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

Festival Takeaways

books

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.

hay bookshop

As with so many things in life, some turn out to be different from what you expect. Last Saturday afternoon I sat packed into a tent along with hundreds of other people, all waiting to hear the actress Charlotte Rampling talking about her life—and it must have been a jolly interesting life. But she was quite determined not to share any of it with us, and so instead the event turned into an uncomfortable but fascinating tussle. The interviewer was charming and asked reasonable questions but his interviewee’s answers were unhelpful. She either arched her elegant eyebrows or said, “It’s in the book,” without elaborating. The interviewer persevered but was clearly relieved when after forty minutes he was able to invite questions from the audience. “We’ve got about fifteen minutes—let’s see if you lot can do any better” he said, with feeling.

By contrast, Harriet Harman was generous with her anecdotes, and talked poignantly about her mother who had studied law at Oxford—one of only three women in her year. She qualified as a barrister but then gave up her career to bring up four daughters. Her hard-won horsehair wig and black robes were consigned to the girls’ dressing up box.  Harriet and her three sisters all became solicitors and when she entered Parliament in 1982, there were more MPs named John, than women MPs.

Alan Johnson was another engaging raconteur. “So…” said the interviewer, “…you’ve been Minister for Health; Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer; Minister for Education; Home Secretary, and Minister for Trade and Industry. And all of this with you protesting in your book that you had no ambition. Can you imagine how far you’d have gone if you had been ambitious?” The interviewer was Sarfraz Manzoor, the same one who had tried so hard with Charlotte Rampling. He looked much happier this time as his interviewee showered us with political anecdotes, comments on the election campaign, and readings from his latest memoir.

duck

There was a surprise at the talk given by the gardening writer, Alys Fowler. I’d expected to hear about the wildlife that she discovered whilst canoeing around the canals of Birmingham. But instead of ducks and dandelions she talked about something more personal. The solitude of being alone on the water, pushed her into the realisation that after fourteen years of marriage she had fallen in love with a woman. On the one hand it was a moving story and on the other, her joy at paddling around the canals was infectious. What I took away from that one, was a wish to do some canoeing myself. It’s going on my list.

One of my favourite events was Artemis Cooper talking about her latest biography. She opened by saying “We all contain within ourselves some level of inconsistency. And none more than the novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard.” By the end, we the audience, had heard of her relationships with a multitude of well-known twentieth century men including Cecil Day-Lewis, Kingsley Amis, Kenneth Tynan, Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee, and the naturalist Peter Scott. “The puzzle,” said her biographer, “is how she had such a turbulent personal life, but wrote so insightfully about relationships.” Hilary Mantel recently called Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novels “exquisite and underrated”. She tells everyone to read them.

Jonathan Safran Foer talked about his new novel but began by saying what a thrill it was to be at Hay. “It’s like a story I would tell my kids,” he said. “Once upon a time there was a little town. And in the town there were lots of shops. And all the shops were bookshops…” I’ve come home from that little town with a big reading list. You might notice there’s nothing on it by Charlotte Rampling but it does include Harriet Harman’s ‘A Woman’s Work’, Alan Johnson’s ‘The Long and Winding Road’, Alys Fowler’s ‘Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery’, Isobel Charman’s ‘The Zoo’, and Artemis Cooper’s ‘Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence’. Then there are a few fictional dishes to tempt my finicky appetite—all of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novels. I enjoyed them many years ago and now I plan to reread them. And all of that should sustain me quite well until the next Hay Festival.

Abandoned Treats

2014-06-28 15.02.02

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 Glastonbury. When I made my list seven years ago that was one of the first things I added. It had been years since I’d been to a festival and I longed to be carefree again. I was lucky to get tickets on my second attempt and loved my four days of abandonment—everyone focuses on the mud and the loos but none of that mattered. It was just enormous fun. Dancing to pulsing music in a dark field with a 50-tonne metal spider shooting out coloured flames, certainly gives your brain a break. I whirled on a podium with people dressed as prawns and mermaids; loved Blondie, Bryan Ferry, The Wailers, Lily Allen, and the Arcade Fire; tried all kinds of inspired street food, and will never forget a surreal moment when a large group of men, women and children in insect outfits got muddled up with a Punjabi marching band. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world and it’s definitely one of my favourite treats so far.

