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

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

leeds-mill

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.

dublin-at-night

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.

countess_markievicz

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?

irish-flag

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.

penguin

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.

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