Restrictions for many

Hilde Schöning, Buchholz, Germany

I am really sorry to hear the news about the latest developments in Britain and the consequences due to the discovery of the mutation of the virus. Last Sunday I phoned a friend in London that I used to work for as an au-pair many years ago and got an update about her life as a pensioner.

Her daughter has been working from home since March and teaching yoga online in her freetime. Therefore mother and daughter keep meeting each other online during these lessons.


My holidays started yesterday and, luckily, there is not too much marking to be worked through this time. Subsequently, I can read and practise yoga as my teacher offers online courses. My bike is also freshly polished and maintained and just about waiting to be taken out of the shed.


Despite the circumstances, I hope everyone had a good Christmas, as merry does not seem to be the right vocabulary this year. But the prospects in 2021 will surely be better in the long run. Happy New Year to all!



Walking in L.A.

Antoinette Samardzic, Los Angeles USA

I'm thinking of making like an Aussie and spending Christmas day at the beach, El Pescador Beach in Malibu to be precise. On Sunday my husband and I, accompanied by our faithful pooch Chooch, spent the day lolling on the sand, wandering along the shoreline, napping, reading, and watching the birds (plovers, black oystercatchers, sandpipers of different sizes, sanderlings) as they scurried along the sand searching for molluscs. It was a perfect beach day, warm, clear, and, most importantly, not windy. Maybe this would be the perfect opportunity to have a different Christmas experience since we will be on our own. Pack some special finger foods and a bottle of wine, and we'll be all set.


Tomorrow December 23rd would have been my father's 100th birthday. Some ruminations are in order: Dad was a dedicated punster all his life, delivering the most awful puns with glee. He would have been delighted to know that I find myself following this tradition: puns just seem to pop up uncalled for. Another trait I have inherited from him is the ability to fall asleep at the drop of a hat. Dad would unfailingly nap after lunch while listening to his beloved classical music LPs (he detested pop music and the Beatles saying that it was not music). If he had to wait in the car for any length of time (did I mention that like most men he loathed shopping) he would lean back, tip his cap over his eyes and be asleep before we had barely exited the car. One of my favorite memories is helping him deliver a calf which had become stuck. He tied a rope around the calf's legs that were sticking out and had me pull while he reassured the mother. Before too long a little white calf plopped out with no evident ill effects from such an ungainly entrance into the world. That was my one and only experience as a bovine midwife/doula. My dad loved his cows and it was always with a heavy heart that he sent the young steers off to market. He was probably relieved when he had to sell all the sheep and cattle when it became too much of a hardship to care for them in the winter. 


My father was generally a quiet, serious man but he did have a sense of fun. We lived in Edinburgh for a few years when we were quite young and used to journey to the Scottish Highlands for our summer holidays in Dad's old Lanchester (I remember it had a running board). There were many fords to traverse on those highland roads and he would not need much encouragement from us to speed up and create a big splash, despite my mother's entreaties to slow down. I think as I've aged that I've become my mother and my husband has become my father...


In closing, I would like to say that I'm honored to have been part of all you wonderful writers. Thank you, and I wish you all a happier and healthier 2021!


Seriously isolating

Jean, Melbourne Australia

Four years ago (and yes, right after Trump was elected) nasty intermittent pains in my right hip turned into a case of cauda equina, which came to a head when I was fortunately staying with my doctor daughter in the UK.  The gods were smiling because her speedy diagnosis and quick whip into the hospital saved me from a pretty awful outcome. The NHS was wonderful - the surgeon, the nurses, the cleaners. I fell in love with them all - though possibly the drugs had something to do with the intensity of the emotion! Oddly, now that T is on his way out (and it can't be soon enough) and after two perhaps overly ambitious yoga sessions last week, I had some symptoms in the left hip that seemed worryingly similar. At 2 in the morning, I freaked out, packed a bag with everything I might need in the hospital, took a Panadol and decided to hold on until it got light and then get myself to Emergency.  Anyhow...it's now a couple days later, the hip has calmed down and we're taking a 'wait and see' approach. Interestingly, the same daughter told me about Forrest Yoga which has theories about the hip flexors storing strong difficult and unexpressed emotions and that poses releasing the flexors can function to release them. Just saying... could it be that four years of T-trauma plus a year almost of pandemic related stress have lodged in my left hip and are now desperate to get out? What is sure is that this year has taken a toll on everyone, though perhaps in different ways. Friends have remarked on how TIRED they are, and how easy it is to be annoyed at the slightest thing. I know this is true for me too.  


