Bumpy landing on the south coast

Catherine, Sussex

Well! I’m a grandmother. A granny with L-plates. My boy arrived on Tuesday morning, with VIP treatment after a slightly white-knuckle ride. After initially resembling a rather cross prune he is now, naturally, the Most Beautiful Baby in the World. I had thought I might not remember how to be with babies, but in the event, when I met him, it was instinctive and unhesitating. As I cradled him my glass was not only full, but overflowing. One thing I already knew was Not to Offer Opinions. I did have my say just once about my most serious misgiving, then left it in the lap of the gods. Babies are programmed to survive, one is told.

By way of celebration, traffic was excluded from our stretch of road: I like to think it was in honour of His Nibs’s arrival, but of course it was World Car-Free Day. The effect was lovely, almost like my first months here, during shutdown. The only sounds from the road were the quiet voices of schoolchildren - walking to school with friends instead of being turfed out of cars at the gates and not having to shout over the roar of engines - and their pattering feet. I told the marshall at one end how grateful I was for their (voluntary) efforts, but at just that moment a little jobsworth had such a furious and prolonged go at him for not letting his car through (he could easily have gone round another way) that I hung round in case a punch was thrown and the nice gentle marshall needed a witness. The jobsworth’s wife then appeared, just as potty-mouthed as he– and according to them she’s a teacher at the school! God help the children. At the other end, the second marshall (the first one’s wife, it transpired) said it had been the same there. People were not universally in favour, although the local chatroom was almost entirely positive.


It was a busy day all round: this little fracas took place on my way back from having my flu jab, preceded by a mammoth shop in case I was laid low for a while. In fact it did, predictably, hit me a bit for around three days, but sometimes it’s not unpleasant to just give up trying, do the minimum and go to bed early. Though I did have a worrying dream, that while I was babysitting His Nibs turned into a baguette.


A thought while driving, induced by a woman unnecessarily brushing against me, and three big schoolgirls crowding a tiny elderly lady, both in the supermarket: when behind the wheel, we take care to stay some distance away from other cars. It becomes second nature. Momentarily, I wondered why we can’t do the same when on foot – but instantly realised that money is involved in the first, and not in the second. How to capitalise on this?


J2’s mother is on the brink of moving here, as planned, so I have been helping by sorting out possible properties and doing some drive-past assessments in order to send her a shortlist. Although I’m still post-jab weary, it’s been an interesting extension of my walking explorations. I was even invited into one house, but so out of the new norm was I that I quite forgot to don my mask, and she didn’t care anyway. Her son was ill in bed - not with Covid, I was assured, but all the same once I realised about the masks I shot out with a hearty ‘Thank you!’ and all digits crossed. A dose of monolaurin, anyway, as well as a shower-drench, when I got home. I have had to invest in some heavy-duty Aussie stuff to counteract all this hair-washing.


Did a militarily-planned whizz-round shop of odd items for the house, to get it all done so that I can hunker down. My haul included another blind, after all... I feel less jumpy now that masks must be worn by shop floor workers, too, even if they don’t always remember where their mouths and noses are.


Outside my little world: confidence and confusion, head-scratching and annoyance, continue as the Government reels out new figures and edicts. Businesses are reaching the end of their tether and universities are – surprise, surprise – proving to be Covid hotbeds, although the next-door school is after all reprieved, for now. While cases continue to rise once more, unemployment looks certain to follow suit. (An interesting observation heard on the radio: now, even a pilot can end up on universal credit, which is nudging into the middle classes.) Idiots at helms, people dying, chronically ill or on the breadline, and uncertainty rife everywhere I look… into what world has my little chap been born?


