Saturday, 28 March 2020

Human behaviour: the kissing has to stop.

I never watch Coronation Street but it was on tv in the minutes before a programme I really wanted to see. In this time of Corona it’s funny how hitherto human behaviour can seem like a scene out of Star Trek: The Original Series. One episode had humans locked up like animals so their behaviour became snarling, biting and grabbing. Another episode was set in medieval ( England?) and lutes were playing while an amorous suitor hid behind a tree waiting for his lady. All were different types of human behaviour and in the latter, anachronistic to the 20th and 21st centuries.

I remember one of the Trek pilot episodes where some ‘humans’ had evolved not to speak through their mouths but just by transmitting words from their brains. Very advanced human evolution. But now, as I watch The Street with the sound off, I notice folk standing close and chatting to each other in The Rovers Return, stopping at each other’s front doors and shaking hands. Or sitting together in the same room. Sacre Bleu! 

‘No,’ I cry. ‘You can’t do that.’

We’ve only been practising social distancing for a week. Hugs, kisses and smiles seem like human behaviour from another age. In the distant future in the film ‘Logan’s Run’, where no-one lives over the age of thirty, people exist in a bubble: a manufactured city totally enclosed from the air or the natural environment. Is this what human life becomes? Living inside our own little bubble? 

There’s enough material in our current self-distancing and self-isolating behaviour to write a sci-fi novella or a morality tale of what happens when a serious virus escapes into the population. And how helpful people can become while others might be out on the make.

We’ve only been in purdah for just under a week and it might be an idea to keep a diary of thoughts, behaviours, feelings and even changes in weight, sleep patterns, eating habits and such.

There’s a wealth of scientific data just waiting to be culled for research or for the wordsmiths. It might just be a time of opportunity. Meanwhile enjoy Coronation Street or whatever brings you joy, do what you can, stay well, stay active and stay happy. But, to quote Robert Browning, the kissing has to stop. 

Monday, 23 March 2020

As the petals fall

The whispered conversations between a mother, a young woman with long blonde hair and parka, and her curly-headed daughter, made me wonder. Were they looking for the house of an elderly neighbour in need of a visit? That was what they seemed to be whispering.

Mother and child were unsmiling as I walked down our steps and into the lane. 
Bright sunlight on the road shone like a mirror and made me screw up my eyes. The new, smooth tarmac looked like a skating rink. There was warmth in the sun, just right for sitting out, newspaper and glass in hand. In this time of corona admiring patio flowers and being out in the sunshine and fresh air might raise my feel-good dopamine levels. Got to enjoy your ice cream before it melts.

Two children, sitting on a blanket on the pavement’s edge, took it in turns to brush and plait each other’s hair. Did they know the world has changed? A mother, in one of the rented flats by the shop, sat on a step with a piece of chalk. Her son had no garden to play in. He marked his white cross in the grid mum had chalked for him on their concrete stair. Then it was her turn. She made a nought with her red stick of chalk. A man, on the opposite side of the road, pushed pieces of corrugated cardboard through the slats of a drain cover. I’m sure, as the world waits for the pandemic to pass this way, he had his reasons. 

But it was a good day for a walk, a good day to clock up eight thousand steps, read The Observer and stay well. 

People weren’t keeping their distance in our local shop, though. Perhaps things will improve. The papers hadn’t sold out, nor had the orange juice. It felt like it was going to be a good day.

But my joy quickly evaporated. Never had I seen shelves completely empty of milk. Our local shop never runs out. 

A group of three elderly women, two sisters and another, quietly entered the shop. I wondered how they felt. They don’t drive, and are frail-looking, but at least they had each other. 

At the counter I saw someone I knew and I sounded off about the lack of milk. Unusually for me I felt dread. Now what should I do? I needed milk. Most of us do. I don’t drink ready-made ‘Horlicks’ or hot chocolate; they are laced with sugar. And I don’t like black tea.

‘It’s all right, I have milk for you,’ said Sofroni at his busy till. He hadn’t got round to replenishing his stock. My anxiety levels dropped like I was casting off a heavy rucksack.

I walked home, clutching my four pints of skimmed. An elderly couple swerved away from me, practising their social distancing technique, as we passed in the lane. And they too talked in hushed tones. Three smokers fell out of a battered red car and stumbled towards the shop. They were already drunk. Would Sofroni serve them?

Back home purple petals had dropped from my birthday tulips and my cards, displayed on the shelf, looked crooked and surplus to requirements. The roses had flopped too. No longer cheerful, just withered and dying. 

What a difference a few days can make. We’d had such a lovely time by the sea: cutting chocolate cake and singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. We were looking forward. Now I feared I couldn’t even buy milk. The world is changing and we have no vaccine against a deadly virus. I wanted to plant a flower for Mothering Sunday in ‘mum’s garden’. But it was like the Sundays of my childhood. Almost everything was shut. I was reminded of a film where Bette Davis is planting daffodils in bright sunlight but believed it had gone dark and overcast. It hadn’t. It was only her world that had lost the light. Her character in ‘Dark Victory’ was dying from a brain tumour. 