What has helped? Turning up at a demo in support of about 60 asylum seekers held in indefinite detention in a Melbourne hotel and being part of an action for change put a lot of things in perspective. Brought here from Nauru for medical treatment (which it seems they haven't received properly) these men been kept in their hotel rooms for months, in the severest of lockdown conditions and in a bureaucratic limbo. The government says they can't settle here (why for heaven sake?) because they came by boat, but are not allowed to take up the New Zealand offer of settlement. There was lots of chanting, speeches, waving back and forth between the men and demonstrators, carol singing, and promises to keep up daily demonstrations until the men are released, hopefully into the community. Next Tuesday there's also a demonstration at the Department of Immigration, keeping up the pressure.


Another great thing was finding films on MUBI. Highly recommended for all film buffs. The highlight so far has been Agnes Varda's The Beaches of Agnes, a brilliant evocation of her life and art. Inspirational. You get to see how a film maker's mind works and how it turns EVERYTHING into the magic of film.

There are so many things I've loved in the journal, seeing and hearing about the snow, the wonderful Christmas decorations, memories of childhood, the poems, and the stories people tell of their parents.

My mother and father died in 2006 and 2007 but they are still present and their voices are still alive to me. I'd give a lot to have them here to talk to. They met in the late 1930's at a speech clinic in New York City as they both stammered. My dad's was so severe he carried around a card saying he was mute (I only heard this from one of my brothers this year). At 14, and despite being a very bright boy, his Bronx school decided he should leave. His immigrant family wouldn't have known how best to help him but what they did was get him into an agricultural college in upstate New York so he could learn how to farm! In some ways, this may have suited him as he didn't like city life and all his life was a passionate and inspired gardener, but it separated him from the supports of family life when he would have needed it.


By comparison, my mother's stammer was slight, more of a Biden type hesitancy, but being shy and reserved she was in some ways perhaps more profoundly affected. Nevertheless, the clinic brought them together and gave them fluency. The photo shows them in NYC at the clinic, their arms touching quite tenderly I think (and no, the gorgeous car was not theirs!). It captures them both: my beautiful mother, dreamily looking upwards, full of her own thoughts, and my dad, pleased as punch that HE was the guy that got the beautiful girl! 


Wishing everyone a safe, happy and healthy Christmas! 


Notes from a factory in the Midlands

MFS, Midlands

Nora’s funeral last Friday was a very quiet and peaceful service, with just a few close relations in attendance, and also her old “boss”: the retired headmaster of the primary school in Hampshire where Nora had worked as school secretary. Being 93, nearly all of Nora’s friends and contemporaries had “gone before her”.


In the last couple of weeks at work we have arrived at a very significant decision. My right hand man, the Head of the Finance Department, has been told that he will indeed succeed me as FD on 1st November next year. During 2020 he has been working on a development programme towards this objective, under guidance from me and the HR director. A couple of weeks ago this culminated in him being invited to give a presentation to the board on how he thought the Finance department could contribute to the growth of the company towards its £100m sales target over the next five years. And we followed his presentation with a very probing interview. We talked about the decision amongst ourselves, consulted our non-exec Chairman, and the lawyer who chairs of the Employee Ownership Trust that controls the company, and were unanimous in our agreement that he was the right choice. As well as being a fantastic opportunity for him, it is a great weight off my mind, as I don’t now have the task of going out to find a replacement on the open market, with all the risks that entails. He was delighted and thrilled with the news, which we will keep confidential until January. I have also realised that when we do announce his appointment, we will also be publicly announcing my retirement. I wonder if colleagues will treat me differently once they know I am heading for the exit?


