Thursday 26 July 2018

Instructions for a Heatwave

We discussed Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ at book group some time back in 2014. I had been most impressed with O’Farrell’s ‘The Hand That First Held Mine,’ introduced to us by Lucy English while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Thank you Lucy for showing us pages packed with intensity, emotion, intrigue and unforgettable writing. 

I didn’t feel the same enthusiasm for O’Farrell’s ‘Instructions’ and at her talk in the Bath Literary Festival I didn’t feel drawn to ‘I am, I am, I am’ - her latest work. But I’m open to persuasion.

‘Instructions’ disappointed me in that its title bore no relation to what we understand by a heatwave. We have, apparently, endured the country’s hottest day ever today. At least one dog has died from heatstroke on his morning walk. Cows in Somerset have been left with little water after hooligans tampered with their supplies. Lettuces and peas are suffering in the heat and we are likely to see few of these home grown crops in the near future. Those we do see will be at inflated prices.

Even at the domestic level Richard and I are making mental lists of things to be done on a daily basis - mostly before 10 am or after 7 pm.
My own instructions for a heatwave revolve around the use of water. We still have plenty, it seems, and we have yet to suffer a hosepipe ban.

But, I wonder, how many of you are as barmy as we are in trying to protect our vegetable garden.

When we went on holiday in early July I put a parasol over my short but productive rows of spinach.
Our neighbour watered the parched leeks, lettuce, French beans, tomatoes and herbs in our absence. This was no mean feat as the water pipe to the hose needed fixing and our builder left it too late to get the job done. For at least seven days before our holiday we built up muscles like Popeye. We  showered everything with watering cans via the kitchen sink. Should we suffer a hosepipe ban we will surely be ahead of the curve.

My French beans also had their own parasol while we were awol and the leeks and lettuce were so established I left them to our neighbour’s good care.

On the day we left the phlox and cosmos began to wilt. I’d neglected the flowering plants. What to do? I more or less drained the water butt trying to care for them and, thankfully, they survived. 
I am still picking them as cut flowers but the soil beneath them is so cracked they require daily dollops of the wet stuff.

It is now at least 11 weeks since we had any rain and the water in the pond is much depleted. To add to the increasingly long list - in order to help pond creatures - we now have to fill buckets of tap water and leave them on the patio for gases to escape. Then replenish the pond very gently so as not to shock any sheltering, quivering aquatic beasties. On top of that our naughty visiting badgers, who clearly partied hard on the lawn a couple of weeks back, now have to have dishes of water left out for them, as do hedgehogs and all manner of night-time garden guests. 

Yesterday, it being a mere 77 degrees in the shade, I did ‘real’ gardening: trimming the rose arches, snipping the burnished lawn, cutting back dead and dying montbretia, feeding more precious plants, making a flower bed out of potted plants and dead-heading. It took two hours in the relative cool of the day.

Richard’s broad bean crop has produced the grand total of five pods. But his potatoes have met with greater success. Where was the hose when he needed it? His vegetables are thirty feet away from our kitchen at the top of the garden. We may have the arms of Popeye but neither of us has the strength of Hercules. Thus the broad beans didn’t get watered and they suffered from black fly. Ho hum.

The front garden has managed to look less like a wasteland. Cosmos, antirrhinum and bedding plants have coped. They are erect, purple and pink and are a gladsome sight. But they too need buckets of water on a daily basis.

Needless to say I’m barely sitting outside absorbing the sun’s rays. It’s a full time occupation caring for the gardens, and going for walks or a swim in the cool of the evening.

I could list all our tasks and call them ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ but I’ve barely started ... constantly covering the cat food from maggot-laying flies...having cold showers... opening all the windows and doors but having to shut everything for a fifteen minute trip to the shops... remembering the factor 30, sun hat, sun glasses and constantly filling my bottle with water.

I seem to be soooo busy. Especially in comparison with one of our neighbours who is loving every moment of this prolonged sun-bask and is sitting back under her parasol, taking it easy and reading in the shade. 

