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?”

Continue reading

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 Wardell – the ninth interviewee in my chain interview experiment

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Gareth was introduced by my eighth interviewee, Liz Carrington who talked about her experiences as an international physiotherapist, particularly in rural India. She said: “I’ve chosen my friend, Gareth Wardell. 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. Continue reading

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 Continue reading

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. The other seven interviews are all on the chain interview page, and there are more in the pipeline. I hope you like them.

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Liz Carrington–the eight interviewee in my chain interview experiment

Liz was introduced by my seventh interviewee, Helen Jackson 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? Continue reading

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 Continue reading

Take Five

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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.

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Our first day was spent at Peterhof. This was commissioned as a rival to Continue reading

Blind Spots

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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 Continue reading

Festival Takeaways

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Two years ago in ‘Parkus Interruptus’ I wrote about how I had lost all pleasure in reading. Since then, several friends have described how grief has affected them in a similar way. I’ve had many suggestions for what might help me regain my enjoyment but perhaps the most helpful has been to focus on non-fiction. I manage to read quite a lot by doing this, but where I once had a hearty appetite and a mixed diet, I’m picky these days and only occasionally snack on fiction.

This week, though, I’ve been immersed in the world of books at the Hay Festival. This tiny Welsh town with its population of 1,600 and thirty bookshops, has just hosted its thirtieth annual literary festival and its global reputation means that it can attract the biggest names in literature, the arts, politics, broadcasting, and science. Over the course of ten days there were more than six hundred events. I was there for a week and went to twenty-three of them. Mostly they were entertaining, informative and thought-provoking. I’m left with a random collection of snapshot memories, odd facts and the beginnings of a better understanding of topics ranging from Islamic fundamentalism to medical sniffer dogs, time, the early days of London Zoo, and carpe diem. And now that I’m home, I can reflect on what I’ve taken away.

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As with so many things in life, some turn out to be different from what you expect. Continue reading

Abandoned Treats

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It’s the festival season again. And there’s something to suit everyone—music, film, food, books, hot air balloons, comedy, walking, scarecrows, stone carving, worm charming…the choices on offer increase with every year, and in the UK there are now hundreds of  music festivals alone, covering every imaginable genre.

But the biggest, and many say the best, is still Continue reading