Say It Now

leeds-town-hall

Photo: Leeds Town Hall by Andrew Roberts

I was in Leeds last week doing research for a book and in amongst all the industrial history that I discovered, I also came across an outstanding café. Mrs Atha’s is tucked away down a side street in the city centre and not only was it a sublime place in which to linger, but it got me thinking about human interaction. I went for a late breakfast and as I queued to place my order, I took in the surroundings. With bare brick walls, wooden floors, and the now ubiquitous vintage china, it looked pleasant enough. But when I got to the front of the queue and started talking to the two neatly bearded young men in smart black aprons, I was reminded that businesses have a choice. They can do things—or they can do things with care. This was the latter. “Do you have soya milk?” I asked, explaining about my lactose intolerance and migraines. “No,” said the young man. “We use oat milk because it sits in the coffee better.” Without thinking, I wrinkled my nose rather rudely. “I’ll make you a cappuccino,” he said. “I don’t like warm milk,” I said. “Try it and if you don’t like it, I’ll make you something else,” he replied persuasively.

Unconvinced, I sat at a table and waited. Opposite, a man in a three-piece suit with bracelets and a flat cap, tucked into his breakfast and then beamed when a piece of cake was put in front of him. He tucked into that, too, and looked very happy. My scrambled egg arrived on a pretty plate, with baby button mushrooms and two oval slices of buttered, granary toast. I must have looked happy, too. It was perfection. When the young waiter passed my table, I said, “That was made by someone who really knows how to cook scrambled egg.” He looked pleased at the compliment and then I ordered another cappuccino.

cappuccino

This interaction reminded me of a treat that I had, five years ago, with my younger daughter, Molly. We went to Greenwich Market and spent some time browsing the immense range of street food including sushi, Korean, Ethiopian, goat curry, and paella. Eventually, Molly chose chorizo and potato stew with couscous and I settled for chicken piri piri with rice. We took our cardboard plates and perched on some steps at the edge of the lively market. Like my Leeds breakfast, the food was outstanding and it was satisfying to go back and tell the stallholder how much we’d enjoyed it. This human connection is so often lost in modern life, and it’s why I avoid restaurant chains when I’m on research visits.

For a similar reason, I tend to choose Airbnb for holidays and research trips. I like staying in private homes as each is different and you get the human dimension. You also get quirky welcoming touches, the benefit of local knowledge and an insight into other people’s lives. I’m used to leaving extensive reviews for everything I buy online but finding oneself as the subject of a review is a bit uncomfortable. Airbnb hosts review their guests in just the same way that the guests review their hosts. I’m pleased to say that all my reviews so far have been quite positive. Polite, quiet and easy-going have cropped up, and I’m especially proud to report that several have said, “Lynn is very clean.” I suppose that’s a compliment.

gold-star

Compliments are small gifts that are easy to give. They cheer people up and boost self-confidence. My mother was particularly good at this. I remember being surprised as a child when I’d hear her say, “That dress looks so pretty on you,” or something similar—often to people she hardly knew. It’s not very British to give compliments but I was aware even at a young age, that my mother was completely genuine. That’s the important thing—compliments should be sincere and given for the benefit of the recipient. Artful, insincere attention is merely flattery and is more about the needs of the giver.

I’ve been thinking about compliments all week and then with wonderful synchrony yesterday morning, I heard an item on Radio 4’s Saturday Live that crystallised my thoughts. A Scottish teacher was interviewed about her idea for living eulogies. She uses them in her school. We must all have heard glowing funeral eulogies and wondered with regret whether the deceased person ever knew that they were valued so much—or which of their qualities touched other people. This teacher was arguing in favour of telling people these things while they’re still alive to enjoy them. It’s important to be authentic and also not to be intrusive or inappropriate, but overall I like this idea and am going to adopt it.

bouquet

I’ve enthused wholeheartedly here about the joys of human interaction but there are, of course, times when anonymity is welcome and I came across a few of those during my recent trip. One afternoon I was in a museum, with very limited time, and as I stood scribbling down stories of Yorkshire’s Victorian mills, I became aware of an attendant watching me. ‘Is tha planning a school visit?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I replied politely. He thought for a few moments. ‘Is tha from a local history club?’ ‘No’ I said, thinking of my time constraints. There was a pause. “Well what is tha doin’ then?” I told him the bare bones, somewhat reluctantly and then spent the next twenty minutes trying to dodge his well-intended, but off-topic, nuggets of local knowledge.

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That evening I went back to my Airbnb and climbed the stairs to my room at the top of the house. I opened the door on the right and thought, “Why is there a half-naked young man on my bed?” Then I remembered that my door was on the left. I also remembered that my sense of direction is distressingly unreliable. I apologised profusely and went downstairs where I made a cup of tea and a hot water bottle, and had a pleasant chat with my hostess. I told her about the things I’d seen, and how much I was enjoying getting to know Leeds. She told me about Macedonia where she grew up. Then it was back up the stairs again and I opened the door to my room. Unfortunately the half-naked young man was still there—exactly where I’d left him. It’s lucky that Airbnb doesn’t invite guests to review their fellow guests. On this occasion, I would have received few compliments.

