Mary’s Projects Mostly

Mary Hildyard, Totnes, Devon

Encounters in the Real World


Our life in Totnes is easier than life in Bristol and feels less like living through a pandemic. We enjoyed two delicious lunches this week outside with friends at a waterside Bistro on the River Dart in Totnes. Find a table, check its number, join a short, socially distanced, queue, make your order and pay a reduced price - Eat out to Help out. The Bistro was busy both days; many families, lots of dogs, and although rain threatened we were sheltered by a canopy and stayed dry. It felt normal.


Encounters in the Virtual World

I had two zoom calls with the grandchildren - still too far away and difficult to visit. Their perception of the real world is not untouched by the pandemic. In the first call, the three year old, Ben, showed me “People Dominoes” - wooden figures that he repeatedly lined up, then pushed the last one to make the whole line topple like dominoes. As he lined them up for about the fifth time, he looked at the screen and said “social distancing”.


In the second call I asked his five year old brother, Sam, whether the playground next door to them was fully open. “Yes,” he said, “and I see my friends there.” I asked whether the rather challenging zip-wire was open too. “No,” he said, “probably too big - too much virus on it.”


Thoughts from the Suffolk coast

Harris G, Suffolk

Good morning all! I hope you’re well and life is being kind. Greetings from a cool, cloudy Thursday in Suffolk! A moody sky this morning.


The strange new world continues. I have attached some photos to explain how the past few days have been...


Firstly, last Thursday - I went to my first auction viewing since March. It was an antiques and vintage sale - mostly furniture. It worked reasonably well. An appointment has to be made in advance (just ringing in to book) and during the viewing, mask wearing is of course essential. The usual hand sanitizer must be applied. Gloves are optional but available. No more than three people are allowed into the auction room at a time but once in - there is access to all items for sale. The auction itself occurs the next day - “online” or via the telephone. I made no bids so bought nothing but enjoyed looking and remembering how good it used to be in the auction rooms.


On Monday, I took a trip to Norfolk and used the Reedham Ferry. It is always a super experience - just a few minutes to cross the river Yare - but for me there’s something uplifting about the trip - and it saves driving on 30 miles of busy, noisy, much less pleasant roads! The weather was good - a stunning blue sky with light clouds although some darker clouds descended too.


I had a picnic lunch with friends in their lovely walled garden on Tuesday. Catching up on news. Reminiscing. Eating homemade curry outdoors! Their cat came to enjoy our company and for a while sat centrally under the arch looking so perfectly symmetrical. We decided she was a “symmetricat“! 


Other days have been filled with unproductive meanderings and pottering but I’ve grown very good at that. I’m an expert procrastinator.  I may buy another greenhouse. Nothing big - it’ll just be for tomatoes. They seem to have done so well this year. Shall I get some raised beds too? Maybe I will...


On the local news yesterday was talk of the Corona virus outbreak in Norfolk - with 75 workers testing positive at a ‘Chicken Factory’ - meaning 350 workers and their families have had to go into isolation. Awful. The virus seems to like cool, temperature controlled environments.


Here the evenings are rapidly closing in. Sitting out in the garden yesterday we watched the moon playing hide and seek behind some fast moving clouds and remarked how darkness was quickly pulling us indoors. Our log store is full and we have had a visit from the chimney sweep in readiness for winter. The time for fires is a long way off yet - I hope. 


The high winds we had last Friday and Saturday brought down quite a few leaves but today looks still and calm. Off to visit our friend Mrs Y this afternoon. Have to go into town this morning... 


“And all over the world

Strangers talk only about the weather

All over the world

It's the same, it's the same

And the world is getting flatter

And the sky is falling all around

Oh and nothing is the matter

For I never cry in town...”

Words by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan


From Twickenham

David Horovitch, Twickenham

I haven't had a chat with Phillipe, my seven year old neighbour from across the landing, for some months. The last time we talked he was very much locked down with his mum and dad and finding it 'hard' not being at school. He said this almost inaudibly, clinging to his mother's thigh and mumbling the little monosyllable into her jeans. He's more articulate now; yesterday I bumped into the two of them outside our building. She'd been hoping to stay with a friend in Greece for a week but now, because her husband has got a job and won't be able to look after Phillipe full time in her absence, and also because she fears Greece might suddenly be put on the quarantine list which would mean her missing the first two weeks of her term (she's a teacher) she's had to cancel her trip. 

'I think,' said Phillipe, 'she made the right choice.' 

When I agreed, he said he wanted to get away too, but not to Greece. He wanted to go to Italy.

'Everyone's so rude here,' he said. 