From St Just

Jane G, St Just, Cornwall

A quick report at the end of a week of fighting technology, trying to pre-record the lectures I can't give in person. First my powerpoint files turned out to have become mysteriously illegible since last year - presumably to do with Microsoft upgrades rather than the virus. I tried to remember that it's better to discover this thing a few weeks before term rather than 10 minutes before going in to give a lecture in person. Then it appeared that the university's virtual learning site had registered me as a classicist (long story), which meant I couldn't record to the English faculty's folders, & which took several days to sort out. And then came the discovery that lecturing to a screen showing your own powerpoint slides rather than to a room full of people is almost impossible to sustain for an hour (it simply doesn't feel important to stay focused when there's apparently no one listening) and that it also demands an entirely different style of lecturing. Like almost everyone, I use notes rather than a script, and that means that there are eloquent pauses - during which I normally have eye contact with the audience, and they can see a thought is forming: but without the visual connection, they're so much dead air. But to deal with this would mean rewriting all my lectures, and there isn't time: I may just have to warn students in advance to imagine the hand gestures and the air of profound consideration.


That apart, like most of the rest of the country (I think) I'm beginning to feel a sense of despair: both at the virus and at the inconsistencies of the government, which are beginning to feel like abuse. I've been thinking that the trouble with a government 'following the science', quite apart from the obvious point that 'the science' changes almost hourly, is that the advice they get depends on which scientists they choose - and that what a government needs to do is not follow, but stand back and coherently assess not only what virologists are saying about how to suppress the virus, but the larger picture that includes not just the need to suppress, but the consequences of the means of suppression. It's too easy to say it's a question of choosing between lives and the economy. 'The economy' isn’t an abstract: it’s literally millions of people’s lives that are being destroyed, not by death, but by the deliberate removal from them of everything (social, cultural and financial) that makes them valuable and even viable. And that’s not even thinking about people whose urgent but non-Covid medical treatments were put on hold, or who didn’t get diagnoses during lockdown, or still haven’t got them. When it looked as if lockdown was for a set period that would end, that may have seemed – and possibly even was – a price worth paying to save lives (though that makes the government’s failure to protect the vulnerable a double betrayal). When it begins to look as if lockdown will follow lockdown, and even in periods of non-lockdown we are a very long way from normal, it becomes utterly unviable – financially, yes, but also in terms of the human cost. It was a slight relief to hear a real live scientist on the World at One yesterday making that point - but probably the only relief there's been all week. 


Ah, and this has grown to the point where I've missed the deadline!


Thin Air

John Mole, St Albans



Names from the past

come floating up


while those learned yesterday

seem drowned already.


How vivid the recall

of childhood reading


but what was that book

you finished yesterday?


A journey planned

has failed to go the distance


though ones remembered

are measured step by step.


Your ancient clock 

is ever watchful in the hall,


a weary face

but still its hands go round.


Thoughts from the Suffolk coast

Harris G, Suffolk

Another week. Renewed guidance from the government. Again. The restrictions are not quite as tight as expected - (some friends predicted another full lockdown) - but things are not getting better. Instead there’s greater emphasis on face coverings, working at home, staying away from large groups. Infection rates are up and so too death rates (slightly). Our pre-lockdown lives are a very long way from us now and there’s no indication that they’ll be returned for quite some time. We must adapt. 


Visited Harleston in Norfolk this week. Pretty South Norfolk town. Some fine old buildings and good local countryside. Didn’t stay long. Book shop, charity shops, card shop, hardware. Lunch. It is interesting how different shops and cafes interpret the government’s guidance. Some rigidly adhere to one way systems. The staff wear masks or visors. Someone shouts (quite aggressively in some instances) “hand gel” as you enter the shop and the number of people allowed in is strictly controlled - with a guard or sentry at the door. In others, however, there’s a seemingly more blasé approach. Hand gel sits on a door-side table but people may meander. Numbers are restricted and there are signs reminding people of the guidance but no one asserts authority or issues orders and directives. Which approach is right? 