There’s A Lot To Talk About

trinity-college

Dublin has been on my list for a long time and last weekend I finally got there. It was a treat timed to coincide with my birthday and one of the benefits of living only ten minutes from an airport, is that we were in the city centre in time for breakfast. Unlike many of the things I’ve longed to do, I had no preconceptions. I was simply curious about this nearby capital city.

We started with a guided tour and walking through an archway into the huge, elegant courtyard of Trinity College was a stunning moment. From there our guide swept us through the key events in Dublin’s history. I knew so little about Ireland that the details were new to me but it was no surprise that Catholic oppression, famine and British domination cropped up a lot. They were not happy stories and eventually we got to the Easter Rising of 1916 when Irish Republicans decided they’d had enough and laid siege to Dublin in order to try and free themselves from British rule. Our guide was erudite and enthusiastic. The tour should have lasted two hours, but we got nearly four. Half-way we stopped for coffee at the Irish Film Institute, a cosy respite from the torrential rain. We squashed around a table—an Irishman, an American, a German, a South African and me—and we talked about the state of the world. There’s a lot going on at the moment.

The next morning we went to Kilmainham Gaol where we sat in a sombre small chapel and heard about Joseph Plunkett, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. stonebreakers-yardHis last wish was to marry his sweetheart, Grace and this was granted. They had ten minutes together, and then two hours later Joseph was executed by firing squad. Our tour ended in the stark Stone Breaker’s Yard where he and thirteen of his fellow rebels were shot. After execution the bodies were taken to a mass grave and covered with quicklime. James Connolly was one of these. He had been badly injured in the Rising and wasn’t expected to live long but nonetheless, he was brought from hospital to the prison, strapped to a chair and shot. The guide told us many similarly cruel stories. I also learned that initially, the Rising was unpopular in Dublin but that the harsh reaction of the British Army shifted public opinion. People were outraged and changed from being merely hostile to the British presence to supporting militant action against it. What followed were bloody years of conflict with a War of Independence and a Civil War.

On Saturday evening we joined a literary pub crawl. As I sat waiting for it to start I felt a tap on my shoulder. ‘Hello,’ said a young man. ‘Where are you from?’ He was up from Kildare for the evening and told me about the difficulties of getting work in rural Ireland. Then two actors led us through narrow streets whilst introducing us to the lighter side of Dublin’s most famous literary offspring: Wilde, Beckett, Yeats, Behan and Joyce. At the end, in the fifth pub we stayed on until midnight, deep in conversation with a friendly Dublin couple. We debated the current state of the world. There’s a lot to talk about.

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On Sunday morning in the Hugh Lane Gallery I went into a long room of Irish portraits. Over the past few days I’d heard about a number of people whose names appeared here—either them or their relatives. Recognising them gave me a small, satisfying sense that I was beginning to understand something of which I had been so ignorant.

Just before we left for the airport, Niamh our charming Airbnb hostess made a pot of tea and we told her about the Lucien Freud exhibition we’d seen, the great meal we’d had in a converted church, and the interesting people we’d met. I told her how glad I was to have learned something about Irish history. She talked enthusiastically about one of her heroines—Countess Constance Markievicz who was found guilty of treason in the Rising but wasn’t executed because she was a woman. On one occasion she went straight to a meeting after going to the opera and was photographed for a ‘Wanted’ poster wearing a ballgown, tiara and pearls. She’d advised her fellow women on how to prepare for rebellion—‘Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver’.  In 1918 she became the first woman to be elected as a British MP but in accordance with Sinn Fein policy, she didn’t take her seat. During the course of her life she gave away all of her wealth and died in penury at 59.

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Then the conversation moved onto current world politics. Niamh had been to Maine just before the American election and spoke of her shock at staying in a small town where the signs of recession were impossible to ignore. The town had recently lost most of its timber industry to Canadian competition and only one shop in four was open. She made it clear that she wouldn’t have voted for Trump, but she did remark that after this visit she could see why the people there would want protectionist policies. ‘We need to understand both sides,’ she said. Hearing that in Ireland, was affecting—the Irish know about hard times. They’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of harsh treatment.

Despite my focus here on the sober side of things, it was a really happy weekend. Great company, good food, and lots to see. But there’s no getting away from the history when you visit Dublin. And this weekend there was no getting away from current politics, either. Trump has started his presidency with a harsh approach. The issues are quite different from those in Irish history but human response is predictable. When people feel oppressed they get angry. That usually doesn’t end well. I worry about many things these days and now there’s a new one to add to the stash. Has the new president ever studied history?

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Well, It’s Not 42…

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This is my fiftieth post on treatsandmore and I’m having a little celebration. It’s tempting to write about the problems of shopping for fish, cryptic crosswords, lucky knickers, eating in the dark, or other fripperies but I’ve done all of those, so today in honour of the occasion, I’m going to think about something quite different. Nothing too taxing, just that straightforward little question—what is the meaning of life?

Oddly, I’m not sure that I’ve given this matter much thought before. I’ve been aware of it, of course, but only tangentially, despite the fact that it affects us all. Without a purpose we’re merely existing and waiting for death. The ticklish problem lies in working out what that purpose might be.

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If we weren’t blessed with free will, then it would be easy. We’d simply be like animals and get on with it. Penguins don’t worry about their purpose in life. They don’t have any option. The male stays with the egg in freezing conditions and the female trudges hundreds of miles across the ice to fetch food from the sea. But we’re different—we have choices, and with these comes anxiety about ‘what’s the right route’.

