Pass It On

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If I’m in the car at the weekend then I often tune in to Saturday Live on Radio 4—the presenters are cheerful and the theme is loosely about people’s lives so there’s a never-ending supply of interesting and surprising stories. One regular feature gives listeners the chance to thank a stranger who helped them in a moment of need and over the years, I’ve heard stressful tales of runaway caravans, lost keys, confused elderly relatives, empty petrol tanks, and drowning dogs, that have all been happily resolved thanks to an act of kindness. Sometimes I find the stories gripping and other times a bit mundane, but my interest stepped up a level when my cousin Rita was featured on the programme. She’s a teacher and described how she was with a group of pupils on the cruise ship Jupiter in 1988 when a cargo ship crashed into it just outside Piraeus Harbour. She and other teachers worked frantically in the dark to get children to safety as the damaged ship teetered with its stern already underwater. Then after forty minutes and with absolutely no warning, it sank and my cousin found herself in the sea clinging to a passing piece of wood. A schoolgirl joined her there as she spent a terrifying time alternately offering silent thanks to her Dad for making her learn to swim, and being convinced she was about to drown. Things seemed pretty hopeless but then miraculously from out of the dark, a pair of Greek fishermen appeared in a small boat, acting for all the world as though they carried out rescues every day. Thirty years later they were unlikely to be listening to Saturday Live but Rita was still glad to share her gratitude publicly, adding that there’s hardly a day when she doesn’t think of them. 

Gratitude is a natural human emotion and it’s attracted a lot of research attention in recent years as one of the key elements of the positive psychology movement. It’s easy to parody the practise of being grateful as a touchy-feely New Age fad but there’s plenty of solid evidence that it’s good for us because it’s accompanied by a release of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that affect our mood and make us feel happy. And that applies not only when we show gratitude but also when we’re on the receiving end of it. 

Rita found herself in a position where she wanted to thank a couple of strangers and there was no way that she was ever likely to reciprocate and do a good turn for them. I’ve found myself in a different situation in recent years. When I was in a bad state after my divorce there were a number of friends and family members including Rita, who showed great kindness and listened patiently (ever so patiently) when I cried, complained and repeated myself again and again. I think I remembered to say thank you but for a long time these acts of kindness left me feeling indebted and I wasn’t sure what to do to put things right. 

A couple of years ago, I visited Japan and witnessed how indebtedness can be a problem there. Our Airbnb hosts gave us a small parting gift and I felt embarrassed at not having anything to offer in return. But later, as I read more about Japanese culture I realised that gift-giving can set traps for the unwary. If we gave our hosts anything that seemed slightly more special than they gave us then they would feel indebted and might decide to top up their offering. And so the cycle of gifting and indebtedness could potentially become long drawn out and stressful with no-one feeling happy. In the end, while it seemed a bit unfriendly not to have given anything, I was glad that all we could do was bow, thank them and be grateful. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Gradually, I’ve come to terms with the discomfort of indebtedness and accept the well-worn advice that you won’t necessarily be able to thank the person who helped you but that doesn’t matter if you try to pass it on to someone else. So if you’re reading this and happen to be one of the friends or family members who were kind when I needed it, then I want you to know that I try to pay it forward with gratitude. And if and when I do that, then your kind deeds are connected in a chain with people you probably don’t know, and will never know. 

It’s this idea of connections that is at the root of my new book, The Interview Chain. In the process of writing it, I spoke to some fascinating people and each one passed me on to someone that they had been inspired by. In some cases those relationships were life-changing—an actor introduced me to the teacher who gave her the confidence to apply to drama school; a nurse recalled her experiences of volunteering in a Romanian orphanage and passed me on to the family friend who encouraged her to go, and I witnessed the gratitude between a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and the Scottish woman who made it possible for his family to rebuild their lives. 

If you want to read the stories of these people and the others I spoke to during the chain’s 23,000 mile journey across three continents, then there’s not long to wait. The Interview Chain is being published by Holland House Books on 30th June and can be pre-ordered here or from bookshops and online suppliers.

This Is Not A Post About Nature…

A couple of weeks ago our neighbour moved. She’d lived in her house for forty-eight years and has at last gone to live in a bungalow close to her daughter. I hope that she’s very happy—we’ll miss her. 

There’s a steadiness that comes from living in the same place for such a long time. I’ve lived in my current house for four and a half years now and am at last enjoying the novelty of some steadiness. During the time that my neighbour lived in her house I lived in sixteen different places, and most of them felt temporary as I would always have the next move in mind. For a while as the family grew it was about making incremental moves to get more space. Later when things went wrong, it was about moving to places that were affordable and more practical. Even in the house where I lived for nine years, I felt erratic—grateful for my family and friends but never quite sure what I wanted out of life. The children were young then and so nothing stayed the same for very long. There was inevitable flux with all the different demands of childhood concentrated into those few years. It was rewarding but far from steady. But now that I’m happily settled in my current house, I’ve stopped looking for the next move and I like that feeling. All things being equal—and they often aren’t—I’d like to stay here for a long time. 

During those years of chaos one of the few steadying things I did was to get my migraines under better control. Twenty years ago I was struggling with bad nausea and pain three days a week and I was desperate to find a solution. I kept trying to work out what was triggering them and tried many different treatments. Diet was an obvious place to look but I got nowhere with cutting out likely culprits such as cheese, chocolate and coffee. It was only when I went to see a migraine specialist and he put me on an elimination diet that I made progress. For two weeks I ate only from the small range of foods that are unlikely to cause a reaction—beansprouts, salmon, turnips, courgette, pears, and lamb—which made for some odd breakfasts. After a few days of this regime I had an intense withdrawal migraine but once it was over I felt clear-headed and liberated. After a fortnight I was instructed to introduce one food at a time in a particular order, and all went well until I tried potato, and this was closely followed by a migraine. Previously I’d eaten potato most days but my reaction convinced me that it was a trigger. The same thing happened when I tried cow’s milk. Avoiding those foods has made a huge difference ever since and I learned from the experience—in situations where there’s a lot going on, it’s only by systematically reducing the background noise that you can tease out individual effects. 

Something similar has happened during lockdown. With everyday life pared back to basics it’s been a chance to work out what’s really important. Like most people, I’ve missed my family and friends above all else but I’ve been surprised at how little I’ve mourned the loss of days out and holidays. Life was very pleasant before lockdown and I was grateful for it. But it wasn’t always in balance and at times it was so busy that I didn’t have space to think or develop that sense of wellbeing that positive psychology university departments are dedicated to defining. 

In the year before lockdown, I’d started trying to walk more, and keen to make best use of my time, I’d use it as an opportunity to do an errand that would otherwise involve taking the car. So I’d walk to the library or the local shops, take the long way round to buy a newspaper, or walk into town and get the bus back. I managed to do it most days because I knew it was good to get the exercise and I quite enjoyed looking at the urban streets. But I can’t say I loved it—instead it was another chore that had to be done. 

When everything shut for lockdown there were no errands to run and at first that was a relief. Then I realised that I still needed exercise so I’d have to look for an alternative. As it happens, we have woods behind our house and although I’d taken the well-trodden path to the pub many times when we had family and friends visiting, I’d never explored them properly. So I started taking a daily walk there and realised to my astonishment that they are extensive and beautiful. There are many potential routes but after a few weeks I settled into the same circuit and far from getting bored with it, I value its familiarity. There are no decisions to make. I wear the same boots, the same coat and the same gloves, and for an hour a day there is nothing that I have to think about, only the things I choose. Sometimes I listen to the birds. Other times I’m so deep in thought that I forget to listen though I usually notice the light shining through the trees. Quite often, if my head doesn’t feel too full I listen to audiobooks on my phone. I dip in and out as the fancy takes me. Favourites have included The Bee Keeper of Aleppo; Sandi Toksvig’s innovative autobiography Between the Stops: The View of My Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus; Hallie Rubenhold’s meticulously researched The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, and Professor Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. There was the unmissable Educated by Tara Westover—if you haven’t read it then order it straightaway. And Michelle Obama kept me company in the woods for hours as I listened to her reading Becoming immediately followed by her husband reading Dreams of My Father.

