Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Catastrophes - and beginnings!



Just when you think that you have things in hand, you have a grip on your life and can make some plans - that’s when you’re in your comfort zone and catastrophe will come and smack you in the back of the head!

There was a programme on tv the other night about the catastrophes in Earth’s past, which have made the planet what it is, and paved the path to creating life. The presenter, the ubiquitous Tony Robinson, made the point that catastrophes are usually seen as unmitigatedly bad, but actually each catastrophe is a new beginning. Without the arrival of cyanobacteria, which produced the terrible poison gas, oxygen, life as we know it could not have appeared, but for the life forms to whom oxygen was lethal it was certainly a catastrophe. This ‘Catastrophe is a new beginning’ idea set me thinking about my own life, in a timely way, as Jeffery came home last night to say that he has unexpectedly been made redundant. As we have very little financial cushion, our capital being tied up in our flat, this bears all the hallmarks of catastrophe in today’s financial climate! However, we are not in despair, for we have been here before, in worse condition, and found that things did not turn out as we feared. Each time being open minded and determined to cling to our core values has led to new beginnings, in ways we could never have planned for.

In the 1970s I was in my second marriage, with 2 daughters and 2 stepdaughters, and a handsome and hard working husband, everything seemed on the up. Ha! I should have known better, first my husband turned out to be not simply a transvestite, but to want a sex change. Ok, I loved him, I felt for his pain, I would do my best to support him through this, even though it seemed an unmitigated disaster from my perspective. Could it get worse? oh yes! While he was away from home at a gender re-assessment clinic, I discovered he had been ‘interfering’ with the girls, and it had been happening for some time. I think that most people will agree that for a mother in her late 20s and her children, this qualifies as ‘catastrophe. At the time I could see no way in which there could be a new beginning in this, my whole life, on every level, was a wasteland. I was wrong. Out of the blue, not long after I had refused to allow my husband to return to the family home and had my stepdaughters taken from my care, an old friend made contact. He helped me to see a way out of my terrifying situation, helping me to find a live-in job in the Orkney Isles, where he lived, enabling me to take my vulnerable little girls to the opposite end of the UK from where my husband was, and protect them from the likelihood of meeting him again.

Orkney was instantly home, a gorgeous feast for all our senses, and a total escape from the alarming situation we had left behind. Of course, once the pressure was off, I went into reaction and had a bit of a breakdown, but my old friend and I developed a close relationship and we had 2 wonderful children together - 2 new beginnings! Catastrophe continued to dog my heels, losing my only parent just after the birth of my 3rd child, and my relationship with my old friend turning very sour, but, yet again, disaster became a new beginning when I met my present husband even as my Orkney life was falling apart around me. Our relationship was born out of coinciding catastrophes for both of us, and has evolved through a series of disasters that kicked us into ever changing world views. I am still deeply homesick for Orkney, but going backwards in life is not healthy, and I can always visit my eldest daughter and her family, who returned home to Orkney a few years ago! She, too, has found new beginnings through catastrophe, and goes from strength to strength, endlessly re-inventing herself and discovering new aspects of herself, I’m so proud of her and all my children, who all seem to be mastering the knack of finding new beginnings in the debris of disaster.

I have a special Facebook Friend who introduced me to blogging, and gave me the courage to do it myself. She is a lovely person, talented and beautiful, who has helped me understand many things about America that mystified me, but she seems to have been hit hard by the results of the recent Presidential election. While most of my American friends are celebrating, for her the result is a catastrophe, I do hope she soon finds a new beginning in her catastrophe.

Monday, 10 November 2008

We shall overcome . . . .

As a non-American, some may feel I am ill equiped to comment on the recent Presidential election, but what many Americans fail to take into account is the impact that their country has on the rest of the world - which, believe it or not, is alot bigger than the USA! As was said many years ago, when America sneezes, Europe catches a cold - but it’s actually more than just Europe, particularly now that this amazing creation, the internet, has made us a truly global society. I know, there are plenty who would argue with me on that, too, but I’m not arguing that it’s an homogenised society. The speed and accessibilty of information has changed not just our world view, but the very way we think and behave, even the way we feel. Our perceptions of reality are now enormously expanded and changeable, as the net feeds us an ever changing wealth of information, and this is what I see reflected in the election of Barack Obama as America’s next President.

World wide, the struggle for civil rights, and supply of basic human needs, has grown enormously since WW2, particularly with the advent and availability of radio and tv. It’s a truism that we don’t crave what we’ve never had, but the expasion of information accessibility has meant that more and more of those ‘at the bottom of the heap’ have realised what they are missing - that compared to the small, wealthy proportion of the population, they are grossly deprived and disempowered. This has created a powerful groundswell of discontent and anger that, sadly, the ‘haves’ appear to be oblivious to. With the advent of the net, it is much easier for the ‘have nots’ to link up and start to form action groups, and to educate themselves in their own potential and abilities. Networking groups such as Facebook and YouTube are not simply about entertainment or time wasting, as some employers are prone to see it, they are powerful tools for people to form alliances, not just locally and nationally, but worldwide, and to take action, to turn individual actions into an irresistable tide.

I believe that the election of President Obama is just the beginning - I fear that ignorant reactionaries may well attempt, or even suceed, to assassinate him, which would be an appalling tragedy, but not, I believe, the end of the movement for change. The disempowered have now discovered that they have real power, after all, and I don’t believe they will reliquish it, even without their symbolic figurehead. After the assassination of Kennedy the movement for progress and change collapsed in grief and fear, but if something dreadful ( heaven forbid) happens to Obama, I believe it would light the touch paper to an explosion of anger that would overwhelm not just America, but the world. He is only one man, with a terrifying task ahead of him, but he is the thin end of a rapidly growing wedge, that the ‘haves’ and the societally old fashioned ignore at their peril. It’s not Communism, or religious fundamentalists, of whatever stripe, that those at present in power need to beware of , it’s something they really can’t control now, because it’s gone too far - it’s the empowerment of the disempowered by the enormous expansion in connectivity that the internet has brought.

This is why I believe we are truly entering a global society, made up of a staggering variety of differing cultures, all with something to offer. Today’s young people take this connectivity for granted, and use it with a fluency and imagination that is inspiring, they socialise, and work, across national borders almost without thinking about it, it is no longer necessary to travel physically to share in a world wide society, and market. This connectivity is also why we are going to have to radically re-think the whole financial system - one nation’s financial mistakes now have an almost instant global effect, we can no longer afford any kind of insularity. Humans have come to dominate the globe through our ability be flexible, and adapt to changing situations. The net has speeded up this process of change and adaptation, or rather the necessity for it, exponentially. As has always been the case, those who are not able, or willing, to adapt as change drives through our lives, will fall by the wayside, in this new context, there will be no room for inflexibility.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Weather wisdom

Saturday night was just a bit too exciting - not the nightlife, of which there is little in the middle of a field, but the consequences of the weather. The wind was rather more than our porch awning was made to cope with, and poles snapped, allowing the porch to collapse against the caravan door - trapping us inside! Jeffery managed to force the door open, as the roof fabric ripped across, and he re-arranged the guy ropes to hold things open, while he removed the broken poles - after we had rescued all the washing, and food, stored in the porch! It was great fun, in the pitch dark, with a manic porch trying to entrap us in its folds. Yesterday my heroic husband managed to mend the poles (narrowly avoiding losing a tooth in the process) and replace them, so our porch still stands, if somewhat the worse for wear. If we continue to be beset with strong winds, I have no great hopes for its longevity, but in the meantime we hope for a dry weekend, to try and repair the rips. The episode set me thinking about other times when the weather has played havoc with my life, and made me realise how very lucky I have been in that regard - I can only recall one serious re-arrangement of life due to the weather.

In 1977, when we had first moved to Orkney, the Islands had their worst winter for many years. Orkney is a glorious place, and I am still homesick, despite having left in 1982. It is a place of sweeping vistas, awe-inspiring skies, and relentless winds - I can remember, on one occasion, having to turn my back to the wind, and put my hand over my face in order to be able to breathe out, the wind was so determined to go UP my nose! Once you have been there a little while, you either get used to, and enjoy the wind, or you have a breakdown - or leave! I learned to love the wind, but that first winter I also learned never to underestimate it, you learn quickly when you make the mistake of opening a car door with one hand and have it torn from your grip, taking skin with it, and nearly tearing the door from the car itself.

I and my children had been living in a lovely static caravan, parked in the shelter of the disused deep-litter chicken house where my partner at the time had his pottery. As winter approached, we thought that it might be wise to rent something a bit more sturdy for the winter, so we rented a bungalow from a friend. The bungalow was usually a holiday let, and was very luxurious after the caravan, it was all electric, with plenty of heating and space. We had a cosy Christmas, cooking lots of lovely Orkney produce in the spacious kitchen, and enjoying the long nights with the Aurora Borealis to make us gasp. However, come the New Year, 1978, the weather started to get worse, and finally we had warnings of severe weather on its way - and in Orkney, you take such warnings very seriously. Very shortly, we had blizzards confining us to the house, and then the power went off. This is a risk you take for granted in such windy country, and you have alternative sources of light, heat and cooking to see you through a day or two - the engineers are very experienced, and don’t take long to get things up and running again.