When we’re young then there’s a structure to life. Each year of education brings new challenges and we know more or less what’s coming next. Then suddenly it all comes to an end and we’re cast adrift in a sea of decisions with great crashing waves of doubt. I’ve spoken to several young people recently who have each in different ways expressed the same distress—what should they do with their life?

One of the most settled stages of my own life was when the children were young. Each day I knew what had to be done. Though that’s not to say that it wasn’t challenging at times. For many years, we lived several miles down a country lane and when we first moved we had just one car. My then-husband commuted to London by train and would often get back late. I couldn’t leave the children at home on their own so I’d have to take them with me to fetch him. I’d go round their bedrooms one by one and sit them up, telling them to put on their dressing gown and slippers whilst I went on to the next one. Invariably, I’d go back to gather each of them up, and instead of being ready they would have slipped sleepily back into bed so the rigmarole would start all over again. It was an odd game–a kind of cross between plate spinning and Sleeping Bunnies.

platespinning

Photo by Usien

All of that is in the past now and that purposeful, day-to-day parenting space has melted away. Children leaving home, retirement, divorce, illness, bereavement—they all force us to search for a new equilibrium. If you’re religious then that may provide you with your ultimate meaning. But even if you believe in an afterlife then there remains the issue of how to spend one’s life profitably on Earth. And many of us are not religious so we need to construct our own purpose. Mine, over the past few years, has centred around wanting to learn new things and have new experiences. I certainly don’t always manage it, but I also want to be kind where I can. Thoughtfulness passes on like a relay baton from one person to the next and to my mind can only improve the overall quality of all our lives.

The meaning of life is one of those things that you start to notice everywhere once it’s in your head. The same day that I’d had a long, hard think about it, I went to see the film Jackie, and there it was right at the centre. The dazed, bereaved, ex-First Lady, Jackie Kennedy talks to a priest just a few days after her husband’s assassination. “What’s the meaning of it all?” she asks. The priest, played by the late John Hurt, replies,It takes a long time to realise it, but the truth is that there are no answers. None.” That’s pretty much what I’d been thinking all day.

jackie-kennedy

Photo: Cecil W Stoughton

One approach that I do find useful is the philosophy of Viktor Frankl whose memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, is in development as a film. He was an Austrian psychiatrist who spent three years as an inmate in Nazi concentration camps. Despite his own hardships and the loss of his wife and most of his family, he encouraged fellow prisoners to fight for their survival by finding meaning in their suffering. Later, he developed logotherapy, a branch of existential analysis. At its core is the idea that to live is to suffer and if there is a purpose in life then there must be a purpose in suffering. But no one can tell another person what that purpose is. Our lives are all so different. We must each find out for ourselves and take responsibility for how this relates to our own life and situation. That is personal growth.

As I said at the start–nothing heavy.

And another thought…

It bothers me to know that when my heart stops beating and I close my eyes for the last time, then all the thoughts and memories that I’ve gathered through my life, will just disappear. Maybe this is one reason why humans have such a strong drive to be creative. Whether it’s a painting, a photo, a song, a patchwork quilt or a poem they can each outlast our own life so that a bit of us cheats death.

Maybe even a blog can do that. Thank you to everyone who has read any, or all of these fifty posts. I’ve really enjoyed writing them. And as I’ve probably got a few more thoughts and memories to gather together, then I intend to keep going. It’s a purpose–of sorts.

creative-keyboard

More For Less

 ducklings

We all know that patience is a virtue but unfortunately it was in short supply when my children were young. There seemed to be so much to get done, and one of the things that frustrated me most was the painfully slow rate of progress whenever we went out. They’d trail along, dropping things and stopping and starting so that it took forever to get anywhere. My solution was to train them all to walk extremely fast. I strode along at a cracking pace and they soon learned to keep up. The younger ones protested at first but before long they’d be trotting along with their older siblings. In true dictator-style I managed to persuade myself that it was good for them as they would develop ‘wonderfully strong legs.’ But now many years later, I get my comeuppance for this hard-hearted mothering whenever I go anywhere with Henry.  As he races ahead with his ‘wonderfully strong’ 23-year old legs he looks back wryly over his shoulder and calls, ‘Come on Mum—keep up.’

Thinking back, I realise that I’ve spent my whole life being in a hurry and it’s a perspective that I must have picked up from my mother. She was always rushing around but I’m not quite sure why. Even after she stopped work, she would have urgent washing to hang out or pressing cupboards to tidy.  I’m inclined to do this, too – always dashing to get one thing finished so I can move on to the next. And one thing at a time is never enough. If I can put some washing on whilst sending a text that is good, and if I can build in a few exercises at the same time, and listen to the radio, too, then even better.

whirlpool

But this habit was challenged on Boxing Day morning. The family had all gone out and I found myself with a couple of hours, and nothing particular to do. It felt very odd. I wandered around a bit, nibbled a mince pie, and then remembered that I was part-way through listening to number twelve on my project of Channel 4’s top 100 albums. Normally I put these on while I’m cooking, ironing or driving but this time I settled down in our big, comfortable old sofa and for an hour I gave it my undivided attention. It was both a revelation and a liberation—just me and the White Album. I really listened to it.