Day after day, month after month through the various lockdowns I’ve had my walk even when it’s been pouring and I’ve had to squelch through mud that has the consistency of chocolate mousse. I’ve never minded getting drenched as most people stay at home when it rains, and so for short periods I’ve felt like I own the world. But inevitably there came a day when I did something different. It was windy which brings with it the one variety of rain that I don’t like—the sort that blows in your face and makes me feel like a cat with its ears flattened and a miserable let me in the house expression. That day I kept thinking ‘I must go for my walk’ and immediately finding things to do that were warmer and drier. By five o’clock it was dark and too late to go out, so I quietly congratulated myself for having such good sense. But it turned out not to be such good sense after all as I spent the evening feeling completely out of sorts and irrationally grumpy. I didn’t like it at all. Nor did Mike. The next morning I had my walk. There was weak sunshine and a blue sky and by the time I got home I was in a much happier frame of mind. True, it was just one data point but I could feel a discernible difference between a day with a walk and a day without a walk. 

I’ve kept up the walking ever since. Then on Friday, Mike and I went swimming at the university pool, delighted to be able to do this again after such a long gap. With about half an hour’s walk each way and then the swim, I figured this would count as my exercise for the day. The route is along some of the urban streets where I used to walk so much—they’re quite attractive and it was good to chat as we walked along. The swim was great but later in the afternoon I had that familiar feeling of being grumpy and at odds with the world. Something was missing and although there were things I’d wanted to get done, I felt in the end that I had no alternative—almost without conscious thought I put on my boots and stepped out on my usual walk. It was chilly but sunny, and half-way round I realised that I felt a lot better. Urban streets are stimulating with lots of things to look at but they don’t provide the relaxation that nature offers. Trees and plants appear in predictable patterns that are soothing and harmonious whereas buildings and people are interesting but unpredictable—the window flapping open, groceries being delivered, someone up a ladder—creating a constant state of alertness that jars the thoughts and calls for a reaction. That’s two data points now but I think I’m starting to understand. 

Much has been said this year about the benefits of being in nature. There have been countless newspaper, radio and magazine articles about it and I think we’ve probably all got the message by now. So this post is not intended to extol the virtues of green spaces—you may have discovered something different that’s become important. Instead my point is that by removing the everyday noise, lockdown has provided near-experimental conditions in which to explore what we value. I hadn’t realised that a daily walk in nature was so important to me. Nor had I worked out a way to introduce it into my life with a rhythm and steadiness that has turned it into a habit—something you do so often that the desire for it becomes automatic. Philippa Lally and her colleagues at University College have studied how habits are formed and report that it takes on average sixty-six days for a behaviour to become a habit though for some habits and some people it can take as much as eight months. We’ve all had plenty of time this year in which to form habits both good and bad. With lockdown I’ve tasted that elusive steadiness and whatever happens next as we resume some kind of normality, I want to take this habit with me. 

Maybe you’ve found out something about yourself? I’d love to hear so do post in the comments section below. 

Opening the Door

It’s been a while since I blogged here and returning feels like opening the door into a room that was once familiar. There’s a layer of dust to sweep away but it’s good to be back even if the view from the window looks a bit different. We’ve lived through an extraordinary time and this week on the first anniversary of lockdown in the UK I’ve heard a lot about how the experience has changed people. Much has centred around the theme of appreciating small things. One woman interviewed on the radio, said that she would “Never again take it for granted when she meets friends for coffee.” Another said that she would now “Be happy with a picnic on the beach.” It’s good to hear all this positivity and that people have learned to be satisfied with less, but let’s see how that goes once we’re all free to start rushing around again.

There will be lasting changes though, and I look forward to seeing what remains from amongst the new interests and routines that people have adopted and adapted to this year. Probably the best thing for me has been having more time to think and write and I’ve enjoyed working on a couple of projects. One grew out of a conversation I had several years ago with my friend Mandy when she asked if I could collect her mum’s memories and edit them into a book for the family. Pat was well into her nineties at that stage but somehow we never quite found the right time to do it—mostly because she was so busy. Then lockdown came along and provided the perfect opportunity. Pat was ninety-nine by then and during times when she would normally be out at her tap dancing or Pilates classes, or doing volunteer visiting in the community, we scheduled Zoom calls. She was always there promptly; perfectly presented with earrings and a necklace, lots of memories and a huge smile.

Each time we focused a different stage of her life like school days or the war, or a different topic such as theatre, sailing, travels or grandchildren. Mandy chatted with her beforehand to help her get her memories in order, and said that it was really enjoyable and enlightening to share this time with her Mum. And I had a surprise when Pat mentioned during our first session, that she was in a tsunami when she was eight. I was still getting into the swing of things at that stage, and thought I’d misheard. But it turned out that she was on Brighton Beach with her aunt in July 1929 when it was hit by the only significant tsunami to affect Britain in living memory. “The sky turned black, then violet and the sea went right back then formed an enormous wave about ten feet high that rushed up the beach,” she said. Her quick-witted aunt who would have had no idea what was happening, told her to run to the promenade. When she got there she watched—“Not in the least bit disturbed by it, just totally amazed. It was like the sea did a great big hiccup.” She was lucky to escape as the tsunami affected a big stretch of the South Coast and several people drowned. 

Another story that surprised me, was that when she was about eight her mother would tell her to take her four-year-old brother up onto the Sussex Downs for the day. “Don’t talk to strangers,” she would say as she sent them off with a packed lunch. They’d walk up an enormous hill and rush around collecting flowers and playing for hours before returning home to their devoted and responsible mother. As Pat said, “Can you imagine people allowing that now?”

From the age of thirteen she boarded at a convent in Brighton where she learned to speak French and appreciate algebra. She loved school and shortly after she joined, they got a new Reverend Mother who rather surprisingly had been in the Paris Opera, and brought in all kinds of new ideas about educating girls in the arts. Pat attributes this to the beginning of her interest in theatre. She went on to become a teacher and theatre director, working in Brighton and later in Bristol. After she moved to Bath she ran the university’s extra-curricular drama and arts programme for students for many years whilst also travelling round the country as a professional advisor to amateur theatre groups. She worked with a group in Swindon for forty-four years and until Covid struck she was still directing one-act plays for her local group in Poole. Not many people can say they’ve been active in the same field for over eighty years.

Pat was happily married to Alec for forty-eight years and they had three children. She is also a grandmother and during lockdown she became a great-grandmother. Her Catholic faith has always been important to her and Mandy says that as a child, she never knew who would be at the dinner table as her parents welcomed in all sorts of people. 

Pat and Alec’s marriage in 1956

A few years after Alec died in 2004, Pat went on a round-the-world trip at the age of eighty-eight with her granddaughter, Harriet. They took advantage of the cheaper flights and so they often had to get up in the middle of the night. On her ninety-fifth birthday she celebrated by going skydiving in Nepal. Her verdict—“I was strapped to an instructor and we went down the side of the mountain. It was so smooth, a wonderful feeling—there was nothing at all to worry about. When the instructor asked if I wanted to go higher, I said, Yes please! and then he told me to look down and there was all my family circling beneath us.”

Today is a good day to air those dusty rooms in my blog as it’s Pat’s hundredth birthday so I’d like to wish her a very happy day. And she is celebrating in typically energetic style. During Lent she has been out come rain or shine, walking five hundred steps a day to raise money for clean water projects in Ethiopia. When I last looked at her JustGiving page she’d raised nearly £7,000 with 260 people making donations and leaving encouraging messages. At a time when there are so many worthy causes competing for everyone’s attention, it’s a measure of the number of lives she has touched. And she seems to have the right recipe as multiple studies report that apart from a lot of luck, physical activity and social contact are the most important ingredients in longevity. In fact some studies suggest that social isolation increases mortality as much as other risk factors like smoking. The sooner we can all get back to some socialising, the better. 