This time, things were different - there were impassable snow drifts even on major roads, and the phone wires were strung with HORIZONTAL icicles! All the water pipes were frozen, no-one was likely to have electricity for weeks and almost everyone was completely snowed in. Well, there was plenty of pristine snow to melt for water supplies, and the children were delighted not to be able to go to school - or anywhere, much, in fact! We had given my eldest daughter a sled for Christmas, which came into its own, carrying all sorts of supplies across the sparkling white fields, but we only had limited non-electrical heat and cooking supplies, and the bungalow was rapidly becoming a miserable place to be. The caravan had ample gas supplies, and was a smaller place to keep warm, so the sled was pressed into service to transport all our possessions back to the caravan!

It was certainly a wise move, as we were cut off for quite a long time -2 snow ploughs broke their drive chains trying to clear the road at the bottom of the drive, and eventually it was cleared with shovels and man-power! In the mean time, I had still 2 children to care for, including a little girl who was still in terry nappies at night - you have no idea how much snow it takes to wash just one nappy! We have a few pictures, still, of 2 swaddled children, and a sled, grinning in the snow, oblivious to the struggle it took to keep them warm, dry and fed!

Some years later, coincidentally when we left Orkney, in 1982, we encountered similarly determined snowy weather - we very nearly didn’t mange to get off the islands, and when we reached the mainland we had an epic journey south on the train. We rode through dramatic snowscapes, with more and more frequent weather-induced stops as we went further south. Eventually we reached Hereford - and got no further for a couple of days. The buses weren’t running and the roads outside the city were barely passable, so we were stuck in a hotel for a couple of days - the cat didn’t think much of it all! Eventually we found a taxi driver who was willing to try and take us to Hay - another epic journey! When we arrived at Jeffery’s little cottage, we found the back door completely blocked by snow - the whole alley was full to the tops of the doors, and snow drifts in the loft.

As I look back at these memories, I find I am deeply grateful. Not only did we survive, but we had fun, and we all came to have a new appreciation of how lucky we are to live in modern times, with so much protection from the dangers and discomforts that nature assault us with! What has made human beings so powerful is our resourcefulness, and these episodes make me glad to still have a bit of that left.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Fiding out about myself

For most of my life I have been unable to remember most of my childhood - I have had a few little 'snapshots' that have little or no context or connection to each other. Knowing that I didn't have the smoothest or most secure of childhoods, I have simply accepted that my mind shut out painful memories and not worried about it.

Last week we were watching a tv programme about a young anorexic, made with great sympathy and tenderness, and gentle enough in its approach to get the little girl to be trusting and eloquent about herself and her world view. Part way through I had one of those 'OH-MY-GOD' moments, when I suddenly found myself thinking "Yes, I remember doing that, that's just how it is." She was describing how she would hide food, and pretend she had eaten it, and that the idea of eating would sometimes make her feel nauseous, even actually vomit, and it was as if a light had gone on in a dark room in my head. Suddenly I was 8 years old again, sitting in the school dining room, hiding sausages on the little shelf under the edge of the table, feeling sick as I looked at the remaining food on my plate, being terrified at the idea of having to eat it.

Since that 'light bulb moment' the illumination has spread out, and linked together more and more of those little snapshots of memory, filling in many of the gaps in between. I realise that I must have been anorexic when we moved into 43 Castle Street, when I was about 7, as my mother and doctor were both concerned at how thin I was, and how little I ate, so I was prescribed some sort of 'tonic' that I had to take before meals. It was a revolting, thick, green syrup which did quite the opposite of stimulating my appetite!

I also have come to understand just how much my father's brothers and their families did to help us after my father's death. At some stage, after my father's death, but, I think, before my sister's birth, I stayed with my Uncle Herbert and Aunt Ruby and their 2 (at the time) children. They lived in the country somewhere, with (to me) a very long gravel track to the house. I vividly remember (to the extent of bringing tears to my eyes again) running down this track after my mother as she left, eventually falling on my face and skinning my elbows - I still have the scars. My poor mother had no space or strength to recognise or help me with my grief for my father, she was struggling with her own, and the basic need to carry on with the practicalities. Until we moved into 43 Castle Street we had no home, and I was left in the care of Herbert and Ruby, or David and Phyllis, several times, and then I had to share my only remaining parent with a new sister - clearly I must have felt totally deserted and rejected - certainly I was being carried away helplessly on a raging current of incomprehensible events, feeling totally abandoned.

I also remember feeling that everyone wished I had been a boy, that I would, somehow, have been more use to my mother. Somehow, in the wonky thinking of a child, I connected this with advice to 'eat up, so you get to be a big, strong girl' which wasn't really what I thought my mother wanted me to be, after all, she seemed to have plenty of time and attention for my little sister, and she was only a baby - perhaps if I didn't get 'big and strong' I would be more lovable? Looking back, and connecting the memories, i have come to the conclusion that i must have been starving myself from 6 years old till about 9. The turning point was the arrival of my stepfather, Tom Brown.

Tom was only part of our lives for 2-3 years, and I only had contact with him during the school holidays, but during that brief time, his attention was enough to turn around my picture of myself, to make me feel I was alright, and it wasn't all my fault. Sadly, he was unfaithful to my mother, and my sister hated him, so he vanished from my life as suddenly as he had arrived, and then I wasn't even allowed to mention his name. However, his impact on me was such that both my first 2 husbands looked almost exactly like him. He allowed me to 'help' him fix cars, made toys and playthings for me, and generally treated me as someone he enjoyed being with, for the first time since Daddy died, someone made me feel loved and valuable. Unknowingly, I think he literally saved my life.

Having realised that I starved myself for so long, I can now understand why my teeth were always so bad - I deprived myself of vital nutrients at a time when my body was laying down its foundations for my adult life, no wonder my health has always been dodgy. Windows of understanding continue to keep opening, following this one 'light bulb moment', and more and more memories are returning. I find myself grieving for my childhood self, and for my mother, too, I really don't know how she survived - certainly she wouldn't have without David, Phyllis, Herbert and Ruby, and I don't think I would have either, perhaps the reason I have largely cut myself off from my family is that contact with them made me uncomfortable, due to the devastating memories I had repressed in which they played such an important part.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Musings on an unappreciated youth!


"Jung said the greatest burden for the child is the unlived life of the parent.'

A recent exchange on Facebook, with my children and a granddaughter, reminded me of how easily we forget our own youth as we get older. It is far too easy to brush our own mistakes and embarrassments under our mental carpet, and behave towards our young in a painfully superior and repressive way. When I left school I really had no idea what to do with myself, I had been at boarding school since the age of 8, and left at 18 - ten years of taking no real responsibility for myself, totally unprepared to stand on my own two feet! So, my school, with my mother's support, arranged for me to go as an 'au pair' to a family in France, where I would help care for 2 little girls, and attend classes in French. Suffice to say it all went pear-shaped, and I ended up being left with the children and no money, so I took a job where I didn't need to speak French - go-go dancing in one of the new 'discos'! The whole thing went more pear-shaped still, and I ended up returning to England early and traumatised, unable to even talk to my family about what had happened. No-one was to blame for this situation, but it left me even more insecure than before, and led to many years of depression and emotional fragility - to a very real extent, a largely 'unlived life'.

This insecurity, or shame at our own behaviour (which also applies, in spades, to me!) can lead us to being overly strict and protective with our children - there's nothing like one's own memories of disaster to raise awareness of what could happen to one's children, and want to prevent it. This course of action can become a big mistake - if we think a little further, we realise that what we went through as young people made us who we are today, and that it was often our mistakes that gave us most wisdom. However, that doesn't mean we shouldn't do whatever we can to prepare our children to cope with the nasty things that life will undoubtedly throw at them!

If we have the courage to be honest, first with ourselves, and then with our children, about our own past and the mistakes, delights and joys therein, we have something of value to offer. I wish I had realised this years ago, then I wouldn't need to make so many apologies to my children! My own refusal to face my own culpability in the very deep lows of my life cost my children, and my partners and friends, deeply, and there is no way to go back and change that - they have paid the price of my self-delusion, too.

I have led an eventful life, to say the least, including marriage to a transexual (well, that was his self-diagnosis, he was certainly a very disturbed and unhappy transvestite, at least) experiments with mind-altering substances (several legal and far from welcome) one night stands aplenty and marital rape, but I wouldn't say that I had truly lived my life to the full - I was always far too insecure to be able to throw myself into life with the abandon I would have liked. Today I watch skateboarders and rollerblading, snowboarding and breakdancing with a wistful regret that I missed out on such fun out of mere cowardice. Now, my body is paying me back for not taking care of it, not taking exercise, smoking etc, and I can only watch, and be so proud of my children who have gone on to do so many things that I never dared. I got a bare 5 'O'levels, and I have a daughter who teaches English to high flying executives and another who got a degree (despite reading difficulties), a son who is heading into management in one of the UK's biggest up-market stores and another daughter who has brought up children saddled with real physical difficulties to be young people who thrill me with their courage and intelligence.

I'm still an odd-ball, but I'm now able to take a pride in it, and accept my own part in creating who I am and how my life happened, and what's more, my children seem to be shrugging off the burden of my unlived life. Very few of us have the right to stand in judgement, we all have something like promiscuity, drugs, drink, or just plain stupidity somewhere in our past, it's unreasonable not to allow space for our young people to have similar idiocies in theirs!