We were standing in the middle of the cobbled mews next to the carwash and, as if to illustrate his point, just as he spoke, a car hooted at us to move to the side.

'Rude,' he repeated.' He didn't have to do that.' 

I wondered why Italy? Had they banned the use of the klaxon in Rome since my last visit? 


No-one can really make any plans at the moment. And it's difficult to be consistent. Sometimes I act as if it's all over, the pandemic. I went up to Notting Hill last week on a train, an overground tube and a bus (the deep underground tubes are a bit of a last frontier for me) and I had a magnificent Greek meal with Nick Drake who wrote a play about the first production of Messiah in which I played Handel at The Globe a few years back. The next day I went over to Forest Hill on three different overground trains to see Francis in his flat for the first time perhaps since Christmas. He cooked me spaghetti and meatballs and showed me a promo video for a band he's in called, with a nod to Philip Larkin, 'This be the Verse'. Not my sort of music but I was mighty impressed with both video and song which is covid-related and edgy in every sense. 


I always wear a mask of course on public transport and they're not conducive to reading as they fog up your glasses. They're also incompatible with hearing aids which tend to pop out when you take them off. I've already lost one in this way and nearly lost a second but it turned up on the floor of the hotel where Francis and I stayed on my birthday. So now I don't read when travelling, which is less of a deprivation than I'd expected, and have to be content with my deafness, something about which I'm in pretty heavy denial anyway, believing, as my mother did in her old age, that people just don't speak as loudly as they used to - she said this particularly about actors although she'd invariably add - 'But I can always hear you darling.'


Although I do get about quite a bit more than lots of people I know, in other ways I can be quite cautious. This is what I mean about inconsistency. A friend just returned from France and proposed that we meet up and go for a walk even though he was supposed to be in quarantine for a couple of weeks. I really wanted to see him and felt a bit of a party pooper when I declined. 


I was so pleased that someone referred to me as the 'ever-excellent' in the journal a couple of weeks back. I have been called 'the ever-reliable' which I don't like so much though I suppose it's better than 'the ever-unreliable', which, if you think about it, is probably an oxymoron. It seems odd to think that Holby City, to which that compliment referred, a contemporary hospital drama, is going out on our screens without a single reference to the most important medical issue of our time. It's become an instant period piece. I can't bring myself to watch it. We made it only a week or two before lockdown and I remember the cast members were supremely confident that it would survive. At the time I wondered if that was because it was about doctors and nurses and therefore, they believed, of particular relevance. Of course, despite its setting, it's a soap opera and a week later the plugs were pulled on it as on all other soap operas. I expect it'll be back though, along with the traffic and the aeroplanes.
Plus ca change.


From a very small Island

Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight

It’s quite early on Thursday morning as I begin my journal entry - I have to admit without too much idea what I shall write.  Life continues in a way that I find pretty good at the personal level, whilst chaos appears to grow elsewhere I’m sorry to say. Enough said of the latter and for the reasons behind it, which I find heartbreaking!


Preparations are more or less complete for our big maintenance job on the beach hut. Next step is demolition of the back wall, which is rotten. I have prefabricated its replacement as much as I can and all being well the whole job, less painting, will be completed this Saturday. I’m really hoping there is nothing I’ve overlooked. Best beloved and myself are looking forward to working as a team on this.


August bank holiday weekend is traditionally the time when motor scooterists arrive in Ryde for their annual rally. Despite the fact I have never been a scooter rider, always a biker, I love their noisy, smelly, polluting and happy gathering each year. I will miss them. I think there might be some arriving despite the cancellation, because I have spotted a few riding around. As long as not too many arrive and congregate, I really am happy to espy those remnants, so a welcome to them from me.


Squirrel activity seems to be underway after an apparent hiatus. It’s really lovely to see them busy gathering hazel nuts again. What a struggle for survival they endure. Talking of squirrel survival, I spotted a white tailed eagle overhead a week or two ago. They are amazing giant birds and it’s good to have seen one, even though I’m sure they might predate squirrels.


Belated birthday greetings Sheila. Sorry I missed the note about that.


Please all be happy journalistas...


Bumpy landing on the south coast

Catherine, Sussex

I have had quite a ‘me’ week – not quite intentionally, but not unwelcome, even so.


