Friday 27 December 2019

‘God bless us, everyone.’

The year my father died was also the year Richard was very ill with raging tinnitus and the year his mother died.
Richard left teaching, my mother had to adjust to living on her own for the first time ever and two weeks after she was widowed she turned 69.
That was 1993. 2019 has been almost as difficult, but in quite different ways:
January saw us sending £1000 a week to my brother for improvements to mum’s house. It  was - after almost five years of arguing with her council about the impact of their trees - on the field next to her house - and the damage caused to the foundations - time to put the house on the market. Our childhood home finally had a new kitchen and bathroom.

But, before we could actively deal with her property, we let out our garage to house the furniture which belonged to our friends. Their mother had so sadly died in December 2018. By January 2019 they were clearing her bungalow. Such a traumatic start to the new year for them. 

I well remember a couple from Frome crossing our garden in deep snow to get to the garage. And they walked back with a small cupboard, having given me cash for it, and I’d made money for our friends. They wanted to pay for a headstone for their lovely mum. 

In time I believe I sold about £300 of furniture for them. And I was very glad to see the last item go. After all I was conscious of already housing much of my own mother’s belongings... and we were running out of space. All but two cupboards sold. And we have those items in our sitting room.

In February our ensuite bathroom needed work. And when it was finished and looked bright,clean, well lit and modern we thought we’d try a spot on Airbnb. While our master bedroom was in the throes of being decorated I chanced upon a local cleaning lady. But to reach the stage of ‘mere cleaning’ we had to make space for our Airbnb guests. I emptied two wardrobes, a chest of drawers, cleared under our bed, had locks put on everything else and created mayhem. The ensuite kitchen was completely cleared too. In so doing I created 16 bags of rubbish which Richard took to the council tip.

Then it was March. After working hard in our house we went to mum’s and, with a friend, decorated all the walls, ceilings, skirting boards, picture rails, doors, window ledges and radiators in every room. Thank goodness auctioneers had removed mum’s furniture the morning we arrived. Two weekends later we were knackered but pleased with the results. 

Afterwards it was back to our house and the advertising of our master bedroom with ensuite, cooked breakfast and garage or parking space on Airbnb.  That  was April. But inbetween all these household tasks we had taken on the running of our local art trail. And that had to be organised, publicity had to be promoted and a brochure designed and printed ready for mid-April.We made it but it was a push.

After the May Day weekend event, when I sold cards and framed prints, Richard felt his time was up. Having sold about £2Ks worth of art at the same art trail in 2018 he was thoroughly disappointed with his £50 profit in May 2019.

Then the guests started arriving. They were all bright, friendly, tidy and quiet. But, my, was it hard work. We spent four hours on change over day getting the premises spotless.  And then Richard passed some blood. That was the start of a very difficult second half of 2019.
He had one surgical procedure in June. No cancer cells were found but he needed more surgery in July.

Our final Airbnb guests left three days before Richard’s second surgical procedure. On waking from anaesthetic he was horrified to find he had been fitted with a catheter. For three nights he sat bolt upright in bed in a state of shock. I didn’t know it then but that was a form of PTSD. Richard was suffering from post-surgery trauma.

On the morning of our short break to Devon - for a party with good friends of ours - Richard was told by a GP that he had a hernia. He was beginning to get stressed about ongoing health issues. He drove to Devon but in a panic took himself to a doctor’s surgery as soon as we reached our b&b. 

However by the end of August he was still driving and managed to help me dress the rooms in mum’s house, to put plants, rugs and wicker furniture in her conservatory and to tackle a nasty bramble in her garden. On one of the hottest days of the year I weeded mum’s rose garden, trimmed her shrubs, cleared a path or two and generally swept ready for prospective buyers.

But by September the strain of  Richard’s health issues led him to suffer a psychotic episode and our GP put him in the care of the mental health team. 

From September 20th until December 20th I have been chief cook, carer, cleaning lady and pill dispenser. Tonight friends came round for a drink and chat and Richard was entering the conversation like someone who has just enjoyed Christmas rather than as a sufferer from nervous collapse. Is his mental health improving ? Our friends thought so. 

At this tail end of the year we have some of the proceeds from the sale of mum’s house plus another small legacy. But without peace of mind, good mental health and a sense of joy, it’s impossible to plan a holiday or home improvements. Our car is stored in the otherwise empty garage while Richard can’t drive it. The world has become much smaller. 

He liked company over Christmas but his medication takes a long time to have a full effect. I will be very glad to say goodbye to 2019. It’s been almost as hard as the year my father died. But not quite. 