In the privacy of this journal I can confess that when I recruited him ten years ago, it wasn’t just because he had the right qualifications, experience and personality for the role, but also because he had attended the same school (Ratcliffe College near Leicester) that my Grandpa and one of his brothers had attended as boarders in the Edwardian era, and where my uncle and some of his cousins had boarded a generation later. There was no religious bias in my choice however, because even though the school is a Roman Catholic establishment, my colleague is from a solidly Hindu background.


Our local church, where I am on the rota for helping with signing in, sanitising and seating, has introduced an online booking system for the five Christmas masses (two on the evening of 24th and three on Christmas morning). I hope it all works out well, and we don’t find ourselves with the unpleasant task of having to turn people away “because there is no room at the inn”. But the Catholic Church, like most others, is behaving ultra-cautiously, because we need to avoid any risk of being a source of infection, which could give the government an excuse to close down public worship once more.


I was not impressed with the way the government announced to the world that we were a plague hotspot, thereby almost inviting them to close their borders to us. You can see that ministers and their scientific advisors are locked in a kind of tunnel vision by the fact that they were surprised by the reaction of France and other countries. The same is true with the sudden introduction of Tier 4 and the changes to the Christmas regulations. Who would have guessed that these announcements would provoke panic and chaos? Well any sensible person, (ie not a politician or mono-maniac epidemiologist) would have guessed. They really need to get some alternative voices onto the Sage committee. 


Our business hasn't been impacted by the queues at the ports (yet) as with some good planning all our December European exports were safely shipped by Friday 18th. But the experience provided a nice practice run for our country's smooth and effortless transition to the paradise that awaits us outside the EU Single Market and Customs Union. Roll on 2021.


And can I wish a happy, peaceful and socially distanced Christmas to all my fellow journalers.


Burlingham blog

Mary Fisher, Norfolk UK

Within one depressing week, our lives are disrupted once more. On Saturday we are told that a mutant strain of Covid is making its way through the country; more virulent than its predecessor. Other countries take swift action. Borders are shut. Over forty countries stop accepting flights from the UK. France blocks its ports. Kent has the opportunity to trial its post-Brexit preparations ten days earlier than anticipated. Unfortunate lorry drivers, caught up in the ports closure, are parked on motorways or in a field with few facilities, insufficient food, waiting for rapid testing to be set up. Well good luck with that, after a month of government promises, we are still waiting for ours to be set up in my aunt’s care home. Christmas plans for the whole country are cancelled, or, at the very least, severely curtailed. And, just for good measure, someone seems to have forgotten to take our oven-ready Brexit deal out of the freezer. Maybe supermarkets will need to rethink the effect of a no trade deal and just in time food supplies.


With so much bad news announced day after day, it is difficult not to look at this last week pessimistically. For the first time since March, I cannot decide which emotion is predominant: sadness that, in spite of everything, even more people may lose their lives or livelihoods or frustration at a government that always seems to be behind the curve and panic buyers who make life difficult for the rest of us. Even the egg farm next door has had people bulk buying its stock. Has no-one told them that eggs have a short shelf-life?


But there are a few positives. We are surviving in spite of the government. I have aunts to keep me occupied, health, home and a glorious muddy countryside to traipse about in. The winter solstice is always a welcome event. Unhappily grey skies block out any chance of seeing the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn; a bright star would have been uplifting. Half a million people have had their first coronavirus vaccination, friends included. Another Plague20 contributor, Barbara W, and I meet for the first time. A ‘quick’ video chat turns into an hour and quarter of gaiety. I am looking forward to Peter reading the Tailor of Gloucester on Christmas Eve. And, I make gluten-free Yorkshire puddings that have actually risen. It’s a serious issue for gluten-intolerant folk, looking enviously at other plates of perfect puds. A New Year awaits us all. Let’s hope it’s a better one than 2020.


