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Sunday, 6 September 2020

You may well ask

Imagine, if you will, a blithe September afternoon.The Rudbekia are at their orange finest and the sunchokes wave like their larger cousins, shiny yellow sunflowers, in the gentle breeze. 

That’s if you happen to be in the right part of the garden, however. If you were unlucky enough to be a sunchoke and have been planted near the shed and in manured soil with the sun on your face, you’re in for it.

Because of that manure your roots have thrived, multiplied and spread into the lawn. And gardening is all about control and Victorian neatness. Cutting your roots out of the lawn last spring means drastic measures will take place this autumn. 

First up is the wife who gets the man to help her stick a fork right through your tangle of roots and wrench them out until they are torn from the clods of earth you called home. But she’s one of the better fat controllers. She’s brought along buckets of water into which your torn roots are placed so that your shiny yellow faces don’t wither and fold.

And all along the flower bed she goes; digging, tearing, separating and lifting. Your mates join you and they are squashed into your tub of water with alarming cruelty. But it’s back-breaking for her.Your roots are tough.

Then what on earth is he getting up to? You may well ask!

When you are all removed from your flower bed the fun really starts. He digs out enough soil to provide himself with a graveyard plot and he scatters it on the beds where your mates continue to glow, undisturbed, in the snatched September sunshine. And she provides more tubs which he sinks into the big grave-like hole. Then you are transferred into these tubs and, with your feet in water, you are buried. 

What? 

A whole bed of sunchokes has been dug up simply to be placed in plastic tubs, full of water and compost, back into the soil where you’d grown happily for the last five years.

Ah! I get it. She doesn’t like your roots spreading into her lawn. So you’ve got to be grown in containers. And now you feel sick and weak. The uprooting has made you wilt. They’re going to put a bean stick up your back side, throttle you with string and force you to stand erect, even though you’d rather flop all over the soil. It’s all been such a shock, being uprooted like that. And simply because you were successful. You were growing well. So you had to be put into containers, like mint, so you can’t spread.

It took him five hours on that sunny September afternoon. Why couldn’t he just put his feet up and watch the racing on the tele, if he’s so interested in the turf. 


Friday, 4 September 2020

Farce

When the kitchen ceiling came down last week there was the inevitable clearing away of debris. This I achieved surprisingly quickly. And I was relieved we weren’t having heavy showers at the time. I stored the damp and slithery broken plaster board and roof insulation in bags on the patio. Then the farce started.


Friends came to help me in the garden last Friday but it isn’t a pretty sight seeing someone digging in soil getting as muddy as a rugby player on a wet November Saturday afternoon. Nor is it fun sitting next to a pile of wet roof insulation and broken bits of grimy grey plasterboard trying to serve tea to my helpful, weary garden workers. 


Dragging long whips of rambling rose to the garden waste bins was even more farcical. They kept getting caught on garden furniture as I wrestled them to their bye-bye bins. At one point so much growth had been hacked back by my ufl* friend I could only pile it up by our front door. Imagine how our co-op delivery boys felt! Trying to get to the front door knocker was as impenetrable for them as POWs tackling the jungle in the film ‘The Bridge Over the River Kwai’, (needless to say without the cruelty, starvation and forced labour). We must have looked like a mad house. The patio resembled something from The Somme. It rained hard and the mud kept flowing. But my friends persisted shovelling soil, cutting back rambling roses and moving raised beds, even though they were getting soaked.I ran out of rainproof jackets for them.

But I rewarded them with a fish n chip supper and Aperol spritzers. 


This week I managed to get our breakfast and lunch ready - on trays - in our upstairs snug. It’s a small study-bedroom with tv, sofa bed, bureau, teaching materials, books and papers related to my writings. In there I plugged in the mini fridge so that we didn’t have to endure tea flavoured with milk that had gone off. The mini kettle was a boon as was our supplementary tv. In that way we could leave the builders to enjoy ripping out the rest of the plasterboard and roof insulation. And they could get on with replacing it all with bales of new insulating material and plasterboard without us annoying them by getting under their feet making cheese sandwiches and boiling kettles.


But when they’d finished plastering the new ceiling the dust layers were thick enough to grow autumn sowings of overwintering lettuce! Despite putting dust sheets everywhere the carpet - to be replaced if our house insurance coughs up - was daubed with flesh-coloured plaster and had a sheen of cough-inducing dust. 


The night the builders finished I considered whether to leave our redirected baskets of kitchen implements and ingredients in our over-full living room. But we’d had enough of eating off our laps in the snug. We needed to be able to see our dining table. So, before our builder paints the new plaster, some time next week,I, possibly foolishly, put our measuring jugs, pyrex dishes, baking trays, herbs, spices, baking powder, food processor and other electrical wizardry back into the newly-ceilinged kitchen. 


Next day my gardening friend reclaimed dust sheets from the shed. When the plaster has dried and it’s ready for a coat of paint I’ll somehow drape the shelves of pyrex dishes with the dust sheets so that I don’t have to move everything out into the living room yet again. 


On a positive note the kitchen units and skirting boards cleaned up very well and I painted the skirting boards, despite being very tired. But it’s looking cared-for. 


Of course, next day, it had to start raining which meant any washing had to be tumble-dried. Piles of washing in limited floor space is beyond annoying. 


