Mary Fisher, Norfolk UK
The pod is built! Barbara and I are able to meet up indoors once more. The pod is about one metre by two metres. Enough room for a chair and a trolley of PPE equipment. Barbara sits on the other side of a plastic screen. As expected, things still have to be covid-secure and many safety measures remain in place. There hasn’t been enough time to consider audio aides. Visitors of residents with a hearing loss still have to write everything on a wipe board. But, we are together, in the warm, and Barbara is not worrying about me sitting outside.
My aunt’s house is making its way through the machinery of conveyancing. The process of buying and selling houses has often seemed interminable. The pandemic has protracted that time span. The house itself reflects the history of Barbara’s life. Her father, my grandfather, built it in 1930, a time when the supply of mortgage finance grew rapidly and home-buying became more affordable. However, given the 1930s economic down-turn, home loans were still few and far between. Grandfather couldn’t sell the house, so, in 1931, he made the decision to move his family and live there. Barbara was then six. She lived there with her parents and three brothers until her brothers married and moved out. And, one by one her parents died. The house remained her home for almost ninety years until, confronted by immobility, she made the decision to move into her current residence in late Spring. I had mentioned to the estate agent how special the house had been to Barbara.
Last weekend the agent turned up with a book containing all the photographs the agency had taken of Barbara’s former home. The album has even been bound. When I give the gift to my aunt on Thursday, she receives it with equal measures of delight and sadness.
German chancellor, Angela Merkel, makes a passionate appeal on Wednesday for tighter coronavirus measures, saying, “I am really sorry from the bottom of my heart but if the price we pay is 590 deaths a day, it is unacceptable”. On the same day there are 3000 deaths in the USA. From President Donald Trump comes the deafening sound of silence.
Sometimes in life you hear a piece of information that can never be unheard. It stays with you forever. The late Simon Hoggart, witty, erudite journalist and broadcaster, once imparted that ninety percent of caravan owners overload their vans. I have no idea if this is true but ever since Hoggart shared these details some 14 years ago I have been unable to overtake a caravan without recalling this worrying piece of news. I am reminded of this again when I hear a radio programme this week talking about sleep patterns during the pandemic. Many people’s sleep routines have been disturbed. Well there’s a surprise. As someone who rarely sleeps more than five hours a night, my ears prick up. The doctor goes on to say that a clear link was established some years ago between insomnia and an increase in weight. Is this true? I check. It is. Concern over possible weight-gain hardly seems conducive to a restful night. Sleep well.
David Horovitch, Twickenham
I think always of Christmases past at this time of year. I grew up in a children's home. My father was the superintendent. There were 500 children in his care, accommodated in 16 different houses, all of which were named after rivers and lakes in the British Isles - Avon, Bala, Cam, Dart, Eden,Fal, Grasmere, Humber Isis, Severn, Katrine, Lea, Medway ,Neath, Thames,Windermere. The names still ripple through my mind and flow off my tongue like the bodies of water they represent. The kids were orphans, or their fathers were in the nick or their mums on the game. It was a world unto itself - playing fields, food stores, a laundry, a swimming pool, a gym, and - a special fairy tale touch - a deaf and dumb cobbler who mended shoes at the top of a disused Victorian water tower. Such institutions no longer exist - and a damned good thing too, I daresay.
On Christmas Eve a gigantic local policeman - Inspector Cressey, in later years Superintendent but always Norman to us - transformed himself , in my father's study, into the bestest, bluffest and heartiest Santa Claus you could wish for. And from the age of nine or ten I was allowed to witness him do it - my first intoxicating whiff of greasepaint and spirit gum. Pomaded men in dark suits and well-upholstered matrons with hair stiff as meringues came down from County Hall in London as representatives of my dad's committee and, when Norman was ready and we had had our tea and fruit cake ,we set off in a motorised sleigh around the rivers and lakes to deliver little token presents to the kids who sat on their beds in their pyjamas waiting for us. More than once I saw a look of half puzzled recognition on one of their faces as Santa chatted to them. If they thought they had seen him before they might well have done - in court. I suppose my position - and my sister's - was anomalous for I was no older than a lot of the kids in my father's charge and, when I look down Time's Tunnel into those dormitories full of expectant children who had been subject to God knows what deprivation, and I see Inspector Norman Claus and the charitable bevy of smiling committee folk, I feel oddly uncomfortable at the sight of the small boy that is myself standing awkwardly on the fringes of the gathering. Is there something just a little priggish about him? He's not Wackford Squeers is he? No, not that though there is something half-way Dickensian about such a Christmas. Though I was shy, I certainly didn't feel any discomfort then - I looked forward to these Christmas Eves with an almost sickening excitement. I was happy then to share my dad with all these other kids and I was hugely proud of him too for his manifest bounty. I didn't believe in Santa. How could I when I had seen the whiskers adhered a few hours earlier ? But I knew that, at six the next morning I would wake and find that the Santa I didn't believe in had come down the sealed off chimney in my bedroom and my stocking would be bulging. Strange how special and exotic is the taste of a commonplace tangerine when it's been wrapped in Christmas paper and shoved in a football sock.
