Wednesday, 17 February 2021

The shock of losing a robust elder

 When you’ve had a parent who has always been - or seemed - well, it’s actually harder for those of us who are left to adjust to their demise.

Captain Sir Tom Moore’s family believed that when he contracted covid_19 he would come home again. Others from outside the family might have thought that - as he was 100 - the chances of recovery were poor.

But when your parent has always been there. Rarely in hospital. Rarely on medication. Still walking about, getting taxis to the Pump Room, in the case of my mum, here in Bath, at the age of 89, it’s hard to believe they won’t recover.

I have great empathy with Captain Sir Tom’s family. When a robust parent reaches their nineties and their centenary their immune system simply isn’t as strong. I believe that is why so many elders die of pneumonia. The body doesn’t, or can’t, shake it off at that grand old age. 

My mother died from a series of mini strokes, not infection. They followed a massive brain haemorrhage two days after her final trip to the Pump Rooms, which she took, by choice, by taxi. She loved the pump room trio and quartet. And she didn’t mind standing in the tourist queue - at 89! 

But a massive stroke felled her three and a half months before her ninetieth birthday. We simply weren’t prepared for it. At the time she was medicated for stage 2 diabetes. (She lost the diabetes when she lost weight). But apart from blood pressure tablets and eye drops she was remarkably fit and able.

However, looking back, we can now see the small changes in her - following a heavy cold - were likely to have been the start of a series of tiny strokes which passed without recognition.

When I read of the wealthy and famous dying in their eighties I feel grateful mum lived as long as she did in almost excellent health. To live to 89 and still be independent and active is a great lifestyle to aim for. To live well and enjoy company also accompanied Sir Tom’s great age.

When a parent is so blessed it is hard to accept they are unwell let alone close to the end.

As one doctor put it to me ‘Your mother’s body has done its work.’ Simple but true words from someone I trusted. That was when I began to accept mum wouldn’t be around for ever. 

It’s so sad Sir Tom’s family have endured trolling owing, I believe, to their taking an overseas trip in December, in a pandemic. But hadn’t the old man earned what was to be his final holiday? Others, of course, have been less lucky. Many families couldn’t sit by the bedsides of their loved ones in a covid ward. That’s the problem with being in the public eye. If he’d raised the money quietly without any media interest they could have had that final holiday and very few would have known about it, I guess. But less charity funds may have been raised. Swings and roundabouts.

My mother wasn’t in the public eye but she enjoyed her last trip to the musical soiree in the Pump Rooms. Enjoying life. 

Let’s not get bitter.

Here’s to you Captain Sir Tom!

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Lockdown? It may just have saved me

What have I been doing with my time during lockdown? I don’t have children to home-educate, although I have been a teacher and tutor. I don’t have an elderly relative in a care home, worried about the covid risk. Although mum ended her days in a very good nursing home. I don’t have to be concerned about getting an income, having retired over ten years ago. I don’t have to scrimp and save to pay my mortgage or rent. I paid off the mortgage years ago. But until lockdown I could barely cook. Ah! That’s what I’ve been doing with my time. Preparing meals.

It isn’t, strictly speaking, lockdown that has caused me to take to the paring knife, recipes and the chopping board. For forty years my husband drove, shopped and cooked. Then he got ill. He was improving before lockdown #1 in March 2020. But add the general anxiety of covid to an already anxious-depressive clinical diagnosis and my husband deteriorated. 

But we still had to eat. 

I watched The Hairy Bikers as I love their cooking trips and their enthusiasm and I was given Nigella’s ‘Cook, Eat, Repeat’ for Christmas. During April last year our local shop closed as it was so tricky to effect social distancing in their small premises. And it was hard to get regular supermarket deliveries to our house. But farm shops did deliver and with much flour and yeast making dust clouds in the kitchen I baked copious loaves of bread. I traded yeast for garlic. Bottles of red for ice cream. It was like being under rationing.

The farm shops also delivered fine diced beef, eggs and bacon. My go-to recipes were boeuf bourguignon and frittata. And those yummy dishes last about four days. At the end of the week, back in the summer, we had fish & chip Fridays, a fry-up on Saturdays and a roast on Sundays. 