Some years ago I ran a mortality database in public health medicine. It was mainly used by epidemiologists. People had barely heard of epidemiology, let alone knew what it did. It has constantly been a cinderella service, very little funding and even less prestige. It was a political football, sometimes part of the NHS, sometimes part of the local authority. However, since March, an epidemiologist pops up on every other news bulletin. Their expertise sought out, scrutinised and critiqued. What, I wonder, will happen to this indispensable specialism when the pandemic is under control? 


On Tuesday, I open a Christmas card and inside is a note, “Believe it or not, Stephen and I have just had Covid. It’s day 20 and we are slowly getting better….” Did I think of my friend’s well-being? Did I rush to call them? No, I dropped the card and hurried to wash my hands. Several times. A definite over-reaction. Well it has been a tough week.


Strange times

Anna Stenborg, Uppsala, Sweden

First week of work at our covid-19 ward and it has been OK and all patients have survived as well. We have daily meetings with the infection consultants to identify patients that are at risk for needing intensive care and to ensure correct medical treatments. Until yesterday I had two really nice and hard working young physicians with me, but today one of them is at home with a cold which means more work for me. I have Christmas eve and Christmas day off which is great.

Thomas came from Norway, his girlfriend went to her parents in Gothenburg. Both Mattias and Clara are here as well so we will have a really nice Christmas together. Take care and have a lovely Christmas!


“Survival” diary

Susan, Country Victoria, Australia

It is late Wednesday here and I have just found Margaret’s reminder in my inbox. We have been out for a drink(s) and catch up with good friends. The evening was just warm enough to sit on their pretty deck where their grape vines were looking verdant after the recent rain, & to look out on Peter’s glorious herbaceous border. It is a truly Mediterranean version that requires no supplementary water and with inspired plantings. 


We debriefed on this extraordinary year. On covid we concluded that we are with it forever - like influenza and the common cold. Donald Trump - who knows where and when he will end his destructiveness, but Joe will be there come early January. The quality of local wine which just goes from strength to strength. The sparking we drank from Hanging Rock was a stunner. Note to self, we need to book at the pop up Vietnamese restaurant at Sutton Grange winery in January. Australian politics, at the moment not as dysfunctional as other places, but still cringe making. Which brought us to the the United Kingdom. Dear me, Boris, Brexit and all those trucks. Boris and the mismanagement of public health.  


Do take care, and I hope around all the restrictions and all of the risks you are all able to make this time of year beautiful and memorable. If the year has taught me nothing else it has given me an appreciation of the joy of small things and taking each moment as it comes. Thank you all for sharing your experiences. It has been fascinating seeing us all change in real time. What a splendid group of people you all are. Buon Natale xx


Staying home

Nicky, Vermont, USA

Because we’re organizing and will participate in the March Arts Marathon, the benefit to help get asylum seekers out of detention, a friend and I decided to train for the marathon, so every day in December we mail each other a painting completed that day. 

I’m learning watercolors from books (what pleasure to buy them!) which is an educational method dictated by the constraints of the pandemic, but which suits me fine. I’m better at educating myself, or I think I am, though I do know I’m deluded. But if I learn from a book I don’t have to get out of my own way to be able to listen to a teacher. I digress!

This week I pushed to wean myself from art instruction books. We had a bunch of bright yellow flowers which I stuffed in a blue glass vase and then sat down to paint the still life. I was shocked at my level of self doubt, my lack of self-confidence. But that did make it sweet when a painting emerged that does actually look like a bunch of yellow flowers in a blue vase. Even if I did choose a rather odd peach color for the background.  