Saturday 21 December 2019

Hunkering down

Please excuse me for re-vamping the introductory paragraph to my post this time last year. My sentiments remain the same!

We have reached one of my favourite weeks in the year. It’s a time to look at the glittering displays in shops; Christmas lights twinkle and pretty windows cause us to pause. Baubles strung across Milsom Street, more like expensive jewellery than bunting, sparkle in diamond-white and ruby-red. 

The sun is shining - although there’s far more rain than this time last year, market crowds have gone and schools haven’t quite broken up - it’s the best time to go Christmas shopping. I’m meeting a friend for lunch and hitting a few, selected shops. 

When I’m home I’ll leaf through the ‘Radio Times’, choose my Christmas viewing and set the planner to record. And cut sprigs of holly. The tree is full of heavy, red berries. Despite the chaffinch family who nibble on them while our cat, Nelson, watches as if his life depended on it. 

Today and tomorrow Richard will be taking our last few cards round to neighbours and friends are coming for a merry mince pie and a glass. There are still one or two books I’d like to get as it’ll soon be time to hunker down for the festivities. But there’s time yet. Four shopping days until Christmas.

Today is the shortest day of the year. It was still dark at 7:00 am when Nelson jumped on the bed. He sat on me, purred loudly in my ear, managed to squeeze himself between my arm and the edge of the bed then crouched on my shoulder. And he’s a weight. Since then he’s had three portions of breakfast.

The heating’s not on yet: it seems very warm and wet for the start of Christmas. The lawns in the centre of The Circus are soaked, muddy and slippery. Even the Salvation Army moved their lamplit, outdoor carol singing event and everyone gathered under a roof this year. I’m carolling tomorrow - but inside a warm, candle-lit church. 

I am days behind opening my Advent calendar - that’s another treat in store. And then it’ll be time to tackle the slow defrost of the turkey. (We always get a frozen one as more often than not we are away and use our turkey at new year.)

However it’s all change this time around. A quiet Christmas beckons: ‘Carols from Kings’ on Christmas Eve followed by Alistair Sim in ‘A Christmas Carol’. I’ll read Mr Pickwick’s Christmas chapter from ‘The Pickwick Papers’ and prepare the various vegetables for our Christmas Day spread. After the meal, when we are full of Christmas pud, it’s round to the neighbours for Xmas tea.

Come Boxing Day ‘Little Women’ beckons but I feel the cinemas will be packed and we’ll forego ‘Nutcracker’ this year. A jolly walk may be in order.

I need to extricate my 1920s costume for a themed party, find Richard’s New York cop outfit and generally dress up to look very, very silly indeed.

It’s a time for frivolity, plenty of opportunities for something wet in a glass and lots of talk. 
The sales have already started and it won’t take much to rid me of my cash. 

We can forget about Brexit, politicians, the surge to the right and think of friends, family, the needy and all those working over the festivities to keep us fed, well and safe. 

It’s going to be a quiet Christmas with time to reflect rather than the mad dash north, fitting everyone into a hectic schedule.

Here’s looking forward to a cool yule. 
Happy Christmas y’all. 

Sunday 15 December 2019

But this was Boris

Many of you will know I was brought up in the Midlands. My accent tends to give my origins away!

Friends of mine from then and now recall their early years in the Midlands as a time of full employment, Marks and Spencers and expensive boutiques in our high streets, garden parties and the annual flower show in our local parks. My mother was part of the flower show committee and a member of the Towns Women’s Guild. At general elections mum often commented how the conservatives would raise money all year round and would go to vote whatever the weather. Many neighbours thought mum was a Tory voter - she was married to the grammar school head. It had escaped their notice she never attended Tory party functions. She wouldn’t: my parents NEVER voted anything other than Labour.

Mum was right about the weather affecting turn out. Something I’m sure Boris’s strategists were only too aware of when they chose a December date for this year’s general election. It has been suggested that some of the electorate in the former Labour heartland stayed at home rather than vote. It wasn’t just the cold and rain, though. They couldn’t choose between Boris or Jeremy.

My feelings about Boris and his entreaties towards voters in former Labour constituencies are that he will soon weary of them. It’s all spit and polish, style over substance. He refers to the town where he worked in the late 80s - at the newspaper offices of the Express and Star - a rag I grew up reading in the Midlands - as a ‘place called Wolverhampton’. 

"When I was a 22 or 23-year-old reporter in a place called Wolverhampton... I got impatient with some of the stuff I saw going on about damp and mould, about who is ultimately responsible for improving the ventilation in people's houses.
I felt that people were being infantilised and made dependent by the system and that the local Labour politicians had no interest in sorting it out, were content to harvest these people's votes without improving their lives.
It was the spores of damp, of mould forming on the walls in Wolverhampton.”