Thursday, 18 September 2008

This sporting life!

I'll immediately hold up my hand and state that I'm most decidedly not a sports fan, never have been, never will be, but - and it's a surprising 'but' to me, I have been entranced by the coverage of the Paralympics that I have watched.

The whole package of supporting a team, the astounding amount of TV and general media coverage of football (soccer!) etc leaves me with my mouth open in astonishment and bewilderment. I understand, in theory, the whole thing of being part of a group identity, part of a 'tribe', and the sense of security that some people get from it, and I can certainly see the business merits of encouraging that, and I'll admit to seeing that it can do alot for giving the disadvantaged support and the incentive to fight, and overcome, their disadvantages. However, this is all theory, and in my 61 years of life, I have never been able to empathise with this obsession - though I'll admit to a few obsessions of my own!

The people involved in the Paralympics have opened my eyes - not just the athletes themselves, but the myriad of support organisations, the spectators and families and even the media themselves have exuded such unalloyed and genuine joy, that I couldn't help but be caught up in it. The normal Olympics seemed, as with most professional sport these days, to be bedeviled with anger, bitterness, back-biting competitiveness and drugs and I was deeply depressed by the whole circus, not to mention the politics associated with it all. For me, it was a great relief when it was over and the TV schedules and media generally returned to their usual nauseating gossip!

I tuned into the Paralympics to give my eyes and brain something else to do while knitting - I often watch mindless daytime TV for that purpose, and am occasionally pleasantly surprised! The sheer delight in what they were doing on the part of the athletes was a joy, and their good sportsmanship, compared to the able bodied competitors, gave me hope for the world. Knowing that, in Chinese society, there was a long-standing discomfort with disability, not to say rejection of people so afflicted, I was overwhelmed by the way the Chinese people, as a whole, had cast aside their old ways of thinking and thrown themselves into supporting, and appreciating, the achievements of the 'disabled' competitors, and spectators too, was heart warming. This dramatic change in attitudes is an example to us all, and as someone newly faced with disability challenges, I found the whole thing deeply inspiring.

There were many inspiring stories, and many of the most prominent athletes will go on to follow in the steps of people like Tanni Grey-Thompson and become famous to a degree that would have seemed impossible to disabled athletes, and disabled people generally, only a decade or so ago. At last, we are starting to treat them as people first, and disability is only the door which has opened for them, to achievement in fields they might not have otherwise considered. For me, the image that will remain is the joy and disbelief on the face of 13 year old Eleanor Simmons when she won her race in the swimming pool - what race it was, her time etc, are all irrelevant, what matters is her joy in her sport and her joy in achievement, for its own sake - that, to me, is what sport should be about. Money, politics, fame, tribalism, to me, these have all corrupted sport and the Paralympics seemed, somehow, to have put them in their place, at least temporarily.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Ripples in the pond of a life.

"You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth." Kahlil Gibran, 'The Prophet'

In my last blog I mentioned that I struggled at school because of my inability to see the blackboard. I finally got my first pair of spectacles at about 11, and my whole world was transformed - literally. Suddenly everything was not only clearer, but apparently much larger, too, no wonder I had seemed to be so clumsy. I had probably not helped my vision by reading voraciously, with a book barely inches from my nose, from an early age - books had been the only friends to such a shy and insecure little girl, and had been vital in my many solitary stays in the sanitorium. The ripples that spread from this one difficulty spread far, although I could read, I couldn't, as I said, see the blackboard, so I only learned what I was able to find in books, thus I became an enthusiast for history, for instance, while such subjects as arithmetic, let alone maths, remained a mystery for most of my educational life, as I never had the basic grounding - no one realised, until too late (ie once I had left school and become a parent) that my limited vision had also limited my ability to learn to such a high degree.

This whole slant to what information I could access must have had a considerable influence on who I am now, by the time I could see a blackboard, or watch a film, I was halfway through my schooling, and missing a reliable foundation in several subjects. None of my teachers seemed to be aware of the effect of my visual problems on what I had been able to learn, so I was often categorised as stupid, or by the more perceptive, who recognised that I was reasonably intelligent, as lazy. I found myself on the receiving end of a great deal of anger, from a wide variety of teachers, but particularly maths teachers, one in particular of whom frequently reduced me to tears, and on one occasion I was so frightened I wet myself! To this day, the whole idea of maths still paralyses me, at times. I was fortunate in my headmistress at St Mary's Hall, my final school, in Brighton. Miss Conrady recognised that I wasn't simply stupid, or lazy, but missing out on a basic understanding of numbers. so while my contemporaries were studying for maths 'O' levels, she gave me individual lessons in basic arithmetic. For this, I can never thank her enough, without it I could not have run the small businesses I have done, or have got my City & Guilds in Dress & Design - though this was still a considerable struggle - pattern cutting is almost all geometry, which was way beyond what Miss Conrady had equipped me with!

I have also been biased in the direction of self-teaching, as I developed the habit of answering my own questions via books, and unable to follow group practical teaching, working on things by myself until I worked it out for myself. Thus, many of the skills I have have been achieved alone, with the help of a well written and illustrated book or or two - indeed, many a library full! Even once I could see a blackboard, having been unable to partake in that kind of learning for so long, I found it difficult to get involved with the process. As I was also socially inept, not to say isolated, I couldn't turn to many of my contemporaries for support, as I mostly had no friends, and most of those I did have were struggling as much as I was.

This all leaves me wondering how many other people's lives have been distorted by these kind of unrecognised handicaps to learning, we have a major problem in this country with people leaving school, still unable to read - how much of this is down to similarly unperceived physical difficulties? How many teachers see their pupils as people like themselves, rather than a challenge to their authority? Don't misunderstand, i have great admiration for teachers, they do a vital and difficult job, but every barrel has a few dodgy apples, as this kind of dodgy apple can cause problems of a magnitude that very few are willing to recognise. Perhaps, as a society, we need to be more willing question 'experts', more willing to empathise with children as people like ourselves, but more fragile and with much less control over their own experience of life.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Children learn what they live

My delightful grandaughter, Carys, having read my last burblings, has suggested I tell more about my childhood, so if you find this boring, blame her!

As you have already read (if you've read my early offerings) I lost my father at an early age, and I have few real memories of my life before his death. However, I have been told that I was very much "Daddy's girl", and if I really dig deep into my memory, I have vague memories of smells of pipe tobacco, and wet wool; and sensations of being tickled with a beard - not much for 4 and a half years. I know the silly song that my father made up to comfort me when I was grizzly, and one or two stories about my incidents of being childishly charming, but almost nothing first hand - I am deeply envious of those lucky people who have detailed memories of their early childhoods. I do remember 2 special people who cared for me when I was little, both before and after my father's death - 'Mummy' Lawrence, and her son 'Desi' ( short for Desmond) They lived at number 5, New Orchard, near the harbour front, which was demolished long ago. I recall a small, cosy house, with an outside 'loo', on a narrow, cobbled street, not far from the public baths, where we went for both baths and to get the laundry done. It was also close to the Old Custom House, on the quay, which is still there, with its graceful, curving double stairway. Apparently I was quite creative in my mischief in those days, it seems that on one occasion when left alone in the front room (the posh room, rarely used) an appalling racket caused them to rush into the room with their hearts in their mouths, only to find me running up and down the piano keyboard! Ah! Happy days!

Poole, in those days, hadn't yet had the heart ripped out of it and replaced with ghastly modern blocks, and was still a complex of alleyways and little businesses serving the shipping that still kept Poole's harbour thriving and my father in work. There were lots of little seamens pubs, ships chandlers and all the hum of a traditional working community, and we were not the only ones living on board vessels in the harbour, my parents were part of a thriving, post-war water-borne community. I can remember, just, being in a pub with my parents at about 3 or 4, I imagine, and grabbing my father's pint - apparently I downed the lot, and demanded more! That particular pub is now a chi-chi little 'styled' tourist gastro-pub, like most of those that weren't demolished in the 60s and 70s. The smell of a working harbour (not just the sea) with the mixed aromas of sea water, oil and rubbish, can still make me feel both safe and thrilled.

The period following my father's death is not much clearer, it was a muddled and unhappy time for both my mother and myself, and my memories don't really start to have any consistency until we moved into the house bought for us by my grandfather's legacy. The house, 43 Castle Street, Canterbury, was a terraced 2-up 2-down, overlooked by the gas works and cost £500, and a further £500 to gut and put into a livable condition. When it was finished it had its first bathroom and was pristine clean, with a new kitchen extension and all the 20-odd lilacs in the tiny back yard chopped down! However, the bequest didn't allow for furniture, so we moved in with one table, one chair and a large double bed in which all three of us slept. Anything else was created from wooden orange crates, which were sturdy and adaptable. By this time my little sister was about 2, and I was 7, and mummy had a struggle to support us. She took several jobs, and eventually managed to get a good one - secretary to the Headmaster at St Edmunds, a boys public school (private, if you're American!) on the outskirts of the city. With the debts my father had left, this still wasn't enough, so, in school holidays and evenings, she also worked as a waitress in the 'Castle Grill', a fairly up-market restaurant further up Castle Street. In those days there were far more small, local shops, and Castle street was almost a complete village by itself - apart from school, one could live without ever going more than 2 streets away from Castle Street.