The plan had been for four of us, dear but scattered friends, to meet in the garden of one of them. It would have been an absolute delight, the more so for being a long time coming. However, it was to be on Tuesday – the day of stupendous wind and rain, on which it was difficult to stay upright or even think, let alone chat quietly across our allotted 2m each of lawn. Instead, I spent three hours standing around in Brighton, waiting for my car to be MOTd. It passed, as it always does, bless it, but I didn’t want to go indoors anywhere (I’d normally be trawling the shops and - before they slapped an entrance fee on it – the museum/gallery) or even sit on an outdoor bench. I hadn’t known it would have taken so long, or I might have thought of a plan B. As it was, I managed to roll up my National Geographic and read it bit by bit, rain-spattered as it was, with my back to the wind and rain, in a sheltered nook I finally found. Covid continues to change everything.


My exploratory rambles, which I enjoy very much, also continue. I generally go in the evening, when day’s work is done. As well as getting to know the area, it interests me to see how similar houses are turned into individual homes by this and that personal touch, and to glance into people’s windows, to catch a sense of who and what they are. It was on one of those peregrinations that I snuck into the back garden of the flats which now stand where, a toddler, I lived on the top floor of a wonderful old house at the top of a hill. I bumped into a nice occupant, who expressed an interest in the history of the house and its gardens; I promised to send her some photographs taken by my mother. Although I have got to know some of the people in my current road, because we had a long talk and she invited me into her flat – which of course I politely declined - she might turn out to be the first proper friend I have made here. It feels nice, like the first tentative root in my new metaphorical garden.

At home, having bought some new herbs and found nowhere suitable for them in the existing flowerbeds, I relieved a kind neighbour of his pallet and made a vertical planter. It was harder than I expected, when it came to making the membrane pockets, especially as I had hurt my back with so much pavement-pounding in the wrong shoes, but I got there in the end (well, almost: the bottom row awaits my energies on another day). That was just before the giant hooley blew up, but they’re all still where they should be (although some blighter has eaten all the coriander leaves; the next plant will have to stay indoors). The same can’t be said of the poor long-suffering gazebo mark II, which during aforesaid gale finally broke free of its moorings around the fence posts and hurled itself across the garden, beheading a particularly precious plant en route and coming to rest upside down with one leg firmly entangled in a bush. It’s now a bit bent, but back in its proper place – although without canopy. That was just tempting fate.


And after weeks of deliberation I have started hanging more pictures and mirrors. I care very much that they go in the right place, and hate to mess up walls with lots of hammering-in and pulling-out of hooks (can’t get on with those fancy removable sticky ones), so try to get it right first time. The stairs are dedicated to places which are, or have been, important to me. So far I have hung most of the Hampstead ones: Hampstead is where I spent my teens, and so feels most like home. It’s where it was always summer, and there were uncountable tomorrows to come. Deeper friendships were forged, and horizons expanded. There was a time, some couple of decades ago, when I had the opportunity to live there again, but I decided against. It and I have changed, and I now value quieter and cleaner environs. I was going to say that I decided against because going back can be a mistake – but look at me, almost right where I started! Something about the circle of life…?


The view west from Whitestone Pond.

My second oil painting ever.


Staying home

Nicky, Vermont, USA

The other morning, I took the dog for a walk as I do most mornings, and was startled to discover myself consumed with rage. A hurricane blasted through me, and got stronger as I marched the dog up the hill and down again. Afterwards I slept all afternoon, wrung out, flattened. I was angry at B. for not dealing with her hearing issues yet not wanting to socialize because she couldn’t hear. I was angry at my daughter for not dealing with unemployment and other money issues. I was angry at B’s daughter for not visiting. I was angry at the virus. 


Later that day I learned that B.’s audiologist had told her that her precise type of hearing loss would mean she would have trouble understanding words, even with her hearing aids. I learned that her daughter had been consumed with moving out of a large house and selling it. And I learned that my daughter had made  progress dealing with the government about unemployment and was in fact working that very day. In other words my anger was really without cause. Well, except for the virus. Still, it took a long time for the anger to dissipate, and mostly I’m struck by the memory of how it overtook me. Physically. Such a blast of emotion.  


I have no memory of being angry as a child. Not when I was sent to various foster homes, orphanages or two boarding schools. Not when I was mercilessly bullied. I won’t belabor the point, just to say that there were good reasons for me to be angry, but I wasn’t. Instead I read. 


I first went to boarding school when I was five, and I remember vividly learning to read, the big capital letters all in a big circle around the room just under the ceiling. It took me no time at all to associate letters with words and words with meaning and meaning with escape. Janet and John. And their dog’s name? Lucky? Those early readers that taught me to read. I dove in. Janet and John had a mother and a father. I seem to remember them collecting water from a well. Or rolling down a hill. But perhaps those were other books. Very quickly I was reading all of Enid Blyton. The Five Children and their adventures. And The Water Babies, which I read very young and could make no sense of. I don’t think it mattered what I read, just that I had something to read.  