And the newly refurbished kitchen space became a bottle-neck. There was simply too much going on in a small space. The carpet, after two days of restoration, needed to be shampooed. Richard wanted the electric airer down as we had so much laundry to dry. We were tripping over each other trying to carry the carpet shampooer and airer downstairs while temporarily using the stairs as storage. It was madness. And our gardening friend needed an extension lead to be plugged in so he could finish jobs in the garden for me. Nevertheless, even though both men were being truly helpful, I banned him and Richard for an afternoon and shampooed the plaster-laden carpet with death threats if either of them walked over it while the carpet dried. 


My old Henry vacuum cleaner had managed to get up clods of plaster but my month-old Shark coped less well. I thought I’d damaged it with too much plaster-sucking. But yesterday I took the brushes and rollers out from my really efficient Shark stick cleaner. It wasn’t plaster that had clogged the vacuum head but a twig that had got caught behind a roller. A twig?? No wonder the suction was so poor. But all cleaned up well and I have my new Shark back in suction heaven. Thank goodness for small mercies. 


But what of the bloody garden hose? I was desperate to flush away patio debris from the mammoth rose-hacking of a week ago. And the remnants of the piles of plaster board. But yesterday was another farce. Our builder messaged me to say the contract waste removal team was trying to get to our patio to shift the ex-ceiling debris. But I was at the far end of the garden when the message pinged its way to me. And my knee was so painful, after days of shifting kitchen ware, hefty garden cuttings and ceiling debris. By the time I limped to our patio to unlock the gate for the contractors they had got in and were busily shifting the rubbish. Had Richard let them in? No. He was asleep. ( His meds still seem to knock him out until about 11am). No the clever contractor showed me how he’d looped our padlock over the gate and gained access. (Note to self - care with security for our front gate or else we become a burglars’ paradise.)


still needed to wash away the rose clippings, dust and debris on the patio but the bloody hose wouldn’t work. An annoying connector valve - according to our Neighbourhood Nextdoor community faqs - has to be fiddled with in order to allow water from the outside tap to fill the hose and run through it freely. A whole morning and several You Tube ‘how to’ videos later showed my up-to-his-knees-in-mud friend and I how to adjust the annoying valve. Finally the Hozelock worked and I could actually hose the patio down. By which time it was almost unnecessary as we’d such heavy downpours it’s a wonder the garden furniture wasn’t washed away. And, having successfully shampooed the previously plaster-caked carpet, it was in danger of becoming a magnet for mud. I was running out of rugs and mats. Will the rain ever stop? 


My last but one garden project to undertake before I drop with exhaustion is to dig up late summer-flowering sunchokes. They spread too rapidly for my liking. They have a sunny yellow flower and really make the garden shine as we move from the August heat into more moody September weather. But their roots have to be contained - rather like mint plants. My back and knee usually complain if I do too much digging but my knees-in-mud friend managed to get the fork and spade into the congested root system when I feared injuring my knee and aggravating my back problem. 


However I successfully pushed the plants straight into huge tubs of water so they didn’t wilt. Was I succeeding? Just about.


The next task is to reposition a waterbutt, guttering and its downpipe. But, for now, I’m going to enjoy the weekend, watching a Marple and reading The Guardian. One day we must return to semi-normality. Enough farce already. 



*ufl - up from London

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Is the war over yet?

Do you remember, back in 2005, when former Japanese soldiers Yoshio Yamakawa and Tsuzuki Nakauchi emerged from the jungle on the island of Mindanao, 600 miles from Manila? You may not remember their names but they’d been hiding in the mountains since US troops devastated their division in 1945. They were unaware that world war 2 had ended 60 years before, and were afraid that they would be court-martialled for desertion. So they’d hidden in the trees. 

In May 2005, as old men, they emerged from their hiding place in the Philippines, asking to go home.


Another Japanese soldier, Hiroo Onoda, secreted himself in the jungle on Lubang Island near Luzon, in the Philippines, until 1974, because he didn’t believe that the war had ended. It was only after his elderly former commanding officer was flown in to see him that he surrendered.


Speaking of emerging, for a variety of reasons we’ve hardly emerged from our house over the last month. But 30-odd days is not the same as 60 years. And our comfortable home isn’t a cave in the woods or mountains of a foreign land. 


Last week I was explaining to a visitor that our cleaning ladies hadn’t resumed their duties since lockdown. They felt it was too covid-risky to be travelling and working from house to house. And I agreed with them.


‘What? After five months? And they still haven’t gone back to work?’ he exclaimed. 


He felt, rightly or wrongly, that they should be going out to work. 


But I have some sympathy for their plight. I am very risk-averse and only now am I considering doing anything as brave as having my hair cut. When I do go out to the shops or travel on a train - in the next couple of weeks - I’m sure it will feel like I’m emerging from my own jungle hideout. But emerge I must before I start growing roots! How must those veterans have felt in hiding for all those decades? We are struggling after just five months locked-away. 


The last time I walked into Bath it was a blazing hot day in late July. About a month ago. It isn’t simply covid-19 that has isolated me for the last four weeks and kept me at home. After a mammoth gardening session, lasting a week from late July to early August, my trapped nerve and old knee injury were so aggravated that I couldn’t walk. August, for me, has been a bit of a write-off. But there’s so much to do at home, it seems. 


Over the last two days I’ve carried huge whips of brambles and climbing roses, thankfully a friend initially used the secateurs. And I’ve dug soil, transported soil, tipped soil, you-name-it I’ve done it with soil. And I’m waiting for my knee and trapped nerve to hurt in response to all this hefty gardening. I’ve hardly had time to poke my head above the parapet and ask ‘Is the war over yet?’

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Aargh! Our ceiling’s just collapsed!

