A Lockdown Linocut
Gail Brodholt, London
This is a linocut of Regents Canal by the Bethnal Green gas-holder. When I first sketched this view last summer I had in mind a colourful, bustling scene with lots of people walking along the towpath in bright sunshine and geraniums on the houseboats (very similar to what I saw that day!). By the time I came to start work on the print in March this year, I found that the colour palette became much more muted and the atmosphere more contemplative. It became an evening scene and only a solitary figure remained - a man walking his dog.
Looking back, I feel that the situation we all found ourselves in had a profound effect on how I saw the world. The title is Before Nightfall.
Mary Fisher, Norfolk UK
The contrails are back. Fall in global demand for air travel resulted in plane-free skies, a perfect blue. With holidays abroad scuppered, our local roads seem to be permanently full of traffic heading for the coast. Friends who enjoy camping complain that all the sites are fully booked. However, if the trails of condensed water streaking across the sky are anything to go by, at least some folk are escaping the UK for a break away, maybe still wearing their masks and distancing themselves wherever they go.
It is barely mid-August but are there signs of ‘the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’? More likely that the leaf fall is resultant from the drought and hot weather that the South and East of the UK has enjoyed/experienced/sweltered in - pick your own adverb - over the past week. Whether it’s the advent of autumn or not, I am covered in cobwebs and my feet are wet from the early-morning dew after only a few steps from the back door.
The BBC newsreader reports that there is “little evidence of Covid transmission in schools”… or so says the UK’s education secretary. Not sure how reassuring this will be to my daughter in law who will be returning to face-to-face teaching in a few weeks’ time. Her teaching bubble of students will be 200! In turn, this will be exacerbated by many students who will travel to and from school with peers from other bubbles. Given that the risk to her will increase, she and her teacher sister have decided to distance themselves from their parents, both of whom have long term health conditions.
Pilates classes are back for the first time since March. Adhering to government guidance on distancing, the studio has only opened classes for private or duet sessions. So, instead of up to twenty people going to mat classes and other group activities, there is just one or two of us in each studio. Economically, my instructor admits this is not sustainable. Instructor’s son was working in New Zealand at the time of lockdown. He has decided he prefers living there, especially with Jacinda Ardern as PM. New Zealand friend instantly said I must pass on her email address to the son as she has a lot of space and “Hokianga is such a cool place and worth the trip”. What a welcoming place and people.
My aunt, at 95, moved into a care home this year after she had a number of falls and was unable to walk. Lockdown meant that we couldn’t see each other for months, only talk on the phone or Skype. Neither worked well as Barbara has considerable hearing loss. Writing on a wipe board and holding the notes up to camera was not the best way to stimulate a flowing conversation. Then joy came in the guise of the residential home manager who felt it was safe for each resident to have one visitor for thirty minutes each week. So, five weeks ago, Barbara and I were finally able to meet again. Barbara did not, at first, recognise me in a one-size-fits-all massive gown, gloves and mask. The mask has since been swapped for a face visor so my voice is less muffled. Our allotted thirty minutes goes by so fast and we cannot hug, but seeing each other in person is simply wonderful. Was there anything that I could get Barbara that might make the next six days, twenty three and half hours more bearable? “I need some more toothpaste”. I think I can manage that.
Newspapers and social media continue to be awash with reports about over-crowded beaches, camp sites and pubs. Scientists are using mathematical theories developed by the brilliant Alan Turing to better understand bird behaviour. According to the researcher’s findings, long-tailed tits prefer to segregate themselves, preferring to interact with relatives and avoid larger flocks. Maybe the beach and pub goers have something to learn from the long-tailed tit.
Post script. For the second time in the five weeks, the manager at Barbara’s care home has just telephoned to say a member of staff has tested positive. The home is in lockdown for seven days. It seems that Barbara will have to wait a little longer for her toothpaste.
James Oglethorpe, Virginia, USA
For Harry Donne a first class seat on the train from Paddington to his family home in Exeter is essential. It gives him anonymity. Fans are eager to meet the actor who, late in his career, has become a star. As a Scotland Yard police surgeon battling ignorance with science in “a gritty Edwardian drama that slices open the infected underbelly of London,” fame has ensured a pension, and lack of privacy.
