each other for ages, so masks to the fore, we went together. I was just there to dress the set.

He knew what he wanted, it was all accomplished with minimum fuss and maximum efficiency, and then we went to the counter behind which was a woman I knew from years ago when I used to shop there too, and a pretty woman in her fifties whom I did not recognise, with earrings I admired.  “My mother gave them to me” she explained.  “God bless your mother” I replied.  And when everything was settled, the younger woman came round the counter, stood opposite me and said” You used to have short dark hair.”   I did.  She said some lovely things and her husband murmured deprecatingly “I’m afraid I don’t keep up with the television.”  I said beaming “You wouldn’t have seen me in the last fifteen years !”  So, having exchanged goodhearted pleasantries,

we left.  It was moving to be remembered so generously and it’s going straight in my stocking.

I tend to tell these stories as they happen on the basis that, as they sustain me, they are good to share.   The world

is hard, it always was, and you don’t need a special occasion to share joy. “Joy cometh in the morning” – untaxed, unfattening, a thing of wonder and this year, my joys include –

My grand daughter who sent me (with her father’s help) a drawing of the world and in thanking her I sent a line of kisses (xxxxx right across the screen) which apparently she loved.  Stocking.

Katherine who arrived with long stemmed red coral roses in a beautiful vase (she’s a potter) and a book and a card – Raeburn gold medal – ie I was speechless.

The hound and helicopter unit (K9) in the Kruger game park which is having success at catching poachers and saving black rhino calves.   Black rhino and bloodhounds – definitely stocking

– while Declan ended his letter telling me how his parents approved of me with the unheard of exhortation “Stay awesome.”    And Mehmet declined my fare in his taxi.  All stocking.

The stocking may develop a hole, it may wear out or go missing in some dusty corner but the idea of it doesn’t change.  Remember the good and the beautiful – they lift the heart. 

*Next week is the transition over the bridge from the Old Year into the New.

Let’s not promise each other anything but hope for health and peace and better days.  I drink to you, you drink to me.

Annalog will be back the week of 4 January 2021….

the raft

Christmas is a bit like a raft.

Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki

  First of all you don’t think you can get it to stick together.  Which wood   should you use ? (Of course, I want to say pine trees)  What about the crosspieces and how will you secure them ?   Will you need a sail ?  And most importantly will it float ?

By the time it gets to ten days before Christmas, it doesn’t matter whether your festivities are elaborate or simple, traditional or innovative, a seven day blow out or 24 hours to catch your breath – you are committed to them. 

And if you are not determined to make the best of them , please don’t start. 

Years ago a young woman rang me to moan about Christmas, what she didn’t like about it, how boring it was, could she get out of travelling home ?  She could of course, I said, but not ten days before.   It’s rude.  People have hopes and they make plans, even boring old parents.   If you are going to go home, do it graciously.  And if you are not going to do it with grace, don’t do it at all – and then you have to step back with grace

and you should have negotiated that six to eight weeks ago, minimum.  Still, I doubt if there is very much in  life that you couldn’t do with pleasant good manners for two or three days. Lie in your teeth if you must about extra work or a friend you’re really worried about so that you are around for the minimum time, but make sure you are charm personified for that minimum.  A course on politeness as a method of social control and survival seems like a very good idea.

I have been fretting about Christmas because I am an inveterate old fashioned see for myself shopper and most of the places I want to investigate are small shops, fairs, sales of work and markets, all of which have taken a beating at the hands of the bug, the lockdown and so on.  And this has all been made worse by surrounding indeed ubiquitous uncertainty.  To use an old fashioned phrase, we really don’t know whether we are coming or going.

And time out from that sense of confusion is particularly hard to arrange because it affects so many aspects of our daily lives.

 And I don’t feel safe outside, not in any seriously phobic way.  Just unsure, unsettled: so I go out, do things and come back sooner rather than later, the very opposite of the committed Christmas shopper.