So that’s his recollection of Labour politicians and housing conditions in parts of the Midlands. The young Boris Johnson was a far cry from the average Express and Star newspaper reporter. Colleagues recalled he favoured wide-lapelled chalkstripe suits and silk ties.
He must have stood out.

And he’s still standing out. But, according to research at Loughborough University, he has a lot to reverse if he is to improve the lives of some of those former Labour areas:

‘More than half of children in over 200 (electoral) wards are below the poverty line...’

The research, carried out by Prof Donald Hirsh at the University of Loughborough, found the situation was getting worse in places where child poverty was already at the highest level.
It shows that it was 2010 when child poverty began to rise again, after a long period in which it fell.
Prof Hirsch said: "What's shocking rather than surprising is that over the previous 12 to 15 years, we had a period when it was going down...’

And we know which party got the keys to number ten in 2010. From then I knew myself how difficult things were going to be in the state sector. Our school had already suffered cuts owing to a reduced intake. When school budgets are cut it’s hard even as a head of faculty to order new biros. And the pupils I taught were not from privileged backgrounds. To give out biros was the route to getting them to write in class. They certainly wouldn’t, in the main, have their own writing implements.

I knew that with a certain type of Etonesque cabinet in government ( and I know many ex-Eton alumni - they aren’t all like Cameron et al), the promise of an austerity budget and the silliness of stating ‘we are all in it together’ - early lies from this brand of Toryism - things could only deteriorate further in our state school.

The year Cameron got in I got out.
Teaching in state schools has been in a very difficult place since 2010 and after 32 years I felt I’d done my bit. And I wasn’t prepared to lower my standards nor risk my health through overwork and poor job satisfaction. 

The NHS has been treated with just as much lack of care and budgetary constraints. I suggest we all try to stay fit and well as I for one don’t believe Boris has the answers to our overstretched NHS. Bluff, bluster and telling the people what they want to hear might get votes but I’ll be very surprised if things improve in the state sector with our man from Manhattan. 

When steel manufacture went into decline in the Midlands the land of full employment deteriorated. Despite this nosedive an entrepreneur set up shop - just off our high street - in an area called Mount Pleasant - named ‘The Perfect Lady’. She sold hats, gloves and matching scarves. It was the perfect photo opportunity for Margaret Thatcher. On her visit to our high street she posed outside ‘The Perfect Lady’ and her picture was front page news for the Express and Star. But this was post-industrial Midlands. The area was economically depressed. Thatcher went on to many other photo opportunities but ‘The Perfect Lady’ failed. The area is still depressed. But the Tories are in power. What will they do about deprivation? Have photos taken and call it work? 

This ward in the Midlands did return a Labour MP - but only just - and it shares some of the characteristics of Blyth Valley, famously one of the first constituencies to turn blue on Thursday night.

Unemployment in Blyth Valley is above the national average. That is typical of many communities in the North East that are still wrestling with the impact of industrial decline.
( BBC News)

There are similarities between post-industrial Blyth and the Midlands. Both regions need investment - not just visits and photographs. I doubt Boris knows what to do but, worse still, I doubt he cares.

But this was Boris. A man for whom other people are mere satellites orbiting his sun.
(The Guardian 5.9.19)

Thursday 12 December 2019

Hope and expectation

It seems only days ago that I was watching the House of Lords in the wee, small hours. Yes, I watched as they debated ‘Bojo’s prorogation’. And, for some reason, it was imperative that I watched the debate through the night. 

It seems only days ago that John Bercow was shouting ‘Order’ only to shout it no more when parliament folded ahead of campaigning for today’s polling in the General Election. It seems an even shorter length of time when Anna Soubry, Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna defected to the Independent Group for Change. 

We’ve had so many votes and calls for ‘clear the lobbies’ in the House of Commons over Brexit it seems there has been no time for parliament to discuss anything else. When the results are in tomorrow some MPs will have lost their seats, even Bojo only has a 5000 majority. New MPs will take up their places as backbenchers and others will be returned to the House.

Parliament will sit on Monday but surely it’ll soon be time for their Christmas recess. I wonder how many days MPs have sat in the debating chamber since Bojo was made PM. It seems very few. And the Irish parliament has hardly sat at all in three years. As the rest of the UK seems to be working round the clock some MPs seem to have had more time outside the House than in it. Not necessarily through choice.

