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the balance

Yesterday a leaflet was posted through the door asking me to join an organisation to ban

the Chinese Communist Party.    This morning there is a picture of Stanley Johnson and his youngest son, awfully cosy with Chinese functionaries – big fans, it says, of China under the jurisdiction of its Communist Party.   Gwyneth Paltrow says she is suffering from the effects of Long Covid, citing “longtail fatigue and brain fog” and then goes on to detail such a restricted diet one is left to wonder if she is simply hungry ?  Wellness is an old word placed anew, I am so wary of it.  And Wol, pragmatic and well remunerated professional, suddenly asked me – oh conspiracy theory – if I thought the pandemic was real ?    And the trouble is the balance.

There are two reasons why you know things: one is because you find them out by chance and the second is because you set out to discover them. 

And in both cases you have to understand what you have discovered.

Yesterday a friend lent me a book (Kiss Myself Goodbye by Ferdinand Mount) about a strange relative who lived in one of the great modern houses in the south of England.  Came WWII and it was taken out of private circulation and used for engineering research: after that, something else and then, industrial diamonds for Gulf War missiles.  In the meantime the house had vanished.

  It wasn’t even indicated on Ordnance Survey.   Its presence and function were not admitted until much later.  Discovered by chance.

The news has been patterned for a year – which is a long time – by what this politician or that says,

what this or that government functionary says (agreeing or disagreeing) and the alternative position voiced by housewives, medical staff, mothers, teachers, bin men, assenting and dissenting scientists, other party politicians and so on.  News stew. 

The unsettling message of this is just what my friend has responded to.  He doesn’t watch the news.  He finds it unattractive, monotonous, utterly confusing and depressing.  He’s not alone.  And, when all the shouting’s done, he doesn’t know what to believe.  It was his partner of 25 years who made sure he had the first vaccination.

“What is all this ?” he asked me last night about Covid

and because our conversation was one to one, and I was trying to be clear about it, he listened.  I think.

I have heard some sense about Covid.  Sense to me means sentences I can understand, delivered in a tone I can access, by a speaker who is not trying to sell me a position – or at least, not one that gets in my way.       Everything I have found out has been by listening or reading (same rules apply) and I was never any good at science or maths at school.   As soon as you start quoting figures at me, I glaze over.  Amalgamate one lot of figures with another,  I know it is unreliable and I switch off.    

But show me a patient who thought it was going to be “just like the flu” and has learned to their cost that it isn’t, the exhausted nurses and doctors doing everything they can to help, often without success, show me the paraphernalia of wearing and changing protective clothing –

the human cost I understand. 

And because of the segregation of one person from another, one group from another, there are endless home made contributions which apparently sit well with the majority, endless quite separate talking heads –  which visually undermines the notion that “we’re all in this together” . . if we ever accepted it.

So it is hard to tell what this means because if you’re anything like me, you don’t understand.  You haven’t found out by chance and you didn’t set out to discover.   So, may I hope that you like me are  not going out when you don’t have to, not having anybody in the house, washing your hands like a religion or using sanitiser, wearing a mask in every closed space eg bus, train, shop ?  It’s called being sensible, holding the balance.  And it is what we can do.       

just talking

The ballerina’s name was Lucette Aldous

and the company was Ballet Rambert.  I was 9 or 10, and they danced on the platform of the hall in a new school to which children of various other schools were invited for the performance.  When I mentioned the noise of the toe shoes to my parents, my father explained that the wood of the platform hadn’t enough “give” to absorb the impact of the shoes plus the weight of the body.   I was impressed then, I still am.   I had never seen ballet before and I fell in love with the illusion, the shapes and the soft pretty steps, the lightness and the line, the floating, the humour and characterisation.    It was years before I began to understand the discipline and the training and the endless harnessing of muscles into magic.

Recently I watched two actors Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly make sketches of the wonderful Laurel and Hardy (the wives played by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda were wonderful too.) 

The script conveyed frustration, disappointment, getting lost in the maze of your own fame but it didn’t convey – perhaps it couldn’t convey – how much sheer hard work went into the effortless charm of their little dance.   Just wonderful.  How did they get to the wonderful ?

There are all sorts of people who can make difficult look easy, whether it’s making meringues or balancing on a highwire or playing a sport – and we grant them that little word – “just”.   Long ago, God bless that man, a senior figure somewhere in television gave me the chance to interview Michael Aspel,

who always made everything look and sound as it were second nature and he were falling off a log – and I discovered a completely different person, whose father had never understood his aims or endorsed his talent, who worried and sweated and worked at the illusion that everything he did happened, occurred in some marvellous puff of smoke.   I so admire that ease.   