Spending time talking to Pat and editing her memories has been one of the good things about lockdown. Another has been completing the Chain Interview Project. Some of you may remember that I started this here on the blog with the aim of gathering inspiring and interesting stories. I firmly believe that everyone has something interesting to say if you take the time to listen and the model was that each interviewee would pass me on to someone that they admire. The chain started from a casual conversation on a boat on the Thames and travelled for over 23,000 miles alighting on three continents. The interviewees have included a rabbi, a philanthropist, a sculptor, a New York Mayoral candidate, a pioneering documentary maker, and a man who rescues giant trees. Some have worked in challenging places—Kabul in the time of the Taliban, a Romanian orphanage, immigration detention centres, remote Indian villages—while others have found themselves caught up in extraordinary situations such as the Rwandan genocide, the Ferguson uprising, and the UN Climate Change Negotiations. I’m thrilled to say that the resulting book—The Interview Chain—will be published by Holland House Books on 30th June. Here’s a preview of the cover. 

Commitment

Over the past few months I’ve been continuing to explore various forms of writing. One of these is the chain interview project and I’m planning to expand this into a book.  People’s lives are fascinating. They’re all so individual; different problems, experiences and responses and through doing these interviews, I’ve gained a new understanding of some important issues. Here is my latest linkan insight into a life of commitment with all the challenges and rewards that it brings. I hope that you enjoy it and find the stories as  inspiring as I do.

Gareth – the ninth interviewee in my chain interview experiment

G Wardell 1

Gareth was introduced by my eighth interviewee, Liz who talked about her experiences as an international physiotherapist, particularly in rural India. She said: “I’ve chosen my friend, Gareth. It was his invitation to India on holiday that was the start of amazing things for me. He is now a vicar in Greater London and is pretty much the most inspirational person I know.”

I met up with Gareth at the vicarage. We sat in his study surrounded by books, paperwork and clocks and he told me about his life. He started by describing himself as ‘just an ordinary common or garden vicar working in the Church of England.’  But as he talked about his experiences of working overseas and the path that led him to ordination, it became clear that he has had an extraordinary life. Not many ‘common or garden vicars’ have lived in Kabul under the Taliban regime.

What are you doing at the moment, Gareth?

I’ve been the vicar of this parish for about four and a half years and have been ordained for twelve years.  I carry out Sunday services, midweek services, baptisms, weddings and lots of funerals. I’m also involved with a number of local schools and do assemblies.  Once or twice a week I go to a local children’s’ hospice where I’m chaplain and I always take Libby my Labrador, with me. People aren’t necessarily interested in seeing a vicar but they’re always interested in seeing a Labrador. It doesn’t take a huge amount of my time but it’s an important aspect of local involvement.

What led you to become ordained?

I was raised in the 1960s when it was not uncommon for children to go to church and Sunday school. I remember having a simple childlike faith but not necessarily feeling that it made a personal difference to my own life. And then when I was twelve I was involved in a serious car crash. I was waiting for a bus when a drunken driver veered across the road and ploughed into the bus shelter. The person on one side of me was disabled for life and the person on the other side was killed. Both my legs were broken and I ended up in hospital. That gave me time to reflect on faith, life and death in a way that would normally be unusual for a twelve-year old. Six months later I went to an evangelical meeting and people were invited to come forward and dedicate their lives to God. I remember thinking, “Yes, this matters to me and I want to make this commitment.” The person who was speaking said, “This shouldn’t be just a phase or a fad—a commitment to God is something that should be life changing.” As I went forward I thought, “What I’m doing now will impact on the rest of my life.” And indeed it has—in ways both good and troubling.

When you said that you made a commitment what did that mean to you?

I knew that my understanding of the Christian faith was limited and childlike in many respects but I found a way of love profoundly attractive and wanted to replicate it in my own life. As a Christian one does not have to be ultra-ascetic but I do think it’s about learning to live simply and to place value on relationships, key values and ethical principles rather than material things. As a child I could not articulate that but I did feel very drawn to it even though that now feels quite countercultural.

So what happened next?

I got involved in the local church youth group and then went off to university to study politics. I wasn’t altogether sure what to do after that—I considered ordination but was told that it’s good to get some experience of life first. So after I graduated in 1981 I decided to take a year out. It was shortly after Mother Theresa had won the Nobel Peace Prize and rather naively I thought that it would be interesting to go and work with her and her organisation. I discovered that there’s a male order called the Missionary Brothers of Charity that works with her Sisters, and that you can go and be a volunteer. So I went off to join them.  It seems very naïve now but I just booked a one-way ticket to Calcutta. I was 21 and arrived at the airport with a few travellers’ cheques and an address.  When I got to the Brothers’ house it turned out that they hadn’t received my letter but they were incredibly welcoming and I ended up staying with them for about a year. I didn’t stay in Calcutta all that time as they thought it would be interesting for me to see some other places. So for a number of months I worked with their mobile leprosy clinic in the state of Bihar in Northern India. I had no medical skills or anything really, but they were very gracious.

I’d obviously read about leprosy in the Bible but although it has been almost eradicated in most of the world it does still exist in some parts. I remember seeing people whose noses had disappeared and whose hands were reduced to stumps. They often had terrible sores because Hansen’s Disease (its proper name) kills the nerve endings. People have no sense of pain and cause themselves terrible injuries by doing things like picking up boiling pots. I also heard stories about people having the stump ends of their feet chewed at night by rats, but not waking up because they couldn’t feel it. I worked in the pharmacy part of the clinic and would count out the tablets and give them out in little screws of paper. One of the biggest challenges was getting people to take the full course of treatment. Their symptoms would partially improve and so they would stop taking the medicine. From talking to the Brothers I began to understand some of the challenges faced by people in that part of the world. They would have to walk for two or three days to get to the clinic, and then another two or three days back to their village. It was difficult for them to take that time away from tending their land.

Farm_workers_Bihar

There was one incident that I particularly remember. We were on our way to set up the clinic for the day when a child ran out from the side of the road. There was nothing the driver could do and we hit it with our jeep. My first thought was ‘OK, we’re in a jeep ambulance that’s marked with a red cross, so we’ll stop and take the child to hospital.” But I was staggered when the Brothers started locking the doors and the jeep sped off. I remonstrated with the driver and said that we should stop. But the Brothers said, “If we do that, there’ll be a mob reaction—the villagers will force us out of the jeep and they might set light to it in revenge. Instead we must go straight to the next village, turn ourselves into the police and explain what has happened.” So that’s what we did—it was about five miles away. We hid the jeep round the back and a policeman stood guard over it while we went into the police station and there was lots of explanation in Hindi. I asked, “What happens now?” and they said, “The villagers will come to the police station.” Sure enough a bit later on, various family members arrived with the child, having flagged down the next vehicle that came along. There was lots of shouting and then a process of negotiation. The child had some injuries but they weren’t life threatening so it was agreed that we would take the family and the child to the local hospital and would pay for any treatment that was needed. It made me reflect on the fact that as a twenty-one year old white person, I was saying, “We need to do the right thing.” But as a foreigner I knew nothing about how these things work.

What did you do at the end of that year in India?

I did some trekking in Nepal and then came back to the UK. I worked in London for a while in an administrative role at The Arts Council of Great Britain, in the HR department, where, among other roles, I served as editor of their in-house magazine.  But by then, my exposure to Asia and the developing world was such that I wanted in that clichéd phrase, ‘to make a difference.’

I also wanted to understand more about ‘good development’ because you can both help and hinder. I didn’t have a science O-Level to my name so there was no way I was going to be a medic but I knew that health service management is important and managed to get a place on the NHS National Management Training Scheme. I spent two years in Yorkshire, learning about health services management and then applied to work with a Christian development organisation in Nepal. They’ve been working in that region since 1852 so had lots of cultural understanding and experience. I went out as an HR manager and eventually became the HR director. At that time they were one of the largest employers in the country, second only to the Government, and employed many thousands of Nepali staff and over 400 expats.