Came Saturday and I made a decision.  I went to an area where I like to shop, out from the centre of London rather than further in, got on a tube instead of a raft and got on with it.  I prepared myself for disappointment – and didn’t have any.  The places I value are still open, hooray !  Of course I regret the ones that haven’t survived but even so …  I found presents I had given up being able to conceptualise, I bought marmalade from a Frenchman who made my day by speaking French back to me

(full marks for flattery and salesmanship – we beamed at each other round our masks).   I picked up this and purchased that, up to and including some moody Zen based balm for my aching knee, and wonderfully inexpensive pretty cards from two girls who smiled, cheerfully and agreeably.  They run a card shop – it should flourish.     

I got the giggles in the fourth Waitrose in which I have tried to buy the tailored inexpensive candles I like – where you can have every kind of perfume, shape, container and variant of candles , but not  plain cream ones. They are not in my local because it is running down stock, and anyway they’re just not Christmassy.  So I shan’t see them again till the New Year has been and gone and we’re back to “normal life”  – a phrase the meaning of which remains increasingly unclear to me.  And I don’t think I am alone.

The imaginary Christmas raft has by now vanished into thin air, I know what remains for me to do and then the time will be upon us.

Christmas recalled

I was really excited to see two things I liked in Saturday’s paper – a seriously overpriced but utterly beautiful rose

gold bracelet and some equally impressive Scottish textiles, for mouthwatering sums.    I don’t need either of them – just as well, because I couldn’t afford either of them – but that isn’t the point.  And it’s not just champagne taste and beer money.  The point is that they pleased me.  

Always interested in clothes and fashion, the shape and the colour of things from cups to shoes, recent photographic spreads I have looked at were just horrid, charmless, self conscious, and bank breaking. And barring a large sweater which certainly should be warm at those prices, I was beginning to think that I had finally turned into the Granny Grim Natasha made a small statue of, all those years ago. Because I could make lists of what I don’t need or want for Christmas.

I want health for people, I want lungs, I want them to be able to catch their breath literally and figuratively. 

And you can’t buy health, retail or wholesale, giftwrapped or plain. I want kindness and peace and a bit of imagination – like the Fire Fairy (to do with the colour of her hair) actress, director and teacher, now librettist and published poet, speaker of five languages and owner of a dicky knee (Signora Patella) – who simply said “My turn to buy the calendars” and we shall be meeting on Monday to share them.

Last year I sent her a Christmas card with an Inuit image – I very much admire Inuit art and own two small pieces, the carved vertebra of a sperm whale and a ptarmigan made of the handhewn tip of a narwhal’s tooth – and when she whooped with joy, bought her the calendar. 

So perhaps we founded a tradition.

Years ago I parted company from stollen, mince pies, Christmas cake (although in its time, I loved my mother’s) and Christmas pudding. Boxes of sweets and chocolates, and biscuits do nothing to me.  But panettone does, and when it arrives,  I swan around eating it for breakfast on Christmas morning, trying not to gollop it because I like it toasted too.  Buns –  so named because he does have a sweet tooth – calls me Pans for short.  None of this sugar foresworn is to do with dieting because I put weight in the winter like an old bear, but it is to do with taste and sugar for the sake of it has no great appeal to me.

Enjoy your turkey if it’s what you like, I shall enjoy something else – probably a chicken or a bit of duck with lots of vegetables and lots of fruit, and enough nuts to turn me into a (red) squirrel.   

Red squirrel in the natural environment

I’ve kept few decorations but pine cones fascinate me.  I have some carefully silvered which I put about in a large glass bowl or across the sash windows.  The doorknocker is a pine cone from Wal and I have two pine seeds in my wallet.   In Jack London you hear about “roaring fires of pinecones” and apparently that’s OK out there in wolf world

but not clever for a domestic chimney.  And last year I bought a Scandinavian straw wreath  and I am so glad I did because the shop is no more.  It reminds me of the ox and the ass, in the stable with the Baby.

I always have an angel shape, usually hanging on the shutters.  I always have mistletoe , a much older tradition and I look yearningly at the rowan at the street  corner  which is covered with swathes of red berries (druids again).   My attempt to grow a sorbis failed ( a regrettable combination of purple fingers and  dubious soil) and I wanted it even more badly when I had learned that in the Celtic calendar it is my natal tree. 