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The enjoyment and relaxation that I got from just doing one thing at a time set me thinking and I did a bit of research. Much has been written in recent years about the myth of multi-tasking and it seems that it’s a lot less efficient than people believe. It’s only possible to focus on one task at a time so if you’re juggling several activities, there is a constant process of swapping between them. This swap takes only tenths of a second but it’s energy sapping and many studies have found that repeated switching reduces effectiveness. There is also pressure from many kinds of media so that many of us live in a state of what has been called ‘continuous partial attention’—constantly checking our phones, Facebook and other media to make sure that we don’t miss anything. The net result is of attention spread thinly across a number of tasks.

I always claim to love BBC Radio Four but it occurred to me that in nearly forty years of listening, I have never given it my full attention for more than a few minutes at a time. Television and cinema require you to both watch and listen but with radio it’s all too easy to dip in and out, missing huge chunks as you get on with other things.  And for me, the irony of this realisation is that on the whole, I prefer radio to other media–the quality and range of programmes is astounding. So I decided this week to do an experiment and spend a whole morning doing nothing but listening to Radio Four.

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Even after I’d resolved to do this and had carved out a morning clear of work, it was difficult to give myself permission to do just this one thing. ‘Why not make a cake at the same time?’ said my internal time manager, helpfully. ‘No’, I said.

‘You could put on some headphones and go for a walk,’ it replied. ‘That way you could pick up some shopping, too.’ ‘No’, I said firmly. ‘Tidy some cupboards?’ it suggested.

‘Shut up’, I said and closed the door to the sitting room.

swan

Over the next three hours I listened to accounts of swan migration, women-only offices, the response of the Catholic Church to the Reformation, and Greenpeace protests. I learned that every month in London about two hundred young people are stabbed, and I heard some of their stories. They were shocking. A bike designer explained that crossbars are a hangover from the Victorian period when women had huge skirts and had to avoid showing their ankles. I enjoyed some snippets of poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins and was glad to hear that just before he died, he said ‘I’m so happy’ several times. There was an old interview with the journalist Claire Hollingworth who got the scoop of the century when she reported on the outbreak of the Second World War. Then there was a drama set in Kosovo. Normally I would have zoned out while this was on but it was moving and I’m grateful to have heard it. And every hour in the news there was the juxtaposition of the outgoing U.S. President’s intelligent, gracious farewell speech with the incoming President’s latest block capital (i.e. shouty) tweets.

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I don’t think that this was an exceptional morning on Radio Four but the overall standard is so high that even on an ordinary day, it was interesting throughout. By the end of my experiment, I’d not achieved anything tangible—no cake, no shopping, no tidy cupboards. But I was relaxed and had absorbed new ideas which changed me in various small ways. It’s not a treat I can manage to do very often, but my multi-tasking handcuffs are broken, and I look forward to my next Radio Four indulgence. More importantly, I must pass on the message to my children that they don’t have to walk so fast.

Biting the Dentist’s Finger

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Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen

It must be a relief to the Queen to have got to New Year’s Day, and Paul McCartney is surely feeling thankful, too. Many other familiar figures haven’t been so fortunate this year and I for one, will particularly miss Alan Rickman and Leonard Cohen. But making it to the finish line of 2016 is no protection against the inescapable process of ageing, and Buckingham Palace recently announced that the Queen is reducing her workload. It came as a surprise because she has been monarch for so long, but to step down as patron from just twenty-five of her six hundred favoured organisations, seems entirely reasonable— in her ninety-first year, she of all people has earned the right to slow down a bit.

This year, the ageing process has had a big impact on my own family and I’ve written previously (The Old Man and the Pea, Enhanced Eating, Beginning, Middle and End), about the 96-year old gentleman who lived for many months in my sitting room. This July he became my father-in-law and a few months later we moved to the house that was refurbished with his needs in mind. The garage has been converted into a bedroom and separate wet room for him, but sadly he has been unable to make much use of them. A brain bleed in the summer exacerbated his confusion, and by the time we moved, he had descended into dementia with disturbed nights, falls and agitation. This autumn it became clear that we could no longer cope, and he went to live in a nursing home a few miles away. We’ve had inevitable moments of sadness and doubt but we know that he needs professional care, from trained staff who have all the right equipment and can care for him around the clock.

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We visit regularly but the variability of his condition means that we never know what to expect. Some days he is unable to walk and the carers use a hoist to move him. On other days, he sets off down the corridor at quite a speed, a small white-haired figure hunched purposefully over his walking frame. There have been occasions when we’ve sat with him and he has barely responded; some when he has produced long fluent-sounding sentences that make no sense, and others when he has been chatty and business-like as if trying to regain some control over his life. ‘Now, what’s going on?’ he asked briskly on a recent visit, ‘Are we waiting for the paperwork?’