Ignoring a script on the table Harry watches the urban landscape accelerate by the window. A Customer Services Manager, Sharon, hands him a coffee and a blueberry muffin sealed in cellophane.
The train slows to a halt before a spot of empty sky. The twin Didcot cooling towers now just a memory. Oxford Junction. Tick tock.
“Customers. This is your conductor speaking. We apologize for the delay.”
Harry mutters under his breath: “I’m not a bloody customer, I’m a passenger,” and opens the script.
“Joan? What’s the cruelest thing you have ever done?” A female voice from the seats behind him floats over.
Like writers, actors never miss the opportunity to feast on the carrion of an overheard conversation.
“I don’t know if you’d call it cruel, Betty, exactly, but...” the voice in reply: educated, confident, lively. Difficult to judge the age. They sounded free of the exhausted timbre of mothers. Maybe they were returning from a shopping trip.
“…Go on Joan…” Betty encouraged.
“…It was you too. We were very young, sixteen, precocious - good heavens I was terrible, father called me “forward.” Call me a slut and be done with it why don’t you? Anyway, we were playing in a tennis tournament and there was a quiet boy from a neighboring club. He was soft spoken, observant. Diffident. I remember thinking he probably wouldn’t amount to much. Big brown eyes took everything in. Especially me. That’s how I liked them, slavish and trapped in the headlights. They were less trouble than the sporty, gung-ho types. He followed me round, watched my matches. I told you that I quite fancied him.”
“Oh god. I remember. I spoke to him said you wanted to see him the next day. We knew there was no way he’d turn up. Nobody in their right mind would imagine you could fancy him. Right?”
“You’d have thought so,” replied Joan. “Next day, Sunday, full of hope, sweating from his walk up from the station he appeared in the clubhouse, wearing a tie for god’s sake. I was appalled. I took him to a wooded area at the back of the club and told him there had been a mistake. That he wasn’t to be upset but I wasn’t interested. I liked him... you know how that conversation went.”
“That was nice of you.”
“Hardly. But what was I to do? He had failure written all over him. Clearly he wasn’t cut out for the romantic hurly burly. I watched him leave, his sports coat over his shoulder. I imagined he might become a monk.”
“So unintentionally cruel? Not really our fault,” said Betty.
“I mean it was years ago. I tried to do the decent thing. I wonder what happened to him?”
Taking advantage of a break in the narrative Harry went to the bathroom.
“I tell you it was that actor,” Betty said in a stage whisper as he returned to his seat.
“Well go and say hello. These people live for attention.” Joan sounded knowing.
“I couldn’t. You do it.”
“For goodness sake Betty, we’re not sixteen.”
“He might think we’re rude. I asked that Liverpudlian singer for an autograph once, on a train, I was twelve and she demanded I gave her a pen and paper. It took all the courage I had to go into her compartment. I left empty-handed in tears. Cruel bitch.”
“A good lesson, preparing you for the world. Have you got pen and paper now?”
Harry buried himself in a script exhibiting impenetrable concentration.
The two women came to stand by him.
Harry didn’t look up.
“Excuse me, Mr Donne. I’m Joan. My friend Betty and I are sorry to disturb you, but we wanted to congratulate you on your recent success. I saw you, some years ago, in an RSC production of A Mid Summer Night’s Dream, in Regents Park.’
Harry looked up. Judging by the pair of them they were returning from an unsuccessful visit to a weight loss farm.
“Did you now?” He replied. “A Peter Brook production. I don’t think we would get away with Puckish tights now could we?”
“Certainly you have grown into your success.”
Harry found laughter betraying him. Swallowing irritation he put hand over his belly and looked directly at Joan. “I owe you a debt of gratitude,” he said.
“Here am I, Mr Jilted, years later with you, a couple of groupies. Life has a habit of transcending the predicted. I fear I was that unimpressive, shy young man.”
The women looked at each other, then at Harry.
“Oh. You actors,” said Joan, “you overheard us and are improvising.”
“Am I? Shall we order a bottle of something and I’ll tell you.”
“Oh, no.” Exclaimed Joan. “It’s 11.45 in the morning. That wouldn’t do at all.”
“Oh yes. Please.” exclaimed Betty.