2014-06-28 23.28.16 HDR

However, not all treats work out so well and I’ve written before about my attempt to make a patchwork cushion. I cut up my first wedding dress, dyed it bright colours, and stitched away enthusiastically for hours, only to have Molly, my younger daughter, wrinkle her nose, and suggest kindly, “You could give it to someone you don’t like very much.” My knitting treat has proved to be similarly problematic. On one level it’s been good; I love knitting—there’s something magical about creating wonderful textures and patterns simply by twisting wool. It’s also extremely relaxing. I can’t quite manage what people did in the Middle Ages, which was to knit whilst walking along, but for me it’s the perfect accompaniment to a film or TV programme, and enhances the experience considerably.

The trouble is that I adore the clicking and clacking but find it difficult to produce any kind of worthwhile end result—and it seems futile to go through a creative process without creating anything. That brings to mind the sad tale of my first boyfriend’s granny. She was nearly blind and used to pass the time by knitting dishcloths. Each time she finished one, the care home staff would take it away, unravel the yarn, and give it back to her. Then off she’d go, on the path to another doomed dishcloth.

knitting 1

Some years ago, I thought I’d cracked this problem of end results when I managed to knit a couple of jumpers for my son, Will. My impression was that they were quite good, but half-way through the third one, I had a moment of doubt. “You will wear it, won’t you?” I asked. He shifted about, and looked uncomfortable. “W-e-ll…” he said, playing for time until he came up with what was a remarkably tactful response for an eight-year old—“…perhaps, I could wear it in the house.’ I got the message—unpicked it— and knitted a cushion cover instead. That wasn’t great either.

All of this left me with a gnawing dissatisfaction. I really wanted—just once—to make something that someone could enjoy wearing. It didn’t seem fair to impose my handiwork on someone else, so I thought I’d best make something for myself. “A jacket to wear over jeans…that would be useful,” I thought. So I put it on my treats list.

knit 2

I started with some pretty fuchsia-pink wool and a stylish pattern in rice stitch. Unhappily, after several months of effort, the end result was disappointingly lumpy so I stuffed it in a drawer and tried to ignore it. It took about six months until I was ready to try again and this time I used navy blue yarn. It started off well, and was looking quite promising but then life got complicated…I lost interest… and then I lost the pattern.

Several years later I felt settled again and ready for a new project. So I spent a pleasant afternoon browsing in the John Lewis haberdashery department where I chose some attractive Air Force blue wool and a pattern for a short, collared jacket. For the next few months I clicked and clattered and at last all the knitting was done. That’s the bit I enjoy; I hate the unavoidable sewing up stage but I pressed on determinedly with that, all the while quashing the doubts that rose up and nagged at me. Eventually I tried it on.

It wasn’t good. It turns out that Air Force blue just isn’t my colour and like its predecessor, it was a bit lumpy. “I’ll give it a wash,” I thought. “Perhaps that will help. And if all else fails, I could just wear it in the house.” So, I put it in the washing machine and it came out toddler-sized.

That was several months ago, and I’ve now gathered my strength again and will have one last attempt. I think I’m learning that sometimes there’s no point in doggedly ploughing on. The problem in so many situations—relationships, jobs, ambitions, and yes, even knitting—is knowing when to call it a day.

unnamed

This time I’ve chosen a long jacket in shades of green and purple. If it works out I will be very happy but if not then ‘knitting a jacket I am happy to wear’ will have to be an abandoned treat. Not the same kind of abandonment as Glastonbury, but abandoned nonetheless. And then what? How will I relax in front of the television? I guess there’s always the dishcloth option.