My plan for today was simple: take my Observer voucher to our little shop, exchange it for the paper, buy bacon, make breakfast and settle down to read the news. Thence to write about how lucky we are to live in a quiet part of a lovely city and happy to have plans to go away once schools are finally back. That’s if schools do go back and teachers are able to take up their posts safely. I’d want lots of assurances that I could wear a see-through mask and have a perspex screen from which to conduct lessons if I were contemplating teaching in my old classroom once more. Currently I feel very uncertain that teachers and pupils will be safe from covid. However I see plans for less movement around school buildings and shorter days are in place in some institutions. I see little detail about sanitising and mask-wearing, though.

With few thoughts other than a leisurely Sunday to look forward to I listened to BH with one of my favourite broadcasters and went downstairs to make tea, feed the cat and get Richard’s meds ready.


As I entered our breakfast room it looked as if our cat, Nelson, had torn apart two cushions and left the inards on the floor. I got closer and called him. The table cloth I’d put down was covered in grit and once inside the room the full horror of a fallen ceiling met my eyes. It wasn’t the cat’s fault. Some dodgy plasterboard, which had needed replacing for years rather than months, had collapsed. The carpet was covered in grey slabs which broke up even more as I handled them. 


I’d planned to get to our shop soon after 10:00 am before Maya ran out of Observers but by 10:20 am I was still clearing, hoovering, trying to feed the cat in a clear area of 30cm square and making a pot of tea.


By 10:30 am I’d tidied enough such that the worst of the plaster board and insulation was in a huge plastic bag on the patio. I’d rung our builder who advised wearing a mask just in case fibres got to me. And the carpet was slightly damp. A leak! Water must have forced the flimsy plasterboard south. 


This isn’t the first collapsed ceiling that I’ve dealt with. I’m reminded of a similar state of affairs,  that equally took me by surprise, but that was almost forty years ago. 


When Richard and I moved into our first house, about three weeks before we married, he was still teaching full time. And, although we’d moved house on the Friday he went back into school that evening to act as Judge Hathorne in the school production of ‘The Crucible’. I’d moved house, essentially, with friends. One loaded her very large estate car with much of our belongings. A van from Somerset arrived with my mother-in-law’s furniture, ( she was moving into a care home), lots of men friends helped me carry boxes and ‘white goods’ into the appropriate rooms and by the evening I felt settled. 


Lo and behold, just as I felt a good day’s work had been had by all, I went into the bathroom and witnessed the ceiling light fall to the floor, as if in slow motion, followed by tons of insulation. We’d known the ceiling was dodgy and already had quotes from builders to get the work done. In time. Not the night of moving in.


Weeks before I’d rehearsed Richard’s lines with him, in our rented flat, surrounded by packing crates. I couldn’t wait to move to our own house with our own garden and kitchen. I didn’t bank on having a bathroom we couldn’t use...


And again, this morning, the same sight faced me. Plasterboard all over the show, albeit only a fraction of the total ceiling area. 


We have our builder coming tomorrow. But, as I relax, finally, 12 hours after discovering the collapsed ceiling, I’ve put my feet up and am ready to peruse The Observer. It’s not been a relaxing day. After lunch I discovered even more plasterboard behind a glass-fronted cabinet and a drip, drip, drip from somewhere rather too close to electric sockets. This afternoon was spent emptying the cabinet, moving it, clearing up even more debris and cobbling together a meagre meal of roast duck. That was around 5:00pm. 


My family thinks it’s best to get the work done rather than rely on house insurance pay outs, which can take an age to process. That will be a decision for tomorrow, by which time I will wake up and plan my day as if it’s a Sunday all over again. I feel I’ve lost a day today. As I draw the bedroom curtains and shut the windows I remember the optimism I felt when I opened them. I did not then know the state of our breakfast room floor, nor the work that lay ahead. And yet I still feel lucky. 


News from India, Belarus, The Yemen, Beirut, Syria, our own unemployed and those fearing eviction is so much worse. Falling plasterboard is unlikely to be the worst thing endured by those people at this time. Our television, internet, lights, cooker, electricity, warm running water and safe, cold drinking water are still at hand. I count my blessings. Falling plasterboard is a set back, not a way of life, and it hasn’t, as yet, affected anything else in the house. 


On Wednesday the weather looks fair. I shall enjoy it. And make up for today. 


As you were...


Friday, 14 August 2020

But it’s just not British!

We are to be beset with these ‘tropical days’ ( BBC Weather’s words, not mine) until Tuesday it seems. 

For the third night in a row I have changed beds at 4 am and 5 am respectively. After a time the marital bed gets simply too hot and I transfer, first, to the sofa bed. 

Last night (and the night before that) even the sofa bed was in a room that felt as though the doors from three heat-blasting ovens had been left open. My sojourn there didn’t last long. 


Yesterday, downstairs at 5 am, I opened the back door and all the kitchen windows. I wanted a through draft in the coolest room of the house. Our living room does stay at a survivable temperature while the rest of our home is finding it hard to breathe.


My bed, on the six foot, four-seater sofa, yields a comfortable sleep. And yesterday  it was already made up with sheets and pillows. Indeed we have had guests who chose to sleep on the long sofa rather than bother with a fold-up bed. It suits me. My gammy knee prevents me from wrestling with furniture, however light-weight and foldable it may be.


The forecast for hereonin is thunder and one or two heavy showers every twenty four hours until Tuesday and this is only Thursday. Nights continue to be ‘tropical’. Hardly British! 