At the moment he is fairly lucid and can recite long stretches of the poetry that he learned over seventy-five years ago as a young man. But it’s all rather patchy and he couldn’t make much sense of the recent festivities. ‘I’m having trouble placing Christmas. It’s some kind of religious thing, isn’t it?’

christmas-bauble

The good days are to be treasured and sometimes he dredges up surprising memories. I was sitting with him a few weeks ago, when he told me a story about his sister, Betty: ‘The dentist stuck his finger in her mouth, and she nearly took the end of it off. The police wanted to prosecute…’ ‘How old was she?’ I asked, unsure whether I should be conjuring up an image of a naughty 6-year old or a skittish pensioner. But he couldn’t remember and that was the end of the story. ‘Where is she now?’ he asked.  ‘She died,’ I said and then regretted being blunt, as he looked so sad—like he was hearing the news for the very first time.

Not only do we see a lot of Frank, but we’re becoming familiar with the other nursing home residents, too. We try to make polite conversation but usually get little response. One old lady sits at the dining table in baggy clothes, with her hands tidily in her lap. She has club-cut, chin-length grey hair and when we say hello, she stares at us. ‘What’s my name?’ she whispers in quiet desperation.

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It’s reassuring that we turn up unannounced at different times of day and the home is always the same. The staff seem kind and the cook told us recently that Frank asked for apple pie, so she made a little one, just for him. He’s not sure where he is, but does acknowledge that he’s well looked after.

I’ve learned a lot from Frank. I’ve heard his stories of being in the Army during the war, of being in Burma, and of building a successful career in South Africa. He achieved the highest marks in the country in his engineering maths exams, and he raised a clutch of good, kind children. Yet it seems extraordinary to me that until he came into my life, I’d lived for fifty-six years with virtually no exposure to this world of age-related decline. My own parents didn’t live long enough for that. It’s frequently hidden away behind the doors of nursing homes but it’s increasingly likely to have an impact on all of us in one way or another. Recently, dementia overtook heart disease as the leading cause of death in England and Wales.

Over the past year, more than ever, life seems to be galloping along so I want to make hay while it’s sunny. I read recently that one reason why time seems to go faster as we age is that we have fewer novel experiences. Repetition and routine simply don’t stand out in our memories. Last January I resolved not to feel guilty and for some of the time I managed to keep this sentiment in mind. Now it’s time for another resolution and there are still a number of treats waiting on my list. Amongst other things, I hope to visit St Petersburg and Dublin, to do some family history research, to listen to more of the top 100 albums, and to continue walking the glorious South-West Coastal Footpath. There’s nothing I can do to slow time down and no-one, except Benjamin Button ever got any younger. But maybe…just maybe…with a few new experiences it might be more of a trot and less of a gallop.

Happy New Year.

new-year-2017

How to Eat Your Christmas Tree

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Last week we escaped the December chill and snatched a week in Lanzarote. It had never particularly appealed to me, but it turned out to be a strange, unearthly place, and we loved it. Volcanic eruptions have shaped the island and at least a quarter of it is covered in bare, craggy lava. We walked along the black sands of secluded coves, ate in a restaurant where the food is barbecued over a volcano, and descended deep into the earth to explore cathedral-like caves. The more predictable pleasures were the golden beaches, the warm ocean and the delicious Spanish food. As I write this I’m remembering that this time last week I was in a summer dress, squeezing lemon over a plate of superbly fresh fish, and watching the surfers ride the breakers.

But all good things must come to an end and my attempts to forget the Christmas preparations were dashed on the plane coming home. I flicked through the EasyJet magazine and came across an article about the Italian food laboratory, Wood*ing. It does research into wild food and had some unusual suggestions for festive delicacies; in particular, how to make good use of your Christmas tree. I learned that the needles are ‘citrussy and bitter’ and can be used in place of rosemary; that pine cones are ‘perfect for making soup’; that the sap can be ‘whisked into risotto or pasta’; the inner trunk can be dried out and ground into baking flour, and most exciting of all I discovered that you can boil fresh bark with salt and oil to make a ‘tasty broth’.

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Hmmm, I’m not sure about that. Our family Christmas has tended towards the traditional. For many years, Christmas lunch had a fixed formula: turkey, roast potatoes, roast parsnips, sausage and bacon rolls, carrots, peas, Brussels sprouts, stuffing, bread sauce, gravy, Christmas pudding, mince pies, brandy butter and cream. Always followed by a family walk into the dying daylight, and games in the evening. We stuck to this rigidly because it was our own particular way of doing things; our set family culture. But when I met my new husband and we took our first steps towards becoming a blended step-family we faced some challenges. Not unreasonably, they had their set way of doing things too. Family culture is a strong force. It’s about familiarity and security, and it’s also an expression of identity.

Last year was the first time that we celebrated together as a new family and my husband and I tried to find ways to keep both styles of Christmas alive. But it was much harder than we anticipated and whatever we suggested resulted in someone feeling hard done by. We struggled to decide what to do about this unavoidable need to adjust, and then hit upon what we thought was a brilliant idea. Instead of clinging to the old, we would start to make a new family culture and do something completely different: a Christmas curry. Everyone concerned enjoys spicy food, and it would provide an opportunity to make lots of different dishes spanning a range of tastes and dietary restrictions. And given that these restrictions include gluten-free, dairy-free, potato-free, cashew-free, orange-free, and meat-free, then this seemed an excellent solution. Unfortunately not everyone agreed. Initially, our suggestion triggered mutiny and we were flummoxed, but the upset did settle down eventually and the alternative lunch was a big success.

curry

This year our main family gathering will be on December the twenty-third, as that’s the day that we can all make. We wondered about doing curry again but were inspired by our recent holiday and so 2016 is going to be a Spanish Christmas. Everyone can help with the preparation of tapas and I want to recreate the fried Padron peppers that we enjoyed, softly green and bitter and sprinkled with sea salt. There will also be a fishy paella, and then almond cake and even some turron ice-cream if I get myself organised.