Well, I've gone on much more than I meant to and could go on more and none of it has anything to do with this specially peculiar Christmas which I'll be spending quietly with Francis, probably visiting my sister and brother in law on Boxing Day. I'm cooking a goose which I've never done before.
I've done two self tapes this week, having done hardly any in the last two years. Perhaps my TV career isn't over after all. Becoming stir crazy in St Margaret's, I paid a visit to an old friend in North London today. We met on Hampstead Heath outside Kenwood House. It was lovely to see him as I haven't seen him since before the first lockdown. But the traffic was terrible and, strange to relate I felt almost agoraphobic and wanted to scuttle back to my little bolt-hole. I've established routines here and have become almost comfortable with them. Re-adjusting to the pre-covid wider world might not be so easy. I am not discontented. Well, sometimes I am.
It thrills me to think of you watching Winter's Tale in Melbourne, Jean. You're spot on about Leontes and Trump. I kept thinking about him as I did it - the solipsism, the narcissism but Shakespeare always intended him to be a good man on a bad day, redeemable. Not like D. T. We're going to do another zoom reading but not quite sure what yet. Probably not a Shakespeare.
All best wishes to all.
Mary’s Projects Mostly
Mary Hildyard, Totnes, Devon
At the request of Marie-Christine I am including here the recipe for Pecan Pumpkin pie. This recipe came to me from my daughter - in- law, Liz, whose mother tested a number of pumpkin pie recipes and deemed this the best. We think so too.
A few notes:
1 We made our own pastry to our own recipe.
2 I wasn’t sure if the pints were Imperial (20 oz) or American (16 oz) but risked Imperial and it worked.
3 I used tinned pumpkin purée as I have never been able to strain real pumpkin thoroughly enough. The recipe used only 2/3 of our tin of purée so we made a further small pie a few days later.
4 Eat hot or cold but definitely with cream.
I am adding again the photo of the finished pie.
Restrictions for many
Hilde Schöning, Buchholz, Germany
Unfortunately, there is a steady rise in deaths and infections, therefore some states have already decided to impose stricter rules. Federalism causes a confusing number of different restrictions, but it seems as if the idea of celebrating Christmas with up to ten people from all sorts of households will be abolished. Originally, that was the plan of the government. We are going to celebrate in very small gatherings and shall take extra precautions when seeing my mother and mother-in-law who are both around 80 years old. The week has been rather grey and wet and filled with a lot of work. Maybe I will bake some biscuits at the weekend that should be a nice pastime. Kind regards to everyone!
James Oglethorpe, VA, USA
Not All Bad
Feel the grief of age
the bitterness and rage
of the fading once
when imagined imperfections
were the only worry of a healthy body,
when limitless horizons had the power
to transmit ambitions into dreams,
hopes into a place in the dole queue,
love into a solo pile of tissues,
when saving was for the next
train fare to London
and a weekend searching
for an enclosing pair of arms.
Warm smokey breath
in the empty returning carriage
a two mile sprung step walk
a pebble of hash in my sock
along a dark lane heading
for a hot water-bottled bed
in a Norman Shaw lodge,
next day tilling the soil
around a moated manor house.
Now with creaking elbow and aching back
concerns about varicose veins,
shortening of sight, muffling of sound,
my mind draws cartwheels
stretching the beat of time
memory revolving to the rhythm
of my transcribed stride along
the internal still expanding trail.
Clean, sort, tidy
Lily, Camberwell, London
I needed to get out today.
November was busy with staying in to deliver workshops online to several NHS groups and a regular client. There have also been lots of school meetings online in the evening (our children’s brilliant school is going to become part of a multi academy trust, as a matter of survival, so there have been “consultations” with parents). All the screen interaction has left me burnt out. Zoom glare.
And we have had just over 2 weeks of both boys being home because there were Covid cases in both their school years. Which meant they had to self-isolate which meant they couldn’t go outside which meant we all couldn’t go out in reality.
Shhhhh we did go out for a couple of walks, or we would have gone cabin mad with grey complexions and withered muscles.