Our remit was to deliver projects that would assist in the development of Nepal and its people. They spanned four main areas—health, education, engineering and industrial development, and rural development. The idea was to set them up and then train Nepali people to run them. The agreements forbade any overt proselytising but we aimed to work “in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ.”

So, for example in the hospitals and community health clinics which the mission helped to run, we sought to challenge traditional approaches and superstition but without undermining the local culture. For most people confronted with a problem such as epilepsy, their first recourse would be to a local jhankri or traditional healer. There were many thousands of these in the rural areas and far fewer Western-trained doctors. These traditional healers would use all sorts of practices that we might regard as somewhat suspect. But they are people of high status in their community and you would not want to alienate them. So rather than working against the local healers, the mission’s Mental Health Programme tried to work with them and to help them not to feel threated by Western medicine. One of the things that worked well was running workshops where we trained them to identify some of the most common mental health problems.

We also worked on some big engineering projects such as hydropower schemes. Bringing electrical power to the villages had all kinds of knock on benefits—people no longer had to cut down trees to burn and so this helped to stop the deforestation which leads to landslides and flooding.

Can I ask about your time in Afghanistan?

I was asked to go there as HR Director to the International Assistance Mission which employed about 500 Afghan staff and about 100 expats.  It was during a particularly unstable period in the early 1990s. Soviet troops had invaded in 1979 but left by 1989 and that led to the fall of the Russian-backed government. The West had worked assiduously to put the Pakistan-based mujahideen into power but within about six months, that government collapsed and broke up into a collection of different groups. After several years of internecine warfare, the Taliban came to power. Kabul, where I lived, faced extraordinary destruction. On a bad day there might be two thousand shells and rockets landing in the city, and on a good day there might be only three or four hundred. There was continual upheaval and you had to be ready to move with just one or two suitcases. I moved house eleven times in eighteen months. A couple of my friends were held with knives to their throats in the counteroffensive and a house where I lived was looted at gunpoint.

It was a fascinating time—very ‘on edge.’  During the day we went out to make sure our projects were functioning but there were times when at night it was safest to be underground. There was one ten-week period when I slept in a basement with eight people from my mission. That was such a bonding experience that even now I’m still in touch with most of them. We sign off our emails as ‘Your BB’— Basement Buddy. They were extraordinary times and I’m grateful to have seen what was possible, even under fire. We were not there to be heroic, we were there with a purpose and our development projects were able to continue even though that sometimes had to be in a reduced form. At one stage during the Taliban era, we were running pretty much the only mother and child health clinic in the whole of Kabul. That was pretty important.

What was the impact of the Taliban regime on women and children?

It was a country that had experienced quite considerable development in the past – when I give talks, I often ask, “Who got the vote first? Was it Afghan women or Swiss women?” People are usually surprised to hear that it was Afghan women in 1964. (Swiss women only got the vote in 1970!). In the period prior to and then during the Soviet occupation, women held a huge number of significant jobs in areas like medicine, teaching and the Civil Service. But of course all of that went awry under the Taliban and it was a terrible shock for women to find their lives so limited. Many were already suffering mental health issues as a result of seeing people killed and they faced further trauma by being constrained to their homes.

Interestingly though, there is evidence to suggest that in some respects, things got slightly better for women at that time. This seems counterintuitive but it was because the majority of qualified teachers had been women. As they were no longer allowed to work, it meant that boys tended to be educated in huge groups—perhaps a hundred in one class with just one male teacher giving a pretty appalling kind of rote learning education. On the other hand, women who were qualified teachers were keen to see education continue and so all across Kabul there was an extraordinary network of secret home schools for girls. Burka-clad women scurried from one alley to another without the Taliban realising what was going on. There would be up to about fifteen girls in a class with one or two teachers and so some girls got a better education than the boys. And even in spite of the restrictions there were times when the Taliban had to accept that women had skills that they needed. So for example, the 400-bed military hospital in Kabul was run by an excellent trauma surgeon called Suhaila Seddiqi who held the rank of General in the Afghan Army. The Taliban tried to stop her working and then realised that they couldn’t run the hospital without her so she carried on. She was always known as ‘General Suhaila’ and when the Taliban fell she became Minister of Health.

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Suhaila Seddiqi Photo: USAID

 What happened when you left Kabul?

I was there for about three years and then came back to the UK. I did a masters degree in post-war recovery studies and was planning to do a PhD. Instead, I found myself exploring ordination again, and ended up going off to Cambridge to study theology.

You said earlier that the commitment you made was ‘full of blessings but also troubles.’ What did you mean?

I guess I said that because I’m gay. When I was much younger I had a conservative view of that particular issue and the Christian approach to it. It led me to believe that the only option for a person in my situation was lifelong celibacy. And so I have lived an entirely celibate life but that view is not one I actually believe in any more—it’s not one I would ever teach. Although it’s quite a strong word to use, I think it’s abusive of people and their personal integrity. I would never endorse a life style that’s promiscuous but I’m entirely comfortable with same sex marriage, based on faithful, stable, monogamous relationships, and same-sex parenting. I’ve observed that at close quarters with a number of friends in same-sex relationships, including those who have adopted children and have seen them doing an amazing job.

My hesitancy in my own life is because I still function in what can feel like quite a conservative environment within the Church. I probably work for the only employer in the UK that is entitled to sack me for that issue, which is bizarre when you think even the armed services, which one might think of as traditionally homophobic, are now equal opportunity employers, but not the Church of England! I think if I had been born thirty years later, I might have made different choices. Faith would have been important to me, but I don’t think I would have ruled out the possibility of a relationship and I would love to have been a parent. My life story has been as it is and it’s important to live life without regrets, but that’s what was behind my ambivalence.

 What are you most pleased to have done?

It’s been fascinating to have experienced such diversity across continents and cultures, and I’ve made friends all over the world. But there are times when I see friends post pictures on Facebook of themselves with their first grandchild or with their husband or wife, and it makes me feel slightly wistful about what might have been…  There’s a temptation sometimes to wonder what I’ve achieved but I hope that I’ve modelled something of the love of God in the variety of contexts in which I’ve lived. I’ve wanted to be there for people at times of extraordinary difficulty as well as at times of great joy and thanksgiving. That’s what I set out to do right from the beginning.

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A Quiet Mind

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I was staying with a friend recently and as we were catching up on one another’s news she said something that really made me think.  She’s usually very active on social media so it was a surprise to hear her say, “I’m checking my emails and Facebook just once a day”.  “How is that better?” I asked, rather mystified. “I save masses of time,” she said. “I make a list in the morning and somehow seem to get a lot more done.”

Talking to my friend made me realise that I spend a huge amount of time checking my emails and looking at social media. “Perhaps I should try that,” I thought and immediately had palpitations. But the idea was clearly niggling away and later that week, I faced the fact that like millions of other people, I suffer from the 21st-century condition of FOMO— fear of missing out. If I don’t check everything regularly I worry that I’ll miss out on life-changing opportunities, glittering invitations, and knowing what ‘everyone I have ever met’ is doing. I fear that my life will be worthless without these things.

I decided to go cold turkey. The first day was very strange. I got on with my life quietly, knowing that somewhere out there the world was carrying on. In the afternoon when I checked my emails and cast an eye over Facebook, I discovered to my surprise that not much of note had happened. The next day was a bit easier. There had been a build-up of emails over the past 24 hours and I got a rush of excitement to see that I had fifteen in my inbox. Twelve turned out to be marketing emails so I quickly deleted them and then read the personal ones. I wrote replies and the whole process was done and dusted in ten minutes. I closed down my email window.

By Day Four, I was getting needy messages from Facebook which seemed to have noticed that my ardour had cooled. It was clearly missing me more than I was missing it.