Yesterday I didn’t even attempt to sit outside. There was something menacing, powerful even, about the heat on our patio. I pity anyone who had to work in temperatures of 30 degrees plus (86 F). Apparently the humidity factor made it feel even hotter than that. And we just aren’t set up for domestic air conditioning in the UK. If we survive the 2020 plague having air con installed might be a good investment. Our summers are getting hotter.


Apart from sleep deprivation my moonlight flits from room to room necessitate remembering a kit bag that I transport with me: my water bottle, wheat bag, co codamol and eye mask. As it gets lighter outside my eyes need the mask. My gammy knee requires a supply of strong painkiller and the joint-soothing wheat bag that I heat up in the microwave, although that act seems like masochism when one is already so hot. And I always have water nearby. At dawn, yesterday, I had the early flickerings of a migraine. A sure sign of overheating, tiredness and dehydration.


Looking back Lockdown, for us, hasn’t been too tricky. We have a large enough home and garden to spread ourselves out in. So much so I hadn’t seen our cat much over the last 24 hours. He would have been sheltering in a dark knell under the cool, leafy shrubs in the garden or in the woods opposite. But he was very hungry when he did return from his away day. No sooner had he fed, at 5 am, than he was out again. It’s simply too hot for him indoors. And as soon as he hears my movements on the stairs he waits for me to feed him. Only then can I resume sleep.


However, Lockdown, my husband’s illness, a painful knee and tropical nights require coping strategies on my part. And a lot of patience and adaptability. But I keep my life simple and, at the moment, I don’t expect too much. But I do need my sleep. 


I read that the modern concept of sleeping for eight hours at a stretch is in contrast with the medieval way of life. Apparently it was quite usual, then, to sleep for four hours, to wake and eat, then to resume a long, deep sleep until morning. I appear to be medieval in my habits. At least while we have this heat wave. 


Next week I promise myself that, providing my knee allows me to walk any distance, I will resume a healthy sleep, eating and exercising regime. But the temperatures have got to drop down from tropical for me to return to a life of discipline and good habits. Just walking upstairs brings me out in a sweat and my knee injury prevents me from tackling steps, either up or down. 


When temperatures are less tropical we will meet friends in our gardens, again. And sitting outside in drizzle is much more British. The challenge will come in November when the air is dank, patio tubs are devoid of colour and it just isn’t pleasant to sit outside for long. And it will be dark by 5 pm. 


Let’s hope for a vaccine against covid-19 sometime during the winter months of 2020-2021 so that we may resume enjoying life as it used to be, indoors - and out. 


(Then we can tackle climate change.)


Saturday, 8 August 2020

What makes a happy neighbourhood?

 This morning I half heard a radio discussion about happy neighbourhoods. One interviewee found it hard to move off his concern about defining the term ‘happy’ but I quickly tuned into ‘features of a happy neighbourhood’ being put forward by another.


These features included:


  • The area has lots of trees. 
  • You can move around in it without a car.
  • You can find essentials nearby. 
  • It is a safe area ie the crime rate is low or non-existent.
  • It offers easy access to medical care. 
  • It offers a variety of housing types. 
  • It looks appealing.


As he rattled off the list I pricked up my ears. It sounded like our neighbourhood. ‘We’ ticked all the boxes. Smug? Moi?


During the early weeks of lockdown we came to appreciate the friendliness and helpfulness of our neighbours, big time. Suddenly our small corner shop closed. I panicked (well maybe panic is far too active a verb in my case). I really did get concerned about our daily milk, though. I always have enough strong flour and yeast for bread baking. But fresh milk is a basic necessity. With our supermarkets unable to deliver to us more than once a month fresh produce like milk needed to be bought more frequently than that. Neither my husband or I are drivers at the moment. Our nearest mini market and farmers’ market is down a hill. That’s not the issue. It’s the image of pushing the loaded trolley back uphill with vats of milk that became troublesome to me. Something had to be done. The prospect of black tea was more than just an added lockdown inconvenience. It was adaptive behaviour taken far too far.


I remember so clearly that a couple of days after lockdown was posited by our PM a local WhatsApp group was set up for people to request and offer support. I dived in. 


By March 20th I had two neighbours shopping for me. One was an unknown until I contacted the WhatsApp support group and the other were neighbours who asked if I wanted anything from the supermarket when I was chatting to them in the road. The first night my WhatsApp shopper delivered my groceries she was wearing a long Barbour mac and stood under a man-sized black umbrella about 4 metres away from our front door. It was evening, dark and wet. We hadn’t yet changed our clocks to summer time. 


That first night of relying on others seems an age ago but as I write we are still in lockdown, we still need grocery deliveries, we are still not using our car and the country has the worst death rate from coronavirus per million population by a very long chalk. Yet we live in a very supportive neighbourhood. And I came to appreciate that support even more as that first black, wet March night turned into long, hot April afternoons. Especially when our new WhatsApp friend brought us homemade ice cream and lots of lovely goodies. Another neighbour left a cream tea on our doorstep and others brought veg, milk... yes milk, and meats.


The permitted hourly walks people took past our front garden meant there was always someone to chat to, provided I stood behind my plague-resist gate. When I did go for walks the roads were quiet, the sky sizzled in the heat and it felt like being on an Easter holiday in Cyprus.


Then we came to May. Neighbourliness got even more interesting when I put out plants and books, on our front wall, with the necessary hand sanitisers, for charity sales. I got glowing feedback, made significant amounts of money for worthy causes, and I felt I’d given something back to the community of which I truly felt part. I enjoyed doing it and all the time I stayed behind my plague-resist gate.