All the Christmas decorations I collected for my son when he was small are, like his books, waiting for my grand daughter to be just that bit older, beyond finger and discard.   I look at them lovingly,  I remember his shining eyes. “The nature of all exile” writes Alberto Manguel “ is that it affirms the perseverance of memory”, even if the only exile we’re talking about comes through age and time.    

countdown and think again

A change

is supposed to be as good as a rest but I’m guessing that’s a small change like seeing your mother every fourth Tuesday instead of every third Saturday.  The change currently around us – whether we progress it or react against it or try to think about something else – is enormous. You can block out what may be happening until it is under your nose, like Carol (not her real name), 27 years down the line of full time work  from being a Saturday girl, and made redundant at the end of December.  Happy New Year.  And sadly she is far from alone.

It is fine to say (and I hope it is so) that as one door closes,

so another opens but you might like to reflect on the number of fingers that get trapped in between the one and the other.  Figuratively speaking, trapped fingers – actually, jobs lost.  Because if you can’t earn the money, you can’t spend it.  Never mind consumerist Christmas with its tinsel hams and fairylit mince pies.  You can’t spend what you haven’t got –  on groceries, on rent or mortgage, on utilities or putting petrol in the car – and while I too long for the day when the cars are rechargeable, you’ll still have to pay to make them run.  And if you haven’t got, you can’t spend and the money won’t go round to anybody else.

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, by Jared Diamond

Back at the beginning of the year, a friend with often impeccable intuition said she thought things were going to change, meaning in the sense of less greed , more kindness and a more responsible attitude in the world (see The Ellen MacArthur Foundation – it made me cheer.)   As a fully paid up member of the Cassandra Club, I knew that the route we were embarked on was fraught with pain, muttering up my sleeve “Be careful what you wish for.”   She is more hopeful than I can afford to be for change is not accomplished with the whisk of a wand. (re Ellen MacArthur, the work of the foundation is ten years on).  Minor alteration is one thing, social upheaval is something else.   Change is OK if you have resource – money, clothes and shoes, places to stay and ruggedly good health, better still if you are on your own  – but if you don’t have something to fall back on and others depend on you, the winds of change blow chilly and the upheaval is less of adventure than a sore trial.

Like a lot of other people I just get used to things, the things I like being in the place that I am used to find them and it is a shock when that pattern changes.  Carol told me what was happening to her because she knows I’ll miss her.  I shall also miss Andy and Liz, neighbours from heaven with a boy and a girl and a rough haired dach.  They are off abroad, he’s a linguist and neither of them want to stay through this stage of the Covid fallout.  They’ve found a house, rented theirs, put books out on the garden wall and they’re off on December 13.    It’s not as if I was round there every day for a cup of sugar, it’s just that we talked easily and well and widely, and that is sufficiently rare to be cherished. 

My son usually works through Christmas and we don’t know whether we shall see each other or not yet.    We talked about presents and cards, giving each other the freedom to choose or not choose without obligation:  money’s tight.  Best hang on to what you have.   I don’t know the first thing about economics  (there have only ever been three public economists I could understand – David Smith, Faisal Islam and Peter Jay) but I do know that the country is in the cart financially.  

  The dream of what government can and can’t do is filtered through what it will and won’t do, which depends in turn on who it wants to influence for the best.  

My change is to give fewer gifts: make modest contributions to five charities : send cards (I bought them reduced in January): prepare to light candles, use the telephone and get on with it.  I am not cancelling Christmas and it is not cancelling me. 

blessing counting (107)

In anticipation of the lockdown ending

in time for us all to get sick over Christmas, I have received a two page printed letter, marked on the envelope as addressee only and confidential, which is designed to make me feel like an anti vax rat and send me off to have the flu jab.  I’d love to know how many of these were sent because – gilt on the guilt – it goes on to infer that by not doing as I am told, I am wasting NHS funds.  Three minutes with a sentient human would establish that the flu vaccine was contra indicated by a doctor. Much cheaper.   Of course, there is the matter of who you trust – the NHS and the system in general, me, my former GP or the current practice, etc.   I shall reply in due course.