Yesterday, another first, I decided to paint from a photograph, and chose one I took in Australia last year.  I had the same almost crushing self-doubt but I was too busy trying to figure out how to do the painting to pay attention. This painting involved sketching and masking and successive washes and putting in a couple of people as well. I sketched first thing in the morning, then masked. I went shopping while the masking dried. The whole time I shopped and drove B. to appointments and walked the dog I’d solve another painting problem. A little indigo on top of the cerulean blue wash in the sky, for example.  Even now, when I thought the painting was finished, I’m thinking perhaps I should include the container ships that appear faintly on the horizon on their way to or from Fremantle.  

The finished or almost finished painting has significant flaws: the fishermen are too large. Sand too much yellow ochre. Needs a grey wash. But still, I’m inordinately proud of flying free of the books with their oh so helpful but perhaps dependence inducing instructions.   

And it is all thanks to covid that I have time at home to play with pencils and paint and rough water color paper.  

And the Marathon will go on! I’m hearing from a few people they want to sign up. That’s a relief.


But I read the most discouraging headline news yesterday, I couldn’t even read the article, I was so horrified, that Biden plans to keep in place Trump’s immigration rules. What a betrayal. So there will be ever more need to get people out of detention, and ever more expense involved in doing that. And thus evermore need to raise money. I’m glad we’re doing the marathon, even though organizing it makes me very anxious. 

I wish everyone a good Christmas… even under these strained covid circumstances.  I wish everyone much joy.


Words from Wood Lane

Susan Neave, Beverley

In 1877 Christmas Day fell on a Tuesday. A local newspaper reported how there was ‘considerable activity’ in Beverley on Monday [Christmas Eve], and ‘large numbers of people arrived by trains through the day. In the evening a severe frost set in, followed by a fall of snow on Wednesday morning, this change of weather giving evident satisfaction to the large number of pedestrians who hurried through the streets. The churches were adorned with Christmas decorations, ladies as usual taking a prominent part in the work… The Waits [carol singers] and bands of music perambulated the streets on Christmas Eve and some merriment was displayed through the night out of doors, but there was less boisterous hilarity than we have noticed in former years, and it is gratifying to note that with the exception of the charge of attempted murder there have been no cases before the borough justices during the week.’


The report continues with an account of Christmas Day in the workhouse: ‘The interior of the building, or at least the main corridors and principal rooms, were choicely decorated, the dining hall being especially noteworthy. Extra fare was, as usual, provided for the inmates, and no less than 14 stones of beef and mutton were placed upon the tables. The dinner was as may easily be imagined thoroughly enjoyed, and afterwards tea was supplied to the women and tobacco to the men. Oranges, fruit & c. were also served out in abundance to the juveniles, who were allowed to indulge in such games as were seasonable and suited to their fancy.’ 


This year the streets of Beverley will be busy with shoppers on Christmas Eve (unlike London and the south-east), but there will be no carol singers, the church bells with be silent, and there will be no merriment in the evening as the pubs and restaurants are all closed. Nor will there be any snow!


The old workhouse, in a prime location overlooking Westwood common, is now smart apartments. Free-range turkey from Waitrose and a bottle of fizz is more likely to be on the Christmas menu for those who can celebrate. But this year there won’t be much communal feasting, as many of the residents live alone, and won’t be able to travel to be with family. By the time this goes online the one-day Christmas will be over, and we shall be hoping for better times to come in 2021.


Youlgrave lockdown

Dianne, Youlgrave Derbyshire

Noon on Wednesday is the perfect time to write my Journal entry as Jeremy has offered to ice the Christmas cake and has just taken over the kitchen. Although I moan about doing it I’m not sure I’m ready to hand over control, so best stay out of the way. I was going to go for something simple but Jeremy has ideas. My mother always ended up doing hers late on Christmas Eve and it was always the ubiquitous snow scene – roughed up icing to make snowy peaks and the Santa and snowman figures that came out every year plus a sprig of holly. I rather wish I still had the figures now. When I started icing my own cakes I sometimes resorted to her design but on occasions, when time and children allowed, went for something trickier copied from a magazine.  