My voracious reading came in handy later in America when everyone assumed I had a very good education because of my British accent, but really I was almost totally self-educated by having read everything I could find about anything. I suspect that beneath all that reading was an almighty rage that would wash me away. And now, somehow, in my sixties, with lots of time and perhaps too much solitude, the rage surfaces, not really about my daughter or my partner or my daughter in law or even the virus. Just a hurricane or perhaps a tornado coming to lift me up and drop me, broken, on the road, my dog sniffing anxiously at my side pockets to make sure I haven’t lost any of his dog biscuits in the process. 


Probably beneath the rage is a tremendous sorrow, the kind one friend can relieve by weeping into the neck of a horse, and another by painting. I’m not anxious to enter my own village of sorrow, but being washed away by a flood of rage is not much fun either.  


Now I’m reading short essays and writing short essays. We’ll see what happens. The weather is calm today but there are two storms gathering winds in the Caribbean and heading north. I’m allowing for the unexpected. As I always have.


Burlingham blog

Mary Fisher, Norfolk UK

If you’re a person of a sensitive disposition, you may wish to skip this blog and jump to the next post.


Jane skyped me early one morning a few weeks ago. Very early. Her blind dog had brought in an injured mole from the garden and dropped it into Jane’s lap. The dog sensed something was wrong with the mole. Jane could see that the end of the mole’s front paw was hanging off. Jane phoned the vet. Nothing, however, was going to be easy in these times of a pandemic. The vet couldn’t treat the mole as he was shielding and, at that time, there were also tight restrictions on movement in Homps, the region of France where Jane lives. The vet knows Jane well and respects her competence with animals. Jane and her dog have a reputation as carers of all creatures in their village. Every abandoned or sick animal is brought to their door to nurture and tend. Not just cats and dogs, but ducks, geese, rabbits, hedgehogs, pigs and birds. Jane’s dog likes to look after the poorly animals as if they are his own.  


Jane and the vet came up with a plan. The vet agreed to supply anaesthetic, antibiotics, sutures and instructions on how to amputate and treat the paw. I felt my just-eaten breakfast struggling to stay down. Jane went on. She used sterilised home sewing kit to carry out the amputation as instructed by the vet. She stitched the little flap of flesh to the remainder of the paw. Jane’s dog whined throughout. The mole slept. The dog fussed around, sniffing at the mole. Remarkably the little creature survived the operation. When the mole woke up, Jane fed it with worms. After a couple of days, Jane took the mole to a forgotten compost heap at the bottom of her garden. This was to be the mole’s new home. The compost heap has earth and worms. I anticipated the worst.


Jane skyped again this week. Moley is fine. He (or indeed she, I haven’t actually asked the question) has recovered remarkably well. Every day Jane scratches on the side of the compost heap. Moley pops up to feed on the worms that Jane brings it. Without the majority of one of its front paws, Moley will never be able to live as it once did. Neither will it be able to live without Jane feeding it each day. This is for the rest of its life. How long to do moles live? I worry about the supply of worms running out. I am overwhelmed with admiration for Jane.  


Meanwhile, back in South Burlingham, moles have all but destroyed parts of my garden this year. I am not happy. Since March, the garden and gardening have become so important to me, like probably thousands of other people. I had been considering ringing the mole man. How can I now? The moles and I will have to learn to live together. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.


Some things have stayed reassuringly the same during these strange times. Outside my back door last week the sky is suddenly filled with swallows. I love watching them feeding on the wing. Such agility. Such high-pitched chattering. I know the swallow’s feeding is focused on building reserves to ready themselves for their long flight to the sunnier climes of Africa. But somehow it always looks as if they’re having such fun, showing off their ability. For the twenty years I have lived here, the swallows always rest on the telephone cables on the roadside. This year they sit on my rooftop. So many I can’t count them all. I feel privileged to be standing so close to this display. What absolute joy.


From St Just

Jane G, St Just, Cornwall

Being back in St Just brings to mind the running title for another entry, 'Gratefully Sheltering'. I meant to do a variant series of journal entries, 'From North Oxfordshire', in the weeks I was away, but they proved to be rather fraught, for all sorts of non-Covid reasons. First, the Oxfordshire vet took one look at Smokey and pronounced that she couldn't live. Fortunately, he said so in her hearing and annoyed her so much that she began eating again the instant we got home - but there was a horrid time when it wasn't clear that she would prove him wrong. Who was it who said 'His physicians told him he couldn't live, and so he died'? Cats are made of sterner stuff. 