I can’t pretend that change has been easy. I was comfortably set in my ways and six years ago if anyone had told me that my life would be so different now then I would have been appalled and scared. There has undoubtedly been loss, but there has also been a great deal of gain. Our family is unexpectedly enhanced. We have welcomed new members, and they have welcomed us. And now that we are establishing different grooves I’m enjoying the challenges of responding to the new. After all, it’s not just second marriages that throw up these complications; family culture changes naturally anyway, as children grow up and introduce partners into the mix.

paella

Right now, there’s plenty to do. The sunny memories of our lovely holiday are fading and instead my head is crammed with Christmas lists. Amongst the many ‘to-dos’ is the thought that we’ve got no decorations up yet and several rooms are still cluttered with half-unpacked boxes from our move. I want it to be a special celebration this year as it’s our first married Christmas and the first in our new home. If that’s going to happen then I need to get busy as we have a full house from Thursday evening.

And there’s a particular problem to solve—where to put the Christmas tree. With so many people in the house, there’s not a lot of room. Perhaps we’ll just have to eat it, after all.

christmas-greetings

Retuning

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A couple of months ago, I realised that even though I love music, my range is embarrassingly limited. I’ve never knowingly listened to a Bruce Springsteen album all the way through, or a Velvet Underground, or a Leonard Cohen, or even a Bob Dylan. And as with other things recently, I’ve been getting that nagging feeling that life runs out eventually and I want to colour in some of the pictures before it’s too late.

I’m not sure how these huge omissions happened. Music was with me all the time as a teenager but then I got involved in other things, and it got buried under marriage, work, and raising children and goats. I forgot who I was in so many ways.

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When I was young, it was all about being the same as everyone else. I listened to Pink Floyd, Focus, Cat Stephens, and The Moody Blues, and loved them. But I couldn’t admit to my friends that I also loved the quirky wit, spectacular timing and fabulous orchestration of Frank Sinatra. And years later when the children developed their own musical interests, they were decidedly prescriptive about what we could listen to.

Now I want to know what I like.

So, I’ve started out on a project to broaden my knowledge and as usual I’ve turned to a list for support. I looked at several but opted in the end for Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Music Albums. It offered just what I was looking for, which was a wide range of styles and lots of different artists. I could get into many arguments about the order of the list, the omissions and inclusions but to do so is to miss the point. There are more than 37 million songs on iTunes and that’s a fraction of those available in the world. Where would I start without a bit of guidance?

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I began with Number 1 and so far have listened through to Number 10. I’m fully intending to get to Number 100. My initial look at the list was enough to identify it as being what I wanted but then I instantly forgot what was on it apart from the first and last (OK Computer by Radiohead, and Dare by the Human League). So an added bonus is that each step is a surprise. When I’m ready for the next one, I email my son, who looks it up for me. And as he’s knowledgeable about music it’s fun to chat with him about what I discover. It’s a semi-shared treat.

So far it’s done exactly what I’d hoped for. It’s challenged my prejudices and filled in some gaps. I struggled a bit with Radiohead. They sounded dark and dystopian. But I persevered and after a few days I realised that I was humming something unfamiliar. It was one of the more challenging tracks and somehow it had got under my skin and infiltrated my brain. In his book, 31 Songs, Nick Hornby writes about ‘courting a new song’. And that’s just how it feels. There’s an initial wariness and then sometimes I fall in love unexpectedly and can’t get the new song out of my head. It becomes what he describes as a ‘narcotic need’ to hear it again and again. But it’s a harmless need, and as he says, it’s ‘one that’s easily satisfied.’

Since then I’ve given time to U2, Nirvana, Michael Jackson, Oasis, and Madonna. I won’t burden you with all the details, other than to say that I’ve fallen in love with a few songs but liked U2 least. I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with Dark Side of the Moon, Sergeant Pepper and Revolver but as I know them all inside out and back to front they were too much within my comfort zone to give me what I want right now.

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When Henry told me that Number 9 was Appetite for Destruction by Guns ‘n Roses I sighed and wondered why I would put myself through listening to something that is so clearly outside my taste. But that’s where I was wrong. At first it sounded awful but gradually the miraculous process happened. I was making the bed and found I was humming one of their tracks complete with swear words and brief stops for a head bang.

I never know what’s going to come up next: soul…reggae…country…rock…grunge…folk…rap… It’s addictive. Every time I find a new song to love, I can’t believe there will be another one but there always is. And as with books, places, films and people, it’s not always the ones I expect to like, who worm their way into my heart. That’s one of the things that makes it so rewarding.

A Truth That Should Be Universally Acknowledged

 

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Photo: Anthony Albright

A few weeks ago I completed something that has been on my list for a long time — reading all of Jane Austen’s novels. I’ve written previously about the trouble I had in getting through Mansfield Park, but on the fifth attempt I managed to finish it and surprised myself by liking it best of all. For those who are similarly list-minded, then Emma came in at number two.