But I was getting tired. Every night I had to cover the items I was selling and every morning ensure everything was sanitised. I washed the money that was dropped into the honesty box, some coins lost forever down the plughole! and I was collecting tomato plants from other neighbours whom I’d never met and transporting them to neighbours who were in strict lockdown through medical necessity. It was busy, busy,busy. I was also hardening off my French beans, my courgette plants and watering and feeding the veggie plot at the far end of our long garden.  But it was a productive life and a friend helped me by getting in garden gravel, compost in bags and huge amounts of bark. He also put my raised beds on legs so that I didn’t have to bend to weed and water them. 


Once all my vegetables were established outside and the charity sales came to their natural end I began to relax. Supermarket deliveries became more frequent. A close neighbour automatically added my fresh produce needs to her shopping list and the immediate issues from the start of lockdown dissipated. I took to reading The New Yorker while lounging around on my mother’s old but well-preserved deckchair in the middle of our lawn. Life seemed sweet indeed.


I certainly felt we were very lucky to live in such a lovely area, with long gardens and plenty of space. And the weather was fantastic. We surely met the criteria for a happy neighbourhood!


Another list of features of a good neighbourhood, from Bonava, a residential building company in Northern Europe, a development of the Swedish construction company NCC AB, includes:


  • Has common places where you can enjoy spending time (eg a pub, a park, a cafe with outdoor seating during lockdown)
  • You are close to friends and family.(Neighbours become good friends.)


  • Provides easy access to culture and other leisure activities ( in our case a walk down a hill to reach the culture)
  • The area and its buildings has an attractive appearance and architecture (That’s certainly true of the city of Bath)
  • Facilitates a healthy lifestyle, with easy access to sports and excercise activities ( plenty of lovely walks near our house) 
  • It supports an environmentally sustainable lifestyle ( new allotments have just been created with great concern taken over local inhabitants-human, animal and plant)
  • It has a good reputation. (Erm. Ask the estate agents.)
  • Neighbours and other people in the area have good relationships. (See above!)
  • Is conveniently located to health care and other public service ( a library and community hall are available outside lockdown )
  • Has good accessibility to own parking.Tick - at least by our houses.
  • Is close to parks and green areas.Tick
  • It has a good vibe and atmosphere.Yes.I think so 
  • Is pedestrian and bike-friendly.Tick. 
  • Is close to public transport ( yes - if we wear masks - we have a really good, safe bus service)
  • It feels safe to be in for you and your close ones.Tick.


Again our neighbourhood ticked all the boxes. We truly were collectively happy.


But by June the temperatures dropped. Fewer people were walking past. The rains came. The covers went on. And we retreated indoors. I was still busy but my time was spent on Zoom pub quizzes and book group discussions. I was cooking hearty meals from scratch. And I needed slug prevention aids. But I still couldn’t get to the garden centres...And I was meeting friends in our garden - at a safe distance - but the change in weather meant I got a cold from too much sitting about in cool, near-drizzle conditions. And, of course, the grass grew.


And then my spirits lifted. Early in July warm, dry days were interspersed with showery cooler ones. Some showers were very heavy. I rarely used the garden hose but my vegetables and patio plants grew loud and long. But ... best of all...our little corner shop reopened. They provided hand sanitisers, a screen between themselves at the till, and us, the customers, and never again did I have to worry about running out of fresh milk. We truly did fit all the criteria for a happy neighbourhood with ...


‘Is conveniently located nearby grocery stores


However I’d put on 4 pounds during lockdown so I neglected the garden for over a fortnight, stopped baking bread and cakes and for almost three weeks I went out for an hour’s walk a day. And it worked. My bathroom scales showed a better result. 


But to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The garden just went mad. Both rose arches weighed down their cast iron supports, wretched bindweed grew everywhere and engulfed everything. The grass was so long it looked as if we’d been out of the country for six weeks. Operation garden reconstruct began. 


With a friend’s help we now have two respectable rose arches, a trim forsythia shrub, a lopped, slender laburnum tree, the stump of a dead weedy, unwanted dog rose, a trimmed cherry tree and a very neat laurel hedge. And because we live in a happy neighbourhood, no-one complained about the bonfire we had in order to shift the garden waste. And my lovely neighbour lent us her green garden waste bin for the surplus twigs, leaves, branches and clippings. 


We began August with a much neater, pruned, light garden. Tomorrow I will be back on the deck chair with The Observer or The New Yorker. That is, if, now I’ve injured myself with too much ‘slash & burn’ gardening, I can actually get up the garden steps to lounge around on the lawn. 


Today has been hot. The garden is splendid. But I could barely walk and another kindly neighbour brought me round a packet of his co codamol as my knee was causing me some grief. 


Thankfully Richard was well enough to get to the pharmacy on foot and the chemist finally got my script right. I’d waited a week for the co codamol that I need on prescription for a trapped nerve. For some reason my knee has been extremely painful for the past three days and it’s no fun when you can’t actually walk well enough to get to the pharmacy to pick up the much-needed painkillers. 


Having got over the rationing of milk at the start of lockdown, in late March when the nights were long and wet, I’m now rationing my painkillers. The nights are short, the weather warm, the garden’s looking good and we have had improvements to the house made by chaps who wore masks and were socially distant. But I can barely walk! Having spent all these months acting as a carer and cook-housekeeper-gardener I can barely get up the stairs to use the loo or go for a lie down!!