Mummy still needed more income, and we had more bedrooms than we needed, so she struggled to furnish one bedroom and the living/dining room, and put a sign in the window, advertising 'Bed & Breakfast'. She got her self so wound up and nervous that she told the first potential customer that she was full! However, once she got into her stride there was no looking back, and soon sharing our home with a wide variety of paying guests was our normal way of life. We met some wonderful people, and some very strange ones, and I learned to take responsibility for looking after other people's needs at an early age, doing everything from cooking, serving at table and cleaning rooms, to dashing out to get extra bread or eggs! It was an exciting life in many ways, though very unpredictable and confusing, as well. I was very shy and insecure, and made few friends in the area before going to boarding school shortly before my 8th birthday.

My first boarding school, the junior part of the Royal Merchant Navy School, was in Bexhill, Sussex, just along the south coast from Hastings. It was a long way from home for a lonely, awkward little girl, and I was desperately homesick - like several other similarly orphaned children at the school. The Headmaster did his best to be a father figure for us (we had almost all lost our fathers to the sea) and used to come to our dorms, sing us lullabies and tuck us up in bed at night, a caring man, I can see with the wisdom of hindsight. I was a sickly child, and seemed to spend most of each spring term in the sanitorium, with one bug or another, and had a very sensitive digestion, with a low appetite, which made for many confrontations with the dining room staff! I couldn't digest animal fat, it made me sick, so I spent many hours sitting alone in the dining hall, with a congealing plate of fat in front of me, being told I would get nothing else till I'd eaten it - thank heaven they eventually weakened, or I would have starved to death!

At Bexhill I encoutered my first corporal punishment - often! My bottom was warmed with everything from a slipper, through a hairbrush and a plastic badminton racquet to a cane! It didn't make me do what they wanted, and demolished my respect and trust for the staff members concerned. These were isolated incidents, though, and most of the staff were caring and special people - even the ones I never seemed able to please! I was a lonely and dreamy child, with a good brain but an extreme reluctance to concentrate - not helped that I badly needed spectacles but no-one had realised it. I couldn't see the blackboard, even from the front desks, so couldn't copy from it, which meant I couldn't do most of the work, because there were not enough books to go round, in the cash-strapped post-war economy. I did get a prize, though - a book on my beloved ballet, for effort! I stayed at Bexhill until I was 11, when most of my contemporaries were taking their 11-plus exam to decide their educational fate, but I was spared that - I was destined to go on to the senior department of the school at Bearwood. Sadly, at the time I left Bexhill it closed altogether, leading to the staff, as well as the children, being scattered far and wide - there were many tears at the end of that last summer term.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Grandchildren



I have quite a few "grandchildren', not all of my bloodline - some are the children of my stepchildren, some the stepchildren of my own children and some the children of people who have chosen to treat me as an alternative mother, it gets complicated and expensive, come Christmas! I have 4 grandchildren actually of my bloodline, not including one charming little boy who left us when he was only 6 weeks old - I don't include him only because there is no longer anything I can contribute to his life, not because he's not important - he is still very precious. Three of these are the older siblings of our lost James Rowan - Carys, David and Bethan, the children of my eldest daughter, Annabelle. The fourth is a new arrival, the first child of my youngest daughter, Ruth, and Inga arrived early, on the 4th of July - I dread to think what her name might have been, had she been born in America!

Last week we went to meet Inga for the first time. She and her parents (Daddy is Mark, a spectacularly good History teacher and ex-Army, who is a brave and special person in many ways) live in a gorgeous old stone cottage in Pencaitland, Scotland, which they managed to move into, after 2 years renovation, the day after Inga was born! We were a tiny bit apprehensive about how things would go on this visit, as Ruth and I have had a difficult relationship in the past, and I have found it all too easy to put my foot in it - don't misunderstand, I love and admire Ruth tremendously, she has overcome enormous difficulties to achieve things that many professionals in her childhood would have believed impossible - they seriously underestimated her! However, there is considerable tension between her father and myself, and this has contributed to alot of misunderstandings and pain for both of us - and I haven't always been the most stable and strong a person myself, so I have, sadly, sometimes let her down badly. We need not have worried, Ruth seems so much happier and at peace with herself, and I am overjoyed for her.

Inga is an unusually interactive baby - at only 2 months, I found myself relating with her as I would expect to interact with a child twice her age. I suspect Ruth and Mark will have their hands full with this one! She is obviously intelligent and curious about the world, as was her mother, and her cousins. I'm really not being a soppy Granny - not all of my much loved younger generation are quite as bright and pretty (perhaps I shouldn't say the latter - Mark insists the poor child looks like me!) but this one is certainly precocious.

I find that I do feel differently this time round, though. My older grandchildren arrived when I was not that far from having had small children of my own, so they were far from a novelty in my life! Also, it has to be admitted, I wasn't really ready to wear the label 'Granny", with its image of age and past-it-ness! This time, parenting of babies and toddlers is way behind me, and I find myself able to enjoy Inga without the pressure I felt earlier - a shame, as I now see how my earlier grandchildren missed out. Not that Carys seems dissatisfied, she tells me I'm "cool' and 'fun', but sometimes embarrassing!

Having struggled as a parent, and knowing from the start that I wasn't really the ideal personality for parenthood, being a grandparent is an unexpectedly enjoyable experience. I have always valued and enjoyed children, but am not a consistent enough person to be the reliable, strong parent that every child needs and deserves, so as a grandparent I can contribute and offer what I can, without carrying a level of responsibility I am ill fitted for. Ruth plans to have more children, and since Inga was planned almost to the day, I expect her to have a couple of siblings! Ruth's brother, Nicolas, also has hopes of being a father one day - though that is not likely to happen soon, I hope that in future I can be a better grandparent, and perhaps give my children better support as parents than I was able to give them as children.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

"The Amazing Flying Sky"





I am very glad to be back in the flatlands of Lincolnshire, I have become very fond of the open nature of this countryside, much of England's landscape seems very closed and claustrophobic. While Lincolnshire may be flat, it has plenty of trees and features, and it has 'the amazing flying sky' (Donovan, "Starfish on the Toast") which is very important thing for me, after my time in Orkney.

I love to be able to watch the weather coming and going, to see clouds form and dissolve and melt into veils of rain. To see the sunlight plunge in shafts through the sculpted clouds, and watch roiling formations gallop across the sky. This delight in watching the sky is, I think, one of the many reasons I'm not happy in bricks and mortar - the sky and the weather are simply too distant and inaccessible. This weekend we will be in Shropshire - very different country, rolling, thoroughly man-dominated farming country, and plenty of post-Victorian industrial landscapes, too. Not that those latter are always a bad thing, some councils have made laudable efforts to ensure that old industrial areas have been transformed into glorious wildlife havens. Indeed, some of them have been turned into fascinating 'living museums' which can provide an absorbing and full day's entertainment, Ironbridge being a pioneering and shining example. We visited when it had only recently opened, and was a very new, and revolutionary concept, and have watched it blossom, over the past quarter century, with intense pleasure. The people of our past, and their work and achievements, deserve our recognition and respect, and we have much to learn from their experience, not least, to treat our resources with much greater care!

Next week we shall be in Scotland, in the Borders and around Edinburgh. A beautiful area, with plenty of dramatic vistas, but not my favourite part of mainland Scotland - that lies much farther north, in the wide, open spaces of Caithness and Sutherland, where man has left a wilderness behind, after the Clearances, for sheep farming and game hunting. Sheep are still there, but not in the same numbers, as is game, but there are also wide swathes of monoculture forestry, though these are widely separated by sweeping vistas of moorland, with lochs that shelter such glorious creatures as osprey. If I had my 'druthers' we'd go to Orkney, where the landscape is mostly sky - you can see the weather coming in plenty of time to prepare for it! Orkney manages to be wild and fertile at the same time, man has gained a good living there for millenia, and the food is fabulous! The beef is flavoursome and tender, mostly raised by farmers on small farms, who care for their 'beasts' like their children! The cabbages grow to the size of footballs, and all the vegetables are bigger and tastier than I can recall any where else, while the seafood is to die for! The traditional dishes, such as bannocks, farm cheese and 'clapshot' are a gaping hole in my gustatory life, and Stockans of Stromness make the only oatcakes worth eating!

Oh dear, my homesickness is showing, change direction! The great joy of a travelling lifestyle is the wealth of new experiences, most of which are free - the views are always different, and always have something special, and, even in such a small island, the people in each area are different - possibly because the landscape itself imposes different lifestyles, and therefore, dispositions. So far, the only people I have found it difficult to like have been city dwellers - it always seems to be 'rush, rush' and no empathy or time for any other viewpoint, 'number one' always comes first. Today, my home is creaking gently in the wind, and the clouds are like grubby lumps of cotton wool, rolling and fleeing across the sky, with delicate patches of pale blue breaking up the lumpy texture of the clouds. If I lived in a house, let alone a city, I probably wouldn't even notice, let alone be uplifted by it.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Houses, good thing/bad thing?


"And tell me, people of Orphalese, what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors?

Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power?

Have you remembrances, the glimmering arches that span the summits of the mind?

Have you beauty, that leads the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountains?