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It’s been nine days now, and I feel like a burden has been removed. I started with a fear of missing out but the good news is that I haven’t missed out on anything. Instead I’ve gained a calmer mind and lots of extra time.

There’s been another benefit too—clearing all that noise from my head has helped me to tune into some of the other noise that’s there. For two and a half years I’ve loved writing this blog. Through more than sixty posts I’ve learned a great deal and it’s been wonderful to get feedback and interaction in the comments. But it does fill my head with ideas and half-formed sentences that shout and jostle for attention. Right now, they’re distracting me from other writing that I want to explore. So I’m going to take a break from the fortnightly pattern, although I will post from time to time. Thank you so much to everyone who has read my regular posts—I really appreciate that. They may not be filled with life-changing opportunities or glittering invitations, but I hope nonetheless that you will continue to read the irregular ones.

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Link Eight

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It’s September, the month of new beginnings, and so this week I’m going to mark that by doing something different. I want to tell you about a project that I’ve been working on for a whilemy chain interviews. It’s a simple enough ideaa series of interviews with each interviewee passing me on to someone that they find interesting and inspiring. That way, I’m pretty much guaranteed to talk to some fascinating people, and so far I’ve done eight interviews. I’ve heard some moving and thought provoking stories and am constantly being surprised. Each interviewee shines the light of personal experience onto important issues, and I’ve learned a lotclimate change, asylum seekers, pornography and the media, dignity in dying… I’ve even changed my views on some things.

At their core, all of these stories are about people who have stepped outside their comfort zone and done something special. You can read, below, about Liz Carrington, and how she found herself working in India, despite huge initial misgivings. The way she told the story made me laugh, and I was full of admiration for the challenging work she has done in her long career.

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Liz Carrington–the eight interviewee in my chain interview experiment

Liz was introduced by my seventh interviewee, Helen who talked so movingly of her time working in a Romanian orphanage after the fall of the Ceausescu regime. She said: ‘Liz is a physiotherapist and friend of my Mum. Through her work in India she inspired me to look at volunteering myself and that’s how I found myself in Romania.’

I met up with Liz at a cafe in York. She told me about the strange coincidences that led to her work in India, her life in international physiotherapy, and the busy time she’s been having since retiring from her profession.

How did you get into physiotherapy, Liz?

I wanted to be a physiotherapist from when I was thirteen. I don’t know where it came from really. I just wanted to do it and I’ve absolutely loved it. It’s been the most wonderful career and it’s taken me to many countries.

My first taste of international work was in 1973 when I won a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship. This was set up when Winston Churchill died and is a marvellous opportunity for people from all backgrounds, to travel and to find out about a particular subject and share their knowledge. I wanted to look at new techniques for treating children with neurological conditions, particularly cerebral palsy, and I had a month each in Hungary, Switzerland and Italy. Hungary was particularly interesting because it was in the middle of the Cold War. I tried to make personal contacts before I went so that people would trust me and I found a lovely man to teach me some Hungarian. He had left Hungary in 1956 and was working as a book illustrator at York University. He cried because he was so delighted that someone wanted to learn his language.

When I got to Hungary I found that people wanted to talk. Sometimes I’d be sitting on a bus next to someone and as we went into a tunnel and there was a lot of noise they’d start whispering in my ear—things that they didn’t want to be overheard; criticisms about the system. And one day I dropped a book in the park and an elderly lady picked it up. ”Are you English?” she said and then she took me round to various places. One was a radio station in the hills above Budapest. It was manned by Russian guards with huge Alsatian dogs patrolling the perimeter and she started shouting all sorts of anti-Russian things.  She was delighted to practise her English and was afraid of nothing. She turned round from shouting at the Russians and said, “My dear, do you have good bread in England?” Given the shortages they had to endure, that was quite poignant.

I focused on Conductive Education while I was in Hungary. This aims to give neurologically impaired children as much independence as possible without resource to special equipment and aids. It brings together education, psychology and therapy approaches to unlock potential. Sometimes the criticism has been that they had to use that system because they didn’t have resources. Also that there was absolutely nothing before and the children stayed in bed for months. Those things are probably true, but nonetheless I saw children making enormous progress. There was something magical there about the holistic approach they used and the way that they did things like linking movement to language.

Then I had a month in Bern, Switzerland and that was very different. Physiotherapists using the Bobath approach were treating children who were born with an identifiable neurological problem and that was almost ten per cent of the neonatal population. They believed that if you started really early you could make a huge difference. But that level of care is not sustainable in most countries and I think they were promising more than they could achieve. Nonetheless, I learned a huge amount. Today, it’s evidence based practice that’s the thing.

I was given £1,012 for my travel fellowship. It was a lot of money in those days and it took the whole of my lunch hour to sign for it at the bank. I didn’t spend it all and so when I came home, I sent two hundred pounds back. The secretary was lovely and said, “Oh dear! Have you been eating enough?”

My travel fellowship started me off on an international path and it just grew. I never really set out to do that.

So what happened next?

I worked at the hospital here in York for twenty wonderful years—everyone in the team was doing something at national level so it was very vibrant. We started getting visitors coming to look at our work and as the international interest grew I began to feel restless. Then a friend invited me to go on holiday to India where he’d lived for a year as one of the Brothers of Charity. He said, “I’d like to take you back to where I used to live, and show you India. Would you like to come?” I thought, “No, I wouldn’t, what a terrifying idea”—and so I said “OK!”

That was in 1985 and I just knew there would be more to it than a holiday.  I couldn’t sleep the night before we flew—my mouth was dry and my heart was pounding. Anyway, we arrived in Calcutta in the middle of the monsoon at midnight. People were bustling and shouting and pulling at my suitcase. They were all telling me to get into their cars which probably weren’t even proper taxis. It was such an assault on the senses. Even now that I’ve been back many times, I still find it’s like that.

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We went and spent about a week at the Home for the Dying. I’d love to have met Mother Theresa but she was in Ethiopia at the time. One of the things I will never forget was watching a young Japanese girl. She was only about eighteen and was sitting with a lady who was dying. They had no shared language, and anyway the lady was too ill to say much.  But somehow the girl communicated and looked after her. She was so observant and responsive—she loved her to the end and it was beautiful.  She seemed to epitomise what the place was about. She’s wasn’t very old but she just got it.  I found that deeply moving.

From there we went on to Delhi. I’d noticed a job offer in our physiotherapy journal but I didn’t take the details with me because I wasn’t thinking it would be relevant to me. And then my friend said, “Why don’t you go and see them?” and I said, “I don’t know where they are—I don’t have the address,” thinking to myself, “I’m off the hook.” But what happened next was very surprising. We were sitting in a taxi doing some sightseeing when a van stopped next to us. On the side it said ‘Spastics Society of Northern India’ with the address and everything I needed to know, though thankfully the name has changed now. So I took it as a sign—I went along and spoke to the receptionist and she said, “We’re very busy today and can’t see anybody.” So I thought, “Oh good, I’m off the hook again. ”But then to my horror as I was walking out, I heard footsteps behind me and someone said, “Did you say you’re British?” I said, “Yes” and she said, “The director will see you.”

So I went in to see the director of the centre and it was extraordinary. She said, “We haven’t had anyone respond to this advert and I’ve just been praying that someone would walk in off the street. ”I thought, “Oh my goodness me, I don’t think I’m off the hook at all. ”And when she said, “I think you’ll fit in quite well here,” I felt a mixture of relief and dread. For the past two years I’d been giving up lots of things that I did in my spare time but without knowing why. And as a person of faith I saw it as God needing to dig me up because York had become a bit of a tap root. It took a year to sort out the bureaucracy and funding but when I went back to India, I stayed for three years and have continued to visit since.

How did it work out?