Thank goodness we live in a happy neighbourhood where people help when you just can’t manage. As the writer Fay Weldon once said to me, regarding a character in my fledgling short story she was critiquing for me, ‘Everyone needs help at some time. Put that in the dialogue, Nina.’ 


(With heartfelt thanks to the Social Raglan WhatsApp group who have proved we live in a happy neighbourhood.)








Saturday, 25 July 2020

Mrs America and the ERA

Mrs America’ is a great ride. It is produced by FX in the USA. The acting is engrossing and persuasive. The script is taut and witty. The politics detailed. And it more or less looks like the 1970s. It concerns the progress of the Equal Rights Amendment in the USA at the time of active names such as Gloria Steinem (for) and Phyllis Schlafly (against).

But, I asked my husband, note the irony, what makes some women fight against the rights of (all) women? What makes one happily married conservative woman tread all over the advancements other women are making for the betterment of all adult females? 


He wasn’t sure. But, when watching Mrs America, the twin set and pearls brigade have really got the bit between their teeth. Why don’t they want equal rights with men? 


One of the arguments is that they don’t agree with abortion. And some ERA ( Equal Rights Amendment) lobbyists wanted safe abortion and a woman’s right to choose to be part of the ERA package. 


Baptists and other religious groups wouldn’t agree to abortion and they saw ERA as a link with casual sex ie an immoral act in their view. Some antifeminists have argued that feminism has resulted in changes to society's previous norms relating to sexuality, which they see as detrimental to traditional values.


Others felt that the man should be head of the household. Equal rights for women didn’t seem like equality to them but a search for power over men. Others believed their daughters would be drafted into the armed forces if they were recognised as equal to men.


Some antifeminists believed the ERA showed a denial of the differences between men and women and this change in people went against their biology. 

Antifeminists also frequently argued that feminism ignores rights issues unique to men. 


I haven’t yet read, anywhere, that antifeminists actively believe men to be superior to women. But the above women felt lesbians, gays, trans and other groups we now call LGBT were perverts and openly used that derogatory term to define LGBT.


It seems that to be antifeminist you believe the ideal happy family unit of father as head of the household and mother keeping house with children in tow would be endangered if women had equal rights alongside men.

Hence the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment Act. 


My mother, born 1924, supported my father financially through his university years. Yes. She went to work so that he could study. She said to me, more than once, ‘be independent of marriage, if needs be.’ Mum wasn’t against marriage but believed women should be able to earn enough ‘to be independent of marriage’. If needs be. She was an early feminist. 


In 1977 in the USA the ERA was on its way to being ratified until conservative, wealthy mother of six, Phyllis Schlafly, (brilliantly played by Cate Blanchett in ‘Mrs America’ ) protested with her conservative women followers in opposition to the ERA. These women argued that the ERA would 

1 disadvantage housewives 

2 cause women to be drafted into the armed forces 

and 

3 lose protections such as post-divorce financial settlements for the woman and eliminate the tendency for mothers to obtain custody over their children in divorce cases.


But the ERA sought to end the legal distinctions between men and women in matters of employment, property and divorce. 


In the late 1970s five state legislatures (Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee, and South Dakota) voted to revoke their ERA ratifications. Supporters of the ERA point to the lack of a specific guarantee in the Constitution for equal rights protections on the basis of sex. Amazingly the amendment has been reintroduced in every session of Congress since 1982.


As of January 2020, over 40 years since Schlafly argued against ERA, the bill had 224 co-sponsors.The House passed H.J. Res. 79 (Removing the deadline for the ratification of the equal rights amendment. 116th Congress [2019-2020] Committees: House - Judiciary) on February 13, 2020. So the ERA is still being fought.


On January 15, 2020, Virginia became the latest state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a proposed amendment to the Constitution that guarantees equal rights for women. The required 38 states have now agreed to the ERA. A technical question over whether the required number agreed within an acceptable time frame is holding up the progress of the ERA. Republicans in the Senate are in no rush to ratify the ERA, it seems. And since the five above-mentioned states acted to rescind their prior approval the ERA is enjoying a revival - along with the much newer ‘Times Up’ #me too movements - but it is still not LAW in the USA.


And it’s not all fun and games for women in the UK. The Equal Pay Act of 1970 should have led to parity for women here. Iceland is ranked as the nation closest to achieving gender parity, having closed 88% of its gender gap, followed by Norway (84.2%), Finland (83.2%) and Sweden (82%). 


The World Economic Forum (WEF) said Albania, Canada, Costa Rica, Latvia, Switzerland, South Africa and Spain had all overtaken the UK in closing the gender gap in politics, economics, health and education since the 2018 audit. The WEF said the UK performed poorly because women were sparsely represented in politics – and on average men were still paid more than women.


I quote from the WEF’s findings on the global gender gap (as reported in Rupert Neate’s piece in The Guardian at the end of 2019):


“At the slow speed experienced over the period 2006–2020, it will take 257 years to close this gap.”

Friday, 10 July 2020

Order groceries-check.Paint shed-check.Exercise-erm....


When lockdown began and friends said they were staying in for three months - which seemed like oceans of time - I made a mental list of all the things I could do in that twelve week block. And, of course, some on my list have been achieved. Alas, others haven’t even seen daylight. 

I remember one gorgeous, hot morning in early April. All three neighbouring houses were living their lives in their gardens. Johnson had already succumbed to coronavirus and my neighbours and I were discussing, over the garden fence, whether it would change his opinion of the NHS, which was saving his life, and turn support for it into reality. I was cynical.I doubted it. And I happily went about painting our shed in a smart shade of teal.