I am doing everything I usually do to prepare for Christmas because it makes me happy. I know the world is a different place at the moment but we have to get through this time in any way we can. 


The day after the announcement that the rules for Christmas were changing I went to a local shop to drop off a parcel. There was only one other person dropping off a parcel. “I thought there would be loads of people dropping off parcels now nobody can visit their family,” he said. My parcel contained cheese straws for next day delivery to number 4 son. Cheese straws are my answer to all woes. Dan and his partner are now stuck in their flat in London rather than in Winchester with Christina’s brother. They moved in together a few months before the pandemic started and seem to be coping really well. They both work from home. Dan’s office is a freezing cold, small attic room and Christina works in the lounge. They spend their free time cooking interesting vegetarian and vegan meals, looking after their collection of plants and playing long distance games with friends. Christina keeps fit with Zoom dance sessions.


The local turkey will be collected tomorrow. Most of it will end up in the freezer but that is ok. We have also cooked a ham and ordered a large pork pie from our village shop. Christmas traditions will go ahead as usual. Number 2 son just picked up their presents and the Christmas pudding and summer pudding I made for them. We plan to attempt a Zoom Christmas present opening which will be interesting but at least we will all see each other.

Having sent a photo of my wall Christmas tree last week I am sending a photo of my card door this week. I was hoping to be able to send a snowy picture.

Jeremy’s cake decorating plans were scuppered by someone putting the green food colouring lid on the black food colouring! But all good now so I will also include a photo of the cake as well.

Happy Christmas everyone.



John Underwood, Norfolk

The dreaded Christmas quiz.


At home, way back when, there were several Christmas traditions. My mother had a set of “angel chimes” and to keep me busy (men and especially teenage boys were there to be “managed” in my family) my mother would make me clean them. You lit a night light, the heat from which turned a brass fan, the rotation of which dinged brass bells, on top of which resided the angels in cut out profile. The candle caused sooty greasy deposits on everything, and the whole lot needed taking apart and cleaning with “Duraglit” which is one of the smells that I most associate with Christmas. Forget roast turkey, brandy butter or potpourri, for me the prevailing scent which takes me back to childhood Christmas celebrations is brass cleaner. 

My parents threw a party each year for their church house fellowship which was quite a jolly affair. The kids were banished to the stairs as there was not enough seating space in the house, and Ally and I, who had met at church youth club aged fifteen and sixteen retired there after our duties were done. These included putting up the various Christmas quizzes around the house - adverts with the names cut out, mystery “what is this” photographs, and word quizzes. 

As an act of revenge for years of angel chime cleaning and quiz fettling I have spent time devising a quiz and almost crossword for you lucky people. The quiz is based on the vintage “Call My Bluff” t.v. program which was required watching at home. Several definitions of a word are given by team members, only one of which is correct. The other team has to guess the correct definition. Since we are all likely to be limited as to the company we can keep this Christmas, you can still play the game on your own, or as a couple - just guess the correct definition from the given list. The words come from a c18th dictionary of cant/slang words which I foolishly sold a while back. Heigh ho. Or should that be heigh ho ho ho?

The crossword is an almost crossword. I made the mistake of trying to make all the answers to the clues Seasonal or Christmas related. Big mistake. You will notice a distinct lack of  “down” clues. The crossword is a result of two solid days of fiddling with words, definitions, the crossword grid, various online word finding apps. Honestly? Angel chimes would have been a whole lot easier, and there would have been the brass cleaner to sniff. 

I hope that you enjoy my efforts. I am beyond any sense of how difficult or easy the crossword might be. The words fit. They are the only words that can fit where they fit that have anything to do with the Christmas season. Phew. There is a link for you to get to the Almost Christmas Crossword (BELOW) and Call My C18th Bluff will be featured next week. The Crossword solution will be provided next week too.


Wherever you are, whoever you can be with, love to you all my fellow journalists, and a profound thank you to Margaret and Sheila for helping to keep us sane. 

Download The almost Christmas Crossword by clicking the graphic below.