But this is real, not a film. There’s a virus on the loose and we have to beat it before it beats us. But who has it? Who is immune? And who will really need a hospital bed? 

I took my walk and sat out in the sun. I found another shop which sold milk. In a third store a customer did practise social distancing. I was glad of it. Queueing has to change if we are to save lives. 

We are waiting and being careful, daring not to travel far nor mix. Grocery gifts and loose change are left on each other’s steps. When is the best time to shop, I ponder incessantly, and will the shelves be empty? We can’t live on takeaway pizza and curries just because they are the foods still being delivered. We may have to eat and drink what we can get, hardly whispering our fears to each other. We may have to settle for being grateful that we can still buy fresh milk.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Support in the time of corona.

We had a splendid weekend away. The weather was fair, the countryside was a wash of green over brown. Roadside banks and gardens on the journey south were full of sunshine-yellow daffodils. And it was my birthday. I’d already had two meals out with mates and lots of cards, flowers and chocolates. I was enjoying myself. And we’d had a girly trip to the cinema to see the truly well-castJessie Buckley in ‘Misbehaviour’. Such fun.

When we got to Devon our hotel rooms were ready even though we were two hours early. The sea view from our rooms was silver rather than bronzed but it felt good. A chocolate cake for friends and family, hand-made by chef, was ready, as promised, at four o’clock. A friend of the family brought me a handsome spray of roses and my brother, as well as driving us down to Devon after a heavy week at work, paid for lunch, the Prosecco, my birthday cake and most of the evening drinks. I was being spoilt. Richard was happy and gave me one of his own hand-made birthday cards and treated me to a fantastic pair of boots as a birthday present. He enjoyed his food, liked the company, shared in the jokes and went for an evening stroll with my family on the prom. The sea was roaring, sand sprayed and piled on the promenade and he just loved it.

Then, two days later, the antibiotics for a non-contagious infection, knocked him out and, back home, his mood changed. I made the mistake of letting him watch the news. He began to panic about corona virus, saying it couldn’t be true, the BBC news people were making it up. He got angry at the thought of self-isolation as he’s now 70. And all the progress he’s made creatively: cooking, doing his art work, helping in the garden and doing tea time quizzes on the tv evaporated. He had been diagnosed with post-surgery trauma and depression back in the autumn. Until now he had been making progress.

Yesterday he didn’t get out of bed, except for bathroom visits. He slept all day, all night and all through the night before. He was moody and wanted to be left alone. But ... he ate well. Then slept and ate and slept some more. By midnight last night he felt clammy and I kept checking he was able to wake up. At 1:30 am I fell asleep too but I was up at 6:15am. That early he didn’t want tea and, thankfully, he was no longer sweaty. Perhaps his infection and mood had passed.

At 9 am he took his antibiotic and still wanted to sleep but got up at lunchtime. By then I’d already cooked breakfast, washed up, cleaned, been out, had been to a friend’s for a brief chat, had dug the potato bed, had planted some seeds and baked sugar-free/gluten-free brownies.
But he was out of bed!

I managed to air the bedroom, change the bedding and get the bedroom hoovered while he had his lunch. In our reduced, restricted world things were looking up. And I have had such encouragement from friends and neighbours.

We are all going through a difficult time owing to corona. Some have lost their income, others are fearful for their aged loved ones. Some families are self-isolating and teaching lessons to their youngsters now schools are shut. 

Doctors and admin staff at our surgery are almost in lockdown and are making diagnoses by telephone. The pharmacy team are run ragged. Yet people are being helpful.

One friend has so kindly ordered groceries for me on her Tesco delivery. (Other supermarkets are available - although very few have delivery slots available.) Another kind soul from our neighbourhood network knows I am a carer for a vulnerable 70 year-old. She happened to be out grocery-shopping today and valiantly called me. She’d spotted blueberries, fishcakes, whole rolled oats, juicy burgers and cherry tomatoes. The lovely lady, who only knows me through the WhatsApp local helpline, remembered what I was short of and did my shopping for me. Such kindly neighbourliness. She will have her place in heaven. Another neighbour, out shopping, found a shelf of Ecover washing liquid today. He remembered that’s what I wanted and duly brought it round. Folk don’t have to be this helpful but they are being extremely supportive in this time of corona.

I am not incapable of shopping but this week, as a carer, has been hard. No delivery vans had access to our house while our road was being resurfaced. I can’t drive and lifting heavy shopping into a trolly is sometimes too much for my ailing back. I’m so used to getting groceries delivered I wasn’t prepared for this week’s lack of delivery slots. I scraped by and got myself a slot for April 3rd. That’s a fortnight away. When I’d made my order and pressed check-out I took a deep breath. My freezer isn’t empty but one wonders whether this difficulty in getting groceries in is a sign of the times. Every man (or woman) for himself (or herself). Yes, I can join the queue at 8am with the elderly and their carers at our local Waitrose or Sainsburys but my back pain gets worse when standing still in the cold and I’d have to get a cab home. Are we allowed to use buses or any kind of public transport now? We are supposed to be socially distant, aren’t we? Sitting on a bus would seem to counteract that social distance.