Then, when I started gardening proper I got tired of the cooking/ washing up cycle and ordered a ready meal once a week. Richard always washes up or loads the dishwasher but it’s good to hear your meal is ready by the ping on the microwave.

As delivery slots became more plentiful I tried my hand at tiramisu, fishy stew and, later, Nigella’s fish finger bhorta.  I craft a good chicken soup but love parsnip broth even more than carrot and coriander these days. Some evenings we’ll have fish cakes or burgers from the butcher. And now I have an egg poacher we have another easy-to-cook tasty tea-time treat.

My repertoire is wider than the above, of course. But these are my staples.  

A roast chicken or turkey - with all the trimmings - is another standard. And I make sugar-free brownies with oats, red kidney beans and 70% chocolate every week. 

During lockdown I haven’t had time to get bored or fidgetty. In a cruel twist Richard’s illness may just have saved me. The very act of being a carer, especially mornings, and having to provide for our household has kept me busy. No time for dwelling on life before lockdown. We have to eat thus I shop and cook.

For years I was the major breadwinner and I was barely domesticated. For many women, especially those with children, the daily decision-making about what to eat will be routine. But for me it has been a late development. As I say the need to provide may just have saved me. Too busy to fret. 

Except for the obvious:

The more you cook, the more you eat, the less you swim ... the inevitable happens. ( It’s still better than getting covid or fretting, though.) 

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Remember Christmas?

This afternoon I stayed in and lazily watched a Christmas episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. It was too cold to do much outside. I scattered salt in case we get ice on our steps and sorted some recycling tubs out there but came back in to the house pretty quickly.

It seems an age ago, as witnessed in today’s episode of 1930s Poirot, since I’d seen a Salvation Army playing their brass trombones and collecting funds and rattling tins in front of Christmas shoppers. 

Children wrapped in scarves, hats and knitted woollens singing carols while their feet went blue with cold - not a common sight these days.

It also seems a long time since we could go into a fine chocolate emporium, sample tasty toffees, caramels and soft centres from a silver tray and leave by shaking the shopkeeper’s hand and wishing him or her a merry Christmas. When did we last use a sharing plate and shake hands?

When was the last time we sat in a train carriage and chat to a fellow traveller without any social distancing? And can you imagine being squashed in a taxi cab - three to the back seat - swapping comments and stories with strangers but without wearing a mask or visor?

What did you do on Christmas Eve? Have friends and neighbours in for a merry mince pie? Or did you lean in close to each other in the billiard room to get the cue tip pointing exactly where you wanted it? Or were you kissing under the mistletoe next to a ten foot Christmas Tree? Such customs seem to be things of the past. 

This Christmas we were told by our Secretary of State for Health that on Christmas day we were not allowed to argue nor to kiss. What a state of affairs we are living through!

Christmas in our household meant getting tested, waiting for covid results then, upon finding we were negative, staying away from people from the 20th December onwards. When you live with someone who is ill you have to make sure that anyone entering the house is covid-free. On top of that I had help to do a deep clean of the sitting room and kitchen - making it ready for our Christmas guests. On the day I served mulled wine and nibbles ( on non-sharing plates) outside. Then, back inside, we sat in socially distant fashion and Richard and I served turkey, all the trimmings, my own cranberry sauce and gravy, creamed sprouts and roast vegetables. Richard didn’t try to roast the spuds. The timing was out. But the pudding, trifle, cheeses and choccie log went down a treat after another spell outdoors - which - as advised by - allowed fresh air through.

Shopping this Christmas has meant a lot of waiting in for deliveries. Quite different in Poirot’s day. He wandered in to a store at will, spoke to the sales assistant, and left in his own time with no queuing nor fear of catching the virus. A lot of things have changed. Who could have imagined a festive period being so constrained as this year?

Do you remember Christmas? Not the way it was this time. But the way it used to be. 

I hope so. Christmas should be jovial, relaxing, social and fun. Roll on the next one!

And let’s hope for a much better 2021.

Meanwhile tomorrow it becomes law in the UK that we stay indoors for lockdown#3. I doubt I’m the only one feeling weary but I try to remember to be thankful that we are well.

KBO ( Keep Buggering On)

Saturday, 26 December 2020

Three bubbles

When our two bubbles were setting off to join us we knew there were covid risks on meeting indoors but we’d taken precautions. 