Salvaging Stories

ticket

During a recent visit to Birmingham I went to the oldest working cinema in the UK—The Electric. It showed its first film in 1909 and although it’s had a chequered life, it’s now been restored and has a pleasing Art Deco façade and interior. The film was good, but the most exciting part of my visit came at the beginning when I was issued with a paper ticket. It read ‘Admit One’ and popped out of a metal slot in the counter. I’ve not seen one of these for years and it triggered a mixture of memories from childhood cinema visits—clouds of cigarette smoke, usherettes with torches, the interval between the B-movie and the main film, wobbly adverts for local restaurants, and standing while the National Anthem was played at the end.

What we take for granted, changes fast and seems quaint to younger generations. Petrol pump attendants are rare these days, and the lift attendants, station porters and telephone operators of my childhood are now long gone. I remembered recently how the television took time to warm up when you first switched it on, and how when I had chicken pox at the age of eight, my mother had to inform the library when she returned my books, so they could be fumigated.

station porter

Photo: Stanley Kubrick

Personal memories have been much on my mind recently. We had my father-in-law’s funeral last weekend with tributes from family around the world and since then, I’ve started typing up the memory tapes that he recorded twenty-five years ago. So far, the stories are quite mundane but that’s part of their charm. They highlight ways in which life was different, and reveal what mattered to him. He recounts at length, various stories about being left-handed. His parents forced him to write with his right hand, as many people did in those days, and he believed that this caused the stammer that was with him until he joined the Army. Nowadays, research suggests this cause is unlikely but his childhood stammer was clearly a formative experience.

The topic of life writing popped up again during a visit to an elderly friend whose memory is still razor sharp. Being an evacuee was a key experience for her and she often talks about it, but on this visit she told me about her grandfather. He lived on the other side of town from her parents and would sometimes wake up in the morning and decide to visit them for tea. As he had no phone, he would send a postcard telling them to expect him later that day. The card would arrive at its destination in the lunchtime post and his daughter would have his tea all ready and waiting when he arrived. My friend is full of stories and I was delighted to hear that she’s started to write some of them down.

typewriter

Writing things down is the first step in creating something that can endure. I’ve recently been reading about the first female university students in Jane Robinson’s book, Bluestockings. Much of her material about everyday life comes from old letters—a better resource than today’s ephemeral texts will be. I laughed when I read that many students sent their dirty washing home as the postal service was swift and cheap, and the local laundries were often expensive and unreliable. These days, fortunately for me, with a student daughter in London, it’s the postal service that’s expensive and unreliable.

parcel

Unless salvaged, all of our unique stories will disappear when we do. Anyone can make their own book, or help older family and friends to do so. It doesn’t need to be great literature or professionally produced but we can hope it will sit on the bookshelves of future generations. Everyday experiences can be entertaining, and life stories can also provide insight—events that affect our parents and grandparents can impact on own lives. Fears and insecurities thread through the generations leaving their trail and changing as we each engage with them in our own ways.

But more than all of this, it’s something that older people can do when it’s often hard for them to feel useful any longer. I recently had a conversation with a friend about his father who is in his nineties. He’s a life-long Quaker and has started writing down his memories, beginning with the years 1939-1941 when he was a conscientious objector. Since going to live in a care home he has felt lost. This new life is unfamiliar to him but when his son took him back to his old house so he could look for relevant files and papers, he immediately knew what to do and how to be. I saw that with my father-in-law. There was so much change going on in his body, mind and environment that it was hard for him to keep up, and for him to know who he was. But when he talked about the past and relived experiences, he knew exactly who he was and had something of himself to hold onto. We all need that.

book cover

And while I’m on the subject of memories—over the past couple of years, I’ve been exploring personal stories by doing a chain interview project. Each person that I interview passes me on to someone who inspires them. It’s been a great way to meet interesting people and to mine unique stories. I’ve gone from an environmental artist to a cancer specialist nurse via an environmental campaigner, an immigration lawyer, a theatre director, an actor, and a drama teacher. Each interviewee has talked about experiences that have shaped them and I’ve heard some fascinating and sometimes funny stories. Many moving ones too, and none more so than the interview I did recently with Helen who told me about working in a Romanian orphanage shortly after the end of the Ceausescu regime.