As I left Waitrose on Friday, a voice said quietly, very close to my ear “You have the most wonderful hair.”  The owner of the voice came unmistakably from the US 40 years ago (Philadelphia), was a teacher married to a documentary film maker, and has been ill. 

We spent 10 happy minutes nattering round our masks.   A Good Thing.

The autumnal corduroy wide legged trousers I bought atypically for £20 in sale  have been approved of by three younger women – a neighbour who beamed and pointed approvingly,  Olya an architect from Belarus, here 10 years, and a woman waiting with me for the till in the supermarket.  I mention this because I have friends who are good at bargains but sadly my instinct for a bargain is psychically undeveloped.

Whereas while I wouldn’t say it is routine, it is not unusual for Wal to get £60 of shirt for £24 while Pam the Painter enters TKMaxx like Sir Galahad at the gallop.  

It took years for me to realise that I was quite well served on the last day of sale because what I want, few others want anyway.  I am wary of reduced prices I can’t quantify – and like many of us, I have lived too often through the false euphoria of “two (or even)three for one” – toothpaste yes, but unless something to eat is your real fave, it goes off or you get bored with the whole idea.

When we lived a life in which freedom of movement was a given (I admire spontaneity though very wary of the word normal)  Ginny and I had supper roughly monthly and, both red wine drinkers, worked our way through blends from SA and named Italians, which included Primitivo – a vinous panther, not often sought because it was pricey.   And recently, in giving the shelves my careful attention, I discovered the beast reduced by £3.   Reader, I bought it.  

  And when I discovered the same offer 48 hours later in another branch, I bought it a second time.   A Good Thing.     Two inches of Primitivo is worth two thirds of a bottle of lesser stuff.   I sipped it while watching the opening half hour of Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth, a production which scrambles history to the good end of emotional truth. I didn’t stay with it because I was drowsy and I thought I might sleep, also A Good Thing.

A long time ago McVitie Digestives made a marketing decision – same number of biscuits but smaller for the same price and I think I have just seen the same take for the second time.  My favourite bakers (French, two shops) stock a pumpkin seed loaf of delicious durability ie in a ziplock you can keep it going for a week for toast.  The bread is as good as it ever was, the price the same but the size is noticeably smaller.  I looked at it, it looked at me – oh well, I thought, you can’t have everything in a world where the payback is just beginning to be visible. 

It was still A Good Thing.

And then there was a good thing that was really an aesthetic investment because cheap it was not.  I bought 10 bronze chrysanthemums.  I know they are not everybody’s choice but they are mine.  |I love the colour, the smell, perhaps even the fact that they aren’t often available … six in the living room, four in the kitchen, course work on blessing counting (107) complete. 

on the face of it

Endlessly interested in character actors,

I catch myself wondering if they are really as they seem –  so dour, so ditzy, so dangerous – or whether in real life they are all perfectly ordinary men and women (whatever those are) who just happen to have a cast of countenance useful in a particular story and the way the camera sees them.

“Don’t look like that” said my mother to me, as far back as I can remember.  “You’ll turn the milk sour.”   Or even more intriguing was another remark, usually addressed to her reflection in the mirror when she was tired “Oh dear, I can’t take that out – it’ll frighten the horses !” 

When I was small I wanted to know-why horses ? – and she had to explain to me that when she was my age, quite a lot of vehicles were still horse drawn.  I thought this was very romantic and she left me with that lovely image till, much closer to adulthood, I saw some programme about the rise of the engine, to which she commented drily “More dust, less smell.”  If you’re allowed horses as in fairy tales, the reality of horse manure comes as a bit of a shock. 

But I’ve thought of the sour milk image several times this week, when I see people rushing off with 27 packets of loo roll and enough dried pasta to feed an army.  And I am sure I look disapproving.

A very old woman frowns unhappily in this black and white portrait.

Probably one of the reasons that a tv career was not open to me was because, no matter how controlled the voice, one look at my face and you’d know exactly what I was thinking.  My radio crews tumbled to it and laughed in the production booth, my son still teases me about it.  And as I get older, my facial expressions echo (as do occasional vocal inflections) what I recall of one parent or the other in particular circumstances.