Tell me, have you these in your houses?

Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master?"

Kahlil Gibran 'The Prophet'

I'm not about to pretend that we had such worthy thoughts in our minds when we gave up living in houses, lack of liquidity and a need for flexibility had much more to with it! However, the truth of Gibran's words have come home to me more and more, particularly over the past year, since we have returned to the road after 3 misguided years in bricks and mortar, which cost us money and much heartache. Neither am I going to pretend that we don't have a very high degree of comfort, ours is a brand new caravan, with heating, electricity and all that that brings with it, but it does limit how much 'stuff' we carry with us, literally and metaphorically, and requires us to prioritise quite carefully how we apportion space and weight quotas.

I remember when we first took to the road, there was a phrase being used in the media and amongst Friends (we were Quakers at the time) that talked about 'knowing the difference between need and greed' Our current lifestyle certainly helps us with that! An ex of mine used to say that 'one expands to fill the space available' - just for once, he was quite right! (actually, he was right quite often, but don't tell him) There is a wonderful freedom about reducing not just the space in which to hoard things, but also the capacity to distance yourself from the power of nature. In houses, when there is serious rainfall you are hardly aware of it until you step outside and find yourself knee deep! When so much of your identity is tied up with your home, and all the stuff in it that announces to the world what kind of person you perceive yourself to be, losing all or part of it is devastating, not just on a practical level, but on a personal, identity level. I watch the flood victims in Britain on TV with an aching heart, and see these interviews with those returning from their caravans to their bricks and mortar with equal sorrow, for they are returning to an old identity for themselves and the old vulnerability. Don't think I'm being superior here, I'm more sad that they have been given a chance by life to look at themselves, and the world, through a different lens and have rejected it. Instead of treating their stay in a caravan as if it were a holiday, a window on a different life, and an opportunity to learn how well they can cope without all their comforts and 'stuff', they have reduced themselves to 'victim' status, seen themselves as helpless. "Whatever you believe, it's true" were the words of a wise man, whose name I can't recall, and believing themselves to be helpless and suffering, they become so - we all do, if that is what we believe.

This week and last, we had some spectacular storms here, and there has been some flooding elsewhere, I believe. For me, these storms were a delight, snug in my flimsy walls, I watched the light show with wonder, and the play of water and wind with delight, rather than fear. My walls are very flimsy, in every sense, although we are insured, disaster to the van would be a misery indeed, but mainly on a practical level. It would be enormously inconvenient, and, despite the insurance, costly in financial terms, but what matters to me most cannot be taken away by natural or physical upheavals, it's internal. Kahlil Gibran closes that passage about houses with these words:-'For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky, whose door is the morning mist, and whose windows are the songs and silences of night.' To many, this will seem like mystical double talk, for me, it's a profound truth at the heart of my world view. It has liberated me from years of fear and uncertainty, and the anxiety of seeing myself through the eyes of those who would judge me by what I own/have/how I dress etc. I hope that any who read this can also find that freedom and peace of mind, nothing beats it.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Everyone agrees that it's impossible . . . . .

Everyone agrees
That it's impossible
To have a real relationship with one's parents,
But the same ones, becoming parents,
Never think
For one moment
That it will be impossible for them to have a real
relationship with their sons and daughters.

Margaret Tait "Origins and Elements" 1959




For many more these days, this poem seems to sum things up, and I have been reflecting on my own parent/child relationships, from both sides of the equation. I think that I am extremely lucky in my parent/child relationships, in that I had much more of a peer to peer relationship with my mother than most, due to my father's early death and my early admission to boarding school, and that of my 4 children, I can count 2 of them as not just much loved, but amongst my dearest friends - that I have much in common with, and would choose as friends if we were to meet as strangers because of our common beliefs and values. This is not to say i hold my other 2 children less dear, simply that they have much more of their fathers' genes and characters of that side of their family, so they are simply different kinds of people.

Once my father died, my mother needed me to be less dependent on her, emotionally - not a demand that she deliberately or consciously made, simply that she had no reserves left. This created a different kind of parent/child relationship, with me physically dependent, but having to give as much as I took on an emotional level, much more like a peer-to-peer relationship. In many ways this could have easily become little more than what would today be regarded as child abuse, but, for me, it became a positive thing. It gave me faith in myself, in my own ability to deal with whatever life threw at me, at an early age. This coping was not always easy, pleasant or wildly successful, but I did cope, and came out the other side having learned useful lessons, and with an interesting and unusual relationship with my mother. When she died, at the sadly young age of 65, I lost not just my mother, but a friend to whom I was becoming closer all the time, and coming to respect in a way few children respect their parents - not simply as parents, but as an amazing person, whose achievements left me open mouthed.

My own children, 3 daughters and 1 son by 3 fathers, are a very mixed bag of characters, all having coped with their difficult childhoods in different ways. I was far from an ideal mother, suffering long bouts of serious, untreated depression for most of their childhoods, and it has, of course, left its mark on all of them, as well as on me. I don't feel any guilt about the ways in which I let them down, because I know that I held their welfare dearest at all times, and that I always did the best I could at the time. However, I am deeply saddened by the price they paid for my incapacity, as I paid for my own mother's, and do whatever I am able to redress the balance - but one can never go back and one can never change the past, nor how it affected people. At the same time, I can see that, in many ways it made them stronger personalities, as it did me, so there is a balance which is hard to assess in terms of good/bad. If my children hadn't felt protective towards me as children, would they be able to see me as clearly, as an individual, as 2 of them do now - the other 2 are gradually coming to the same point, too. When I compare my relationship with my children, it actually seems to me to be less dependent and more intimate, than those of many of my acquaintance, and, generally, a more honest and open one, with more mutual respect. I may be deluding myself, I'm perfectly willing to acknowledge that! But I do feel that we have more of a 'real relationship' than many.

So, where does that leave me? And the truth about my parent/child relationships? I can only give my perspective, you'd need to hear my children's, and my mother's, stories, to have even a part of the full picture. Again and again I return to Margaret Tait, and and question myself. It's really got no answer, no resolution, and I'll never know if 'everyone' is right.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Thunder of memory

Shortly after I posted yesterday's gibberish, we had a series of magnificent thunderstorms. These sent all the campers scurrying for cover, but did not appear to bother the 2 men putting up the large, new toilet/shower block, who continued to clamber around on the roof, wielding their electric drills etc, while magnesium-white flashes illuminated their work!

The sky had been bright while I posted my blog, but over a space of less than 5 minutes it turned darker and darker, till I needed to put the lights on - then, a stupendous white flash, that blinded me for 3 or 4 seconds, the sound of a heavy oak cupboard falling down a long spiral staircase and a rattling on the roof that I assumed to be hailstones - but no, it was large, individual raindrops that I was very glad to be protected from. This bout lasted for about 45 minutes, then we had a break of blue skies for an hour or so. Then, equally suddenly, the next one arrived, heralded by squally gusts of wind that threatened all the tents and awnings, twisting and lifting them so they struggled like terrified torture victims, when the torrent hit, the wrenched canvas flung the water in fountains and cascades that a designer of 'water features' would have envied! When the wind dropped, the water ran off the excellent modern waterproofing in distinct snakelike formations, looking remarkably like a display of trickling mercury - quite entrancing.

It's a long time since I last remember experiencing storms like this (they continued most of the night, a wonderful light show that I was glad to be awake to enjoy) The last time I recall storms of such impact was in my early teens, at my first secondary boarding school, Bearwood. This was the senior department of the Royal Merchant Navy School, to whom I owe a great debt, they gave me a far better education and standard of living than my mother could have afforded, had I stayed at home, and continued to pay for my education at a fine Girls' school, once the girls section of Bearwood closed (when I was 14) The school was in a fabulous 19th century mansion, built by the family who owned the 'Times' newspaper, and donated, with its enormous grounds, to the Royal Merchant Navy Orphanage when they found their original property, at Snaresbrook, no longer up to the job. A modern block of classrooms had been added to the original building - a long corridor, with rooms off, and I vividly remember standing in this corridor one summer term, with hailstones the size of golf balls crashing onto the sky lights, and wondering if the glass would stand up to this assault! Suffice to say they did, and I got into trouble (again!) for being late for my lesson, standing around contemplating the weather.

Bearwood has a special place in my heart, along with several members of the staff there. I won't pretend I was happy there, on the contrary, I was very miserable indeed, but this was not the fault of the school or its staff, or even of the other children, many of whom teased me unmercifully. The problem was that I was shy, gawky and deeply insecure, too much had happened in my short life, and I was a bully's dream! Some of the boys only needed to look at me hard, and I'd burst into tears! I was very frightened of life itself, having lost my father at four and a half, found myself sharing my remaining parent only 7 months later, and then packed off to boarding school at nearly 8 - the world didn't look like a very safe place to me, and I remained bewildered and confused by it all for many years, right into adulthood. Nonetheless, Bearwood was my rock for several years, and many of the deeply caring staff did their level best to fill the yawning gap left by our absent parents, they went way beyond the call of duty in the support and love they offered to children partially orphaned by death, and deprived of their remaining parent by circumstances.