The Art of Deipnosophy

cube houses

Rotterdam’s Cube Houses

One of life’s greatest pleasures must surely be sitting round a table enjoying good food and conversation, and I discovered recently that there’s a word for this—deipnosophy. At its best, the participants learn something about one another whilst gathering new inspirations and gaining a deeper understanding of the world. The oil that’s so vital to this process is the knowledge on both sides that to be interesting it is necessary to be interested. But the magic formula can be elusive.

A couple of weeks ago I had to go to a semi-formal dinner and I was placed next to a retired RAF pilot. First impressions were positive, and he greeted me warmly. I settled down at the table looking forward to a few hours of stimulating conversation. “So what did you enjoy most about flying?” I opened with, innocently. “Well,” he said,
“I—and I— and I—and then I—” (Insert a number of jolly japes plus an awful lot of technical detail). After about ten minutes he paused for breath. I opened my mouth to say something but before my vocal cords could engage, he was off again. “And then I—and then I—and you’ll never guess what happened when I—it was quite incredible—” (Insert more jolly japes, skin-of-the-teeth engineering exploits, and a liberal splash of Far Eastern derring-do).

He paused to take a gulp of wine but this time I was too quick for him. “It’s been a difficult week,” I said. “My father-in-law died on Wednesday”. “Oh dear,” he said brightly. “I remember when my father died. I—and then I— and then I—” By this time I was properly glazed and for the next hour or so, his voice boomed in and out of focus. A couple of times I heard him say, “Now, you’ll be interested in this—” At the end of the dinner, he pumped my hand enthusiastically, bade me farewell, and said, “Well— that WAS an interesting evening.”

keukenhof

A few days later I set off for a week of travelling around The Netherlands on my own. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while and I soaked up various experiences, mostly centred round water, flowers and architecture. The trains and buses ran with spot-on efficiency and I darted all over the provinces of North Holland, South Holland and Utrecht with spontaneity and freedom. I loved Edam’s canals, the millions of spring flowers at the Keukenhof gardens, the Leiden University Botanical Gardens with the extraordinary jade-green pendulous plants, and the breathtaking free spectacle of tulip fields viewed from the upper-deck of an Intercity train—broad stripes of red, yellow, purple, fluorescent orange, and palest pink.  At the Zuiderzee Museum I learned about floods and dams, and sat in the thin sunshine eating freshly smoked herrings. Rotterdam’s Cube Houses provided a mind bending highlight. I went inside one and saw the challenges of living with sloping walls. The UNESCO-listed Rietveld Schröderhuis in Utrecht was another revelation—like a Mondrian painting on the outside and with sliding walls on the inside for flexible living.

riedvelt schroderhuis

No doubt many of these images will stick with me but overall it was people that made the greatest impression. I chose AirBnB accommodation because it brings surprises and you get to meet the locals. I’ve stayed in all kinds of places doing this, but on this trip I left dry land for the first time and slept on a Dutch sailing ship, moored in a small harbour in North Holland. Glossily wooden and over a hundred years old, it made a surprisingly comfortable home. My cabin was snug and my host provided a fabulous breakfast. It was just me, her and the ship’s cat. We talked easily and I learned about living on the water in Holland, and her childhood in East Germany. She told me what a shock it was when people had to adjust to new economic challenges. There were hardships during the Communist era, but she called it a ‘safe prison’ where people didn’t have to worry about losing their job or their home. Once the Wall came down these became everyday concerns and she described the effects on a generation raised by parents who are scared. We talked a lot. I listened. She listened.

jadebloem

Jadebloem in Leiden

In South Holland I stayed with a charming man. I arrived dishevelled and slightly sweaty after a busy day and he welcomed me politely and asked why I was travelling in The Netherlands. I told him about my past mid-life troubles, the treats and the book they triggered. He listened patiently and asked interested questions. On my last evening he offered to cook me dinner and prepared a meal of basmati rice and tender broad beans, made fragrant with saffron and a large bunch of finely chopped dill. It was delicious and he explained that it brought back fond memories of his native Iraq.