Another friend has offered to take me to hunt down six bottles of Prosecco. Hardly essential shopping I hear you cry but in this time of corona we all need support. That includes something fizzy in a glass. And I’m not too proud to ask for help, nor too proud to be deeply grateful for friends and neighbours. I was feeling rather bleak yesterday but today I don’t feel I have to face it all alone. 

Friendly faces, kind gestures and practical help. That’s what’s needed in the time of corona. Thank you friends! 

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Mr Johnson

The Right Honourable Boris Johnson MP,
Prime Minister & First Lord of the Treasury,
10, Downing Street,
SW1A 2AA                                                                                               19 March, 2020

Mr Johnson,

I write in a mood beyond anger at Tory policy over the underfunding of the NHS since your party’s policy of austerity came into being. We are not all in it together, despite what Mr Osborne said. A few of your front benchers have little idea how it is to suffer medically under the NHS. Tory underfunding for provision affects my family.  

Now, after years of running down NHS provision there are not enough resources for our population’s needs. I wouldn’t expect any government to prepare for a pandemic but your policy of self-isolation affects me personally.

My husband had investigative surgery last July but had to have a follow-up a few weeks later. Medically, thank goodness, he was cancer-free but came out of surgery still under the after-effects of anaesthetic and covered in blood. Clearly staff had no time for a clean up nor time to explain how to use the catheter strapped to his leg, which he was not expecting as this was not explained to him prior to surgery. He was in a state of shock for three days and nights after surgery and went without sleep during that time.

Since September he, aged 70, has been diagnosed with post-surgery trauma. This led to anxiety-psychosis and depression. If medical staff had had more time prior to and straight after surgery to explain the procedure fully to him he may not have suffered mentally.

Now, just as he is beginning to socialise your government’s anti-corona virus policy states, as he’s aged 70+, that he has to self-isolate. Exactly the WRONG thing for his recovery from psychotic depression.

I quote from Smith, Robinson and Segal (2019).

When you’re depressed, the tendency is to withdraw and isolate so that connecting to even close family members and friends can be tough.
You may feel too exhausted to talk, ashamed at your situation, or guilty for neglecting certain relationships. But this is just the depression talking. Staying connected to other people and taking part in social activities will make a world of difference in your mood and outlook.

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: October 2019, in HelpGuide.

My husband is already medically anxious. The media onslaught and confusing diktats over action re: corona virus distress him and this is setting his recovery back, as will self-isolation. I am his carer and I’m tired and angry. 
Despite my best efforts to help his rehab, with a skeleton mental health team, his progress will now be impeded. I have tried to pay privately for his mental health care but was re-referred to the NHS team. I despair. I would beg you to reconsider the instruction to self-isolate owing to age. He needs to socialise for his mental health. Being stuck indoors for a number of months is a recipe for disaster. 

Please can you rethink your blanket approach towards the over-70s which assumes self-isolation is the solution for their health. In my husband’s case it is not. 

We are not all alike and we are not all in it together.

Yours sincerely,

K N MacP

cc The Right Honourable Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health & Social Care
     The Right Honourable Wera Hobhouse, MP for Bath

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

stop telling me to be kind!

I’m tiring of facebook urging me to be kind, that we can get through this, help the elderly (and more...)

My husband is 70, yes years older than me, and suffering from depression with some psychosis. It takes a lot of effort to keep him stable, calm and productive. But wall-wall tv news is panicking him. I realise c-virus is upsetting for everyone but depression and psychosis distort thinking. He doesn’t just look worried. The effect is that he highly exaggerates and misinterprets simple actions. For instance my throwing of unsolicited mail in the bin manifests as an act of treachery towards to him. At that point I have to talk him right down, get him to see reason and to apologise to me - whence calmness reigns once more. 

He is on hefty antibiotics too and suffering from an infection which can make him confused. While others on fb are complaining about supermarket shelves stripped of their favourite items I am dealing with a minor crisis.

Neighbours, friends and family are truly helpful. And all have said how much better Richard has been in terms of conversation and demeanour of late. They didn’t see him this morning! The thought of having his illness-led narrowed existence made even more restricted by self-isolation is panicking him. 

All the good things he was doing have gone south. He no longer cooks nor paints and he’s completely avoided digging and planting. Thank you corona virus. Our household is in chaos. And he is the elderly. He needs to get out to lift his depression. Self-isolation is a retrograde step for someone with mental illness. And all these folk urging me to ‘get through this’ have no idea how long it takes my husband to brush his teeth when his mood is as low as it was today. Get through this? try getting through breakfast! 

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Swimming in the time of corona

What to do?
Go out, go for a swim, a walk and mingle? Or stay put, exercise at home and uncouple?

This is my dilemma: I need to lose weight. Two years ago I became very unfit after a slipped disc rendered me less than mobile. Result: I piled on the pounds. And it became unhealthy. 