All my ‘bubbles’ had had negative covid tests in the few days before Christmas. When bubble two arrived they had mulled wine and nibbles on non-sharing plates outside. Afterwards they went off to bubble one’s bonfire where he made the real thing:-red wine, orange juice, star anise and cinnamon sticks heating on a cauldron.

Meanwhile I basted the turkey every thirty minutes and became disappointed that the honey-glazed parsnips didn’t roast properly but they did cook...

And - when we reflected - we lit a candle for our mums who are no longer with us and thought of the truckers holed up in Dover. We thought of refugees and the homeless. We said thanks that we had escaped the worst of covid and that during 2020 had merely only had to put up with civil restrictions. We wore Santa masks and hats indoors and ate at a social distance. Then went outside to let the air in and any possible virus out. From thereon we left the back door open for the rest of the evening.

We hope we took enough precautions. I think we did but we knew Xmas Day was a risk simply by meeting indoors. And in reality we aren’t starving, nor in a war-torn country and we have enough money to be comfortable. We enjoy the warmth from an effective heating system and have had lots of support from friends and neighbours from the beginning of lockdown one onwards.

Best of all we have good friends who wanted to be with us. And we did what Matt Hancock said: on Christmas Day no kissing and no arguing.

Enough said. Happy Boxing Day and thank your lucky stars! 

Sunday, 6 December 2020

Exploitation of the poor verges on evil

I am glad this week’s The Observer chose to include a feature about the shocking and shaming scenes of abject neediness in Burnley. This was a follow up to street Pastor Fleming’s short film Poverty and the Pandemic: Burnley which has been showing on BBC News Channel.

In Harriet Sherwood’s Observer piece -  Exploitation of poor verges on evil - she went further than describing how desperately poor some areas of Burnley are. She referenced the increase in the work of The Trussell Trust and its food banks and the evil of loan sharks. But it continued to shine a spotlight on the very poor today.

I taught needy children for over thirty years but even that didn’t prepare me for Fleming’s film.It was harrowing in its depiction of devastated lives. It left me weeping and as troubled as I was after seeing Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home when I was a mere ten-year-old. No one can forget the scenes of Cathy living in a condemned house, being torched in a caravan nor being forced to give up her children to the authorities as she was homeless and could no longer care for them.

After seeing Poverty and the Pandemic and emailing family and friends I managed to get some of us to immediately send donations to Fleming’s Church on the Street fund. More will come. I felt impelled to act.

It was impossible to ignore the Dickensian plight of Burnley’s desperately poor. ‘Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?’ asked Dickens’ Scrooge upon hearing that it was at Christmas, especially, that need was felt. Yes. Lock ‘em up. That was Scrooge’s solution. But how are things any better now than in 1840s London? 

After years of austerity Britain, chronic low pay, a lack of council housing, erosion of the welfare state and benefits plus increased financial insecurity for many how can our poorest be anything but desperate? Especially when they can’t work owing to lockdown. Their story needed to be told and The Observer helped.

Lockdown,shut down, shut out.

‘But they would rather die than face the work house’ said one charity worker to Scrooge.

‘Let them be quick about it and reduce the surplus population,’ Scrooge replies. 

Monday, 30 November 2020

As we enter the last month of the year

As we enter the last month of the year I am more keen than usual to mark Advent. Not with a sticky, chocolately calendar but with holly, flowers and colour.

This is the last month of an extremely difficult year. 58,000 UK dead since March, in a mere eight months. To put that in perspective 70,000 UK civilians died in the whole six years of WW2. 

In that war people could still go out and enjoy a film or newsreel at The Regal or The Odeon. They could go to work, travel on buses, visit friends, go to dances. Yes they had to endure the blackout and bombs but thankfully life, as they knew it, was still there for the taking. They didn’t have to stay home-save lives.

But for us, two generations after WW2,  the last week of March began badly. I remember queuing for groceries, watching empty buses sail by and, hearing from others, that supermarkets were stripped of nutritious foods. Who could fail to be moved by the tv interview of the absolutely knackered nurse crying into the camera as her supermarket had no food left and she had nothing to eat. 

By April I couldn’t get a delivery slot with Sainsburys and relied on a farm shop, local butcher and great friends and neighbours to provide me with groceries. 