For example, the boys next door woke me from deep sleep the day I came home from the eye hospital.   I lay there, listened for a minute or two and reached for the dressing gown, convinced it was about 4.00 am and this wasn’t on.  So channeling Hecate,

white hair to the shoulders in a long robe, I opened the door and said to the group trying to extricate an unwilling passenger from the car they share, in tones just like my  Edwardian mother at her martial best “It is very early in the morning.”  They stopped dead.    I said it again, the voice of authority in received pronunciation.   James said  “Oh Anna, I’m sorry, did we wake you ?” to which I rejoined “Sort it out”- that dates  me, right there – which I reiterated when he tried to say more.

I relocked the door and swept into the living room, furious about being disturbed in my own home, wah-wah-wah, checked with the speaking clock and found it was 12.02 am.  Was my face red.  And then, thank you Robert Burns, I saw myself as others see us – and it was truly horse frightening.  So when that evening, James and Harry arrived with what are known as “a few flahs”,

we all laughed.  I told them how I had misjudged the time and how I had “seen” myself and they told me they had been trying to get rid of the gatecrasher for an hour or more but that  he left a few minutes after I spoke.  (When I told Buns this story, he said he thought I should retrain at once, I clearly have a future in security.)

There is a place, of course there is, for the expressive face, the wonderful speaking glance you exchange with a perfect stranger and just know without a word spoken, you are on the same wavelength – or maybe just one word.  “Indeed” you say and reap the harvest of acknowledgement.

Much more recently, in what is laughingly called maturity, I came to appreciate Wal’s theory about the power of confidence – not bombast, not throwing your weight around and being disagreeable – just being able to be and letting your face speak for you.  But when skin is so thin and so many people are on the jump, you have to be prepared to give account of yourself.  Or huddle behind your mask.

coming up roses

I wrote about division last week and even the garden

doesn’t know whether it is coming or going.  There are flowers in bud, flowers in bloom, there are green shoots, brown leaves beside green ones and wintry stems, all in just about equal parts.   Sounds familiar ?  The division in the UK over Brexit was just about half and half – just like the much larger, much richer and more violent US of A in its recent protracted electioneering.

Some years ago an American client told my then husband that he didn’t like either of the two candidates on offer and he disliked profoundly the system that made them what was available to him. 

“Too long and too expensive” he said “ and that means the people you’re interested in drop out.”

But some stay in.  Boris Johnson made it to Number Ten and Joe Biden made it to Pennsylvania Avenue, third time lucky.  The British press is full of stories that the Blond was disagreeable when he met Biden as Obama’s vice president and that he (Biden) has a long memory.  In terms of trade, need and cooperation, we can only hope that he will like us even if he doesn’t like him (BJ) – as we have felt about Americans for the last four years.

So I don’t envy about-to-be President Biden his inbox,

the snarling writhing spitting opponents, social conflict at every level and how many of America’s most important institutions have been run down both in numbers and quality of personnel.  I don’t envy him the bitterness with which he will be greeted by those who hitched their dreams to the wagon of the outgoing reality television president.

The United States into which I arrived at the age of 19, where I worked and paid taxes for two years, now seems remote.  Last night, a friend who spent time there as a youngster and for whom it was always top of his list of favourites, told me he doesn’t want to have anything to do with it for the foreseeable future.   “They’ve lost the plot” he said. 

And some of us wonder what we ever really knew about the United States.

We put bad news aside. We chose not to remember that even the personal friendship between  Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, men of similar status and Churchill’s mother was an American grandee, even so – the special relationship was not enough to bring our greatest ally into WWII.   We owe the Japanese for Pearl Harbour.

America puts its own bad news aside.  Sooner or later a presidential candidate has to invoke “the American people” – those same American people who were systematically lied to through Presidencies of both parties, which threw all sorts of securities and loyalties into doubt during the protracted war

in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.  

The old echoes of “Secession !” and “States’ Rights !” which characterised  the outbreak of the American Civil War (1860/65) remain as unresolved to some as the period of reconstruction for freed slaves.   There was more hope in the 1960s and there was more honesty.   And honesty has no colour.