Having done that, I decided to round off my treat by having an indulgent morning out, visiting her home in the village of Chawton. It’s where she wrote and published most of her novels, and I enjoyed the twenty-mile drive through Hampshire countryside with its great sweeping fields stretched out red-gold in the late autumn sunshine. It’s an intimate little house and I spent a gentle, but interesting couple of hours there delving around in the relics of her life and watching a short film. In one of the rooms, I stood next to a small round table where she wrote, and I read that a nearby door had a useful creak, granting time to hide her manuscript whenever anyone approached. I learned, too, that by the time she left school at just eleven, she’d already been sent away to schools in Oxford, Southampton and Reading.

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Photo: Colin Park

Afterwards, at the café, opposite, I sat outside with a warming bowl of vegetable chilli, and my hands cupped around a large coffee. It was a still moment in an otherwise busy week, and I reflected on some of the things I’d learned from reading these novels. So much was unfamiliar. This was a rigid world where the simple act of wearing pearls or diamonds in the morning could result in being labelled a woman of questionable moral virtue. Genteel society allowed for morning calls with the presentation of a visiting card left on a special tray, but these calls were short, with typically just fifteen minutes of polite conversation in the drawing room. Everyone knew the rules and adhered to them. And I realised why shrubberies make so many appearances in Georgian novels. In a constrained society where all eyes were upon you, they provided a place where couples could find some privacy.

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But one of the biggest differences between then and now is the general attitude to women and our role in the world. In Jane’s society, men read the serious histories, newspapers and biographies of the day, whilst women were expected to look charming and to read nothing more taxing than a genteel novel. Marriage tied women to the whims of their husbands, but in some respects it was also a key to freedom. As Jane herself put it, “Marriage is the best preservative against want.” Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice holds her nose and marries the repellent Mr Collins in order to escape the old maid’s duty of caring for her brothers.  We all know the opening line of that novel “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

The view of an independent woman might be quite different today and I like this twenty-first century version of Jane’s famous opening line—“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman is capable of building her own good fortune.” Women have come a long way in the past two hundred years.

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Now in these three weeks since my visit to Jane’s house, the world seems to have shifted. I wore my lucky knickers on November 8th but it did no good. The American election was a shock. In a short while, Trump will be the most powerful person in the world. This is a man who was the co-owner of Miss Universe, who told a woman she was disgusting for breastfeeding, who is anti-abortion and therefore believes that women do not have rights over their own bodies, who has made thoroughly creepy comments about his own daughter, and who has many claims of sexual assault against him. Such accusations are a constant risk for anyone in power but he dug his own grave on that one when he was filmed bragging about “grabbing women by the pussy”. “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Yet despite all of this he was elected democratically. It’s interesting that non-white women were less convinced, with only 3% of non-college-educated black women voting ‘Trump’. But I find it astonishing that 45% of the college-educated white women who voted, put a cross next to his name, whether holding their noses or not, and that a massive 64% of their non-college-educated counterparts did the same.

In a few years we might look back and think we haven’t come so far after all.

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Lucky Knickers

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We’ve still got builders working busily round us as we settle into our new home. They’re finishing off various bits and pieces in a very good-humoured way and I’ll miss them when they move on. Usually we manage not to trip over one another too much but the other day I was on my way to the dustbin when I realised that the path was blocked. I could have simply ducked under the ladder that was propped against the wall but instead I chose to wait patiently whilst Paul the builder finished sawing a piece of wood. As I stood there holding a bag of rubbish and getting wet in the drizzle, I wondered whether I could dispense with my superstitions—I’m embarrassed to say that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Old habits run deep and these have been passed to me through my mother who was full of odd notions. She wouldn’t open an umbrella in the house, she threw salt over her shoulder, and she said that if you accidentally put your clothes on inside out then you mustn’t take them off and put them on the right way. I’ve never been convinced by that as I don’t recall her ever going out and looking strange. Perhaps she just gave lip service to that one.

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Annoyingly, I acquired a new superstition a few years ago when a friend told me that failing to greet a single magpie brings bad luck. At the time I was in the midst of some tricky life events and didn’t dare risk making them worse so although it was something new to worry about, I started doing what my friend does, which is to salute them. It quickly became a reflex action and suddenly these imposing black and white birds seemed to be everywhere, hopping about like lone delinquents. Then I met the man who is now my husband. As we drove through the New Forest on one of our first dates, I was aware out of the corner of my eye that he was looking at me curiously. We were both wary at this early stage of our relationship, and eventually he asked why I kept jerking my arm up to my head. We stopped for a drink in the garden of a pretty little pub and I tried to explain. But it sounded silly and as a confirmed scientist he was bemused.

Of course I know rationally that superstition is nonsense. It’s just a collection of odd habits and an unquestioning trust in magical beliefs. The psychologist, Professor Richard Wiseman found experimentally that people who use superstitions to ward off bad luck were no luckier than those who were not superstitious.

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Perhaps it’s time to drop the funny habits and salutes. Particularly as some of Wiseman’s other research into luck is thought-provoking and much more useful. He got people to rate themselves as either lucky or unlucky and then compared them. The reality of luck is that people who believe they’re lucky aren’t inherently luckier than those who consider themselves unlucky. They’re no more likely to win the lottery, for example, because that’s simply down to probability. But where the difference between ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ people starts to matter is in the way they create their opportunities.