We have an amazing Victorian cemetery nearby. Since I first visited about 15 years ago I have seen more and more gravestones being revealed from the wood that has grown within it. There are many paths to get lost between and around and the boys enjoyed reading the names and the biographies they could imagine from the details given. As with all the outside spaces and parks it was busier than ever with everyone needing to socialise to do something and was a snap shot or cross section of who lives around us. Instead of Sunday in the pub, the pub was walking around the cemetery in the form of take away beers.
The boys did well at home, their school provided 3 40-minute online classes each day with their teachers. And luckily they are both tech savvy and confident enough at 6 and 9 to cope with the experience.
So I could get on with work in the background, sort of.
But we have felt very wrapped up in our house, our street and Camberwell. I watch travel programmes with such longing (please can’t I go to Italy). Even a train journey to another UK town would be great. Traveling for work was such a big part of what I did (and enjoyed). I liked the movement and transition of it. The finding out what the feel of a town was just from the station, the walk to a hotel, the receptionist’s personality and the view from a window (which sounds rather sad, but really isn’t/wasn’t). When I was little my sister and I used to love playing grown ups at work - our parents worked from home in unconventional ways - so our imagination filled in the gaps of what an office was like and what happened there. And traveling for work still felt like play acting at being a grown up.
Walking out of the house this morning to the station to go to the Tate was like a big breath of fresh air. I think I said out loud “ah this is good, appreciate this.”
The Salvation Army has its college opposite the station. Their Christmas display does not say what I think they were intending. A crucifix with 3 strands of fairy lights reaching into a crib was darkly funny to me.
I’m sitting by the river opposite St Paul’s (the clock has just struck a lonely single “One”) and next to Tate modern waiting for my turn to go in. There is a steady flow of people here. Much busier than when I went on my walks around here in May and September. There’s a busker competing with the seagulls sqwarks and a film crew who don’t seem to be bothered by the music while they film something in an airstream caravan.
On a bouy rocking and turning in the river’s current there’s a proud cormorant perched on it, his wings streched out in a pose or maybe he’s just balancing.
Inside Tate modern it feels cavernous, with unused corners.
But it’s also good to have space around me in an exhibition.
I first saw Bruce Nauman many years ago. I enjoyed the films that bore parallels to Samuel Beckett’s short plays either in their physicality or in the use of patterned speach and text. And I liked how simple images or word combinations stimulate and evoke thoughts and emotions. I also remember the vast turning heads, singing, chanting. Which had winded me. That’s the only way I can describe it.
I heard them coming this time, as I made my way through the rooms.
Sadly the heads were in a much smaller room to how I remember them in the last exhibition. So they did not encompass the room and I could not get in the middle of them.
But. I feel fed.
And Mum. I speak to her every morning, calling her when I walk back from taking the children to school. It’s a habit and is a moment when there is nothing else going on, apart from nods, waves, smiles and good mornings to neighbours and acquaintances. I like to get it done. Reassured at the start of the day in the knowledge of how she is. But when I was delivering work or not walking to/from school last month she missed my usual call. It’s interesting that this contact is important to her equilibrium. My sister usually does a video call in the morning too - so her toddler can interact with Mum. I think she may see more detail on Mum’s state. Wether or not her hair is brushed or if her mouth is wine stained or if she is generally lopsided. But she will also admit to not looking.
She’s had a her bank/cash cards used again by others. We thought at first they had been taken from her (as on the previous 3, 4, 5 times before) but then they turned up in her flat 2 days later. Her carer noticed extra (!!!!) wine bottles after that weekend. And we now fear that she had people at the flat who borrowed her cards. She either does not remember this or does not wish to state it.
I’m trying to persuade her to move to Camberwell but she won’t have it.
Nearly home again. between Elephant and Castle and Denmark Hill. They have just announced we are about to arrive but the railway track has to take such a loop we are still a few minutes away. I think the loop was down to Ruskin who prevented a more direct (vandalising) route. But this might be myth.
I will collect the boys from school which is beautifully decorated for Christmas by the teachers. I will ask the boys “what do I need to know about today?” And the youngest will tell me all about his happy enthusiasms while the eldest tells me about the worst day ever. Neither will actually be a fair representation of their day but will be what they need me to know about their day.
And home for a cup of tea.
But I was wrong, eldest was all smiley a giggly today. Amused by the events of the afternoon.