The basics of simple survival were much more of a priority in those post-war years, and, although they cared as much as any modern parent ( maybe even more than some?) simply keeping a roof over their heads and food in our mouths was foremost in their efforts - there was little in the way of State support in those days, and charitable bodies served an even more vital role than they do now, in this country. In the early years in our little house in Canterbury, SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors and Air Force Association) were vital to my mother, providing us with many basics, such as clothes, furniture and even food, sometimes. Many I talk to about going to boarding school at such an early age are aghast that my mother could send me away so young, they find it hard to understand, in this age of minimum wages and charity shops, not to mention food being thrown away, that she was doing her best for me, ensuring that for 3/4 of the year I was fed, clothed, warm and housed to a standard way beyond what she could manage, and, furthermore, given a higher standard of education than the local school would have offered. My mothers' generation had suffered the Depression and the Second World War, what emotional damage did they suffer? In comparison to that, what was I suffering? I have no right to complain, but to be grateful that I was given so much by people who owed me nothing.

As the thunder clouds roll over again, I sit in my caravan home, with more than enough food in my cupboards, a modern gas cooker, a fridge, a heater and loads of modern comforts, and I'm deeply grateful. What's more, I have this wonderful machine, through which i can inflict my thoughts on you, the reader - isn't life magic!

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Holidays/vacations/staycations


Living, as I mostly do, on caravan and camping sites, I'm a bit of a 'Peeping Tom" on how other people enjoy their leisure time. Only a particular portion of the population, granted, but fascinating, nonetheless. There has been radio time given to 'staycations' lately, the idea being that the 'credit crunch' has caused people to turn away from going away on holiday ( be that going abroad or going away at all) and to stay either in their own homes, or remain in their own country. The impression seems to be that this is something new and original, but I have to say that from my perspective, it's going away that's more of a 'flash in the pan' idea.

I can recall few holidays in my youth, either for myself or for the majority of those I knew (including the comparatively wealthy at my boarding schools) The first true holiday I remember was taken when I was in my early teens, and my stepfather converted an old Bedford van to a camper, by installing 2 bunks, high on either side for my sister and myself, space being kept on the floor for a mattress for him and my mother. We packed basic camping gear and headed for the south west of England, Dorset in particular. I don't remember how long we were away, but I do remember it being very exciting, and, despite various rows and disasters, having an hilarious time - at least one of the disasters being the cause of some of the greatest hilarity! This incident took place in the New Forest, and proper caravan and camping sites were few and far between in those days, there was much more of what is known today as 'wild camping', so we were driving through the Forest, quite late, in the twilight, looking for am open, flat space to stop the night. My mother was at the wheel and Tom, my stepfather, spotted a likely area off the road. Mummy headed off-road into the dusk, and soon came to a small stream. "Drive straight through, there's a good, flat bit on the other side" said Tom, and so, cautiously, my mother went forward - perhaps too cautiously, because we soon had our back wheels stuck in the stream, with the front of the van up on the bank! Suffice to say we had a very uncomfortable night, bunk occupants only held from shooting out the back by the closed doors, and our parents getting wet feet!

To many, today, this would seem like a very unsatisfactory experience. I watch those around me on site, with their enormous TVs, microwaves etc, in enormous caravans with awnings even bigger, and a still larger area staked out with windbreaks, and wonder if they realise how privileged they are. Even those with modern tents seem to take a level of comfort and convenience for granted that I didn't have in my home as a child! I recall, vividly, helping friends to set up their tent in their back garden, prior to going away, when I was about 15. They were a Scouting family and had a big, canvas tent that seemed as big as a marquee to me! However, they set it up in the back garden of a small terraced house, so it can't really have been that big. It took 2 people to carry this tent, not counting the poles, I suppose it must have been about as big as most caravan awnings these days, but so much more complicated and heavy. No lightweight aluminium poles, let alone carbon fibre, in those days, these poles were long and made of wood, with metal caps and fittings, and did not provide a frame over which you draped the canvas - the guy ropes' tension held it all up. I watch old films of Hillary and co. climbing Everest, and my admiration is unbounded, simply because of these heavy, complex canvas tents they relied on for shelter! It took serious skill to set up a tent at all, let alone do it so it stayed up in all weather.

I have unbounded admiration for people like Ray Mears, who learn, preserve and pass on the skills of simple, hunter gatherer style living. We light our barbecues, and kid ourselves we're enjoying the outdoor life - gas barbecues? Outside a caravan that cost several thousand pounds? Pull the other one! Don't misunderstand, I'm not diminishing the value that caravanning or camping holidays offer, quite the reverse, I wish we would all be more grateful for the leisure and comfort we all have in our lives these days, and see them in perspective. So many are feeling hard done by because they can no longer afford to go to Spain, or Bali, even. We live in a wealthy enough society that we can have free time to do with as we wish, without wondering how we'll feed ourselves during that time - that's magical. I'm not that old, only just old enough to claim a bus pass and pension, but I'm old enough to remember having to put cardboard in my only pair of shoes, because my mother couldn't afford to get them mended, let alone buy new ones, and that's, thankfully, a much rarer experience these days.

I was listening, this morning, to an interview with 2 men who work in the City, 2 of the cogs that make up the financial motor of all our lives. They were asked why the 'credit crunch' happened, and they both said 'Greed' - not just the greed of the Banks, but all of us, including Government, determined to have what we wanted, whether we could afford it or not. They were right, if you can afford any kind of holiday, be deeply grateful, and hope that it continues to be the case - we have sown the wind, and there's whirlwinds galore on their way. That doesn't mean life won't be enjoyable, but we all need to learn to get more pleasure from the things that have nothing to do with how wealthy we are, what gadgets we have, how big and glamourous our homes are . . . . etc.etc.etc. We have followed Mammon, and starved our hearts and souls - there's no financial price on joy, success, contentment, and while money is useful, it's only a tool. The value of a tool lies in how it is used, how are you using yours? Or are you too frightened of losing it to put it to use?

To return to vacations/staycations, whichever you are lucky to have, I hope you will value your time more than your wealth, and the people in your life most of all - they are the real wealth of the world, although there are far too many of us, these days! And please remeber that it is harder for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle - and I don't believe that Jesus was being mystical when he said that, he was talking about here and now. (And in case you're wondering, I don't see myself as Christian, I just recognise good advice when I hear it!)

Having re-read this, I feel I sound a bit 'preachy' - sorry, I don't think i'm wiser than any one else, but I am so sad that we don't seem to be learning from our mistakes, and my heart aches for future generations who will reap what we have sown. I'm no better than anyone else, but this is heartfelt, so I'll let it stand as it is, and hope you will forgive the impression of 'holier than thou'.

Monday, 4 August 2008

What's in a name?


I have a new granddaughter, who has been given the charming name of 'Inga", redolent of Vikings and fjords and other such Scandinavian delights. It set me thinking about all the names and nicknames that I, and those around me have carried, and the baggage that names carry.

I was named Michele (only one 'L' as my father didn't know how to spell it) but rapidly became 'Mimi' to all and sundry - today, only my cousin Janice calls me Mimi. Mimi was a pretty, dark haired little girl, and she is now buried so deeply inside me that I can barely remember her - to be called 'Mimi' now is deeply disconcerting. When I went to school I was the only Michele for a long time, and no-one really knew how to pronounce it, I suffered the pain of being 'Meee-shell' for many years, usually in a nasal voice, that made me cringe. My mother, in my later childhood, affectionately reduced my name to 'Miche', pronounced 'Meesh', which later led to people calling me 'Midge', particularly grating, as I hadn't even granted them the right to call me by my christian name, let alone my family diminutive. Grrrrrrrrrr!

Now I am, happily, known by most of my nearest and dearest as 'Moomin', which recalls the fictional characters of Moomin Mama and Moomin Papa and their brood, a family of Hippo-like characters in a series of childrens books. Not that it came from them - my 2nd daughter asked me what I would like to be called, when I became a grandmother (I don't much like 'Granny,' or even 'Mum'if it comes to that, too de-personalising for my taste, I'm aperson, not a relationship.) I suggested 'Mim', after the mad witch in 'The Sword in the Stone' - Mad Madame Mim. At the time, I had a fondness for having pink hair, which Madame Mim also did in the film, and she was one very powerful, contrary lady, which suited my self image very well! Well, between having rather too much 'falling down water' and a family tendency to Spoonerisms, it got transmogrified into 'Moomin' and stuck. Since my shape is rather closer to a hippo's than I would like, and the Moomins were such an extraordinary family, it seemed to fit rather satisfyingly, so I've stuck with it.

My husband was named Jeffery, after a novel writer favourite of his mother's, and despite being slim and agile, for some reason had the moniker 'Jumbo' applied in his childhood. These days, he is often, lovingly, known as 'Jiffy', again a product of my 2nd daughter's creative wordiness. This, to me, seems to fit his gentle, giving and generous character very well, as well as his eagerness to get things done as quickly as he can - provided he doesn't get distracted!

My son was called 'Nicolas' (yes, no 'h', it's French) after the 'vin ordinaire' that was delivered to the door in Paris when I was an 'au pair' in the 60's. When little he was known as 'Nicky', and as the youngest, with 3 forceful older sisters, he found it very uncomfortable as he reached young adulthood - not surprisingly, he felt he was not being treated as an adult by those who called him by this diminuative, so he became 'Nick'. Around this time, he was also known as 'The Boy Wonder', which he self-deprecatingly turned into 'The Boy Blunder', which gives an impression of his state of mind at the time, I think. Now, he is indubitably a man, and has returned to being Nick. He's as fallible as any other man, of course, and has a long way to go, but I think he's found an identity with which he is comfortable, at last, solid ground on which to build.