“Seems to me history has just repeated itself,” said Harry.
Joan looked at Betty who dropped her gaze.
“You didn’t!” exclaimed Joan.
“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” Harry recited. “The trick is knowing how to tell them apart. Much like distinguishing between travelers trapped in the unravelling purgatory of a motionless train. After your cruel rejection Betty tried to console me. She was my last attempt with a women. It convinced me I was better off with men. Hence the gratitude. Would you care for a picture with me Betty? Unlike your ungracious triller I’m not a bitch. Joan, you would oblige?”
The phone clicked. The smile captured. “Now. If you don’t mind, I have lines to learn.”
Empty handed Joan returned to her seat opposite a flushed and uncertain Betty who, from time to time, looked at the picture on her phone. Joan looked out of the window, feeling that the scenery, rather like her life, was sliding away, mile posts like regrets flashing by in a blur of missed opportunities.
David Horovitch, Twickenham
By a pleasing coincidence, I recorded my 75th sonnet on my 75th birthday (Tuesday)
An hour or two later Francis picked me up and drove me down to Marlow, twenty miles or so downriver from here, where we booked into Danesfield House Hotel, a turreted white folly built in 1901, set in sloping gardens, high on a hill overlooking the river and the Chilterns beyond. We had been upgraded to de-luxe rooms to compensate us for the fact that the spa and pool were not open. We sat on our balcony in the almost unendurable heat, ate our picnic, read our books and then took a boat out on the river for an hour. In the evening we went out to Tom Kerridge's Michelin starred pub/restaurant, The Hand and Flowers. I'd always wanted to have a proper swanky gourmet meal and I craved a touch of birthday luxury after months of lockdown austerity - but now I've done it I think I might never do it again. The food was magnificent but a little too rich for me. Bloody marvellous birthday all the same and wonderful to spend such time with Francis who looks in rude health and has a little work coming up in the autumn.
I'm melancholy though and the heat makes it difficult to sleep. I'm writing this in the middle of the night.
My sister has taken up weaving and sent me a superb scarf. I haven't seen her since lockdown but we talk on the phone every couple of weeks. My niece has sent me a little olive tree. And Francis has given me, among other things, a novel called The Book of Disquiet by a Portugese writer called Fernando Pessoa. Looks right up my street.
I open it at random - 'To stop trying to understand, to stop analysing... To see ourselves as we see nature, to view our impressions as we view a field - that is true wisdom.'
Back to bed.
Care in the time of Corona
Shirin Jacob, Ålesund, Norway
Hei! God dag!
A couple of days ago Kamala Harris was named as Biden’s running mate. My daughter was super excited, not least because Kamala’s mother was ‘Tambrahm’- a Tamil Brahmin. The Tambrahms worked in the Indian Administrative service under the British, and were highly regarded for their early acceptance of the English language and the emphasis they placed on learning. I love being in Tamil Nadu, not only for its lovely people but also for their food, hospitality and respect for women.
Mrs Meyappan comes from the Chettiar community and in her mid-sixties, felt she needed a new challenge so she established a charming boutique hotel in Karaikudi, in the middle of Tamil Nadu. She had been widowed for decades and now in her mid eighties, Meenakshi still presides over the dining room of the hotel and speaks personally to every guest. She plans the delicious non-vegetarian and vegetarian menus daily with her personal cook and major domo, who have both been with her for more than fifty years.
My grandparents were from Kerala, a neighbouring South Indian state. It has a matriarchal culture and my grandmother managed the finances effortlessly. She and my grandfather had a charming relationship and I’ve never seen her lose her cool. Steel fist in velvet glove. She would serve him the choicest bits and would eat only after he finished. I wish I could have just ten percent of her charm. I think that women in South India are more fortunate in the opportunities they are given.
The Singapore I grew up in was a meritocracy. Although there was a quota for women to study medicine and be accepted into specialist training, it wasn’t a terrible yoke under which we suffered. If one worked very hard, one was rewarded. Norway in many ways is the same. In the old days, when men were at sea for six months at a time, women did everything. They just had to. The gender equality (likestilling) law passed in 1978 just made law of a way of life here.