And after all the hype and visits to Europe who remembers what Theresa May did or stood for? Will she regain her seat? And will she be remembered? 

It has been the strangest few years in politics that I can ever remember and I guess one sign that we have ‘weakened’ political parties is that no single party has had a strong majority in the house for over nine years. Another sign that there is turbulence or a lack of faith in our current leaders is, I believe, the fact we’ve had so many general elections in the last few years. It’s a case of choose the least worst leader rather than positively vote for who you feel will do the best job possible.

The country isn’t just divided by left or right politics, nor just north or south, black or white or pro- or anti-Brexit. We are divided in how we treat our poor. 

Last Christmas I couldn’t help quoting the old miser Scrooge from Dickens’  ‘A Christmas Carol’
‘If they would rather die than go to the workhouse, they had better hurry up and do it and decrease the surplus population.’

That was published in 1843. Some of the harshness of how the poor were treated then was echoed in 1847 in Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’. Today shocking headlines report a similar treatment of those in need.

‘More than 17,000 sick and disabled people have died while waiting for welfare benefits, figures show’
( The Independent, January 2019)

In the world’s fifth richest nation money spent arguing about Brexit and on high court or supreme court judgements over Bojo’s decisions since becoming PM could have saved some of those lives.

Tonight I will be watching the tv again into the small hours. Results from the general election will be pouring in. With fingers crossed I too will hope for the least worst outcome: a hung parliament. Above all our welfare state and NHS must be ‘reimbursed’ and protected from future cuts. People in Britain must be able to expect better. 

Yesterday, in the space of an hour I was unable to get cash out from an ATM-it was empty, unable to get medications from our pharmacy-they had run out and I had to wait over half an hour in a long queue in our sole remaining local post office (as so many others have been shut). If I was almost destitute or ill I couldn’t have gone on for long without cash in my hand nor medicines in my bathroom cabinet.

When I can get into town I will donate to the Trussell Trust. I have missed the Christmas deadline but no-one will say no to tinned steak, chocolate, wholesome soups and sticky toffee puddings, will they? That’s almost as good as turkey and Christmas pud, isn’t it? 

I do hope my efforts benefit someone in need and I wish Britain would return to being a caring nation. This time tomorrow we will know. And it’ll seem light years since all the electioneering, pamphletting and risen expectations were daily occurrences. My fingers are crossed for a better Britain. No-one should be born into poverty in a modern UK. Jesus Christ was born in a cattle shed. Surely we’ve become more caring about the have-nots in the last 2000 years? We should not have to hope. We should be able to expect better as we leave 2019 behind.

Thursday 5 December 2019


If all goes well tomorrow
the 1960s home of my childhood will no longer be part of our family. It will have new owners.

It is five and a half years since my 89-year-old mother came to us for the Easter holidays. She never went back to her house - my childhood home. 

Easter Sunday 2014 was the beginning of a new journey for our family. Mum had rarely been ill and on Good Friday she took her usual sprightly self off into Bath and enjoyed tea in the Pump Room. But on Easter Sunday morning she said she felt a little unwell. I was listening to The Archers and at 11:15 that morning I heard her groan as she came upstairs. Nothing unusual there. Her 89-year-old bones occasionally made her moan as she reached the top of any staircase. A few minutes later I went to check she was feeling ok. I found her crumpled on the sofa bed.

Mum had flopped on to one side, her eyes were flickering and she couldn’t raise her left arm. When I questioned her she did speak - 
in a monotone gutteral - 

‘I’m not feeling very well.’ 

‘Not very well’ was a massive understatement. However she made sense and understood what I was saying to her.

I called 111 who put me straight through to 999. The ambulance arrived within minutes and they confirmed what I’d already been told. Mum had had a stroke. 

The extra difficulty that day was the treatment to halt the worst of the stroke. Thrombylosis was performed on mum within the recommended time but it had to be reversed as her face swelled and she couldn’t breathe. It had given her an anaphylactic shock. By the time we got into the acute stroke unit we were greeted with

‘You’ve had a very rough ride.’

We knew no different. We hadn’t ever been in A&E before. Mum’s stroke alone was bad enough. We hadn’t appreciated how difficult the anaphylactic shock had been for her and the emergency team. After the drama the consultant brusquely said mum was unlikely to live. She’d had a very deep stroke. I had never felt so upset.

Next day another consultant said they would attach a drip as mum was speaking and was awake. In other words they weren’t just going to let her be... the route to a slow death. Things began to look a little brighter. 
In what felt like a very long time from that day on she was able to sit up and drink tea and eat small meals, after many months of a liquid-only diet.