We sat at his dining table and chatted—to and fro like a tennis match. He reminisced about growing up in Baghdad where his father was a successful baker, and his family enjoyed holidays in Switzerland. He talked of Iraq as a clean, beautiful country with many cultured people and a great respect for books. But things started to go wrong when he was nine. Iranian planes flew over Baghdad, bombing nightly for weeks during the Iran-Iraq war. Later came the Gulf War and Baghdad was bombarded again, this time by the US and allied forces, and with even greater destruction.

After his father was killed my host knew that even though it would be very dangerous, he had to escape. All the borders were closed but a sympathetic Kurdish restauranteur helped him into Turkey. Then followed many months in Istanbul where he worked as a waiter for fifteen hours a day, seven days a week. His employers allowed him to sleep on a wet basement floor with many others, all the while saving up the money to go westwards into Europe. Eventually, he made it to The Netherlands with the help of a paid ‘sponsor’ who provided a fake passport and knew how to bribe airport staff. His journey onto the plane was nerve wracking, and when I said, “What if you’d been arrested and sent back to Iraq?” there were no words necessary. He made a quick throat-cutting gesture and that said it all.

After months in detention as an asylum seeker and countless interrogations, my host was granted Dutch citizenship and went to university. The man I met twenty-six years on, is a model member of society, a hard-working professional, a perfect host, and a devoted father to his little daughter. “I am grateful for every day”, he said. “And I feel very lucky”.

We talked about all kinds of things—parenting, happiness, food, travel—such different lives but so many points of agreement. “Well—that WAS an interesting evening,” I said at the end. For the sake of deipnosophy, I hope my host agreed.

floods

Floods on the Zuiderzee

An Early Birthday

frank army

This week I had a curious misunderstanding. I was chatting to a woman who’s a similar age to me, and she mentioned that she was ‘going up to Cheshire to do a bit of Granny duty’. As she said this, I imagined her with an elderly mother. It was only as the conversation progressed amidst considerable confusion, that it dawned on me that she is the Granny—and the recipient of the care is a child. This says something about where I am in life. My four children are all adult, but as yet, grandchildren haven’t impinged. The opposite end of the generational scale has, however, been a big part of my world for the past couple of years.

Sadly, that phase came to an end four days ago when my father-in-law, Frank, died. It was not exactly unexpected as he was ninety-seven and frail, but it was nonetheless sudden and we, together with the rest of the family, are still coming to terms with the loss. He lived with us for fifteen months up until last September, and whilst an unconventional start to our married life, we gained so much from that time.

frank gin and tonic

I’m grateful for what Frank taught me. ‘Old age is not for sissies’, he would say often, quoting Bette Davis. And I saw how true that was in his case. Failing vision, hearing and memory all conspired to diminish his grip on life and to make him feel vulnerable. Last year, I realised to my astonishment that I’d lived well into my fifties with virtually no exposure to this world of extreme old age. My own parents didn’t live that long and so it was all new to me. There was a lot to learn about fragile skin, special support shoes, memory lapses, bedrails, podiatrists, hearing aids, and many, many other things. It was challenging for all of us, at times, but it was also a privilege to be exposed to it because it’s so often hidden away. I stepped into a world that moves at a different pace, and which had previously passed me by. And it wasn’t just me. My children, too, learned a lot and I’m grateful that in the midst of their fast-moving lives, they were able to be patient.