My eldest daughter was called Annabelle, after my delightful next door neighbour, and this suffered little in the way of contractions. Nor did she have any nicknames in the family -though one 'stepfather' was prone to call her 'Belly' - not appreciated at all. (his name for me was 'Sludge Pan', I think that should have warned me, but I was slow on the uptake) Now she has moved back to her childhood home in Orkney, and everyone calls her 'Belle', which I find highly appropriate - although she is blind to it herself, she has real beauty.

I could go on listing names, but that's not what I want to get across. What interests me is how much we are affected by what we are called, and by who calls us what. Our identity is such a fragile and malleable thing, and if we are not very careful, we can end up not knowing who we really are at bottom, and being a composite of other peoples' ideas of us. This, I think, is why we need to be careful what we allow others to call us, we need to know what we stand for, what our values are and how these create our own vision of ourselves. Then, we need to do everything in our power to ensure that that we actually are that person, and names are a very helpful peg to hang this identity on. For me, 'Moomin' (or Mwmyn, if we're being Welsh!) suits me very well, no glamour, plenty of affection and comfort, with a streak of steel but no sharp edge! Maybe, like all of us, I am deluding myself, but it keeps me happy.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Going to the doctor

One of the complications of living a mobile life is getting consistent access to medical care. When your body is deteriorating as rapidly has mine has decided to do, reliable medical care and a regular drug supply are a priority, but our medical system (for obvious reasons) is based on a stationary residence basis, with registration with a local GP surgery. This makes perfect sense for the majority of the population, but at present I find myself actually living my life in the far east of the country, while being registered with a wonderful practice in the west of the country! Thus, so that I can see my orthopaedic consultant (about my destroyed right elbow) Jeffery has to take 2 days off work , so that we can spend tomorrow travelling west, and Thursday actually seeing the consultant and then driving back east - it will give us an opportunity to see 2 of our children, and to arrange for my next months' worth of medication to be posted to our current caravan site, as a bonus, but it would be much easier if I could get a repeat prescription from a local surgery!

Having spent my life in a wide range of different places in the UK, I've had quite a few differing medical experiences with my GPs. Some, particularly the more recent ones, have been brilliant, with deeply caring and empathetic doctors who have gone out of their way, and worked extremely hard, to identify and meet my needs - sadly, that hasn't always been the case. Over a large proportion of my life I have suffered from depression, mostly post-natal but none the less lasting for many years. Unfortunately, for most of this period my GPs were unsympathetic men, who saw me as an irritant, a failure and a nuisance, so instead of getting the support that , not just I, but my family, needed. This resulted in the failure of several marriages and a highly insecure childhood for my children.

Doctors have a great deal of power over the everyday lives of their patients, and most of them are highly aware of this and treat this responsibility with the respect it deserves, but the exceptions can cause a level of devastation in the lives of the vulnerable that usually goes unrecognised. I'm not talking about gross malpractice here, that's actually much easier to identify, it's more the rural practice, for instance, where the doctor has been in position for many years and there are few, if any, alternatives. The 'Old Boy Network' is still at work in many such areas, and can result in personal disaster for those who are not part of it, but affected by it - like me! I don't know how this can be addressed, it's far from simple - I hardly think that empathy is something that can be taught and an examination passed! Apparently there is now a system in place for patients to make comments on their GP, but I haven't been invited to take part, so it's obviously something you need to seek out, rather than a system where the GP actually actively seeks out feedback - rather a shame, I think.

The newer output of doctors do seem to be much more aware of this issue, so I have great hope that fewer patients will have their lives left to roll on, into disaster, because their doctor was too arrogant to perceive, and treat appropriately, a serious mental medical condition. I know mental illness is not always easy to identify, let alone treat, but too many cases still slip through the net, the system is far from fail-safe and doctors have the power to prevent an enormous amount of misery if they are only willing to take the time to really listen.

Monday, 28 July 2008

A new view





When I look out, now, instead of the small paddock and buildings of the Bubble Car Museum, I see a 10 acre field, liberally dotted with tents and caravans, surrounded by woodland, where the dog is delighted to take her daily rambles. We're on a proper farm, with eggs etc for sale at the farmhouse door and it feels a bit like a pop festival without the music, mud and crowds! A very happy atmosphere, with everyone relaxed and having a good time, and none of the jostling for status that you can get on "posh" sites.

We moved here on Saturday. Living the way we do means that every time we move, we spend about 90 minutes making sure everything is secure, disconnecting plumbing and electrics, making sure that weight is properly distributed, then hooking up to the car, sorting out those electrics and rear view mirrors etc, before we actually get on the road. Depending how far we have to go, we then have the journey, which can be exhausting and frightening, as many drivers are so impatient they overtake in dangerous situations, which can make for a white-knuckle ride - who needs fairgrounds! These drivers seem totally oblivious to our lack of ability to brake suddenly, for instance, and usually underestimate how long we are, leading to some tight squeezes. Then, of course, we have the fun of actually finding the new site - the directions can be a bit woolly sometimes, and turning a car and caravan around in someone's farm yard is an unpopular but sometimes required manouvre. Having found our destination, we have to check and pay up, find our pitch and site ourselves ( sometimes very entertaining and time consuming in congested spaces) then find the water, drainage, sewage, electric hook up, bins . . . not always as straightforward as you might expect! Some site owners seem to delight in making us play hide and seek for these essentials, hiding taps drains in hedges, behind sheds, halfway down a long drive . . . .Then we have to spend some time searching out the local Laundrette and shops, as we won't have time after work. After all that, we're lucky if there's any day left! Still, it does often mean that neither of us can be bothered to cook, so we get fish and chips, or push the boat out and have a bar meal!

All this means we only have Sunday to explore the sights, especially in the winter months - at least we can do a bit of exploring on summer evenings, even if it's British summer weather i.e. wet! It's hot and dry at present, well dry as in 'not raining' being an island we always have a fair degree of humidity, which can make it feel like you're trying to breathe soup and makes me very tired (poor old thing!) If we have to move every weekend, it does get a bit wearing, to say the least, and as I (a) don't drive and (b) can't stand or walk for very long, it means that all I ever see is the camp site! Not that I'm complaining, we've been on some lovely sites - in Yorkshire we stayed for a couple of months in the grounds of a stately home, by the lake that was part of "Capability" Brown's landscaping, it was gorgeous, and the wildlife was rampant and highly entertaining (especially for the dog, but she never did manage to catch a water vole!)

If it wasn't for our mobile modem and the dog, I could get pretty bored and lonely, but Sioni (the dog) drags me out of doors and into some exercise, even if it's pouring. We've always had dogs in our family, apart from the gaps between losing the last and gaining the next, even when we have been very hard up, somehow we always found a way to feed a dog as well as us, and they have always given full value for money! The first dog I remember was Scallywag, a golden brown spaniel, who was far too fat. I was very small, it was when my father was still alive, and I suspect my mother had panic attacks everyday, taking him ashore on the raft, so that he could have his walks, for she was severely aquaphobic and being willing to live on a boat is a measure of how much she loved my father, I think. Apparently, I nearly killed poor Scally, by putting an elastic band around his neck - with all the folds of flesh, no-one realised till he was at death's door. Luckily he survived this trauma, to become even fatter, and ended up being sent away to special kennels to lose weight! He was still there, I believe, when my father died so I can tell you no more about him. Once we were settled at Castle Street, I managed to inveigle my mother into adopting another dog.

Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, I realise that what happened must have given Mummy many a sleepless night over money, but children are oblivious to the implications of poverty. Mummy worked part time at a restaurant down the road, a very upmarket place, and the daughter of the house became my friend - are you out there, Yvonne? During the summer holidays we would sometimes hang out around town together, and in the Cathedral precints we met a man (a Traveller, I now realise) with a cute terrier puppy and we both fell in love with his delightful little creature. Now, Yvonne, bless her, was rich from my perspective, and got real pocket money, reliably, every week, and she'd just got the latest ration - the enormous sum of 10 shillings. To cut a long story short, Yvonne blew her pocket money on the puppy. When she got home, the smelly stuff really hit the fan! No way were her parents going to have a dog in their high class restaurant. They were quite right, of course, but that didn't help Yvonne or the dog. I ran home and pleaded with my mother - the dog would have be put down if we didn't rescue it, cos the man at the Cathedral had gone and Yvonne's parents didn't care about the dog and they were incandescent about her throwing away all that money on the dog, and couldn't we possibly rescue the dog and Yvonne from the wrath of her parents? I must have been distraught, because Mummy said we would take the dog and they could dock the 10 shillings from her wages! That was a very special dog, my mother named her 'Patum Pepparium' which is the name of an anchovy paste (very expensive) known as 'The Gentleman's Relish' because she was such a pretty dog!