And we all have our favourites, people who fooled around and fell about, danced or sang, interviewed, preached or taught, painted or sculpted, made furniture or wove cloth or just were in some special magical way – the common signature is that they made it look easy – “just” whatever it was.

We did two programmes on four letter words, and the general public as contributors were their funny, generous, insightful selves, long before the current days of bloodspitting.   Just is one of the words of which I am most wary because it is so often to do with diminution as in “he’s just a carpenter”

or “she’s just a sempstress”:  OK.  Can you do that ?  I can’t and I know I can’t, let alone do it and make it beautiful.

My gift is even more ephemeral and harder to describe.  Think of smoke or frost flowers. 

No class for those. Somewhere along the line  I thought about a one woman show called Talking for My Life.  It came to nothing and I am totally fatalistic about that. Everything happens for a purpose, not mine to know or necessarily understand.  When I began my current adventure, one of my friends took longer to come through than anybody else, then a brief email followed by a phone call in which she described herself as “proud of you.”  She then bit it back immediately but I thought I knew what she meant because she has far more gifts than I and that makes her able to recognise a gift when she sees it.

Long ago when it was intimated to me that what I did was “special” but indefinable and therefore couldn’t be evaluated or praised,  I interpreted that as not amounting to much, no frame or plinth, no terms equals no worth.  And I have lived long enough to know it is not true.  Just because you can’t define a thing, it doesn’t follow that it has no worth.

We are busy discarding in the aftermath of something that has unsettled us (how I wish I could amass the cardboard of Mr. Bezos’s packing and put it where the sun doesn’t shine) and inevitably, in cultural shakeup, the baby may be threatened with the bathwater.  But babies come through –

and so does just talking.

ups and downs

“Oh” said Pam the Painter with feeling “ British Telecom !   Just seeing one of those Openreach vans  is enough to give me a  spasm !”    But I had to start somewhere

because the batteries in the landline device are dying in the key and volume of Florence Foster Jenkins, John Lewis is closed and I feel like a trapped rabbit looks.

The number on the box was answered by a man who said good morning as if he meant it so I told the truth.  “ I am the silliest woman you will speak to today” I said “but I need your help.”  He listened and he gave me another number .   The man who answered the second number was just as forthcoming so I told him my tale of woe, what a fool I was about these things and besought his patience.   Laughing, he diagnosed the difficulty, said he’d send batteries

and somewhere in there, aware of an intonation with which I was familiar, I asked where he was calling from.  “The north east” he said.  “Yes” I said “ I figured that, but where ?”  “Newton Aycliffe” he said.  I know Newton Aycliffe.  We laughed, I thanked him and left unreasonably comforted.  Voices do that to me.  (Up)

Of course my hands are weakened with age and arthritis (fade in violins) and I am scared of breaking something so I haven’t been able so far to do what was advised and will need help. (Down)  Rescued by a neighbour in HazMat. (Up)

One morning I came out of the house at 7.00 into the snow – I love snow – and a foot from me, on the step, was a robin.

(Up)  I always speak to animals.  With respect.  And then I retreated as fast and as quietly as I could to the kitchen where I had recently decanted pre fabricated breadcrumbs.  The  robin looked at me with pity before hopping off to look for something edible.  Not even a squirrel will eat those breadcrumbs.  I’ve just thrown them all away, nothing to do with bread. (Down)

I asked my gardening neighbour whether she thought I should cut back the arums which have grown great foliage completely out of season – and this was before the storms settled in for a run.  She thought not, just let them be.  They now look very  battered by snow and frost and sleet but may pick up as the weather warms.  And this morning, beyond half a dozen blossoms on the winter broom, I noticed an arum in bud, which is definitely an Up.

It is just as well that I cannot properly locate the unhappy yapper, a small dog at the back of the house.    If I could, I would be calling the overworked RSPCA  – but then it may just be an ugly bark – there are enough ugly voices around.  (So that’s a Down)

While 15 years ago I interviewed a woman who had drawn from her own life in cartoon how an abusive relationship is made and maintained,

exceptionally useful to people who aren’t going to read a tome.  And I liked her.  So we have stayed in touch, the odd card and email , her next and terrific book about her parents (They Gave Us Everything published by Penguin )and around Christmas she sent me a sweet picture of her son and his wife  and their new baby.       