Come May we were all used to face masks, zoom, home baking, hand sanitiser, leaving goodies on each others’ doorsteps and hot weather. It was a beautiful spring with very little traffic. And there had been a debate about whether face mask wearing would help stop the spread of coronavirus. It seems astonishing now.

In May we had our regular grocery deliveries back again and I began to venture out much more. I also spent a lot of time in the garden, improving it, along with a friend. But by July I began to get tired. I’d done charity sales and grown a lot of vegetables. I needed to do so much cutting back in the garden and I felt in great need of a holiday. But travel was verboten.

And, in September, to add to the weariness, our breakfast room ceiling fell in. That created even more toil. It had been a hard  year and once that was finished off and painted Richard and I finally went on holiday.

After that I began to pick up. There was far less to do in the garden and the trip to Devon revived us. In October we travelled there again. But we had to rush home ahead of lockdown#2.

This last month has been a duller than usual November. Grey skies have made an uninspiring backdrop to leafless trees. But we are still here. We haven’t had covid_19. We haven’t been laid off and we aren’t looking at a lonely Christmas nor a cold, hungry one.

In a couple of weeks I shall start making my Christmas charity donations. This year the need seems greater than ever. We can only pray that the vaccine roll out will be earlier rather than later. 

We all need more colour in our lives. 

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

‘The Crown’ ain’t fun anymore


This time last year I took it upon myself to do something everyone else seems to glory in: binge watch. In the dull, dark mornings of November 2019 I clicked on Netflix. I enjoyed the physically and authoritatively big screen characters of ‘The Crown’ on the substantially larger and smarter tv than we were used to. 

It seemed the need for protocol and putting on an act far outweighed their fusty but glamorous palaces in the royals’ lives. But I was fascinated by the concerns these wealthy, regal, real-life people had. I was even moved to pity when I watched the episodes of deep unhappiness suffered by Prince Charles at school and beyond. I bought it.

But this time around I feel like not pursuing the latest series at all. At best tv is much-needed escapism at this time of lockdown. But ‘The Crown’ is not providing that. I find the depiction of Princess Margaret, especially, to be snarling, pompous and cruel. Whether she was really like that hardly matters, now. Entertainment it ain’t.

I was astonished that in 1979 the Queen or one of her staff would not alert her guest, the newly appointed Margaret Thatcher, to the correct dress codes for pre-dinner drinks and hiking in soggy fields around Balmoral. In this series the royals appear hell bent on laughing at their guests. How rude and unkind. I didn’t buy it.

In a later episode the newly introduced Diana is made to face all the royals who stand in a ring around her while she has  to be told off - in front of everyone - about her lack of understanding of whom she should curtsey to and in what order. This smacked of abusive rudeness. I could not believe the royals would, again, openly laugh at their guests. But what do I know, actually?

I am a very unlikely reader of ‘The Daily Mail’ but on the BBC’s ‘The Papers’ I spotted the Mail’s headline ‘How The Crown lost the plot.’

I read on and could only concur with Richard Kay that the plot is indeed lost. This new series is so far removed from the truth that it’s hardly worth watching. If it’s untruthful it can’t be insightful.

And this morning Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian, my usual read, made the following points, inter alia, which are, according to the historian Hugo Vickers, fabrications:

1. Lord Mountbatten wrote to Prince Charles the day before his death.

2. The royals laid traps to humiliate Mrs Thatcher on a visit to Balmoral.

3. Princess Margaret ridiculed Diana for not being able to curtsey.

4. Prince Charles daily called Camilla Parker Bowles in the first five years of his marriage to Diana.

Jenkins says the current storyline ‘...caricatures the royals in the worst possible light.’  Entertainment should be fun and yield a sense of escapism. But this November I and many others have a greater need than usual to enjoy tv output. Not to be disappointed by it.

I don’t need to see constant unpleasantness on the tv. Life in lockdown in a dull, damp November is difficult enough. Back to binge watching comfortable episodes of Jeremy Brett as ‘Sherlock Holmes’ or his nephew Martin Clunes in ‘Doc Martin’. At least there’s intrigue in the former and beauty and humour in the latter. That’s escapism. That’s entertainment. Not vicarious humiliation. 

‘The Crown’ ain’t fun anymore.