Over the last five months I’ve been cook and housekeeper while Richard has battled post-surgery depression. He’s lost two stone and I’ve been feeding him anything I can think of to restore that weight. Result: I’ve put on half a stone. And now we have to live with the threat of coronavirus. 

Tomorrow my plan was to walk, swim, shop, lunch and do a cinema trip with a couple of friends. But today’s Cobra meeting makes corona look beyond menacing. And tonight my bladder is playing up. Swimming tomorrow may not be ideal.

However experts from Singapore - writing in February when the virus was peaking there - say that if you don’t touch too many surfaces, have a good swim then shower and wend your way swimming is both good exercise and relatively safe in the time of corona: ‘Dr E tells us it's actually one of the safer activities to partake in. Coronaviruses spread by droplets, and in a swimming pool, they're completely washed off by the sheer amount of water. We don't know yet if chlorine [can kill off the virus] until they do tests, but yes, the water will negate the effects of the virus, so there’s no harm.’( 8 Days weekly e-newsletter). 

The gym, they and others say, is simply an oven of sweat that breeds germs - so stay away - and going to the cinema is risky if you’re sitting next to someone coughing and sneezing. 

I have to make my mind up. Like so many I have to balance the risk versus the benefit - in my case - of swimming. For others do they work or stay home and video conference? What about van drivers delivering food and medicines? They have to show up for work - presumably there is little choice. Same with nurses, pharmacists, doctors, carers, cleaners, fire service personnel, police, water board and sewerage workers, bin men, parole and prison officers, shopkeepers, electricians and the gas man. To name but a few.

Until today I imagined Britain would be semi paralysed until early May but the corona effects could, I gather, affect us for the next nine weeks: which brings us to May 21st. It so happens that we are invited to a country wedding then... in a marquee... in a field... in Cornwall. Let’s hope it’s not called off. But first pitch your tent, as mum used to say.

And back to now. If I don’t sleep properly tonight I won’t feel like a swim tomorrow and a walk may do me just as much good. Above all I need my rest while Richard is recovering and I’m keeping house. Immersing myself in fresh air and spring sunlight would be good - especially after weeks of rain.

What to do?
That’s a question for most of the world’s population - their governments and the WHO - for weeks and months to come, I fear. 

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Behind lace no-one sees you scream

Martin Freeman, late of ‘Sherlock’ inter alia, has boldly made a new tv series about the ills of parenthood. The ills, mark you, not the joys. 

This approach shouldn’t be unusual broadcasting, but it is. From Facebook to tv adverts, fliers to glossy magazines images of the perfect life, for those that have everything, are projected at us on a continual basis.

Folk on holiday on distant shores post photographs of exotic ravines, sunny seasides and fantastic family gatherings on to their fb and instagram walls.

Nowhere do we witness their ordinary moments. And even less so, fatal arguments between snarring couples, babies who cry, on the hour, every hour or youngsters who keep saying, ‘Why?’ or ‘No. Shan’t’. And, since I don’t even like the shouting on ‘Eastenders’, I can see why ugly scenes, or merely the mundane,  aren’t popular fodder for our tv screens. But to have perpetual perfection thrust at us is to relegate our ordinary hours not to simple domestic comfort but to a sense of failure. This is especially so when I’m washing up or mopping the kitchen floor while others are filming kangaroo or crossing the Golden Gate bridge. It’s important to clean the floor or disinfect the loos, do the ironing or load the dishwasher, but, while others are posting shots of fantastic sunsets on social media domestic chores that I take some pride in can make me feel tired and provoke a feeling of being sorry for myself. And I’m not a pessimist nor given to low mood but after five months of my husband’s illness I am beginning to sense envy.

Today is a beautiful spring day. At nine o’clock I went to the doctor’s surgery with my husband and later did some shopping. So far, so ordinary.

But no-one knows the effort taken to achieve these necessary tasks. No-one knows how little sleep I had owing to a throbbing knee and trapped nerve in my neck. No-one knows the strength it took for me to drag us both out of bed, feed the cat, feed ourselves, run a bath for Richard and ensure he took his meds, all in a rush, just to get to the surgery on time. I had little time to open the curtains. Never before have I had a glass of prosecco at 9:00 am. I tell myself it was a painkiller. But, after a sleepless night, all I wanted to do was go back to bed. And then, of course, we waited and waited in the doctors’ surgery. The doc was running very late.

But on the way back home the sun was shining and I knew I needed to get in some exercise today. I was too late for the bus that I’d planned to take for the swimming pool but I had time to walk into the village. That is 20 minutes downhill and the same back. (I planned to get the bus back and still get in some exercise.)

Without waiting to see the return bus times I dashed out of the house with my shopping trolley and made the downhill trip to the shops. Outside the supermarket the bus stop screen showed the next return bus was eight minutes away. Great. I had time to fill my shopping trolley and get the bus back up the hill.