Today was cold and grey in London when the letterbox flapped with a small cantaloupe coloured envelope which contained another picture of her lovely granddaughter.  “I feel so grateful you came into my life all those years ago” she wrote.    Me too.  (Up)

And then a little later there was a big bossy bang on the door and I went to open it where stood the tall young man from the building site opposite of whom I had asked advice about the hole that comes and goes in the garden front of the flat (rats ? water ? subsidence ? disturbance to the underpinnings of the city ?).  He recommended more pea shale , I had asked where I could buy it, he’d said, don’t try – it’s heavy.  “I’ll try to remember to bring some.”   And bring it he did so I bet I am the only woman you know who was given pea shale for Valentine’s (Up). 

under b

Earlier this week, a known actress

– you might call her a star, I wouldn’t, very few stars in the sky of my imagination – was described as not being pretty enough to be believable in the lead of a new film about what we used to call a working class girl (what Americans call blue collar) bettering her lot.    Said actress communicated her displeasure to the writer.  For some reason it was thought important that he was a freelance – as if the show business bible for which he was writing would never have said such a thing, though they commissioned and paid for the piece – and the man/woman thing.  And in jumped the speakers for women, the speakers against women, other wellknown players under outrage and “what I would have done”,  and so on.

Height of the pandemic.  Cinemas closed, 

terrestrial tv running out of product, not all of us are  invested in Netflix/Apple etc and not all of us want to watch new product on a screen of smaller size   (See David Thomson’s The Big Screen: it isn’t new but it is important).

Said actress has one of those funny little mugs we used to call appealing before that word was ditched as patronising.  Shot from the right angle she looks lovely (skin to die for) but the beauty shifts, as does most human beauty – straight or gay, man or woman, young or old.  That’s one of the things that keeps you looking – you might miss it. 

“come and gone says it well”

Very few people and very few things are always eternally and from every angle beautiful.   And at this point I say nailing my colours to the wall, I am of the opinion that beauty is an absolute.  You see it when you see it.  You miss it when you miss it.   And it is a much abused term.

You can perceive beauty in anything.   You can know that it’s the term others would apply and not wish to join them.  You can lurch toward whatever it is with your mouth ajar (see annalog/instinct) – there doesn’t seem to have been a process between your brain and your response.    Like me meeting Reba a thirteen week old black Labrador puppy in whom beauty isn’t flat, it’s 3D – fur, paws, young smell, unafraid response, not mine , the dome of that silken head – a whole thing.  You can hear beauty, smell beauty, feel it through your fingertips …  the dictionary says “a combination of qualities that delights the aesthetic senses”.

But why would you argue with what a reviewer says about you in a role ?

  Wouldn’t you say to yourself “Great – that’s good for a talker ! “ And anyway, why is it wrong to say what you think, even if  the recipient doesn’t agree or doesn’t like it ?   Yes yes yes, we can have a whole argument about how you say it, context, matter of degree, what you meant, why you meant it, vested interests but you come back to the response.    The term beauty is bandied about in the 21st century.  It is far too widely applied, used without knowledge or appreciation. 

It is too often presumed , and always was, that beauty has to do with money – therefore we could argue- how could the heroine of this unseen film be beautiful or even pretty – when she was poor ?  This is probably why beauty

is referred to as a gift, inferring value.

(Aside: off on  this riff, I am back in my English class aged 13. |I have drawn my subject from the pile and I now have to speak without hesitation for 5 minutes on   – making tea …  Makes you think.  Makes you speak fluently too.  It isn’t beautiful but it takes you to an adjunct of beauty which is bearing – aligned to our old friend, confidence).

Because that’s what struck me about the known actress and the critical review.  Were I the subject of this item, I wouldn’t defend myself.   I know who I am, what I am trying to do, what the film was trying to do.   Earn your money and go home.  This is not about Beauty and the Beast or the Battle of the Sexes. You want a pure politically untainted example of beauty ?  The endlessness and focus of the subconscious mind.     

“by Sindre Aalberg”

Personal:  new radio station launches 14 February.

My first contribution (my son kindly said not your best, just your first) evening of the same day, rerun following Wednesday.  

May I thank all of you who have encouraged me and stayed with me down the years since broadcast was my breath ?

see BOOM Radio.


The first polar bear cub born in captivity here was called

Brumas and we all bought pictures and cooed with excitement.  Such a thing triggered all sorts of fashion and comment and jokes.  My father remembered every funny story he was ever told and told them to collective family mirth.  My mother remembered very few, like the one about two polar bear cubs  called In and Out, there’s a lot of In and Out as you would expect, and In gets lost.  When Out eventually finds him, mother bear asks how ?  “Oh” comes the reply” Instinct.”