It reminds me of the leadership debates that used to be part of our teacher-training courses. We spoke of autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire styles. A spectrum of leadership behaviours and the likely responses. When should there be tight control? When should there be more freedom? Which approach produces responsible, well balanced adults? Which approach encourages compliance and which promotes understanding? Where am I on this continuum I ask myself? I feel like a wild seed - where will I land today? Whichever way the wind takes me, eh?


The weather forecast says high winds today - especially in coastal areas. There has already been rain - proper rain - and the garden looks relieved. Everywhere had been parched. I have been emptying watering cans in the areas of the garden worst affected but it has not been enough. This is, I am told, the way things are likely to be for many summers to come. I must remember to buy drought resistant plants! The sedum seems to have done well and so too the vine and fig tree. The eucalyptus has grown tremendously this year. It is a thirsty tree and the plants beneath it suffer as a consequence of its greed. I shall cut it severely at some point. 


Sometimes I get a real yearning to travel to a remote place and live a totally different life. A cottage in the highlands? A hut tucked away in some hills? A beautiful, unpeopled part of the world? The longing passes. Tea and breakfast are calling me. Porridge. With blue berries. Maybe some chopped apricots too. Mmmm! 

Take care x


“Survival” diary

Susan, Country Victoria, Australia

After a couple of weeks of warm weather southern Australia has had an icy blast. Today has been sleet and feeble attempts at snow. The weather bureau’s “feels like -7 pretty much covered it. I was hoping for a week in the garden. Finally my dental implant can go ahead and I don’t think I’ll feel like too much weeding and digging after it is done next week. I ordered some books and the new series of Inspector Montalbano yesterday, so I can hunker down for a day or two.

The Victorian inquiry into the botched hotel quarantine system, almost solely responsible for the second wave of virus and all the attendant deaths and economic dislocation, reached tipping point this afternoon. This week every Minister questioned denied being involved in taking the decision to decline help from the Australian army and employ a private security firm, who then sub-contracted to someone else. The scenarios which followed became more and more preposterous. Fast forward to rampant virus and a city in lockdown. This afternoon the Premier placed his health minister and her department right in the firing line. I don’t think she will be in her position on Monday. Ahh, for escape into some Sicilian corruption and administrative incompetence. 

We have booked a meal at a favourite local restaurant opening this week. They have a limit of 1.5 hours for dining. I guess that is in response to the evidence suggesting you need to be somewhere more than two hours where the virus is circulating, or perhaps it is just to get as many covers for the evening with the increased table spacing. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing them and eating their splendid Italian food. All heart and generosity.


I have species tulips flowering at the moment. I forgot to photograph them in the busyness of my day. They make me think of Annabel’s beautiful textiles, with their salmon pink exteriors and buttery yellow cups. The brassicas I planted at the beginning of the first lockdown have been giving us glorious fresh greens for weeks. I have never grown sprouting broccoli before but it has been a winner. Channeling Montalbano I made Pasta con cime di rapa last evening, delicious. 

Take care everyone. I have been thoroughly enjoying reading the journal entries. I have had occasional bouts of insomnia David, and the middle of the night can be a bleak place where everything seems insurmountable. Having my music device set very low with Max Richter’s eight hour Sleep composition helped, as did a loop of Hildelgard the eccentric. Just a thought.


Notes from a factory in the Midlands

MFS, Midlands

I felt a sense of increasing dismay and frustration at the latest round of government lockdown restrictions announced this week. The British people were subjected to a fairly crude pincer movement on Monday and Tuesday. Firstly we got the doom-laden briefing from Messrs Whitty and Valance, which included a graph showing the impact of infections doubling every seven days – leading us to 50,000 cases a day by mid-October. What this graph really demonstrates is that you can get any result you like if you put in extreme assumptions. The scientists explicitly said it was not a forecast or projection; why then did they present it? I feel that this crude model based on an outlying assumption was deliberately designed to scare us (thereby causing further harm to the mental health of the nation). And then the next day in part two of the attack, the PM came on the TV to announce a further series of arbitrary restrictions to civil liberties, with the depressing message that these would last for six months. To businesses in the hospitality industry, arts and cultural organisations, sports clubs and the like, the message that these restrictions will go on for six months will be like the sounding of the death knell. How many will just give up the ghost, as the prospect of normal life returning receded further away?  