Seeing so much poverty was a challenge. I think that’s why I felt so ambivalent about going to India in the first place—it’s such a spectrum.  You do what you can but the problems are so enormous that they can drag you down. Some years later, I remember being asked to go and visit a family in a village in Andhra Pradesh. I went with two colleagues and we got there quite late in the evening. It was dark and we bent low to get into the family’s hut which was very basic. There was one light bulb swinging from the ceiling and we saw a young boy who had clearly got muscular dystrophy. His father was very anxious and was desperate to know what he could do for him. We asked if he had any other children and he said that he had another two. They were outside and when we looked, we could see that they were in the earlier stages of the disease—one of them was not able to run and the other was just sitting on the floor, very still. I shall never forget those three children, and the father wanting us to help. There were no resources and all we could tell him was to try as far as possible to give his children the same experiences as other children in the village. And to love them. My colleagues and I went back to the car and cried.

You can’t solve that problem here, either, but you can make the journey from disability to the end of life, much better. And even in limited circumstances small things can make a difference. I remember a young boy of about fourteen who came to the Delhi centre with his family. He had muscular dystrophy, too, and couldn’t move much. He’d been lying flat on the floor and was terrified of drowning when he had a drink. So we propped him up on a bean bag and gave him a straw. It was such a simple thing but he was so relieved.

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It takes time to train physios, and sometimes you simply need more pairs of hands. So we tried to make it easier for people to become competent. I worked closely with a very skilled Indian occupational therapist who became a good friend. We found people who were interested in working with disabled children and then we taught them everything we knew about paediatrics.  In some cases, they actually ended up knowing more about children with disabilities than the people who had been through university. Such a great group of people—some of them went off and set up charities of their own and I’m so proud of them. That wouldn’t have happened so quickly if we’d gone down the regular route.

There have been massive changes since my first visit to India. Then, I’d be greeted at the local store by a man in a white coat who would say, “Good morning Madam,” and write down what I bought in a ledger. It had a lovely Indian carpet on the floor. Now it’s a supermarket selling ready meals. Things are hugely more prosperous, but the problem is in making sure that development reaches the poorer sectors of society.

And what else did you do?

After my time in India, I spent four years as a consultant physiotherapist working in a number of countries including Mauritius, Vietnam, Yemen, Kenya and Zambia. Then I became the international development adviser to the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) and that meant I could help other people who were wanting to go and work abroad, like me.

I also became so interested in trying to understand other cultures that I did a degree in anthropology.  It was good but I felt like I asked more and more questions and got fewer and fewer answers.

Then I did some work in the EU with physiotherapy colleagues from several member countries. It was about checking up on EU health legislation to see how it would affect the profession and also promoting the professional standards set by the World Confederation for Physical Therapy. We sometimes went to speak to health ministers and said, “This is the standard that we’re working to in Europe. How do you think you could help promote this? For example, we had a twinning partnership with the Czech physio association.  I believe in collaboration and sensible communication. Tremendous good has been done in Brussels so I’m finding the present Brexit situation a bit difficult.

EU flag

In 2010, the year I retired, I got an award from the World Confederation for Physical Therapy. It was for international practice and such an honour to get that from my colleagues. That was wonderful!

And what are you doing now that you’ve retired from physiotherapy?

I was ordained into the Church of England in 2009 and don’t feel called to the priesthood but I do feel called to being out in the community. So I’m a vocational deacon. As well as being involved in all the usual church things like children’s work and preaching, I’m chaplain to the businesses in our parish, and I’m part of the chaplaincy team at York Racecourse. I also do Street Angels which is run by a group of churches in York. We help people who’ve been out partying—they’re quite vulnerable if they’ve over indulged. There are often young girls who find their shoes a bit of a challenge, so we give out water and flip flops and make sure they get home safely—I meet all sorts of people doing that and enjoy it a lot.

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And I’ve just come back from a three-month sabbatical. I decided to make a list of people that I love and I came up with forty-three. I didn’t manage to get round them all but I did quite well. I ended up visiting Holland, Scotland, Germany and Estonia. It did make me feel really refreshed and I think sometimes when you’re busy and doing a lot of things you can forget about yourself. So that was a good reminder that I need to factor in a bit more time for me. Other people have been telling me that for quite a while.

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Photo: Peter Bayliss

And who have you chosen to be the next link in the chain, Liz?

I have chosen my friend, Gareth. It was his invitation to India on holiday that was the start of amazing things for me. He is now a vicar in Greater London and is pretty much the most inspirational person I know.

The Cathedral in the Woods

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I reread a favourite book recently, and as well as being immensely enjoyable, it was interesting in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. ‘After You’d Gone’ by Maggie O’Farrell is a searing and beautiful story of loss and if you don’t know it, I thoroughly recommend it.

On one level it was reassuring to find constancy—despite growing older I still love this book. At another level it reminded me that I’ve changed—life pummels our empathy into altered shapes and gives us new, raw rims. I was moved by it fifteen years ago, and now in a much changed life, it moved me again. But the resonance was different because some of the things I care about are different—it was good to revisit, and to update my relationship with it.

I’ve done another bit of updating recently as part of my walking treat – the 630-mile South West Coastal Footpath. This time it was the stretch between Exmouth and Brixham. It took me to childhood days, and I wondered how it would feel to go back. I’ve visited plenty of times since I grew up and moved away, but this time I knew I would be engaging with it in a different way. Walking is immersive—you see, hear, feel and smell things you would otherwise miss. And it was the first time that I’ve explored the area with my husband, Mike.

The first day was sunny as we crossed the wide Exe estuary by ferry and then walked for miles beside the beach. But the second day was extremely wet and we started with a short ride across the Teign, in a small wooden boat—it’s believed to be the oldest ferry service in the UK.  We were the only passengers and the ferryman handed us a shower squeegee so that we could dry the slatted, varnished seats.

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After the recent heatwave, the rain made everything clean and it felt like we had this fresh, new world to ourselves. By lunchtime we were drenched and dripping. We sat high up on the cliffs and had damp sandwiches and lukewarm coffee whilst looking down over a pale elephant-grey sea. Later, we reached a clearing surrounded by tall thin trees. The branches were like rafters and joined above us in a makeshift roof. “It’s like a cathedral in the woods,” said Mike. “…and listen to the music of the rain.” It was the day before our first wedding anniversary and I’d been feeling slightly guilty for loving the rain and dragging him out in it.  But if I needed any reminder that he is the man for me, then this was it.

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On the third day we walked for several miles through dense pine woods, catching occasional glimpses of the sea. We emerged at a tiny bowl-shaped cove where we spotted two shiny black heads bobbing about. Despite having lived in Devon for my first eighteen years, this was the first time I’d ever seen seals and a local told us that during the mating season the male nips bathers. In the evening, we sat above Brixham harbour as the sun went down and the streetlights came on. We watched a trawler getting ready to creep out for the night. I’ve always thought Brixham a rather downbeat place—to my teenage self it smelled of fish and seemed to have little going for it. But this evening Mike said, ‘It’s charming,’ and I saw it through new eyes.

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At another point on our walk we went under a huge viaduct and a steam train whistled and clattered above. Once again, my husband was charmed. I could see that it was picturesque, but I wasn’t won over so easily. This was the line that I’d taken to school every day. It belongs to the Dartmouth Steam Railway Company who run it as a heritage service. My school was half-way along the line and so we teenagers, travelled by train. For a few weeks in 1973 we went on the Flying Scotsman.

“Shall we go on it tomorrow?” said Mike. “Why would you want to do that?” I thought, remembering the infuriating train enthusiasts who would hang out of the windows with their cine cameras, and get in our way as we focused on making our escape from the tedium of school. But it’s good to challenge our prejudices so the next morning we parked in Paignton and queued at the ticket office. “Two returns, please,” I said. “That will be £31,” said the ticket clerk. “The engine pulling your carriage this morning is 75014. She was built at Swindon in 1954.”

We were a bit early so I sat on the platform reading my book. Mike paced around impatiently before announcing, excitedly, ‘There’s some shunting going on over there,’ and disappearing off to watch.