I read the Instagram post of someone I follow. She had written a lovely piece on Kamala. I was horrified by the comment section for the mean, base, nasty comments about Kamala made by other women. I’m all for different points of view but not for hitting below the belt.
I’ve looked after only women from the time I was 26 years old. More than thirty years. And saw literally thousands of them in a very busy women’s hospital. What is it that makes us pull down, in general, other women who may be smarter, faster, richer, better, prettier... just doing better than us? Is true sisterhood a Holy Grail?
I’m not an expert in politics. But it’s been interesting to see the executive decisions and indecisions play out across the world. As a woman, I wish Kamala well. May the best person to take care of the American people in these dreadful times win.
Thank you Margaret, Annabel and Barbara for your kind messages and love after my previous post. A big hug.
God helg to all of you.
My feelings on paper
Barbara Warsop, Sheffield, Yorkshire
Today I feel groggy so I didn`t have my usual walk up the lane. The tablets prescribed for me over the phone by my GP for vertigo clashed with my tablets for my Restless Leg syndrome. So I didn`t sleep at all because of my restless legs but didn`t have vertigo. Oh the joys of old age. What a dilemma I am in!!
I listen to the world news its not good at all. The explosions in Beirut are terrible for sure. Lebanon needs help as more and more people are homeless.
Then the boat people are coming to Britain, this time from Syria in a dingy across the dangerous waters of the English Channel. From places we sent our troops with weapons and bombs. But our government don`t think about that they just want to send them back. No room at the Inn remember that?
I sit in my chair and rock. Just an arm chair philosopher I've become in my old age when covid's around.
We all need to think of our actions right now, whether to save the world or ourselves, do we all carry on as before?
Just heard the news of a train crash in Scotland. Oh dear. A few more lives lost.
In my early years there was no plastic around which means the plastic mound is growing fast in a very short time.
During the war we were poor with no litter at all. Just bombed out buildings when I started school, shelters in the schoolyard in case of an invasion of another virus called war.
Viruses come and go but the largest virus today I think is this government who don`t care at all apart from their large profit margins.
The good thing that's helped me along is this journal. I thank you for that. My crying has subsided a lot with some lovely people helping me along like Susan and Shirin. I was also amused by James Hayes who shared the same early years of the 1950s, plus programs on the radio. With his dictionary along side his book "Portrait of a Lady" by Henry James. I too read that with my dictionary by my side.
I am still alone in my lock down of sorts. When will it all end?
Another year and I will be 83 years old. I would like a few more years to go gallivanting (Henry James) before I`m too frail and unable to go. "Saltburn by the Sea" is good enough for me. Its not too far, just two hours journey up the M1 from me. I don`t need to fly and pollute the sky. The Yorkshire Moors are a wonderful sight, to smell the perfume of the heather lasts me all year.
My children have been helping me along. Building me a bridge over the spring thats sprung of late in my garden and making a bog of my lawn. It's a wonderful example of recycling some pallets from a neighbour. I sat with their dogs watching it all at a distance of course. Quite pleasant.
Afterwards we all sat eating "Our Cow Molly" ice cream from our local farm. Three scoops of different flavor, yummy. Then it was time for them to leave me alone again.
John Underwood, Norfolk
Book safes and Chapbooks
We have been fairly busy with books in the last week. We have been making “book safes” from old and defective children’s books with illustrated covers. It feels scandalous to be cutting up books, but nobody wants to buy them at any price, and with a few hours work we can upcycle them and send to an American customer for a good amount. Two of us work for the best part of a day on them, glueing pages together, making a hollow cavity within the books, and covering with our spare ends of marbled paper. We can complete about three in a day, and the three together will sell for about a day’s pay for a tradesman. We would only contemplate making them in lockdown, but at least it provides funds for our business.