Instinct was respected in my family, running parallel with education and intellect.  And I think of it every time I meet a particular neighbour who speaks to you as if you were a small child with dirty knickers, very full of himself, probably not helped by the fact that I am not a man.  I want to smack him.  I don’t see him often, thank heaven, and then I clench my hands for this is not the moment for instinct to out.

And then there is Tito, the opposite end of the spectrum, older, poorer, Afro-Caribbean, conversationally gentle but if there is time to exchange more than two sentences, he immediately launches into a long unwinding discharge of every bit of bad news and conspiracy theory

you have ever heard about and 26 you can’t imagine, unconnected.  I wonder how it all began, why he thinks that this stuff is any more use than the garbage through which we are wading at the moment.   I gently ease myself away, telling him it’s cold, go home.

And of course I had to meet both of them, one after the other, in the cold and pouring rain.  I can’t wish the Bully badly, his hidden good qualities have brought him a delightful wife and a very bright and beautiful son.  And I don’t wish Tito badly – I just want to know where he gets all this rubbish from, how it started, what is its appeal to him, other than endorsing paranoia.   While my instinct is completely contradictory: I want to hit the twit

and be very patient and gentle with the other.

Instinct is sometimes impossible to explain.  And I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about analysing it.  I respect it, acknowledge it, file it and draw on it.  It’s useful. What you feel is your reality and if that’s what you feel, there will be a reason for it. 

Deep in conversation with Snowdrop who had rung from the frozen north, I confessed that I found the present Attenborough series on BBC1 difficult to sit through because of the music.  Snowdrop is a film and radio academic – he understood immediately.   “Too much music” he said “distracts your attention from what is in front of your eyes. 

  It’s pulling you in another direction, delivering cues you may not need or want … and interfering with the voiceover which is Attenborough at his best.  I am sure it sells it to a lot of people but it is unbearable to me.”   Thank you.   Not just blind instinct but instinct as a trigger to thought, a process of choice …   We are all different, thank goodness but I don’t want music and speech and pictures.  The bits don’t fit.  Each to his own. 

Perhaps we are not really talking about speech or music (or speech and music) we are talking about sound.  The other day by chance on PBS (an American network I have had to explain twice in 2 days) I saw Ben Ferencz, whom I did not know and whose name I have never pronounced, now 100.  At the time of the Nuremberg Trials he was the youngest attorney (27) and it wasn’t what he said  but the sound of it that I found really uplifting because it was pragmatic and plain and accessible.  He was dry and funny and I know that part of his appeal was his very old hands . 

I like old hands.  They’re like maps .   When you ask people to go through terrible things, you must be prepared for them to reach deep into their instinct to survive and go forward.     Better if they can explain some of it to you.

sign of the time

Because I went to the US when I was young (19), certain images have remained with me.  It was in New York that I saw my first dead person, a girl propped up against the top of a subway entrance.  I asked the policeman how old she was.   Same age as me.   “What happened ?”  “Drugs” he said wearily. And in New York

 the streets were marked out (mostly) in blocks and I still refer to blocks.

My mother too referred to the block opposite the house (Cleveland/Kingston/Greenwood/Briarvale) as the little block, the loop that included Kingston as the bigger block.  I still hear myself refer to a shop as being “on the block near Sainsburys” or somebody’s house being “two blocks over.”

I was walking up the street one block from home when I saw a collection of objects on the left hand wall: a jug labelled Thousand Island, a glass container with a matching lid, half a dozen any old how plates, two bashed up paperbacks and a candle.  

by Bert Broomhead

  Still Life in the time of Covid, I thought. 

One of the things that time on your hands has made many of us do is go through the drawers and the cupboards and the files.   Both the Swede (next door but one) and my lovely friends who left for Turkey (currently roosting in Dubai)  put out books in boxes and I did well out of them.   But what I saw (eyesore)is a perfect example of the difference between a discard and a dump.

I dream of a manageably large single story unfitted building like a garage, dry, in which friends and I could set up a book store: oh yes, one entrance and one exit, two prices (£2 and £5), strictly masked and not more customers than whatever it is – three or five – at a time.   You’d have to do with people who like books because only they can even approximate alphabetical order. 

The charity book shop which took me through my leanest years was run by a former bookseller so you could find things.  Now it’s huggermugger which encourages lingering and fingering but not buying. 