This cartoon is the Daily Telegraph’s take on it all: 

One consequence of living in a country ruled by ministerial decree is that here is no proper debate or challenge within our normal democratic structures. I find it particularly annoying that there is no cost/benefit analysis of the lockdown decisions. All we can assume is that the PM and his chosen cabal of scientific advisors believe that the country must be forced to pay any price in order to suppress the virus. So all the misery of unemployment and bankruptcies, the missed cancer diagnoses, the alarming increase in people dying at home (presumably because they have been frightened into not attending hospital or calling their GP), the impact on those suffering from cardiac disease or those sentenced to interminable pain from osteoarthritis stuck on ever longer waiting lists for hip or knee operations, the increase in depression and other mental health issues, the increase in domestic violence, all this is worth it if we can suppress the virus until a vaccine arrives! And what if the vaccine is two or three years away? 


I readily confess that “I’m alright, Jack”. I have a secure job, a nice house with a garden and a lifestyle not overly dependent on spending my evenings down the pub and my Saturday afternoons attending football matches. I can cope. But many of our fellow citizens are not so lucky, while the suits in Whitehall with decent salaries and secure pensions are systematically inflicting misery on us all.


There’s lots of noise about university students and the virus this week. Here’s a thought: wouldn’t it be better if they were all encouraged to catch the virus now at the start of term, so as to create a step change in the level of collective immunity (like children’s chicken pox parties in years gone by), and then let them get on with living life to the full. Alternatively we could padlock them in their rooms and ban them from going out or going home at weekends or even going home at Christmas, and charge them £9,250 for the privilege of watching a few zoom lectures.


Broadland type

Sheila, Norfolk UK

I haven’t written for ages, mainly because I have been too busy with life, the garden and the journal of course.


But I’d like to tell you about an aspect of my recent Birthday that I have finally, and happily, resolved.


It was the most fantastic weekend with all my close family here from across the country. They camped in our garden and though best Covid precautions were observed, we had a fabulous time. Definitely my best Birthday ever.
Partly in spite of the strange times we're in but mostly through the fantastic organisation by Chris and our son.


But my oldest best friend couldn't be here because she was taking her nearly blind mother of 90 away on a short break to Dorset. Not knowing if we would be having the party she had arranged this as a lovely treat for her Mum.

But she wasn't here to make sure I took time out for myself. Best friends really do perform a particular role in a girl's life and mine simply wasn't around when I needed her.


My eldest nephew was brilliant at recording the event with videos and a particularly creative and wonderfully ingenious surprise group photo. It is the best record of a wonderful day with everyone in it - rather like a wedding photo - but better. It is a record of us all being relaxed and happy and I'm so grateful for it.


But... I look absolutely ghastly!!!!


Now you might say that the camera never lies, but there's the truth and then there are surprise still photos!

I'm not at all photogenic and shun photos generally because of it. There are very few of me in recent years because I always hide. But how could I possibly hide on this occasion! 


My best friend is one of those people who regularly has "official family photos". They all get dressed up just to have their photos taken and always look fabulous because they, and the photographer, want them look as good as they possibly can. It really does pay to make the effort - I've seen the results.


But on my special day I was having so much fun and completely taken up with cooking, organising and socialising that I had about 10 minutes to get myself changed from a red faced scruff into something vaguely presentable before the official 2.30 start time.

It didn't go well...

I was hot and bothered and although I had a lovely new dress to wear bottled out at the last minute and went for my usual comfort rather than style. Such a bad choice - and my best friend wasn't here to tell me.


Well that's that! I shall be remembered forever at age 70 - in that photo!

Or perhaps not!


