Tuesday, 16 December 2014

SHORTS - Embarrassment

What is the first thing you do when you take a tumble in public?
Feel a fool, of course.

Beloved tripped over a kerb yesterday as he loaded a couple of bags of groceries on to the back seat of the car. I was picking him up outside the supermarket, literally so, out of the gutter, as it happens;  he’d done some shopping while I went for my hour with Helen. I was sitting behind the wheel, hadn’t even switched off the engine fully. One minute he was there,  the next he’d gone, on his bum on the pavement. Quite hard, actually. It took a few minutes to get him upright. He’s a bit sore today, which is why he asked Kelly if she could do the area round his chair without disturbing him as he wouldn’t find it easy to move about.

Well, it’s nice to get sympathy from a pleasant young woman like Kelly when you’re an old man, isn’t it? “Aw. bless,” she said.

Kelly is not just my cleaner, she is also a carer; I am sure she is a good and conscientious one. Beloved’s mishap got us talking after he had left the room. ‘Bin there, dun that’.  Pratfalls are nothing uncommon.

“I was going to this lady on a freezing day”, she said. “The others in the office told me about her step and how slippery it was and that you had to be extra careful going in. But you know how it is, you are running late, calls are backing up, and you just rush about. Well, I did an almost full somersault, feet went from under me, shot in the air and  landed on my head and shoulders, completely winded. Wheezing and choking. Not a breath left in my body.

I crawled to my knees and the first thing I did, before I even checked myself for injuries, I looked round, all sides, left to right, and behind me, to see if anyone had seen me. I felt such a fool.”

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Meditations On A Rainy Day III

The difference between these two pictures is 20 hours
and an awful lot of rain.
It’s the same stretch of river and the same willow tree.

For tonight the forecast says dry and very cold.

2014 has been good to me, or perhaps I have been good to myself? They say “Jeder ist seines Gl├╝ckes Schmied”, or ‘Life is what you make it’. Even the ancient Romans knew that. Appius Claudius Caecus told us that  ‘Every Man is the Architect of his Own Fortune’. I expect everybody has their favourite proverb but do we all follow the sentiment?

Well, I think I’ve cracked it. For the whole of the year I was determined that apart from the odd stumble here and there my path would be smooth, that I would not let indifference, unkindness or bare-faced lying on the part of others, no matter how close the connection, push me into unhappiness or illness. And I’ve done it. Two separate relationships have made me very unhappy in previous years; one is severed completely and the other is cooling. So, that’s that. I am amazed at how easy it was in the end. I feel regret, but accept what is and cannot be changed. Both situations have been fraught with unease and pain in the past, in both cases a catalyst caused me to stop and examine my motives for continuing with them, when there was no profit and all loss. It feels good.

Half the young ladies in London spend their evenings 
making their fathers take them to plays that are not 
fit for elderly people to see.               G.B.Shaw

All the pleasures and happinesses of 2014 have been modest, play-going chief amongst them. Thanks to a good friend we have had many trips to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford; many more are planned for 2015. That wonderful new institution, Live Streaming from the foremost theatres in London, as well as the Royal Opera House, have meant that we hardly had to miss anything we crave. As well as going to poetry meetings in Knighton, over the border in Wales, we have resurrected poetry readings at our house once a month; wine and poetry in a circle of like-minded friends make for wonderful evenings which require little effort but give an inordinate amount of pleasure.

A Book Is Like A Garden Carried In The Pocket.
Chinese Proverb

Aren’t I lucky. I have both. An endless supply of gardens on my shelves and an outdoor garden for work and play. The balance has been shifting, I’ve allowed myself far more reading than gardening time during the year, partly due to the ease with which I can, thanks to a Kindle app, read for hours without stopping. Gardening has been important too but I’ve relaxed my harsh policy of eradicating every weed that dared show its face; or if a plant wants to lean over, muscling in on its neighbours' space, so be it. I will not chastise and imprison it in a rigid corset of stakes. Besides, I’ve dug up and given away many clumps of herbaceous plants this year to replace them with easily cultivated shrubs. But best of all is to be out in the garden in summer, drag a chair into the shade of a tree, fetch a drink and open a new book. Bliss. 

Writing is the only way I have to explain my own life to myself.
Pat Conroy: My Reading Life

To my great surprise, I’ve continued with blogging throughout the year. Had you asked me five years ago I would have said that this is an activity destined to last but a short time. I am posting less, reading fewer blogs, leaving comments only once or twice a week. I have made absolutely no effort to gain new followers and have cut down on the numbers of those I follow. But I am still blogging. It’s my only other addiction apart from a craving for chocolate. Will I give up either next year?

I often think that the night is more alive 
and more richly coloured than the day.
Vincent van Gogh

Leaning out of my window last night, breathing deeply to get rid of stale central heating air in my lungs before bed I looked up into a clear, cold, starry night. The swollen river hummed monotonously, deeply soothing to the spirit. The night was calm and so was I. Counting my blessings is not for me, but appreciating the joys of the simple life is. 

Whatever happens in the new year, I will be kind to myself. 