Over the next few days I managed to get new fence panels and a bench similarly painted. Richard dug up surplus plants which I sold from our garden gate - with hand sanitiser available - for charity. I had lots of energy at the start of lockdown. I saw other neighbours were giving away tomato plants, which I couldn’t easily get hold of, for a variety of reasons. So I collected them without hesitation and shared them. Walking up and down the middle of empty roads with my shopping trolley in the baking heat. Trading plants for other goods. This felt like being in another country. A different age.

And then the hard work started: I had sown dwarf French beans and courgettes. I also wanted to plant seed potatoes and broad beans. The ground, if you recall, was getting drier and drier. Thankfully we have a 120 foot hose. But digging in the heat on rock hard soil with my age-old back issue was challenging. 

Richard helped carry heavy pots on to the patio for me and I weeded our front garden too. But I had a fear. The fear of how we were going to feed ourselves since our local supermarket had failed to give us delivery slots despite the fact we were ‘priority’ customers. Much of my time in April was spent finding local suppliers who would deliver dairy ( Fine Cheese Company) beans and pulses ( Scoops) and flour, yeast, my favourite yogurt and ice cream ( Farm shops) and the dreaded disinfectant. I was lucky that our local WhatsApp group was truly supportive. They suggested other farm shops that delivered bulk items and they added my requirements to their own shopping lists. Our corner shop couldn’t cope with the rules of social distancing and its doors closed. It truly was hard trying to plan for simple things like getting in milk, butter and eggs. It had become second nature to pop to our little corner shop for such items. And trying to get the weekend Guardian or Observer was a fretful affair.

Also on my list of things to get done during lockdown was to 
a) learn how to make decent gravy instead of the hit-and-miss concoctions I was serving 
b) to get my writing out to competitions 
c) to encourage Richard to get painting again and
d) to sort boxes and boxes in our study bedroom and guest bedroom and sell some books.

It has taken me until the last fortnight to get my writing and culinary sauces honed to perfection. But I can safely tick them off my list. I even managed to get my w/e newspaper delivery sorted. Again, with great thanks to neighbours.

Throughout April and early May I was possibly over-concerned about our food requirements. And I had too much time for bright ideas. For instance I recall getting very tired taking books to sell to our front gate every morning. It was on top of hardening off dwarf French beans, tomatoes and courgettes. By 29th May I had put on 4 lb in weight but at least all my plants were in their growing positions and the garden was looking truly cared for. And I’d sold surplus books and plants and made money for charity.

Another friend was supplying me with heavy bags of bark, compost and gravel and he created legs for my raised beds so that I didn’t have to bend to weed them. But I needed to go for walks! The beauty of true summer afternoons is that you can sit in a deck chair, book and glass in hand, and simply enjoy the bees buzzing in the laburnum tree overhead. I’d achieved a lot by early June but I wasn’t keeping fit nor taking my permitted walks. I liked sitting under the tree too much. 

By late May my supermarket finally offered me regular delivery slots and the strain of not knowing what space to keep in the freezer nor of knowing which foods to reorder via neighbours was beginning to evaporate. And then the rains came. I managed to get a cold from hosting friends in our garden in the threatening drizzle. I think temperatures had dropped by 15 degrees or more over a couple of nights. But I was getting grocery deliveries! And I was doing zoom pub quizzes, zoom book group and online arty submissions. 

But I never did get around to doing a lot of sorting of boxes in our study and guest bedroom. Even in the wet weather I chose to do my exercises and sort recipes which would help me lose weight rather than go through paperwork. And because I’d got tired running the house and garden as well as being my husband’s carer and cook I took up my neighbours’ offer - they run a take away fish shop - to deliver to me on Fridays. Friends and I gathered at a distance in my garden for fish & chips,  or pizza instead, to help support the local pub. Take aways released me from cooking. And safe socialising outdoors was the way forward. 

At the end of June the speak-your-weight machine at our surgery told me that Richard was a lot healthier. His weight and blood pressure were excellent. But in feeding him up I’d overfed myself. Since my own terrible results told me I was too heavy I’ve lost weight again and have taken up a stricter exercise regime. My BMI is healthier too. But it’s all too easy to take your eye off the ball.

You would think that earthing up potatoes and doing gardening jobs, cleaning, cooking, walking to the chemist and taking Richard’s morning meals up two flights of stairs to him would take off the weight. I believe it would if I didn’t succumb to eating my homemade bread, apple crumble and carrot cake. I still have to learn the hard way, it seems.

From the beginning of July grocery shopping has been an altogether more relaxed activity. And local farm shop and meat deliveries have helped enormously. And from last week our corner shop reopened. That means I have choices and don’t now have to order goods to last a month. At one point I had a spread sheet showing all the groceries in our freezer, fridges and kitchen cupboards and how many freezer drawers were full or free. There are only two of us. It was like the planning  required when feeding an army.

I can be excused, then, from not ticking off everything on my ‘to do’ list. As lockdown eases, albeit temporarily, and my garden plants flower ( against the odds) and the home-grown veg is ready for picking one is apt to forget the efforts required to get to this point. At one time I thought my borders and patio were to be devoid of colour for most of 2020. But I was wrong. I thought I’d run out of milk. I was wrong. I thought we wouldn’t see friends again for a drink. I was wrong. I thought I wouldn’t manage running our house, home and garden. I was wrong. I thought I couldn’t make gravy. I was wrong.