People who believe they’re lucky have different personality characteristics from those who feel unlucky. They’re more extrovert so they keep in contact with people better, smile more and make more eye contact. These social skills create opportunities. ‘Lucky’ people are also more open. They welcome unpredictability and are not bound by conventions. As such, they tend to travel more and to welcome new experiences. Wiseman describes a man who noticed that he always talked to the same kind of people at parties. So he decided to disrupt the routine, make life more fun and create new opportunities by thinking of a colour and gravitating towards people wearing that colour. At one party he only spoke to women wearing red, and at another to men wearing black.

Even those ‘lucky’ people who have real bad luck, tend to turn it round. I saw this with a dear friend who was dying of a dreadful disease. She never asked, “Why me?” Instead she said in her final days that she felt very lucky because she was surrounded by love.

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I recently watched Inside Obama’s White House and there was a wonderful moment when Obama had to struggle with a difficult decision about healthcare. ‘You’ll need to be lucky for it to work,’ said his advisers. He stood still for a few moments and stared out of the window. ‘Where are we?’ he asked. ‘Sir, we’re in the Oval Office,’ came the reply. ‘And what’s my name?’ he said. ‘President Barack Obama,’ replied the aide. ‘Then I feel lucky every day,’ he said.

The United States of America is going to need some luck on Tuesday and I for one, am not taking any chances. I’ll be saluting those magpies, keeping my fingers firmly crossed and wearing my lucky knickers. I only hope that Hillary’s wearing hers too.

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Dances with Goats

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This week I was walking home and met a couple of cats. The first sauntered across the pavement, arched its back, yowled and invited me to fuss it. I can’t help but feel honoured when a cat deigns to talk to me so I stopped and stroked it but within seconds it got bored and wandered off to find someone else. Later, when I reached the golf course at the back of our house, a second cat darted out of the long grass and wound itself round my feet.

At the moment I have no animals of my own but there was a time when I had rather a lot. There were cats, dogs, chickens, geese, goats, and from time to time some lambs and pigs. We had a bit of land and in the morning I would lead the two goats down to the tangled woods where they would browse contentedly all day amongst the brambles. In the evening I would bring them back to their shed and lock them up for the night. That was the general plan but sometimes life didn’t go smoothly and I’d get distracted and forget to collect them. Then I’d wake up in the small hours and lie there feeling guilty. Goats hate getting cold and wet, so eventually my conscience would propel me out in my dressing gown; across the dark field and through the gate by the stream. There, Gwyneth and Mirabel would appear from amongst the shadowy, crowded trees, full of curiosity. What inevitably followed was a merry dance as I attempted to attach them to my rope and they did their best to trip me up.

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Life’s a bit different twenty years on. Not only do I have no animals, but the children have grown up, and I live in a city. Several times recently I’ve crept out in the dark in my dressing gown but this has been for entirely urban reasons. The garage in our last house didn’t lock properly and as there had been a spate of petty burglaries we used to drive the car down the back alley and park it across the garage door to block it off. A few times we forgot and had to go out late at night to do it. Each time as I walked along the alley back to the house I’d remember the goats and be grateful that I no longer had to get involved in a moonlit rope dance. All I had to do was park my car, lock it and go back to my nice warm bed.

My joy at no longer having to do this, makes me wonder why I did it in the first place. I liked the idea of keeping animals and raising our own meat in an idyllic country setting. But the cold, muddy reality was a challenge. It did create a rich mine of family memories which we all relive when we get together, but I do wonder if I might have been more ‘me’ if I’d done something else.

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Often life doesn’t allow us to have free choice, but there are mixed difficulties in even getting to the starting point of knowing what we want. It’s all too easy to get stuck in a role that bends us out of shape. Sometimes we’re not honest with ourselves. We might aim for a fantasy lifestyle, or make choices that are driven by how we want others to see us. I look back at the goat days and wonder whether I knew myself at all. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve started to remember what I love and to explore what I really want. The treats have played an unexpected part in this. They’ve been experiments in identity.

Some of the things I’ve done have forced me to confront the truth that I’m not brave, sporty or good at sewing. I never was and I may as well accept now that it’s unlikely to change. Other treats have reinforced that I love films, cooking, walking by the sea, and travel. I’ve also discovered a few new pleasures—jazz, live music, birds, industrial history and urban landscapes.

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I hope I’ll never stop trying new things. But maybe with age I’m getting better at choosing the kinds of things that I like. It’s also worth remembering that it wouldn’t be real if life was all perfect—we need challenges, wrong turns and changes of heart. They write the novels of our lives and make us who we are. I talked last time about my favourite words—kitten, elastic and home. Every list has a counter-list and I’ve only just started to wonder what my least favourite word might be. I think that a strong contender has to be ‘regret’. The goats were frustrating and exhausting but on balance, I don’t want regrets and I’m glad to have had these experiences—it’s just the way things turned out. Nonetheless in the spirit of getting to know myself better, I’m going to hang onto the thought that these days I much prefer a backstreet city alley to a dark, slippery field.

And that issue of exploring who we are brings me to another in the chain interview series. This week I interviewed Maria who talked about her life in drama, her inspiring work and her mid-life treat.

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