Patum was very intelligent, and Mummy was a dedicated and responsible dog owner. Patum learned many tricks and became our favourite companion. She would allow us to dress her in baby clothes and would lie, patiently, in the dolls pram for a surprisingly long time, being pushed around the park and up and down the street. She could open and close doors, fetch all sorts of things reliably and perform remarkable acrobatics. She became my mother's true companion and comfort through many ups and downs, and gave birth to 2 litters who gave the family more generations of loving support, as well as some of our friends who adopted the puppies. One little charmer went to an actress ( that's a whole new bunch of stories!) and even went on stage himself - his name was Fabrizzio, known as 'Brizzi", and some wicked wit taught him to believe that the word 'sex' meant 'chocolate', predictably, he went hysterical whenever the 'S' word was mentioned!

Friday, 25 July 2008

Living over the shop, part2

When you run a B&B you have to be at home until all your rooms are filled, unless you can afford (a) not to fill them all, or (b) to get someone else to be there on your behalf. Since my mum couldn't afford option (a) but had to go out to work as well, I spent alot of my school holidays being option (b), this was quite a responsibility for an 8+ year old, especially as it also included bed-sheet changing and a bit of cleaning up for incoming tenants, not to mention a fair bit of washing up! Not all the time, I hasten to add, adult neighbours and friends did the bulk of it, but i was proud to be made to feel a key member of the team.

During the summer we all 3 shared the same bedroom, which was the front downstairs room - what would have been the 'parlour' once upon a time, the back downstairs room being our living room/B&B breakfast room, so that all the 'real' bedrooms could be let. This meant all our possessions had to go into the front room, too, and when i came home from boarding school, I could never be sure where all my 'stuff' was, or even that it had all survived all the moves in my abscence! This gave me a very confused attitude to possessions, craving to have lots of them, since this seemed an unachievable impossibility, but also becoming very fatalistic about letting go of things - after all, if they were gone, crying and getting upset wouldn't recover them. As I was unable to take much to school with me, I learnt to treasure more ephemeral things, like ideas and to enjoy libraries, where unlimited amounts of such ephemeral things could be found. Being at home only for school holidays, and my little sister frequently being in the care of adults other than the ones I was at home with, meant my friends at home were mostly adults and I became a rather odd, withdrawn and lonely child. Don't misunderstand, I wasn't particularly unhappy, though it would have been nice to see more of my mother and sister, but even at that age, I understood that all this was necessary and not personal - simply one more of those unfortunate facts of life I had to get to grips with.

Just down the road, on the corner of Castle Street and Rosemary Lane, was the local Post Office and shop, run by Mrs Livingstone, rapidly known to us as "Mrs L", who frequently cared for my sister while mummy worked, and provided a base for me, too. Again, we were 'living over the shop', but more literally, this time. This shop was a treasure trove of good things to a child of that era - rows of boxes and jars of sweeties! Mrs L was very kind to us, but those sweeties didn't come free, any more than any other goods in the shop - I well recall the excitement when someone gave me a whole threepenny bit, which I hurried down to Mrs L's with and bought a Mars bar - such extravagence! Penny sweets were the order of the day then, my favourites being Blackjacks, which my memory says were 4 for a halfpenny in the late 50s (I may well be wrong, it was a long time ago!) Thank heaven for Mrs L, she was there for me whenever I needed someone, a secure rock in a confusing world, and remained so till she died, a big 'Thank you' to Duncan and Douglas, her sons, for sharing her, she was vitally important to a lonely little girl, and I hero worshipped you both to a scary degree!

We had many memorable guests, including a vastly tall black American, who bought Mummy an enormous box of chocolates and put them on top of a wardrobe, where only he could reach them, to make sure she had them all and didn't give them to us! A lovely man, who brightened our lives with much laughter. Then there was the lovely couple, he English, she American, who stayed often and became dear friends. One Christmas, when I was about 12/13, they found Mummy weeping in the kitchen at night, about 2 days before 'the great day'. It turned out that she had so little money that she could afford any presents or even a special meal - if any at all. It turned out to be the most extravagent Christmas we had ever known - including our first taste of turkey! What wonderful people, and we would never have met, but for 'living over the shop'.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Living over the shop


On BBC Radio 4's 'Womens Hour" this morning, there was item about women who had grown up living over, and involved with, their parents business; and women who were running theiroen businesses and taking their children to work with them. It set me thinking about my own childhood, and how it has formed many of my own attitudes.

My father, a merchant seaman, drowned at sea on Christmas Eve 1951, when I was 4 1/2 years old. My mother had just discovered she was pregnant again ( with my sister) and times were hard in this country, so soon after the War. Daddy was handsome, charming, loving, all sorts of good things, but he wasn't good with money, to say the least, in fact, his preference with bills was to 'hide them behind the clock' as my mother put it. When she came to sort out his affairs, she found a frightening level of debt - and I mean FRIGHTENING! Not only that, but he hadn't kept up his National Insurance payments, so she had little or no Widows Pension - enough of a challenge to make many women top themselves, but not my Mum! Most of the debt was owed to a friend, who wanted to say "Forget it" but Mummy said she intended to pay it all back - eventually. Thus began my wandering life, while my father lived, we had lived on a converted Lowestoft Drifter ( a 90 foot long fishing boat) moored in Poole harbour, where my father earned our keep doing a variety of jobs around the harbour - delivering fresh water etc to boats, putting on a diving suit that looked like a space suit and doing salvage and repair work under water . . . . . whatever. As Mummy was aquaphobic, this wasn't her ideal home, so that went and we started to wander the country, Mummy doing whatever work she could that also provided a roof over our head.

This lifestyle, combined with trying to pay off horrendous debts, was not particularly healthy for a pregnant woman, and we ended up being 'rescued' by my father's brothers, staying with 2 of them and their families on their respective farm/market garden. These few months contain the first clear memories I have - playing in the hay barn with my older cousins, picking cherries in the orchard, and my Aunt Phyllis's kitchen, with its red quarry tiles and cosy Aga cooker - it seemed the height of comfort and security to my 5 year old self. Once my sister was born we soon had to move on - snippets of memory come back, like snapshots; me in a posh school uniform, including a camel-hair coat, breakfast in the school dining room - my mother had a live-in job as Matron for the boarders at a small girls private school, finding my mother sobbing in our shared room in the attic with her fingers bleeding and her eyes blighted by 'styes'. At this point my father's family came to the rescue again. We spent some time with my father's cousin's father in a Devon seaside town, where my mother acted as his housekeeper. This was 1953, the year of the Coronation, which is full of memory-snapshots.

In the spring of 1953, we had a storm when all the blossom was whirled off the cherry trees in the garden - Mummy collected it all up, and the house was full of their heady fragrance for several days, floating it great bowls all over the house. I attended a small school, which my memory is determined was right next door, just up the hill! I vividly recall playing in the sandpit there, which was in a tray-table, at just the right height for small people. We practised for ages for our performance in the Village Hall on Coronation day, and Mummy made me THE BEST costume of all of them! We all had to be dressed as rabbits, and Mummy made me a perfect costume in white towelling, with pink taffeta-lined ears and an enormous cotton pom-pom tail. We kept that costume till I was nearly adult, but I'm not sure what happened to it in the end. I also remember the Coronation as my first experience of TV, all of us crowded into the Village hall, watching this momentous occasion on a projection set - to a little girl, it was nothing less than magic! The only sour note i can recall from that time is sitting on a red-ants nest in the garden, and having a very sore behind for a long time! I don't hate ants, though, so it can't have been too bad.

After this period my memory has vast lacunae in it, until I was 7, when my paternal grandfather died and left money in trust for my sister and I. My Uncles, who were the trustees, decided to use part of the money to buy a small house to be our home, and to invest the remainder to provde a small income, so finally we stopped our wanderings. They bought (for £500) a little terraced house in Canterbury, not far from where they lived themselves, and spent a further £500 to make it habitable. We moved in with almost no furniture - a big bed, which we all shared, a lovely old oval drop-leaf table and a Windsor chair. We had a cooker in the kitchen, but the rest of our furnishings were devised from wooden orange boxes!

Mummy got several part time jobs, and gradually she acquired enough furniture to make one bedroom respectably habitable. Then she carefully wrote out a sign (she was an artist with calligraphic skills) offering Bed & Breakfast and put it in the front window. Being summer, and Canterbury, it wasn't long before there was a knock at the door and her first client offered himself - she was so nervous, she told him she was full! However, it wasn't long before we were always busy and developed a healthy reputation for quality and value, and I was popular as a waitress with our friendly visitors!

Shortly before my 8th birthday, my life turned upside down again, when i was sent to boarding school. My father's family had again stepped in to find support for my struggling mother. Great Aunts had discovered that there was a school for children of orphaned Merchant Navy sailors, which would provide me with food, clothing and a roof over my head for 2/3 of the year, and give me a better education than could be had at home. This was an obvious boon for my mother, and she wanted the best she could get for her kids, as most mothers do - she would have been mad not to grab the opportunity with both hands, and she did. So, from then on I was only 'living over the shop' in the school holidays. I have to say, it made for a lonely childhood, being at home so rarely, I made few friends at home - they were mostly transitory, the people who were our lovely customers, and who gave me windows on so many wildly different worlds. To very real extent, they made me who I am today, for god or ill, so thank you to all the people who stayed at 43 Castle Street in the late 50's and the 60's, you made the school holidays magical and embedded my sense of wonder and curiosity, which have made my life enjoyable.