Lockdown has given me the time to concentrate. I’ve managed to read for bookgroup, do my writing, submit some of my own art work even, and keep a roof over our heads. We haven’t gone without.
And this time of quiet and calm has made me appreciate my neighbours and neighbourhood. What kindly, supportive folk they are.

I am already missing the empty, traffic-free roads. I miss the Thursday evening clapathon. I miss ice cream left on my front step and bags of veg and cream teas from neighbours. And I miss sitting on my deckchair under my tree in the heat. But I don’t miss the uncertainty. Never again do I want to worry where my next litre of milk is coming from.

Next on my ‘to do’ list (still): sort those bloody boxes in our spare rooms...

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Happy 80th Ringo

It’s 7:00 a.m. as I write. I have been watching Ringo Starr’s 80th birthday ‘Peace & Love’ bash on You Tube. Why so early? The cat woke me up and the link to the lockdown concert was in my inbox. Good on yer Ringo. And he’s looking pretty good.

Which makes me think that of all the Beatles he’s not the one I’d have thought would still be making headlines when I was first aware of them as a little girl. He was, as a drummer, at the back! John was the front man and up to all sorts. Paul was co-anchor and he’s still going strong. But my favourite was always George. ‘While my guitar gently weeps’ and ‘Something’ are beautiful songs. When Concert for Bangladesh and ‘My Sweet Lord’ were released I was on the cusp of my teenage years. And it’s a magical feeling listening to these pieces from 1971. The songs are joyful and I was youthful. Those feelings can’t be bettered.

Watching the BBC’s Wimbledon Rewind - especially the Billy Jean King v Ann Jones match when Jones won the championship - was electric. Less so Virginia Wade’s win over Betty Stover. A much less exciting final. There was an incredible lack of energy which King and Jones had in bucket loads. And I remember willing Ann Jones on. She was a girl from the Midlands like me. At the time Billy Jean was, like Serena Williams now, winning everything. But on that day in 1969 it was a fantastic watch. And a championship win for Ann Jones was invigorating.

This week I saw the famous Nadal v Federer final on TV. This I’d heard such a lot about but, thank you BBC, the first time I’d seen it. Wimbledon Rewind has been great for missed matches. That brings me to pondering on what I was doing when these finals were being played.

For King v Jones I was still at school.
For Wade v Stover I was glad my final exams for my first degree were all over.
And it was the Queen’s jubilee in the week of my practical exams in the botany labs. Thank goodness all that’s a long time past. In my stubbornness I’d chosen science A levels and a science degree when I should have studied A level English meaning I would have truly shone at university.  I got a grade A in English. Yep. Odd decision. The heart of a scientist, the soul of an artist.

But for the 2008 Nadal v Federer final I was too busy to watch. I worked full time, paid the mortgage - and still enjoying what I thought was a very important job - raising children’s literacy levels - and there was little time for anything much besides during term time. No wonder I put on weight.

Irritatingly the build up to Borg v McEnroe  in the 1980 men’s finals is depicted in a sombre film of the same name released in 2017. I love seeing Borg - and Stefan Edberg - in the Wimbledon crowd. I don’t need to be told he was a misfit and I never finished watching that biopic. But I still have the the rewind match to watch. My, wasn’t McEnroe a New York brat? But a bloody good player. And these days so cheeky when he does the Wimbledon match commentary. He’s an interesting chap but was then under a lot of pressure to be no.1. The rock n roll at sixty biopic was a much more interesting portrayal of John McEnroe. I enjoy his narration and his tv presence much more now. And what was I doing in 1980? I’d just started teaching and not yet worn out by government interference. Itching to run a faculty of my own. And I do remember willing Borg on. A great match then and now.

Billy Jean King was another interesting subject for a biopic in ‘The Battle of the Sexes.’ This was a sympathetic depiction. And she fought on and off the tennis court. Dare I say ‘fair play’ to her?

At the time I wanted her to lose. She seemed too powerful. Yet without her energy and determination women would be paid far less for winning at Wimbledon.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the tournament winnings for women tennis players were much lower than the men’s winnings. In 1971, Billie Jean became the first woman athlete to earn over $100,000 in prize money.

From the Los Angeles Times, 2019:-

(She) has been fighting for equal rights and equal pay for women since she started her tennis career as a 16-year-old out of Long Beach. When King won the U.S. Open in 1972, she received $10,000. The men’s champion that year, Ilie Nastase, was paid $25,000. King said she would not play the following year unless the prize money was equal, and in 1973 the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to award equal prize money for male and female champions. Wimbledon was the last Grand Slam event to follow suit in 2007, making tennis one of the few sports to pay men and women equally.

So it takes guts, power and terrific ability to be Billy Jean. No wonder she won so many matches. I admire both she and McEnroe although they dominated play back then. I’m sure I’ll change towards Serena Williams in the future when she too has stopped dominating centre court. Oddly I want Federer to carry on winning for ever more. I don’t mind his domination of tennis. That’s just an emotional response to personality, I guess.

And hasn’t it been lovely to listen to Dan Maskell’s commentary for the greatest of the Wimbledon finals? We were in a safe pair of hands back then. But can you imagine an umpire today shouting at the crowd ‘Can someone tell those people to be quiet.’ An arrogance of the All England Club. Little Britain. Little Elitism.

Nostalgia isn’t all good. And Happy 80th Ringo! Some folks have longevity and earn  great affection over the years. Ringo is one such.