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.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008


One of my Facebook groups has on its discussion board the topic "Plans for Retirement", which puzzles me - the whole concept. I'm no spring chicken, in fact I'm in receipt of what's laughingly known as a pension (I could never afford to pay my National Insurance, let alone make private arrangements, so it's an exciting 76pence per week!) but retirement? What from? Like many people, I've never had a "career" just got on with the business of living, keeping body and soul together as best I could, fitting earning money around the needs of my children and step children, and the limitations of my own health. There was never much to spare, and if my children wanted further education, they had to fund it themselves. However, I did home school my kids when it became obvious that, emotionally, school was doing more harm than good, and they've all grown into capable and competent people for whom I have great respect - they do it their way, too!

What's to retire from? Life? Almost everyone I've known who has officially retired has died not long after, it's like they don't know who they are any more, or even what their place in the world is. No salary=no value, to these people, it seems. My mother worked till she died, when she was about the same age as I am now, sometimes for other people, but always for herself, if not running businesses (several) then growing things, painting, taking wonderfully perceptive photographs, doing whatever she could to enhance her own, and other peoples' lives, she couldn't have retired if she tried.

My husband spent many of the years we have been together doing work that crushed his soul, because he thought he was 'supposed' to, he brought in good money, but our quality of life was haunted by his sense that there would never be enough to go round - so there never seemed to be. Now he earns ALOT less, but his joy in what he's doing makes a treat of fish and chips, when my arm hurts too much to cook, quite as wonderful and pleasurable as a cordon bleu meal at the best of restaurants. He's got 9 years till he officially "retires" but he won't be retiring, he'll just carry on, doing what he loves. Our western society seems to revolve around doing what we hate so that someone else will pay us money to buy what we need, and what we need these days seems to include alot of stuff that fills up empty time and impresses people we know, simply because we own it - weird. Why work for other people's benefit at the expense of your own? I don't mean "don't do things for other people, look after number one", contributing to the happiness and welfare of others is vital for your own happiness and welfare, but why put a price on yourself? We all have value, and if we translate value into price, we immediately de-value what we have priced, and that leads to devaluing self, if retirement means we no longer feel we have a price ie a value.

John Lennon rightly said that "Life is what happens while you're making other plans" why plan to stop having a value? Let alone let anyone else decide your value, let the plans be sketchy, and the life be lived, every second, to the fullest extent of ones capacity.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

How do you do?

This is my first blog, so "How do you do? Pleased to meet you!" I'm married to an archeologist, Jeffery, and we live in caravan (trailer, if you're American) and we go wherever his work is. I'm not able to work, being of fragile health and having destroyed my right elbow in 2007, so I'm a kept woman - a privilege in this day and age, and much appreciated.

Our lifestyle means we see life from a different angle, and have quite different priorities from most people, so I thought someone out there might be interested in how our life unfolds. At present, just for this week, we are on a very small site, which is attached to a museum of bubble cars. I have discovered that many people haven't heard of them, which is a shame, as I think they could be a good way forward for personal transport now that we are, finally, becoming aware that oil won't last forever, or its products. Bubble cars are tiny, 1 or 2 seater vehicles (mostly) with very low fuel consumption engines, and often only 3 wheels. As we travel around the country I find myself seething at the number of vehicles we encounter with 4 or more seats and only 1 or 2 people in them - usually only one. They are often very thirsty, status-symbol vehicles, which cost alot to buy as well as to run, and in a world where there are still so many homeless and hungry, even in the developed world, it makes my blood boil!

Then, of course, I'm appalled by the number of large houses inhabited by a handful of people, or even just one, when others are reduced to living on the streets. Most of those in these over-large houses would no doubt regard these homeless people as having reduced themselves to this pass, and have only themselves to blame - a very comfortable view for the house dwellers, but not very honest. Many homeless people, and the hard-up generally, have nothing but bad luck, or the greed of others, to blame for their predicament. I found myself homeless with 2 children and a stepdaughter to care for, no income or possibility of working, when my mentally ill husband ceased to take responsibility for us. I don't blame him, he was ill, but the state didn't want to know - as far as they were concerned it was up to my husband to care for us, or for me to get a job - with no consideration of 3 young, bewildered children who needed care and support on an emotional level, as well as physical. If it hadn't been for some very special, caring people, I dread to think what would have become of us.

Don't get me wrong, this is not the rant of a chip-on-the-shoulder nutcase, but the frustration of living in a society that refuses to recognise that its real wealth is always its people. If we don't maximise the quality of life of ALL our young people, the future is desperately bleak. At the rate my own body is deteriorating, I, personally, won't be around to see the results of global warming etc, but that doesn't mean I don't care. I have a new-born grandaughter, and several other grandchildren, and I fear for their quality of life as adults if our society doesn't adjust its priorities. They are the future, and we castigate them as "hoodies" and "thugs" etc at our peril. Authoritarianism is not the way forward, punishment only creates anger (justifiable) if governments don't start listening we will all pay the price, democracy is about the government being the servant of the people, not the other way round. Government can only really do anything with the agreement of the population, and if we listen to the scare-mongering of the media, then we only have ourselves to blame when we lose our freedom and individuality.

Rant over! "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance" and it's all the little things that count, so let's all do lots of positive little things every day - like exploring the opinions of young people, and listening to their music, the lyrics give me hope!