At about the same time, builders came to investigate the cracked render on the gable wall - which they'd been booked to do in March, of course - and found once they began to take it off that several courses of bricks were missing entirely and the whole wall was on the point of collapse. Now fixed, supposedly, for the second time in two years. But it's a relief all the same to be away & not lying awake at night listening out for new noises.


Otherwise... the small Banbury gallery where I have some work has re-opened for two days a week, and did very well indeed for the first month - & then very badly from the moment masks were made compulsory. I happened to be stewarding the first day after that and was struck not just by the number of people who looked in the window and didn't come in, but also by the number of times I overheard, through the open door: 'Shall we go in?' 'No, not worth putting a mask on.' I hope this will change - not just for the gallery's sake but for all the shops that are clinging on - but I'm very aware of no longer browsing myself, and arranging trips into town so that I get in and out as fast as possible and go to as few shops as possible. A couple of the other co-op members have done some wonderfully inventive things with the displays to entice people to don their nosebags.


Of masks, it sounds as if we may be compelled to teach in them next term... Since a tutorial is ideally an animated conversation, and it's difficult to hold an animated conversation when you keep getting mouthfuls of fabric and can't hear what the other person is saying, I don't think this is ideal. We've also had to measure our rooms to see how many people we can fit in with social distancing. I'm lucky - so long as one person sits right in the corner on a very uncomfortable chair, I can take three others. Only the distances really are quite large, and what with that and masks, I suspect we'll have to raise our voices to the extent that it undoes the benefits those things are meant to bring. But thankfully that's not for a while yet. 


Meantime, I've been trying to gauge whether numbers in Penwith are up on a normal year. The queues of traffic trying to get off the A30 into Penzance were startling, and a friend said his son had taken an hour to get from Hayle to St Ives the other morning (about 4 miles, I think) - but a friend in St Just said she's found it slightly quieter than other summers, and the town and walks immediately around it do seem calm - despite a startling sign at the top of Fore Street announcing 'COVID 19 - PEDESTRIANS IN ROAD'. I've barely been out yet, though, & it will be interesting to see how things are visiting Open Studios next week. In fact it's lovely to be able to go to these, as they're normally during term - though I hope the new time works for the artists too. One other tiny good thing to come out of the general chaos is that the St Ives School of Painting has started doing webinars, run by tutors who'd normally be teaching face to face classes. They're wonderful.


Rural Norfolk

Chris Gates, Norfolk UK

The aftermath, predictably, of three days of birthday celebrating is a very slow start to the week - though with considerable relief it dawns on me that in contrast to a week or so of intensive preps, Monday dawns with nothing on the ‘to do’ list that can’t be done tomorrow. Or the day after. Here we are, Wednesday and there’s still oddments of debris around, but S. has been relaxing on the sofa with her new iPad and pen and all I’ve done is to make a catering-quantity batch of fresh-from-the-polytunnel tomato based pasta sauce in between fishing videos from the comfort of the other sofa. Our get up and go is gorn, temporarily.


The aftermath of the exam algorithm fiasco is that the head of Ofqual, one Sally Collier, has left ‘by mutual agreement’ though it’s expected she’ll be invited before the Commons Committe scheduled to look into the whole business next week. She leaves behind broken hearts and £200,000 a year. Her counterpart in the Dept of Education, top Civil Servant Jonathan Slater has been summarily sacked by Boris.


After much to-ing and fro-ing with the provinces breaking ranks it seems we’re now decided on a UK protocol that students over 12 in lockdown areas should wear masks at school while in corridors and other indoor places where they’ll meet others not in their classroom ‘bubble’. Except of course, those with good reason not to, those who can’t be arsed and those who feel it’s not enough of a fashion statement. There are currently 20 city lockdown areas, so a significant number of kids are involved and likely to feel a bit truculent about being selected for this experiment, led as it is, by the same ‘science’ that until a few days ago saw no reason to impose the rule. For the moment it’ll be up to individual Heads in areas outside lockdown to decide whether to follow suit.


Here in Norfolk, one poultry processing plant has found 80 (and counting) staff testing covid-positive from a workforce of 350. No-one wants to comment on just why poultry plants seem particularly susceptible, but the common factor is cheap, maybe rather casual, mainly Eastern bloc labour and poor welfare conditions - poor, crowded hostel accommodation, poor, cramped canteens - perhaps little opportunity for meaningful distancing in their lives.


And finally, some more upbeat news: 75% of Health Trusts were able to report zero coronavirus deaths in the past 48 hours. Apparently. I read it on Twitter. Must be true.

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