I must be getting something wrong. Is it, perhaps my active interest in gardens? Am I overly concerned when plants are water-distressed? Shouldn’t I be doing normal things like having a hair cut and sunbathing instead of working myself to a frazzle?

I ought to be like my neighbour, sitting calmly under her parasol reading books about the i ching.

My instructions for a heatwave read somewhat differently.

Monday 23 July 2018

False News?

Having followed the excellent Hulu production - with Elisabeth Moss - of The Handmaid’s Tale I’m re-reading it. Although re-reading is too grand a gerund to use as I only dipped into aspects of the novel when teaching some of the more harrowing scenes. I showed my older students the chilling Natasha Richardson version (1990). I refer to the event where a Handmaid is ceremoniously hanged and a male ‘felon’ is mobbed to death. I compared this interpretation with the Carrousel in ‘Logan’s Run’. Both stories show what can happen in a world short of resources, a world at war or a world coping with the after-effects of war. Death becomes ritualised and is called ‘salvaging’ or carrousel.

I’ve only read a third of Margaret Attwood’s novel but if I didn’t know the story line I’d be begging for answers to her open-ended scenes. Maybe that’s the point. June/Offred is thrown into a world - not quite prison - against her will and knows very little. We, the readers, know very little too.

Today I had to go for tests at my GP surgery following a slipped disc earlier in the year. But no-one seems to be able to tell me exactly what they are looking for in these tests. One letter told me I was fine but in the surgery Nurse Ratchett said various things were wrong with me and I had a lot to think about. Today, apparently, I’m fine, again.

I mention this as on page 29 in my edition of Handmaid the phrase ‘false news’ is used. So Donald Trump didn’t invent the phrase then. (Attwood penned it in 1985.)

Have I, having been sent for ‘tests’, been a victim of ‘false news’? I went through a similar process some nine years ago. I had tightness in my chest when swimming and made an appointment with my GP. From then on ‘chest tightness’ was interpreted as ‘chest pain’. No matter how many times I said I wasn’t in pain, as they stuck another ECG electrode on me, I was rushed through a batch of tests to check my overall health. It was very kind of them to spend time with me in this way but as I lay in A&E surrounded by very sick-looking people I merely felt guilt, not pain, for taking up a bed.

As I write I’m sounding confident that today’s tests were taken in a similar light ie the GP is just making sure my liver function is fine ( I hardly drink but I have been overweight). If it isn’t - something I haven’t even considered - no-one has told me what I do about it. Now my slipped disc is better I can move normally, the weight has dropped off me and I’m assuming I’m well. Fingers crossed.

I know everyone in the NHS, like in state education, is run off their feet but being ‘processed’ doesn’t sit easily with me. I’m simply not sure what ‘they’ are looking for.

And I wonder whether June/Offred - in Handmaid - feels the same. Clearly her situation is far worse than mine as she is no longer in her own home, has been separated from her loved ones, can’t read or go to work in a job of her choosing, lives in peril under a very strict behavioural code and can be tortured with cattle prods or sent to ‘The Colonies’ to die a lingering death. To say nothing of enduring ritualised, non-consensual sex.

But when we don’t know why things are happening to us and no-one seems to be able to give the depth of answer we seek - and conflicting results are given - what do we do?
Resort to the internet?

GPs tell me not to believe everything I read on the internet. So how do we get ‘the knowledge’? Or don’t we ever get it? Are we surrounded by ‘false news’, mere victims - processed by the state? Put up and shut up as it’s all done for our own good, of course.

Friday 13 July 2018

And now the White Paper

Two years ago we were on holiday in the bailiwick of Guernsey. A crown dependency. As Guernsey is not in the EU we were interested to see how they fared outside EU jurisdiction.
We voted in the EU referendum. Before we left home we posted our referendum voting slips. We did our duty - we placed our votes as members of a democracy, which constitutes a hard-fought-for set of rights.