During our recent few days away up in Blakeney, we went out for dinner at The Moorings to celebrate the birthday of one of our closest friends. I had the time, the inclination and the occasion to make myself look OK - and it all went well: the hair behaved itself, I didn't overdo the makeup - just a little light foundation, some eye shading, a touch of mascara and a small amount of lippy. I had a lovely shirt only worn once and felt comfortable in it - with trousers of course and all the other usual stuff.

We had a scrumptious meal and the entire evening was happy and relaxed.
When we returned to our rented cottage I took a quick glance at myself in a mirror - something I rarely do to be honest. To my surprise I still looked OK!

And then it came to me...

I had admonished (gently) my best friend for not being there on my special day and relayed the ghastly photo story. Well, she gave me the best bit ever of best-friend advice: 
get dressed up specially and take the 70th Birthday photo now!


Well I did it!
I went up to our bedroom and took a photo in the mirror, just to see if it would work.
And it did.
It just worked... it is me! Well, me as I want to think of myself.


And here I am... although as I compile this journal I look nothing like it! C'est la vie.


Home Thoughts

Hilary Q, North Norfolk

The man in the yellow cable knit cashmere sweater worn with expensively tailored chino shorts and brown deck shoes had to be asked to wear a mask. He was probably in his mid 40s. There was no eye contact to indicate comprehension. He simply seethed as he strung the loops around his ears. An automaton. Five minutes  later, inside the shop, he had removed it and put it in his pocket. 


My colleague was extremely upset. She had already asked two mature women, neither of whom were wearing masks to put them on. They had stormed off.  


This was on Monday and it wasn’t even time for coffee!


Everywhere in town there are notices about mutual respect and consideration for others.  But people who have no consideration for others don’t read notices. They don’t read body language and they don’t tend to actually buy books. They graze and then suddenly think of something else and depart purposefully with hand on wallet.


Claire and I were back again on Thursday and began the day with a mutter about whether or not we wished to continue working in the shop especially now the second wave is flapping about. As an experiment, I suggested we remove all the notices in the bookshop, abandon the one way system and reduce the number of customers at any one time to four rather than 12. We opened the front door wide and engaged with every customer. We had a very enjoyable day and without exception experienced mutual respect - good will and good sales. We were able to keep control of the sanitiser, the masks, the books and the payments and all with a happy smile and a cheery wave.


Today, the world has fallen in love with a rat!  So many from which to choose!


The Runaway Diaries

Sophie Austin

The house is eerily quiet. There’s a stillness too, that I haven’t felt since March.

Your dad is at work and you are at nursery. I am home alone!


I’m allowing myself five minutes to sit in this stillness and write this journal before launching myself on my to do list like a woman possessed. 


The list is long, it has been growing for the last six months and covers an array of activities that are tricky to do with a toddler in tow.


The list includes

The Mundane: Sort shelves, tidy cupboards

The Essential: fix pond lining, deep clean the high chair, locate the source of the bad smell in the garden and fix it. 

The Luxurious: have a long hot bath, do some yoga, 

And Work: write that arts council application, work on the next draft of the play, prepare for the pitch next week…


Obviously work will take precedence and come 3.30pm when I need to run up the hill to pick you up, I’ll have not ticked off any of the other items. 

I add ‘Give myself a break’ to the top of my list and move on. 


During lockdown I researched, wrote and recorded a podcast episode about the magnificent actor Ingrid Bergman and this week it went live online. I was commissioned to do it as part of Dash Arts European Icons Podcast series and it was been a real pleasure to spend some time in the company of this inspirational women via her films and through conversations with some fascinating people. She has really taught me that trusting in your own convictions and having charm in your resilience will get you a long way. 

I think these skills are perhaps needed more now than ever!


It's been so good to share some of my work with an audience again and it seems that the story I present has really engaged those who've listened. I've never done radio before and it feels like a real honour to get between people's ears to tell them a story. I hope I can do more.


You can listen to the episode at www.dasharts.org.uk/podcast

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