But, of course, there was a queue at the till. I espied an ex-colleague who is still fantastically beautiful. From the corner of my eye I noticed that her shopping basket was full of vegan foods, not cheap cheese and sausages like mine. She went straight to the head of a newly opened till while I waited behind someone buying scratch cards. And another scratch card and more cash back. I avoided my colleague’s eyes and dashed out of the shop with my full trolley only to see the bus I wanted begin its slow climb uphill. Did I sit and wait alongside a well-known homeless man at the stop for the next bus? All the while knowing the still-beautiful colleague was getting into her comfortable BMW. Or did I struggle with my heavy shopping trolley and begin the arduous journey back uphill? 

Yes, I could have screamed. The butcher’s was closed. The DIY shop had finally closed forever. The brasserie was full. As was my bladder. No escape.

Head held high I began the journey home on foot and pretended I didn’t know someone beautiful, skinny and driving an expensive car had seen me struggle with a full shopping trolley nor that I was desperate for a lift. 

When I got home I opened the drapes fully. (I hadn’t had time earlier.) The sun shone through the Breton lace panel we have hanging at the window. It was still a beautiful day. I had achieved what I’d set out to do and could have the sleep I needed. 

Martin Freeman’s ‘Breeders’ is on Sky One on March 12th. I will be watching to see how he depicts a life of frustration which continually falls short of perfection. It’s broadcast a few days before my birthday. A birthday The Beatles sang about oh so many years ago. Am I really that old? No longer twelve, listening to a smuggled-in Sergeant Pepper’s album. But more like the mother - or grandmother - of Vera, Chuck and Dave. Oh dear. Yes I am the age of some women with grandkids. Time to face up to it. And maybe mix with others my age instead of pretending I’m still a young thing. Time to stop pretending. 

I look at our calendar and the view of San Francisco which illustrates March 2020. It hangs next to the window where the spring sunshine is filtering through the Breton curtain. We were planning a long trip abroad this year. It looks unlikely to take place unless Richard gets well and can cope with travelling. The only sun I’ll enjoy will be on our patio, seen through the Breton panel hanging at our window. And behind the lace no-one sees you scream.

Friday, 21 February 2020

What are the essentials?

If I was trapped in my bedroom because my ground floor was flooded following ‘Storm Denis’ what would I need?

Do I assume the toilet still flushes and I can have a wash? If the water is still on and the electricity is safe I can boil a kettle, make drinks, cuppa soups, couscous, use a microwave oven and fill hot water bottles. I can make toast and rely on helpful neighbours in boats to replenish my dwindling stocks of bread, milk and butter. 

Presumably I can’t do any washing as the machine is in a flooded kitchen.If the bathroom is functioning it might be possible to wash underwear and shirts but if the heating’s off where do they dry? 

If I have no cooking facilities how long could I last in a bedroom on take aways delivered by another helpful neighbour in another boat? Shouldn’t I be trying to get out into fresh air? What if I can’t find my wellies? And when do I start clearing out the filthy carpets and furnishings downstairs?

At a time like this the mobile phone is a boon, neighbours with boats or similar are life-savers and the emergency services are heroes. But ...

If there is no plumbing, no clean water, no electricity, no heating in my home I don’t think I could stay in a bedroom unable to flush the loo, make myself a drink nor have a wash. I couldn’t recharge my phone and couldn’t listen to a radio unless it’s battery operated. It would be impossible to stay in bed under the duvet with a full bladder and nowhere to relieve myself.

What are the essentials? If you are used to camping presumably you have LED lights, portable loos and gas burners for heat and cooking. But our last camping trip was many years ago and our portable loo is trapped somewhere unmentionable in the back of a shed which itself has seen better days. If the garden’s flooded presumably the shed would be too. 

How to prepare for a flood, then?
Have portable gas-fired heating at the ready? Have a gas camping stove, whistling kettle and camping saucepans and spoons to hand? Have water purification tablets and stocks of tinned foods and bottled water? Have tons of wet wipes to help maintain a modicum of self-cleanliness? Ensure my camping loo has sufficient cleaning solutions to keep it hygienic to use? Have a hot water bottle in a state of readiness? 

And if I could manage to be this prepared how would it affect me psychologically to have to live like this, cramped in one or two bedrooms with the smells of rotting carpets working their way up the stairs? 

My heart goes out to people suffering in the latest floods. But this crisis is going to be more commonplace. What are the essentials? How long could any of us cope - camping out in our bedrooms? 

And what about the victims of coronavirus trapped in their cabins on their cruise ship? This is not what they paid £3K for. They truly will suffer cabin fever. Presumably - although surrounded by water - the ship’s electrics, plumbing and kitchens are functioning. Travellers can wash, eat, use the loo, sleep in warm bunks and watch tv. But stuck in one  cabin with no end date in sight? How does that help their stressed states of mind? 

We are no longer, in the main, the generation that got through the war. We aren’t used to blackouts, hiding in shelters, waking up to a destroyed home or queueing for rations. Climate change and mass cruise travel can damage the environment. The weather is shifting, airplane travel is a pollutant but ferry travel seems greener. 

Time for us all to wake up and readjust to a less indulgent lifestyle. Alter our habits, adapt to wet winters, blazing summers and prepare for floods. Simplify our holidays and hope for the best but plan for the worst. What do we really need to do more than just survive? What are the essentials? 