On a more interesting and less destructive note, we recently purchased a collection of Victorian Chapbooks (street literature, sold by “Chapmen” and hawked about the streets of our cities for the last four hundred years or so). They were intended as penny treats often for “a good boy” or similar. Many were quite moral in tone, and others, for a more adult but not necessarily more discerning reader, were much more salacious. Our colourful little pamphlets were bound together in a rather crumbling binding, which was in danger of damaging the individual pieces if left together. Disbinding them was a delicate task, involving carefully cutting the sewing threads, softening any glue used, and teasing pages apart without damaging them. After a few hours work, including some careful repair using a reversible starch paste, we ended up with a baker’s dozen of chapbooks from around 1860-80. This is quite late for chapbooks generally. The most valuable are c17th or c18th, and as they were designed to be ephemeral items, their survival is rather miraculous. This collection of later examples are rather rare individually. Some of the printer/publishers seem to be rather fugitive, and despite hours spent searching, we have found very few examples of the chapbooks in collections worldwide. We search the British Library, WorldCat, and Library Hub, where universities largely in U.K and the U.S. list their holdings, to little avail. We can only assume that the original collector had an good eye for unusual chapbook printers. The woodcut images tend to have been reused in different, unrelated works, and over a considerable time scale. What is disturbing today, is that the crude hand colouring was invariably done by young children, probably right into Victorian times. “Good little children” amused by the works of poor little children.
We no longer countenance child labour in this country, but there have been frequent stories in the press about children in other countries working in clothing factories, processing our plastic waste, and picking over our exported trash. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves if this is still acceptable?
Words from Wood Lane
Susan Neave, Beverley
On Sunday I got a new computer. I only ordered it on Saturday. It’s another Mac, almost identicial to the old one, but even slimmer. I’m now struggling to master all the little things that have changed slightly since I got the first one. I’m too nervous about losing years of work to do any fancy migration between the two machines, and I don’t really want to clog up the new one with all the old files, so I’ve been painstakingly transferring some of the current ones by a process that is probably more laborious than it needs to be. I can see I’m going to have two large screens on my desk for several months.
Monday morning was spent taking the minutes of the Board of the East Riding Theatre, our lovely Beverley-based professional theatre, which has been dark for many months. There have been some performances online, and an application is being finalized for a share of the new emergency Government funding, but what hope do we have when competing with theatres such as the Globe or even Hull Truck? In the afternoon there was phone call from the nursing home to say that 97-year old aunt was being taken to hospital with a potential blood clot in her leg, although apparently she was feeling perfectly well. (It proved to be a false alarm so she was discharged on Wednesday.)
Tuesday was a big outing (first since D’s op last Monday). Had our hair cut at a village a few miles away. Our hairdresser once had a salon in the town, but began working from home when she had children (now grown up).
We used to combine the haircuts with coffee with friends who lived at the Old Rectory in the same village, but they’ve now moved into Beverley! Called at a garden centre on the way home, the first time since lockdown, followed by a supermarket shop. I don’t really like buying fruit and veg there, although have done so more than usual over the past few months, but they have been selling 1 kg boxes of the most amazing Kent-grown black cherries for £4 recently.
Wednesday was another very hot day. Should have been walking with a couple of friends but we were put off by the thunder, although there was very little rain. Instead did an urban walk after lunch, getting things from the chemist for someone who is post-op self-isolating, then calling to pick up chard from friends who have a very fruitful allotment. They provide us with supplies of excellent courgettes, beans and raspberries (sometimes in return for a bit of unpaid research), but the chard is actually grown by their neighbour, who is on holiday. They have been told to pick it but don’t actually like it very much, and I don’t like to reject any offer of free food. I’m wondering what chard soup would be like?
Today, Thursday was the funeral of a close friend, with numbers restricted to 30. It was a farewell rather than a traditional funeral, with music played on the violin by one of her sons, readings and poems. She had studied English Literature at London University in the 1950s and had written poetry throughout her life. Her husband asked if I would read one of them, which was a very moving piece about hearing her first child crying in the night.
If all goes according to plan we shall go to the coast tomorrow. We rarely visit the seaside in August, but the plan is to go to Kilnsea, not far from Spurn Point, where it is always quiet, and where I get my best beach pebbles.
In Larkin’s words “Behind Hull is the Plain of Holderness, Lonelier & Lonelier, and after that the birds and lights of Spurn Head, and then the sea”. The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Spurn Discovery Centre has reopened, so there will be loos and coffee etc, although the café is still takeaway only. I would be surprised if we see more than a handful of people on the beach, as many of the people who drive down there are bird watchers. The forecast isn’t brilliant, but that won’t put us off.