Meanwhile spring 2014 turned to summer. Mum’s garden flowered and grew. Summer turned to autumn and we had to manage mum’s property and get power of attorney. With luck my brother is our family solicitor. My elderly aunts cut mum’s lawns and trimmed the hedges and we weeded, cut back shrubs and roses and spread bark on her flower beds. 

By Christmas 2014 mum had been transferred to a medical nursing home near my brother’s house. He and I had shared mum’s nursing needs by getting in carers during the day: 3 months at my brother’s house and three months at our house in Bath. Mum was no longer a guest but a patient who had carers all morning and most of the evening too. But after months on her back - she wouldn’t use a hoist nor a wheelchair - mum’s bedsore was not improving and she needed turning in the night.  A fulltime nursing home was the only option.

Christmas 2014 - five years ago as I write - saw me clearing her house of valuables and glassware, silverware and china. I believed the builders were coming in. I hastily bedecked her room in the nursing home with Christmas decorations but, back at her house, in her sitting room on Christmas Eve I felt a new sadness. For so many years I’d gone home on December 24th to see mum heating mince pies and hanging up her Christmas cards while listening to ‘Carols from Kings’. 

This time there was a pile of adverts dropped in her letter box. No Christmas tree. We had ordered a new kitchen and bathroom for the house. (My brother and I thought we could rent it out. His firm of solicitors are also estate agents and they deal with rental properties too.) Instead of cards and a mini Christmas tree her sitting room was full of new kitchen units and bath panels. The builder was ready! But we weren’t going to enjoy another Christmas there ever again.

Then the real fun started. Our family builder couldn’t proceed to improve the house as there was a crack in the kitchen wall and above the bathroom. After months of wrangling my brother got a surveyor to inspect the property. He recommended that the council remove trees on the field next to mum’s house - the roots were causing mild subsidence to the foundations and a new kitchen and bathroom had to be put on hold.

It took two years for the council to do anything about the trees. 

By December 2016, however, as mum’s house was going through repairs her deep stroke worsened and she had a series of mini attacks. Her funeral was on December 2nd. She’d felt no pain. 

A further year after the trees were finally removed time alone allowed the soil to settle around mum’s house. And suddenly we were in 2018. My elderly aunts were no longer doing mum’s garden and had engaged a professional gardener.

By early 2019 the cracks in the house had been repaired and the surveyor said it was in a fit condition for renting out. The property had a certificate to that effect. The new kitchen and bathroom went in and by Easter this year, five years since mum had her massive stroke, the hallway, landing and stairwell, kitchen and bathroom had all been revamped and decorated. But my brother, exhausted by the five years of negotiations, decided to sell mum’s house rather than rent it out. And I agreed.

Owing to a slipped disc in 2018 I hadn’t been there since 2017. By Easter of this year I dreaded seeing cobwebs, messy carpeting, an overgrown garden and general gloom.

But, no. Last March Richard, a family friend and I went home and prepared the house for putting it on the market. The day we arrived my brother had arranged for an auctioneer to clear mum’s house. I feared the worst. I expected to see poor wallpaperings and stained carpets left behind after the clearance.

On the evening we arrived I was remarkably relieved. Yes the back garden was overgrown, in parts. But inside, thanks to my family doing weekly cleans and checking the heating was working, the house was fresh and warm.

We spent six days redecorating. Walls, ceilings, skirting boards, doors, door frames and the staircase were given a few coats of white emulsion and Farrow and Ball eggshell.

Yes it was hard work. But I didn’t get a sinking feeling as I saw mum’s house for the last time. It didn’t look dreadful with no furniture and it made it much easier to wield a paintbrush and roller without having to move tables, sofas, heavy bookcases and the like. 

When we closed the front door on mum’s house for the last time Richard’s arms were in shreds from a vile bramble which he’d tugged at and removed. I’d opened up mum’s rose garden and made her pride and joy as tidy as I could. We had been working in her garden on one of those hot days we’d had during this year’s heatwave. 

Finally the house went on the market in August and sold within a week to a lovely woman who had been mum’s hairdresser for twelve years. We all felt happy with the outcome. 

However it has taken until today, December 5th, for the exchange of contracts. Tomorrow we should complete. Tomorrow mum’s house will have new owners. 

It has been a long journey from Easter 2014 until now, Christmas 2019. And it’s the end of my childhood home. But rather than being sad to say goodbye to the old house I am mightily relieved it will be going to new, kindly people. Five years and eight months after mum left home to visit us in Bath someone else will be boiling the kettle in the kitchen.