And I don’t envy Mr. Biden the sheer physical and mental burden of office which we have seen cruelly age every incumbent.  I don’t envy him the stick he is going to take in Congress and the Senate, the bad mouthing he will face for his Vice President – a woman of colour with a brain.

We all have decisions we’re unhappy about, among our own and our neighbours, nationally and internationally.   There are things we cheer for and things we regret, things we can adjust to and things we just can’t.  And the higher up the chain of command you go, the more strenuous is the negotiation.

But Joe Biden wanted this and he got it.  Because of this long long run up, he knows more about how the machinery of American government and public life works than many people.  And for me, the single most encouraging thought so far is that he is noted for “reaching across the aisle”.   I don’t even know if this is too little or too late.  I hope not.  I wish we had access to the same.    


I am tired of division. 

Bread and Roses by Mike Alewitz

I am tired of the old being arbitrarily separated from the young, the young from the younger, the boys from the girls, the straight from the binary, the black from the white.  It is not how I was brought up.  I was brought up that the cover may indeed inform you about the book   but only that it is possible.   Generalisation is only a discussion point.  Fluffing up one group like a pillow isn’t so that you understand it better, it is so that you can market to it and manipulate it more successfully, whether ideas or pet food.  I am tired of that.  I was brought up to believe in circles and journeys and a central spine to life, like the spinal column, from which everything derived, often interrelated and to which, sooner or later, everything returned.

And just because I am primarily a dog person, it doesn’t automatically follow that I don’t like cats.    Groovy Kitten (named in the sixties) ran away when I left Michael.   And I shared two moves with Chocolate Pud (he was Burmese) but I couldn’t do that to him again so we found him a home in the country with a cat he got on with, companions to cherish him and trees to climb.  He was beautiful.  

A friend has been throwing away old papers

and we agree that there are things you can’t toss till you’re ready.  And I shall never be ready to part with the worn edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, one of a set of books my father bought and which both parents read to me.  And of course keeping the book is not just to do with the stories but to do with memories of my parents.  And I find recall is like a mental tree, like those lovely drawings of the Tree of Life,

Celtic Tree of Life 2 by Joan Stratton

or Joshua trees, or the baobab –  once you start, the mind begins to project images, and the nose to recall smells, your ears hear voices and even the fingers twitch at the remembrance of this sheet or that coat.

Kipling’s story of The Cat that Walked by Himself came to mind last night, because it was Halloween which was originally Summers’ End (Samhain) in the Celtic calendar, one of those permitted because it couldn’t be overcome festivals that the Christian church let be, especially if they could doorstop it with All Souls immediately afterward.   Last night  Samhain (when the barriers between the dead and the living were thought to dissolve, gods and devils came among us) was also the night of a full moon, and this was the first time the two had been together since 1944, my birth year.  I have never needed to wait for more than a nudge to respect the old.  And I remembered the Woman who lived with the Man in the Cave of the Kipling story and how she made the First Magic.

In my childhood there were no pumpkins.  Halloween lanterns were made of turnips.  And if we were lucky we’d be invited in to play bob apple or to eat sausages and potatoes cooked over an open fire (delicious), on the common at the end of the street or in somebody’s back garden.  And we respected what went before because we had imbibed that wisdom which says that if you have no past, you have no future.   No root, no bloom.

All fire is wild and I have the greatest regard for it, from bonfire to match, and its concomitant, light.  Fire drives away danger, light banishes fear,

candles keep you company and offer respect to the old and the new, and the power of both.   And I thought of pine cones which symbolise renewal and the Third Eye.   So I arranged a line of nightlights across the sash window with careful spaces into which I put the cones.  I sprinkled salt around the perimeter of the house and I went to bed, oddly comforted at having made a small gesture at pulling the bits together.

In the middle of the night, I saw a face, the face of an African child.  I can rationalise this for you but I’m not going to.  What is interesting is that she smiled warmly and sweetly, and that I smiled back in the darkness of not quite awake. 

 *dreamtime, the Golden Age when the ancestors were created,

   from the Australian Aborigine – with respect.