And then we went on our hols.
Distances on an island are short. In Guernsey we were able to walk to beaches, to smart hotels for a glass of wine, to parks to admire flower beds and goldfish in quiet ponds, to a local Marks and Spencer, to a bank and to a Co-op. The caretaker for our holiday residence said she felt that not being in the EU didn’t affect immigration. Indeed in hotels, supermarkets and cafes we were served by men and women from outside the waters of the bailiwick. It seemed, therefore, when waking up on June 23, 2016, that the result to leave the EU (and reduce immigration) would not have great material effect. If the overriding desire for leaving the EU was based on reducing immigration, inter alia, maybe the act of leaving wouldn’t actually give the Brexiteers what they wanted.

We could see that ‘there may be trouble ahead’ if only in the huge bureaucratic untangling to extricate ourselves from EU policy and practice. 

At the time, June 2016, the French minister for the Economy, Finance and Digital Affairs said that if England were to leave the EU it would end up being very small - a bit like Guernsey. As we saw it Guernsey was doing very well indeed. Although, as a tourist, one sees the gentrified areas. We didn’t see people struggling, labouring in fields or living in overcrowded accommodation. Such experiences are not on the tourist itinerary.

We’d hardly heard of the French minister at the time. His name is Emmanuel Macron.

As Guernsey is not a member of the EU its Protocol 3 relationship, whatever that is, is shared with the Channel Islands of Jersey and Alderney and the Isle of Man. But, although Guernsey is not part of the UK, when the UK leaves the EU Protocol 3 will have to be replaced by new trade in goods arrangements.
We’ve heard a lot about the Irish border but nothing about the crown dependencies.

This summer we went to Ireland and paid for our groceries, petrol,beers, wine and Guinness in euros. Ireland is part of the EU. Again they seem to be doing very nicely. Again we were served by non-Irish men and women in pubs, bars and cafes and on Irish Ferries. 

The similarities between Guernsey and Ireland are worth commenting upon further, I think. The parts of County Wexford we saw is pretty, calm, rural and has good roads and empty beaches. Guernsey’s roads are busier - but on an island there are fewer roads and traffic is bound to be more intensive. Otherwise both Guernsey and Ireland were welcoming, rural, happy places. Ideal for holidays away from the busy - but beautiful - city of Bath. 

Just as schools break up, our own summer holiday has ended. It's back to earth with a bump - and Brexit. And to add to my sins I'm trying to focus on the White Paper:


Re: Ireland and Northern Ireland the White Paper says:

“Taken together, such a partnership would see the UK and the EU meet their commitments to Northern Ireland and Ireland through the overall future relationship: preserving the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK; honouring the letter and the spirit of the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement; and ensuring that the operational legal text the UK will agree with the EU on the ‘backstop’ solution as part of the Withdrawal Agreement will not have to be used.”

I understand a bit of that.

I’ve only read the first few pages of the 104-page White Paper. As far as I can see Guernsey is mentioned thus:

“The UK will be seeking specific arrangements for the Crown Dependencies, Gibraltar and the other Overseas Territories. These arrangements should take account of the significant and mutually beneficial economic ties between these economies and EU Member States, including their overseas countries and territories.”

I’m not sure how leaving the EU affects the Channel Islands if new arrangements are to 
“take account of ... significant ... ties between these economies and EU Member States.”

That doesn’t read like a huge change to me.
And I think that’s what Brexiteers are cross about: That the White Paper seems to show, from March 2019, we would hardly be shifting our position re: the EU. We may as well stay in. I repeat may.

Thankfully I’m living on a teacher’s pension and am not having to consider things like workforce, customs, profit and loss or trading partners. I can follow Brexit manoeuvring at a remove. Rising prices are certainly affecting me, but then so is the increase in the interest rate. And this latter has nothing to do with the EU. (Now we are both semi-retired I'm glad we only have a tiny mortgage.) 

When I’ve read all 104 pages of the White Paper I may understand more and be able to make a better, informed opinion about how it affects us and others. I repeat may...

And I wonder what Theresa really thinks...