Wednesday 22 January 2020


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

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

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

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

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

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

He will be missed. 

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Going, going green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 19 January 2020

Shortest day plus one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 11 January 2020

Mankind is your business

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

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

Transfer that to Christmas 2019. 

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

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

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

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

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

Our PM takes another sip of scotch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Always a pleasure to serve, sir.’ 

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

Saturday 4 January 2020