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Meditations On A Rainy Day - II

. . . . . . . . . . but more along the lines of ‘All Passion Spent’;
Men grow too old to woo, my love,
Men grow too old to wed;

physical companionship, friendship and mutual goodwill between two people is a wonderful thing in itself; we leave the highs and lows of unbridled passion to those who have the energy. Peaceful co-existence may not be to everyone’s liking, but having experienced the opposite, this harmonious way of life is the one for me.

But there is something else we are no longer passionate about, something probably far more controversial,

Men grow too old for love, my love,
Men grow too old for lies;

and that is physical protest of any kind. Fighting the same old battles, over and over, to protect the environment, save the planet, take away from the rich and distribute to the poor, stop wars, stop hunger.

Fat chance.

Perhaps this is the unpleasant cynicism of age but, apart from making contributions in monetary terms, joining online pressure groups, and keeping our own footprint as light as possible, we now do nothing. When I watch those with two homes, a flat in the city and a house in the country, families with more cars than necessary, tourists flying to all corners of the world on short breaks and a couple of holidays a year, wailing over that poor polar bear stuck on his melting ice floe, I need to turn my back and bite my tongue. While we want to eat cheap and plentiful beef, the rain forests will continue to be destroyed. While we want to wear cheap t shirts, more and more people will have to work for hunger wages. While we want to own ever more gadgets, natural resources will have to be exploited until none are left. Someone, something, somewhere, always has to pay.

I don’t say that we, Beloved and I, have become indifferent, by no means, but we can do very little beyond what we do and for the sake of our own peace of mind we now leave protesting to the ones who will need this planet long after we have left it.

We accept our limitations.
Yes, food,
Just any old kind of food.
Pheasant is pleasant, of course,
And terrapin, too, is tasty,
Lobster I freely endorse,
In pate or patty or pasty.

2014 has seen the number of private social events shrinking too. And we don’t mind at all. Large parties are usually pretty boring, with all that standing around and shouting at each other;  small gatherings are less so, but only if the assembled company is easy to get on with. I used to do my utmost to ‘sparkle’, now I can barely muster a dull glimmer. The selfish gene has kicked in and I want return value for my effort. We still enjoy small lunch and supper parties for no more than six, both giving and receiving them. Even so, when we are the hosts the concentrated hard work before and afterwards requires at least half a day to recover.

Health problems come in to it, of course. If your heart is liable to set itself off in violent protest at having to cope with excitement you soon learn to keep yourself subdued. It’s been a good year though, I’ve managed half a dozen  episodes of AFib without having to be admitted to hospital.

Having to remain calm in the face of extreme provocation, i.e. “L’enfer, c’est les autres'', is something I have come to accept.

A thrill of thunder in my hair,
Though blackening clouds be plain,
Still I am stung and startled
By the first drop of the rain:
Romance and pride and passion pass
And these are what remain.

But the year has also been extraordinarily good to me . . . . . . . . . .


Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Meditations On A Rainy Day - I

Twenty minutes to five and quite dark outside. It is a filthy afternoon of biting winds forcing thin draughts of cold air through tiny cracks in the frames of well insulated doors and windows. All the same, the house is warm and cosy and the wind-flung rain spattering the window glass makes me glad I am indoors and there is no need to leave the house this evening. Millie must take her chances and use the garden tonight. I will neither take her nor chase her out in this weather.
No season to hedge
Get beetle and wedge
Cleave logs now all
For kitchen and hall.

It’s perfect musing weather. With the year drawing towards its end I have been doing a lot of this lately,  a habit I indulge in at the close of most years. But this year something is different: I feel at peace with myself. No self-recriminations, no desperate desire to improve myself, my attitudes, no futile promises to do better, do more, get organised. No, I see no need for major change. Hubris, do you think? Coming before a fall? Yes, possibly.

It’s also possible that this is something to do with age. The period between the childishness of youth - with some people it can reach well into their late thirties - and the onset of second childhood

When all my days are ending
And I have no song to sing,
I think that I shall not be too old
To stare at everything;

and the foolishness of old age can be a wonderful time. One feels adult, not driven by the opinions of others. On Helen’s couch this morning, waiting for her to start ministrations on my face, we got to talking about how good it feels to turn ones back on hurts and offensive remarks. “You know when someone says something or does something and you say to yourself ‘Right, I don’t want this to upset me, don’t want to let it get to me, just let it go, but you know full well that it will anyway, if not now then later?” she asked. “So when the time comes and you really don’t care, when you know that some people cannot help themselves but behave unpleasantly and for years you have been trying to ignore them and their barbs and criticisms, and then suddenly you do ignore them and shrug your shoulders?”

“When you’re in control and not always looking over your shoulder to see how what you do or say goes down with someone else?”
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

We were agreed that the journey to self-confidence has many obstacles.  Helen is a good 25 years younger than me, if she has already reached the blissful state of indifference in the face of baleful mischief-making, she has done well. It took me many more years.

All things considered, 2014 hasn’t been altogether fruitless. Beloved and I were having a conversation along similar lines last night; it’s seasonal, it seems. The word ‘passion’ was mentioned . . . . . . .