Despite his trials, Frank kept his sense of humour. Often, we’d sit together at lunchtime with our bowls of soup and there would be long, companionable silences. But at other times he’d come out with wry, random memories. One of my favourites was of being a sergeant major in Rangoon at the end of the war. The officers would disappear into their office at nine in the morning and he would then be responsible for eighty soldiers in the raging heat. “If I let them go,” he said, “then they’d go straight to the brothels and get syphilis.” So he marched them up and down for as long as he dared before they all started passing out. It was a fine balance and he never did explain how he resolved it. There are many things that we’ll now never know. He told me in a recent lucid moment that when he was about seven he would go by bus from Walsall to Birmingham with his mother on Saturday mornings. She took him to see a doctor every week for months but he couldn’t remember why.

All kinds of childhood memories would pop up and even the mundane details revealed a different world. It had never occurred to me to wonder what people did before they had dustbins. But Frank remembered people piling their rubbish up and then contacting the council who would send round a couple of men with wheelbarrows. They’d load up the rubbish, wheel it down the alley and put it into a cart.

frank and sue

Sue’s visit from Australia

One of the difficult things about these past few years with Frank was realising that we simply could not solve his problems. We did what we could to help, but in the final year  he was in a lot of distress and repeatedly said that he wanted to die. It was very hard for him. Hard too for his children overseas—Sue and Barry in Australia, and John in South Africa. Sometimes the confusion could be positive, though. About a month ago, he had his ninety-seventh birthday but kept telling everyone, ‘I’m a hundred, today.’ After a few attempts at correcting him we realised that there was no point. He’d forget what we said anyway, and if he wanted to celebrate being a centenarian then that was just fine with us. I’m so glad now that he was able to have his ‘hundredth’ birthday.

frank birthday

One of the many things I value, is that he rekindled my interest in poetry. Despite a lifelong love of words, I’ve been put off poetry by the obsequious tones in Radio 4’s ‘Poetry Please’. Frank, however, could recite reams of verse right up to the final weeks of his life. And he did it beautifully, with no hint of obsequiousness. ‘Cargoes’ by John Masefield, ‘The Vicar of Bray’, and many others were all delivered in his lovely voice, laying bare the sensitivity locked into an old man’s body. That’s a memory I will treasure and the poem that he loved above all others is ‘Trees’ by Joyce Kilmer:

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

You were no fool, Frank, though you certainly weren’t averse to a bit of silliness. I know, too, that you weren’t a religious man. But you did say that if anything could convince you that there’s a God, then it would be the sight of a magnificent tree. Wherever you are now, then I wish you peace after your long life, and am grateful for the time we spent together. Thank you too for letting me share your ‘hundredth’ birthday cake.

frank haybale

For the past two years I’ve posted every alternate Sunday morning. But I’ve decided to miss this week. On Thursday dear friends suffered a tragedy, and to write about treats seems inappropriate in the circumstances. Today’s absence is a mark of respect to them.

All being well, I plan to post in two weeks as normal.

The Strangest Treat of All

stormy sea

This week I got out my pink highlighter pen and crossed another treat off my list. Each time I do this I get a rush of satisfaction from solving a mystery. When I made the list six years ago, I had no idea how each of these sixty wishes would come to fruition and what the experiences would be like. I recounted the stories of thirty-one of them in 31 Treats And A Marriage, and since then I’ve carried on enjoying the remaining twenty-nine. I’ve done most of the at-home or close-to-home ones like horse riding lessons, planting some old-fashioned roses, and reading Middlemarch but there are still thirteen left and they include more demanding adventures such as Japan and an American train journey. Some are already in progress; I’m part-way round the glorious 630-mile South West Coastal Footpath, and can hardly wait to resume it next weekend after a break for the winter.