Monday, 17 February 2020

Be independent of marriage, if needs be.

The above homily may sound anti-marriage but it isn’t. It was a phrase my mother said to me several times, and she had a long, happy life married to my father. And she was probably very glad when my brother and I did eventually marry as I’m sure she didn’t truly think living together was the done thing. Nothing was ever said but she approved of marriage, despite the title of this piece.

What mum meant is that women should stand on their own two feet. They should be financially independent and have qualifications so that they can be ‘independent of marriage, if needs be.’ Ironically I have earned more than my husband - since before the year 2000 - thus proving my financial independence - but not independence of marriage - yet he got a better pension settlement than me. Go figure! (Depends which party is in power in number ten and how flush your employers are, it seems.)

So, yes, I’ve been financially independent of marriage. I paid our mortgage from the mid-nineties till the end of its term, while Richard became an impoverished, romantic artist. But he always paid for the car and its maintenance, our utilities, and, until his recent illness all the food & groceries that we consumed. I made sure, however, that we had a roof over our heads, and, when needs be, paid for repairs to it so we were always dry and warm. 

It’s disturbing, then, to read of the plight of homeless women, who, according to the online headline I saw, are escaping violent marriages and have nowhere to go. This is not what my mother foresaw in her quest for independence of marriage - ie squalid homelessness - but this can be the net result for women who have no money of their own and all other avenues are closed to them.

Mum always believed in divorce - no woman should endure unhappiness within a marriage - but also said that many women, especially of her generation (born between the wars) that stayed in the marital home because of the reason cited above: they had nowhere else to go. If, however, they had their own earnings they could at least save to put a deposit down on a flat. If they had qualifications they could take up the remnants of a career and maintain that flat. And not remain in an unhappy, maybe terrifying marriage, nor end up on the streets. Financial independence gives choice.

How desperate must you be to have no bank account, to have to show your violent husband exactly how much money is in your purse and to justify every penny spent on, wait for it, his meals. Just to avoid a broken nose, multiple bruises, and possibly frightened children whose bedclothes you have to wash and dry - through bedwetting - before the vicious man returns and makes his demands or accusations.

It takes a brave woman to leave a home and survive on the streets, in the cold and wet,  only to be jeered at or urinated upon. But perhaps it’s better than staying in a house where whatever you do fault will be found and punishment meted out.

Women, everywhere, should be given opportunities to gain financial independence so that none have to remain in a dangerous relationship nor end up in a shop doorway. 

Be financially independent of marriage (or any relationship), period. Just to know that you are able to live off your own earnings, if needs be, gives immense power to a woman. I know. I am one. 

The Guardian, Weds 5 February

Domestic violence is a major cause of homelessness. Government figures show that in the year to June 2019, 24,000 people were made homeless in England directly because of domestic abuse.

(Abuse) survivors can face homelessness or returning to their abusers when their time is up at a refuge. This is because councils are only required to provide housing for domestic violence survivors if they can prove they are more vulnerable than the average homeless person.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020


It seems, just as the late, great Terry Jones’s spirit departs this earth, that it’s timely to reflect on other lives marred by cruel illnesses. 

As a child I remember my aunt showing me a shiny LP with a green & white cover. It was a recording made by the contralto Kathleen Ferrier. The memory has remained with me, not because I knew her singing voice nor her works (I was only eight) - her renditions of folksongs and popular ballads and the classical works of Bach, Brahms, Mahler and Elgar. It was more that I remember my aunt telling me Ferrier had died so young but had had an extraordinary voice. It seemed cruel to me, even though I was only a nipper, that she died aged only 41. My mother was that age, then, and I didn’t want to lose my mum. Jacqueline du Pre was also young, 42, when she died. I recall her energy when playing the cello but, struck down with multiple sclerosis, at the end she ‘...sat helplessly in a wheelchair, moon-faced and mute.’ Such a wicked illness to land on one so young who had been so robust when she played.

Julie Andrews famously had surgery which ruined her singing voice and Elton John’s voice deepened as a result of his throat procedure. We aren’t robbed of their lives but of their former art. Dean Ashton of West Ham made his England debut in Trinidad. But an injury continued to trouble him and he was forced to retire on December 11, 2009. He was only 23. His broken ankle and a further ligament problem meant an end to his football career came for him when he was far too young. 

Great academics like Iris Murdoch and Stephen Hawking both lost their abilities in a savage fashion. She - a great thinker and writer - lost her mind to Alzheimers and he lost the use of his body to sclerosis (but defied medical science and lived much longer than his first prognosis allowed.)Especially for Murdoch, having been a thinker, Alzheimers must have been especially hard for those around her when her thoughts began to deteriorate. 

Jack Hawkins, the actor, had a rich speaking voice but had treatment for a secondary condition of the larynx, which was probably cancer. The operation deprived him of his natural voice, but with the help of a therapist, he developed a new “voice” and acted in half a dozen more films afterwards. He lost his commanding speaking voice and died 7 years after his diagnosis of cancer. Joan Plowright, although older than many of the aforementioned, lost her sight in the late 2000s, cannot act now and needs a live in carer in her own home. In 2014, she officially announced her retirement because she had become completely blind. 