When it was raining the other day a friend said he went through all the cupboards to put out two black bags of things he’ll never miss – but not the books.  I am in the same boat.  I have homes for one or two special volumes to go to but it saddens me that the only way you can get rid of a collection is to give it away.  Well fine if you want to endow somewhere  – but where ?  Books are heavy.   You are not going to send them far.   Teachers are weighed down

with extra responsibilities under Covid, the absences from Covid, the suspension of the syllabus and so on.  It isn’t fair to ask them to take on incoming books in number which have to be catalogued and stored.

Book burning heralds shut minds and the fear that comes with it.  Drowned books – sodden and impossible to dry and if dried, unusable –  are a sorry mess.  But books ignored, killed by neglect, by being dumped  – and thus you come to why (lockdown permitting) I hike my disposable reading matter along way over to a charity book shop that treasures books.  “Why bother ?  Why don’t you just take them up the road ?” friends say but you see, up the road, there is nobody I know of in any number to buy them and they will be dumped and pulped.

It’s not about making money, though I am very happy to make whatever we can for my charity of choice.  Or yes, when I look at what I have spent, I’d like something back.  Something – almost certainly – towards the next lot

because (as my son long ago discovered) you can always give mother a book.  And very early on we arranged that whatever else, I would give him a list of book suggestions so that he need never risk my notorious taste.   When he began to buy things for me independently it was thrilling. Though this year we agreed – no shopping – no presents – lovely cards.  And that too is a sign of the times.

the mind runs on

As I walked up the road for the papers, the sky

was a sort of washed out beech leaf gold and as I came back it was quite definitely rosy.  Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning – the weather is changeable, and I am ungratefully sick of the rain – but thinking about Wal organising the commissariat made me smile to myself.   We are both crazy about roast chicken and Wal said he had found the best. So he brought it, and two breasts of guinea fowl to go in the freezer, half a celeriac and two boxes of Tesco’s finest water softening tablets.

I have not had deliveries of groceries

for the simple reason that I have no reason not to shop.  I buy as I need and I recoil from this “everything being done from home” idea when it isn’t necessary.  I understand e very effort being made to control the spread of the virus but there is only one of me.   I go out every other day.  I rarely go to more than one shop and I come home.  That is exercise, socialising, variation, air. Pam the Painter walks, she’s nearer to open country, but to walk I would have the share the park with entirely too many people, so I do it this way.   Two birds, as they say.

And then I saw her as I was walking home, a tiny skinny woman and I went past her – I am not proud of this – thinking no, no, go home – and realised she had no shoes on,

only stocking feet.  And that she was dressed in those gaudy unsuitable clothes that people buy because they’re cheap and cheerful, almost mocking, all wrong for whoever they are given to.  And her hair was untidy and her face was lined.  And she was not in this world.   So I watched. 

Not another person came down the street, but she was looking for something, the familiar shape of a letter or a figure on a gate, so I watched her up the street, afraid to disturb the concentration of fingering some remembered thing that might get her home and out of the cold. And I saw her go into a house, she had a key.

And I thought of Ruth Coker Burks’ book All The Young Men (just out),

about a woman who went to visit a friend in hospital and saw an early AIDS patient dying alone – it didn’t get any better – and – unsung and unchampioned – went and saw him out, and many others like him.  And campaigned for better education to combat hate and prejudice and fear.

When I was young I bought A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan’s book on America In Vietnam, and I have never been without it since.  It feels like a breast plate, waiting for me on the shelf.  Neil Sheehan was the New York Times reporter who appropriated the so called Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg.  Sheean died last week, God rest him, and there is no point in remembering war if you’re not going to learn something from it. 

  And there are all kinds of war.

A teacher friend of mine (I’ll call him Manny) isn’t really a teacher, he is a teaching assistant to children with emotional and learning difficulties, a career he came to late, almost like a second life.  His family didn’t like him and were appalled by his homosexuality.  He disliked himself and was unhappy for many years till he’d worked it through to the point that he could be Manny.  We met at a bus stop several years ago when he had just begun his job with the children. 

He worked with one very isolated little boy who didn’t speak but who came up and walked with him when he was on dinner duty, and held his finger for 10 minutes at a time, no glance, no word.  One day, there was a sudden smile.  Then, weeks later, the child left his side halfway through the lunch hour and joined in a game. And Manny was told to write a report, it represented such a breakthrough.   I love that story, I can see that smile on the back of my eyelids.

photograph by Tori Deslauriers

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….