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It wasn’t long before we were sitting in a chocolate and cream carriage named Sarah. As we chuffed out of the town, we stuck our heads out of the metal sliding window and gusts of coal smoke caught in my throat. We passed Goodrington Sands which brought back memories of melting ice-cream, sand in my toes, and the desolation of my big sister losing me. Then we passed my school and there were more mixed memories—the old plimsoll smell of the echoing gym; the excitement of being given first-year English books; the boredom of religious studies lessons with the ancient teacher who couldn’t keep order; being lovesick; being terrified of the sadistic PE teacher, and the dark corners at Christmas discos.

We went through a long tunnel. I must have been through it hundreds of times, but this time I thought of The Railway Children and watching the film with my children. Next, some passengers got off at Greenway Halt from where you can walk through the woods to Agatha Christie’s house. I thought of my elder daughter and how she loves all of her crime novels. Then the River Dart started to flash through the trees, and eventually the town of Dartmouth came into full view on the opposite bank. “It’s so pretty,” said my husband and despite the troubled times I spent there, I had to agree that it is. We hung out of the window taking photos.

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As with rereading the book, it was good to revisit past memories and to make new ones that are relevant to the present. Books, films, places, people…do some revisiting. You never know what you might find.

Baltic Buses

In my last post, I wrote about St Petersburg. But what I didn’t say, was what happened next. That was just the first half of our holiday and it was all about imperial grandeur and revolution—the second half was very different.

We went to visit my son who lives in Latvia, and decided to travel by overnight bus. I love the idea of going to sleep in one country and waking up in the dawn light of another one—and somehow, I managed to persuade my husband that this would be fun. So, on Sunday evening, after four busy days in St Petersburg we made our way out to the Ecolines bus stop on the edge of the city. Three buses to Minsk arrived and eventually we climbed aboard our bus to Riga. We then had several hours of bumping along narrow roads through isolated Russian settlements where wooden houses stood at odd angles as though they’d been dropped randomly on the ground. Around midnight we reached Narva on the Estonian border and the landscape changed. The first thing we saw was a floodlit medieval castle.

By dawn, we were in Latvia and got to Riga in time for breakfast. It has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in the world so there was plenty to see, as well as taking in Orthodox churches, walks by the river, and reminders of Latvia’s troubled history and multiple occupations. It’s a very attractive capital city. On the third day, our alarm went off early and by 7am we were on another bus—this time going to the coastal town of Liepaja where my son lives. The Latvian language has no word for ‘mountain’ and the flat countryside is all about deep forests and countless little lakes. One of the joys of travel is spotting things that you don’t get at home, and I loved seeing storks with their long legs and big untidy nests perched in unlikely places. My son told me proudly that Latvia is the storks’ favourite country. Obviously no one has interviewed them about this but it seems to be true as there are more white storks in Latvia than in every other European country put together. People put up high posts in their gardens to encourage nest-building. Latvia likes the storks—and the storks like Latvia.

As we passed the dark pine forests I started thinking about the animals that might live there and remembered some of the stories my son has told me. One was about Ruhnu island off the coast of Latvia. About seventy people live on it, and a few years ago they were joined by a large brown bear. No-one knew how it got there as the nearest land is forty kilometres across the Gulf of Riga. The most likely explanation was that it floated across on a piece of ice. It didn’t cause any trouble, and then it just disappeared. Presumably, it simply took an ice floe back home again. To commemorate this event, a Latvian confectionery company made a forty kilogram chocolate statue of the bear and presented it to the islanders. It took them eight months to eat their way through it.

Another tale that came to mind, is the unlikely but true story of a deranged rodent. A Latvian man named Sergei was walking in the forest one evening when a beaver darted out, bit him on the leg and pinned him to the ground. He did his best to escape but it was hopeless—the beaver was determined. After a while, Sergei managed to get through to the police and told them that he was being held hostage by a beaver. They put the phone down. Next, he called some friends and after some initial ‘oh yeahs’ on their part, was able to convince them that he really was in rather an awkward situation. They set off to help as fast as they could, but unfortunately got pulled over by the police, for speeding. They explained that they were going to help their friend who was being attacked by a deranged beaver. This didn’t go down well but they persisted, and eventually the police officers agreed to accompany the rescue party. They arrived to find Sergei still on the ground with the beaver standing guard over him. I’m not sure exactly what happened next, but I do know that Sergei lived to tell the tale.

After three hours, we arrived in Liepaja which turned out to be an attractive old town. The beach is gorgeous with pale sand, tall pines, and open-sided cafés.  But, it was shocking to learn that up until 1991 this beach had a watchtower, manned day and night and that soldiers would constantly rake the sand, tracking the footprints of anyone who tried to escape the Soviet occupation.

Photo: Werner100359 via Wikimedia Commons

We spent the final night of our holiday in Lithuania as we were flying home from Palanga. A minibus service, noisy and packed with locals, took us on the ninety-minute journey. Like Liepaja, the beach at Palanga is clean and attractive. There’s a long pier and people stand along it, and watch the sun set.  We were there during the ‘white nights’ season when the evenings are long and the nights short. It was overcast but when the setting sun did break through, it shone on the dark sea, creating a golden stairway to the beach. It was magical.

The next morning we arrived at the airport in plenty of time for our flight. It’s so small that there are only two gates—‘left’ or ‘right’. Unfortunately, it was also so small that our incoming Ryanair plane couldn’t land in the fog and we hung around for several hours waiting to discover where it had gone. Eventually, we learned that it was in Kaunas, over two hundred kilometres away. An efficient, young employee had the unenviable job of passing on this news and was immediately surrounded by vocal passengers, demanding instant compensation from Ryanair. A less confident person might have crumpled under this onslaught but not her.  “My name is not RyanAir – my name is Monica” she said, with a great deal of dignity and just a hint of exasperation. Everyone laughed and returned to their seats.

Nothing much happened for a while and then our Baltic holiday managed to pull one final bus journey out of the hat. Around lunchtime we all trooped out to a line of minibuses that had been provided to take us to Kaunas. “Oh well,” I thought. “At least it’s a chance to see some more storks.” I kept a careful watch as the bus sped across Lithuania and we all munched on sandwiches that had been thoughtfully provided by Monica. But try as I might, I didn’t see any at all and so must draw one conclusion–they really do like Latvia best.

Take Five

st petersburg metro

I’ve recently returned from a four-day visit to St Petersburg—a birthday treat for my husband.  He was delighted to practise the Russian that he learned at university over forty years ago and I was delighted to visit a city that’s been high on my wish list for a long time. I knew there would be lots to see with numerous palaces, museums and cathedrals, and we did our best to scratch at the surface of this intriguing city. But my memories will inevitably fade and so, in an effort to hang onto something, I’ve chosen five ‘objects’ which represent different aspects of an extraordinary history which swoops and soars like the imperial double-headed eagle.

double-headed eagle

Our first day was spent at Peterhof. This was commissioned as a rival to Versailles and is twenty-five kilometres from St Petersburg. We travelled by hydrofoil, passing the ornate buildings that line the city’s Neva River in shades of primrose yellow, mint green and birthday cake pink. Unlike most cities which grow haphazardly, St Petersburg was always destined to be impressive. It was built on unsuitable, swampy land in the early eighteenth century and gave Peter the Great the ‘Window to Europe’ that he desired. Serfs and Swedish prisoners of war laboured with their bare hands, and the bones of over one hundred thousand lie beneath the pavements.