And today we learn how Terry Jones, director of fantastic Python films such as ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ and ‘The Life of Brian’, has succumbed to a particularly brutal form of dementia. He loved words and was so articulate with them. It seems especially sad that he was robbed of his ability to use language as he suffered from a form of frontotemporal dementia. It impairs the ability to speak and communicate. The very things which made him great and endeared him to many.

He will be missed. 

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Going, going green

It isn’t especially through noble thoughts that we have gone car-less. It is simply owing to circumstance. Our sister-in-law reversed the car into our garage back in November. Since then friends and family have driven it, turned the engine over and got the new battery running. Throughout the winter months our vehicle will be a tad warmer in our damp, draughty, narrow garage than if it’s left outside. Never before have I shampooed a car while it’s  been half-in and half-out of a garage. Why the complication? I didn’t pass my driving test - I can’t say I tried very hard - and there’s a vicious ramp at the outside edge of our garage. Very difficult for novice drivers - ie friends or family unused to our car and ramp. And impossible for me as I remain one of the few without a driver’s licence. So the car is rarely moved more than a few feet and was half-in and half-out of the garage whilst I cleaned Cornish mud from the wing mirrors. The journey to the far south west was the last long run it has had. But why so dirty? November country lanes are much muddier but less polluted than city streets, I suppose. 

It’s been interesting for us - since the car returned from the land of corn in mid-November - in terms of getting about. We can’t make quick trips to the co-op, our favourite river-side pub nor the garden centre. However necessity is the mother of invention. Walking and taking public transport gives a new, and not unwelcome perspective. 

Essentially it makes us both walk more. I have never been into our local village on foot as often as now. It’s downhill all the way. And my shopping trolley is no longer a symbol of age simply an act of ‘greenness’. Or so I read.

I have got to know each dropped pavement and rough bits of loose tarmac which help or hinder my progress with a heavy shopper. I have used the First Bus app to know precisely when the next bus is to leave. I usually walk to the village but get the bus back. I’d like to do both trips on Shanks’s pony but two weeks ago I overdid it. Since then my left knee has complained at me. I clearly pushed too heavy a load uphill too fast. I needed to get into training. But food shopping is a must and when one is hungry the empty belly overrides concerns over a thirty-year-old knee injury.

Taxis down into town are a necessity if we have to get somewhere promptly. But these sunny, wintry days it’s a joy to walk. And healthy. (Less so on the many days of heavy rain.) I have perfected the art of pulling the trolley with one hand, wearing a waterproof hat and using an umbrella all at the same time. It’s a simple act of multitasking.

After Christmas I like to introduce cyclamen or primula into the house to replace the sprigs of holly and Christmas tree greenery. But it’s not easy to balance a tray of cyclamen on one’s head while dealing with food shopping. Help was at hand, however. 

Our local farm shop sells all things ecological and repackages washing up liquid and laundry liquid in used bottles. They have a splendid show of farm-fresh fruits and vegetables. If you want to make the perfect vegan salad with pomegranates they will supply the necessary ingredients.

Furthermore, on our first sunny day for weeks I got out into our front garden, removed the dead debris and dug over the narrow flower bed. The resultant empty spaces needed colour. And our farm shop obliged. Not only did they tell me, over the phone, what colour cyclamens they stocked but the days when they could be delivered, and, moreover, delivery was free.

Why battle with busy buses, trying to balance a tray of plants on my knee, if I’m lucky enough to get a seat, when our farm shop can bring the magenta, red, pink and white plants to me? And free delivery to boot.

At the weekend I made a decision. In my attempt to stay as green as possible it seemed a terrible waste to consign our cappuccino maker to landfill. It just about fitted in my shopper and I could walk it down hill into the village to be repaired. And, what’s more, a repair cafe was being held in the village hall that Saturday. Consign to landfill or make the trek to have it repaired, free of charge? No contest.

It cost me £5 in taxi fares, £5 donation for the repair and £2 for a coffee while my cappuccino maker was fixed. An excellent result and I made three cappuccinos once I got home. For £12 I had the machine working again. A new one costs £70 or £80. Going green is a win-win situation.

We miss our riverside pub but there are plenty of lovely pubs and eateries in Bath. Walking in and back from the city is helping us get fit and is non-polluting. I’m sleeping well but have yet to master getting to my favourite swimming pool by bus. I will do it. January is a dark month but these sunny days make me want to get out and about. And mostly for free. 

When we come to use the car again we can go further afield and there will be less need to check bus times and plan shopping to fit in with public transport. But if we never use the car again it is amazing to think how possible life is without one. Going green is maybe just a state of mind. 

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Shortest day plus one

The December solstice. The shortest day of the year. This December, after the fury of the Brexit General Election, it was a calm, jolly day, spent feasting on mince pies and dark at 4:10pm. I made a special point of noting the time.

