Link Eight

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

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

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Liz Carrington–the eight interviewee in my chain interview experiment

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

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

How did you get into physiotherapy, Liz?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what happened next?

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

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

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

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

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

How did it work out?

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

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

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

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

And what else did you do?

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

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

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

EU flag

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

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

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

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

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Photo: Peter Bayliss

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

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

The Cathedral in the Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baltic Buses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Werner100359 via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

Take Five

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

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

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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.

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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

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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