Words from Wood Lane
Susan Neave, Beverley
Yesterday I went to the local library to collect some reserved books. No browsing at the moment, but a good online ordering system. This morning I visited my aunt’s care home – not able to see her at the moment, but I was there to drop off some birthday presents. She will be 98 on Sunday. I was also asked to sign a form giving consent for her to have the Covid vaccine. Not sure when that will happen, but should be quite soon. On the way home I called at a Post Office on the edge of the town to post a parcel abroad. The queue was manageable. The alternative is the Post Office in the town centre, which has moved into WH Smith’s. There is not enough space, so always long queues outside. The price of stamps is going up again. I really like sending and receiving cards, and fortunately have friends who feel the same, but I won’t be surprised to receive some via email this Christmas.
Christmas lights, trees etc up in many windows in the street. The official ‘switch on’ was Monday, so our tree was up rather earlier than usual!
Vie de château
Marie-Christine, Blois, France
Who does science belong to? Not to an English Minister of Education for sure.
Sciences are a common good for humanity. It's even revolting for a scientist to think his or her work is done for a single country, it's for the benefit of all.
Do X Rays belong to Poland or France because Marie Curie was Polish and working in France ?
Learning Sciences and Literature
The French Education Ministry wants to stop teaching "sciences" to children under 11. Sad news indeed. Children want to understand how things work, how they are made... When I was a child, I found it very exciting to know that the sun is very big, very hot and very far away, to learn how my body is made, or (for example) how mushrooms and dogs reproduce. I am happy to have an idea of Darwinism when I collect fossils of sponges on the beach, or in a cliff. I was proud to be able to repair my first motorbike, to know how a car works (I am speaking of the time before electronics)... So sad then for today's children, it is like cutting the light when someone is reading.
Now learning a poem by heart is no longer on the agenda. Half a century ago, we had a poem a week to learn by heart, between the ages of 6 to 14. I still remember some of them. It would be considered almost shocking today to give passages from the plays of Racine, (Andromaque or Phédre) to young teenagers. Even for us then, in a Catholic school, it felt strange to read at the age of 14 about a step-mother who was badly in love with the son of her husband, the father then demanding the death of his son and his wife committing suicide. It was good to learn to articulate our emotions, to master our language, to give muscle to our memory (to study law or medicine, the memory has to be very well trained). And it was useful also to know just how badly adults could behave, and reassuring that, if we took care, our future lives were unlikely to be worse than that of Phèdre.
Astronomy and Virology
Last week I wrote about our galaxy. Today that seems small scale. I read this morning in the newspaper that some Australians have discovered one million unknown galaxies in two weeks, with the new telescope Askap - 36 dish antennas.
That's the real news of the week! The new generation of radio telescopes will provide much more information in the coming years. Artificial intelligence makes possible the analysis of the data in a very short time.
I also read (to change dimensions), that all the Covid viruses together, that have infected millions of people, could be contained in a soup spoon.
A lot of things seem irrelevant on both scales. "Yoga, maman" as my daughter says.
To fellow contributors
I apologize to Mark for not including South Africa among the list of countries on my page last week as I should have done.
Hilary's boxes : she has invented her own art, so creative, and it's made to disappear in the fire. I'm sure some people keep them. Bravo, beautiful.
Walking in L.A.
Antoinette Samardzic, Los Angeles USA
I'm walking down my street with our dog when I spy two sawhorses on the sidewalk outside the little store on the corner that makes furniture out of reclaimed wood. They instantly take me back to my childhood: they remind me of the ones my father used for cutting firewood. After we moved to the country in 1957 he started dragging home branches from his walks with the family dog, and inevitably we three children all wound up doing the same. Even today when I see fallen branches I am tempted to take them home for a fire; however, it is seldom cold enough to warrant a fire here in L.A. It seemed that my father was forever either sawing wood or splitting logs. Many years ago when I was visiting my parents on their farm in Devon he cut his hand while attempting to cut a branch. In his usual understated, typically British no fuss style, he intimated that a visit to the doctor's surgery might be a good idea so I drove him there for stitches. To my knowledge, this was the only injury he sustained in his long "career" as a woodsman.
It seems that several of us have been reminiscing about our parents and childhood, maybe because we are becoming more aware - albeit painfully - of our own mortality, and also perhaps we are longing for those happier times when we were children, rather than constantly be reminded of what a mess the world is in at present. Case in point: as I carry on with my walk, I pass under an American Sweet Gum tree and its leaves crunch under my feet, bringing forth yet another memory: my sister and I playing in the beech woods with our two best friends, sliding down the chalk pits on the myriad of beech leaves, laughing and shrieking. Today, though, I appreciate my walk in the sunshine.
Throughout his life, my father would often ask - I can still see a smile lighting up his face, and hear his voice, full of wonder and amazement - isn't life wonderful? I would always agree.