Almost a month later, calculating and mentally allowing for the evenings  to stay lighter for 15 minutes extra per week, I estimate, one day soon, that it will be dark at 5:10pm. If not tonight then tomorrow night or the evening after that. Because of the tilt of the earth lighter mornings occur before the solstice. The winter solstice or midwinter occurs when one of the Earth's poles has its maximum tilt away from the sun. For us the winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, when the Sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation.

Although day length increases in the evenings from December 22 onwards it can be darker in the mornings. Day length at midwinter is seven hours fifty minutes. Today it should average 8 hours 26 minutes. The days are indeed getting longer. We can look forward to 2 minutes extra light, roughly,  on a daily basis.

Today is a beautifully cold, sunny winter’s day. There was surface frost on the soil this morning but that melted in the sunshine. Not yet have we had ice nor snow. It’s a very mild winter. We have had many, many days of rain and hopefully the country’s reservoirs will be so full that there won’t be water shortages nor any need for a hosepipe ban in the summer. 

Riskily, and prompted by the appearance of a timid sun, I bought eight cyclamen plants this weekend. I foolishly and optimistically put them into soil which was still frosted. Perhaps I have been too forward in my attempt to brighten the front garden. But in the welcome sunshine it’s tempting to get on. I may need to get bubble wrap ready in case of much harder frost in coming days. Cyclamen are hardy, of course, but the poor things will have a shock after sitting in the warmth of our breakfast room since Thursday.

Today it is ‘shortest day plus thirty’. The phrase ‘D-day plus one’ reminds me of my father’s endurance in the second world war. When he crossed the channel in June 1944 he went out on ‘D-day plus one’. In other words he wasn’t in the first round of troops to land on the Normandy beaches. He escaped the worst of overhead enemy fire and he and his comrades swung round to Berlin. In 1945, when confronted, along with the allied forces, with the horrors of Belsen, he was a member of the liberating army and went in on ‘liberation day plus two.’

Now, seventy five years later, all I have to concern myself with is whether my cyclamen will get through the night to ‘planting out day plus one’. Will they withstand the weather overnight and for the next 5-6 weeks? I don’t have to cope with bombardment from enemy fire nor risk catching typhus or witness humanity’s behaviour at its very worst. It’s a sunny late January afternoon. In a week’s time it will be holocaust memorial day. If winter comes, can spring be far behind?  ( with thanks to Percy Bysshe)

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Mankind is your business

I have only just got round to watching the new version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ offered to us by the Beeb on the days leading up to the seasonal festivities.

The use of Scrooge’s list ‘regarding persistent noise caused by costermongers, gypsies, street musicians, rag and bone men, various other gutter-runners’ was a brilliant way to capture his contempt for those who disturb him with their poverty. 

Transfer that to Christmas 2019. 

It is Christmas Eve. Our PM is sitting in a meeting - at a drinking club - when he looks out of a large, leaded window, surrounded by wood panelling and heavy chintz curtains. In the cobbled side street opposite a fight has broken out amongst some youths with knives. A scantily-clad girl loiters at the corner of an alley, her cigarette lit by a man who is chatting her up. 

Looking further afield across the busy London street our PM sees charity Christmas cards on sale in the porch of an inner city Anglican church. An alcoholic sits on a bench in the grassed-over church yard - all burials now take place in the corporation cemetery. 

Above the porch a banner flaps in the unusually warm December breeze. It announces it is The Trussell Trust food bank. It is the day before Christmas and men and women are queuing for tinned meat, tinned peaches and a small Christmas pudding.

Our PM returns to his glass of scotch, takes a gulp, leaves the room to relieve himself. And the scenes of poverty from ten years of austerity leave his consciousness as he takes a pee. On returning to his plush-covered seat he clicks his fingers and the waiter brings him another glass of malt. 

‘Trouble on the streets, sir. All brought about because they can’t take their ale,’ says the waiter.

Our PM takes another sip of scotch.

‘Instead of hanging around the streets or queuing up for food parcels they should be out at work, sir.’

Our PM nods and orders a well-stuffed cold beef sandwich. He is careful not to say the wrong thing. His colleagues mutter ‘Quite so.’ and ‘That’s a good one, Jimmy.’

‘And what do you have in store for the festivities Jimmy?’ asks our PM.

‘Oh just the usual. But I’ll be back here on Boxing Day bright and early. Ready to serve the nation, so to speak.’

Our PM laughs at the in-joke. And returns to his scotch. Not once does he consider that ‘mankind is his business,’ much as Scrooge doesn’t when Marley’s ghost visits him. His gaze is drawn to plans for the London-based Brexit celebrations by the head of the team sitting opposite him.

‘You don’t hear so much shouting outside the House now that Brexit is in the bag, do you sir?’ asks Jimmy as he offers a linen napkin to our PM. 

‘The sandwiches will be with you directly. I’m hoping to get a bite myself before the evening drinking session kicks off in earnest.’

‘Thank you Jimmy. Mind you take the weight off,’ says our PM. 

‘Always a pleasure to serve, sir.’ 

As 2020 begins, some with a few hours off over Christmas, it won’t be much of a new year for them.