As we left the Neva and headed towards Peterhof, the hydrofoil picked up speed. We thrashed across the Gulf of Finland and the brown foamy sea crashed at the windows. When we reached the estate, its size was overwhelming so we wandered through the gardens, taking in the scale of the palaces and fountains. Later, inside the Grand Palace the dazzle exceeded anything I’ve ever seen before, suffice to say that there is a lot of gilt. I may have been indoors but I still needed my sunglasses. There are many things that I could select to represent this imperial opulence but as my first ‘object’ I’ve chosen the water feature which cascades down from the Grand Palace complete with sixty-four individual fountains, dozens of bronze ornaments and a huge gilded statue. We stood above it on a hot day, enjoying the cool mist and gazing down at the tiny glinting rainbows.

peterfhoffountains1

The Hermitage Museum is also unmissable. Right at the heart of the city, it’s housed in the Winter Palace which was the official residence of the Russian Monarchy until 1917. And like Peterhof, it’s vast. The building has 1,945 windows, and it’s said that it would take eleven years to see all of its treasures. We had half a day…

It was Catherine the Great who started amassing paintings and it’s now the largest collection in the world. Just about every major classical artist is represented and there are plenty of portraits of Catherine, too. She was a German princess who married Peter the Great’s grandson, nicknamed Peter the Petty Minded. It was an unhappy marriage and six months after he became Tsar, she led a palace coup that forced his abdication. He was later assassinated—probably by her lover—and she ruled Russia for the next thirty-four years. As I moved through the museum I began to recognise her…ruddy cheeks…imperious…usually seated on a horse…and for my second ‘object’ I’ve chosen something that conjures up some romance—Catherine’s carved golden state sleigh. After I’d seen it, I looked out onto the Neva from the windows of the Winter Palace. I was glad to be visiting St Petersburg in the summer, but I couldn’t help thinking how beautiful it must be when the river freezes.

catherine the great's sleigh

Photo: Shakko via Wikicommons

Everyone knows that the Russian Imperial age came to a violent end in 1917 and in The State Museum of the Political History of Russia we saw a portrait of Tsar Nicholas II. He looks regal in his military uniform but it’s impossible to ignore the great marks where it was slashed with bayonets at the start of the Revolution. This is my third ‘object’ and it hangs near some poignant, flickery film of the Russian Royal family swimming, and swinging in hammocks. This can’t have been long before they were all arrested, imprisoned and shot.

The museum is in a small mansion that was the home of the Russian prima ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya until it was seized by the Bolsheviks. She never got it back. There’s speculation that she had an affair with Tsar Nicholas and a controversial film about their relationship is due to be released this autumn. We saw the room where one hundred years ago, Lenin worked on essays and speeches in the months leading up to the storming of the Winter Palace. And outside the window is my fourth ‘object’—the balcony where he stood and addressed the crowds of workers and soldiers, below. The museum was quiet when we visited and there was plenty of time to take in the dusty, bookish atmosphere of this room that changed the world.

lenin balcony

Another day, we spent an interesting few hours hopping on and off the Metro. St Petersburg has the deepest subway in the world thanks to its difficult geology, and is well worth a visit for its own sake. It was opened during the Soviet era and many of the stations have huge chandeliers, marble columns, statues, and mosaics. We saw tributes to Lenin, Pushkin, Russian sport, and Soviet industry. However, Narvskaya station has a particularly revealing story. It was originally going to be called ‘Stalinskaya’ but before this could happen, Stalin was denounced by Kruschev. There’s a big carved stone panel at the top of the escalator called ‘Glory to Work’. Stalin’s fall from grace meant that he was never included and so the effect is rather odd, with a crowd of people all looking towards a missing figure. The elephant in the room does nothing to mitigate the fact that he ordered the deaths of up to three million people during the Great Terror. This panel is my fifth ‘object’.

Narvskaya plaque

On our last day in St Petersburg we visited the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and there, amidst a great deal of gilt, we saw the final resting places of some of the characters that we’d got to know during our visit. Peter the Great lies in a marble tomb close to that of his grandson, Peter III, who is next to Catherine the Great, the wife that betrayed him. And in a side chapel lie the remains of Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, their five children, and some loyal servants, interred there in 1998, eighty years after their death. I’ve chosen my five ‘objects’ to represent wealth, romance, revolution, Communism, and terror.  But despite all the upheavals, it’s sobering to discover that Credit Suisse recently named Russia as the most unequal of the developed economies. It’s easy to see who benefits from the 13% flat tax rate—and it’s certainly not the poor. Churchill called Russia, ‘A riddle wrapped in an enigma,’ and that continues to be true at the centenary of the Revolution.

If you’ve been to St Petersburg then I’d love to hear which objects defined it for you. And if you haven’t visited and get the chance, then I highly recommend it—just don’t forget your sunglasses.

romanov tombs

Blind Spots

appalachian mountains

I’ve been filling in some gaps recently and it’s been immensely satisfying. That’s the upside—the downside is that in sharing those gaps, I shall have to confess to an embarrassing level of ignorance. It’s not that I don’t know anything. The problem is what I know about. Like most people I’ve accumulated a lot of random knowledge on my way through life. I can tell you how knickerbockers got their name, that the Dutch are the world’s tallest people, and that elephants reach puberty around the age of eleven. But thinking back to my school days, and despite gaining a respectable clutch of O-levels and A-levels, there were deserts in my learning. Maths, science and languages were quite well taught but I studied the Appalachian Mountains for what seemed like months and was never sure why, and history was particularly disappointing. It should have been my favourite subject but it was presented as a collection of unconnected events that made little coherent sense and left me feeling thoroughly confused.

I first became conscious of these shortcomings about fifteen years ago when my four children took up most of my time and energy. It was exhausting, rewarding, constraining and happy all at once—and there were times when it felt like my brain was turning into a doughnut. However, unknown to me it was quietly fighting for survival and I found myself thinking about all kinds of things that I  didn’t understand. It started one day when I was pairing up newly-washed socks. A thought popped into my head and wouldn’t go away— ‘Why did the Romans leave Britain? One century they were there, and then the next they weren’t. What went wrong?’ The following day I found myself wondering what happened to the Whigs. Next it was Zorba the Greek…the causes of the Spanish Civil War…the difference between rectors, parsons and vicars. Surely it’s not just that rectors live in rectories, parsons live in parsonages, and vicars live in vicarages?…the Holy Roman Emperor…and Methodism.  Once I started noticing all the things that I didn’t understand then they seemed to be everywhere, jumping out at me from the fog.

fog

And so I decided to do something about it. If nothing else then it would stop my brain from turning into a doughnut. So I chose a special notebook with a hard, bright pink cover, and every day I’d engage with one of these questions, and find out about it. I knew I’d forget it all, so I jotted it down in the notebook. I did that for about six months, and learned such a lot of interesting things. Friends got used to me saying over coffee, ‘Do you know…’ and were indulgent. My children rolled their eyes and were less indulgent. But I loved it. It wasn’t about accumulating information for its own sake, but instead it was about feeling less excluded from life. Forget all the formal education I’d had—this was the start of my self-education.

Eventually the ‘Questions of the Day’ stopped. I can’t remember why, but ever since I’ve remembered that period with affection. Then a few weeks ago in the midst of the election campaigning I started to wonder why we talk about ‘right’ and ‘left’ in politics. So I checked it out and found that it dates back to the French Revolution when the king’s supporters stood on the right of the president and supporters of the revolution were to the left. Right and left denoted the different groups at that stage and it was only with debates about the Spanish Civil War that the terms were used in Britain to refer to political ideologies. That was a pleasing bit of defogging and then last weekend I was on a long train journey and remembered the great gaps in my understanding of American politics. That seemed a shame as it’s particularly fascinating at the moment, so as the train clattered along I spent some time reading up about it.

A few days later, I was chatting with a friend who knows much more about politics than I do and started telling him enthusiastically about my new-found knowledge. ‘Do you know…’ I said, ‘…I now understand the difference between governors and senators… and what Congress is…and the difference between the House of Representatives and the Senate…and that representatives have to stand for election every two years but senators get six years…’ It was at that point that he stopped sipping his coffee and gave me a very funny look—sort of interested but guarded. ‘Just remind me…’ he said. ‘What exactly is Congress?’ And that was when I had the thought—it’s not just me. We all have blind spots.

forest