As each treat goes through metamorphosis from unknown prospect to memory, its personality is revealed and the mystery is solved. By then I know where it fitted in, and what it was like. In the beginning, they were simply things that I wanted to do whilst I was still fit enough to do them but I had no fixed plans. And that turned out to be lucky, as soon after, my life turned into a stormy sea that heaved with overwhelming events. During that time, the treats provided an anchor. Thankfully, life is much calmer now and the sun has come out.

sunshine

One of the remaining twenty-nine treats has been to ‘get a clock with a nice tick.’ That ended up on the list because
as a teenager I sometimes stayed with friends in Edinburgh. They had lived in their large, elegant Morningside villa for many years and it felt solid and established. I particularly loved coming back after an evening out when the house would be dark and quiet, apart from the sound of an old clock ticking. It was reassuring and homely.

I did have a clock of my own for many years but we had a tetchy relationship; I got it overhauled several times but it stubbornly refused to work reliably and was an ongoing source of frustration. Eventually I gave up and sent it to auction, where it failed to sell and so the auctioneer disposed of it. That was the end of an unhappy horological affair but I still wanted to fulfil my treat and find a clock that was a source of pleasure. As always, I had no fixed plans so I put the idea on hold. Then one day, last autumn, I was helping my new husband clear out his loft. We opened a cardboard box and there inside was a wooden mantle clock. It didn’t look particularly exciting and he couldn’t remember where it had come from, or even if it had ever worked. We wound it and did a bit of tentative exploration; we gave a little push on the pendulum and it moved back and forth a few times, and then stopped. We tried again but it clearly didn’t want to be coaxed back to life so it sat for several months in a dark corner while we ignored it. Then one morning I woke up with a rush of enthusiasm. I looked on the British Horological Institute website to find the nearest accredited clockmaker, put the clock in a shopping bag, and drove across the city to a dark little shop in uncharted territories.

clocks

The clockmaker was elderly and wore fine wire-rimmed glasses just as I’d imagined. He didn’t say much first of all, but fiddled deftly around inside the clock. “Is it worth repairing?” I asked. “And how much will it cost?” “I can certainly get it working,” he said. “It’ll be about three hundred and fifty pounds.” “Hmm,” I said, as I couldn’t think of anything more sensible.

We chatted for several minutes about similar clocks that he’d mended and I started to adjust to the idea of spending quite a bit of money. Then he said, “Listen.” And in amongst all the various tick tocks in the shop I heard a calm, mellow tick tock right in front of me. He delved back inside. “And now listen.” There was a pleasing sound of mechanical whirring and anticipatory positioning and then the clock struck five. It didn’t matter that it was actually ten past eleven in the morning. What mattered was that I liked the sound very much. “Look,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you. I’m very busy at the moment. Several other clockmakers in the area have retired so it might take me a couple of months to get around to yours. But I think you might find that it’s alright–it’s still ticking. Strap it carefully into the car with a seatbelt and see how you get on. You can always bring it back to me.”

So that’s what I did. I took it home and placed it on the mantelpiece. To my surprise it looked just right. I set the pendulum going again and moved the hands carefully until they were synchronised with the chimes. My husband came home later and it was still ticking away–a new, comfortable texture in our home.

comfort

Now, several weeks into my relationship with the clock, it feels like a member of the family. I love to hear it work itself up towards the restrained quarter-hour chimes and then the big bongs on the hour. But sometimes it’s a bit too noisy and I’m glad of the little switch that silences the chimes. We use that if we’re listening to music or watching television. And the other night my husband got up and closed the sitting room door as the ticking was keeping him awake. He said it was nice to know it was there, but it was a bit like shutting a bedroom door on a snoring baby. I’m gradually learning its habits. It needs winding more often than the clockmaker suggested but other than that, it’s undemanding and we’re both delighted with it.

In one way it was the most easily accomplished of all my treats as it just appeared in my life, unannounced. But in another way, it was the most difficult of all. I had to get divorced… go on a writing retreat where I shared a room with an interesting woman… who introduced me to her friend who is another interesting woman… who introduced me to a very lovely and interesting man… who asked me to marry him…and then I helped him clear out his loft. Easy really. And so that’s another mystery solved.

new clock

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