Monday, 1 December 2014

What, December Already ?

Advent again? Really?

I swear they disappear one week in every four for us oldies. Perhaps they think we’re slow and couldn’t keep up if they made us do a full month. No matter how hard I look I cannot see into what black hole of forgetfulness the last twelve months fell. It’s discrimination. I never signed up for being short-changed. I want my money back!

It’s the season of dismal grey clouds again, with only the occasional - probably accidental - chink of sunlight raking the tops of the hills with thin fingers of light. So I’m back in my winter fleece with upturned collar, the dog lead necklace being a permanent accessory.

O Dirty December
Yet Christmas Remember.

This month keep they body and head from cold. Let thy Kitchen be thy Apothecary, warm clothing thy Nurse, merry company thy Keepers, and good hospitality thine Exercise.

so says
Neve’s Almanac of 1633
and so say I.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Permutations on Lamps and The People Who Owned Them - (V)

At Grammar School my trials and tribulations hadn’t quite come to an end, but I learned to keep my head down and follow the rules. I was now a pupil at a fee-paying Catholic Girls’ School, the child from a poor background and the offspring of communist/socialist atheists, who took their convictions seriously; I should therefore have been totally out of my element. Like many children lacking in confidence, I was only too happy to blend into the background; I’d had enough of being the focus of attention, temporarily anyway.

I made friends with girls whose background was as unlike mine as possible; girls whose parents were well on the way to renewed prosperity, girls from professional backgrounds, business people, farmers who had got rich during the period when most people were starving, and the daughters of minor ex-Nazis. Germany's ‘economic miracle’ was taking hold but there was still a lot of confusion.

The last time a lamp made a particular impression on me was at a birthday party at the house of one of these friends. Birthday parties were rare and modest affairs, and I didn’t really feel like going because Mum couldn’t give me money to buy a present. On the very few occasions I accepted an invitation all I could take was a tablet of chocolate or a second hand paperback. Sigrid was the daughter of a businessman, she had new clothes and a proper haircut and lived on one floor of a large house in a once well-to-do area. I remember the living room as enormous, although it would probably not be as grand today as it seemed to me then. The room was well and comfortably furnished, with a special and separate seating area near the large window: three upholstered easy chairs around a small table, and a standard lamp in the corner behind it. The lamp drew me like a magnet and I asked if we could sit there instead of at the dining table at the other end of the room. Sigrid was surprised when I sat down in the chair under the lamp, leaned back and stretched out my arms on the arm rests. In the end we sat on the carpet and admired her presents, until her mother came in with hot drinks and cake for the three of us, Sigrid,  Elke, whose war widow mother was a teacher, and me.

I’ve got used to all sorts of lamps now; our lighting is slightly haphazard, some lamps have permanent positions, others are moved about the room to wherever they are needed. Ceiling lights are strong and have shades; Beloved with his poor eyesight likes them best and, if he had his way, they would all blaze away at the same time and cosy little corners with dim lighting would be done away with in our house.


Writing this necessarily abbreviated series has not been easy. I’ve smoothed over some of the rough edges, yet a whole host of painful memories came flooding back and I felt great pity for the sad and lonely girl who didn’t really fit in anywhere. As an only child I carried the full weight of my parents’ hopes and aspirations; inevitably, they were disappointed many times. Ungrateful, they called me when I displeased them yet again. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child. Away Away!” so said King Lear in a fit of rage to Cordelia, and, like her, I left.

None of that matters now, one can’t live ones life in permanent regret for what happened in the past; it becomes a story to tell like so many other ups and downs one lives through; looking back, events become distant and unreal. There is, however, one aspect I regret very much nowadays, particularly when I read bloggers’ posts or listen to friends’ accounts about their close connections with siblings, the places they lived in as children and throughout adulthood, from school years to university and through professional lives. I envy the continuity and the ties that keep such lucky people firmly anchored and deeply rooted. I know that rarely do two people remember their joint past in quite the same way but I would love to be able to argue about it. I have lots of unanswered questions and no one left to ask, much less answer them.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Permutations on Lamps and The People Who Owned Them (IV)

Yes, there had indeed been a meeting, possibly the sort of thing that might be called an emergency council. We didn’t know about it at the time, it was much later that a fellow pupil in my new school told me in confidence, urging me never to reveal the ‘secret’. Or else her Dad, who was a member of the school’s governing body, would get into deep trouble. She also confided that her Dad and my Dad shared political sympathies; if these were known they would jeopardise his position. I was a loyal little body but also so cowed by now that I obeyed without thought, not even telling my parents. I don’t think I ever did.

Herr Thomanek stood above us on the level half landing with Mum and me on the steps below him. His physical attitude was that of a bully but his voice had softened a little. He seemed to be uncomfortable and spoke quietly. I was crying enough not to be able to hear him anyway; Mum listened, she didn’t speak for a long time. She nodded and appeared to agree with him and said to me “I’ll tell you when we get home.” They didn’t explain or ask my opinion..

Before we turned back down the stairs to leave I urgently wanted to make Thomanek understand that I never meant to be ‘cynical’ (whatever the word meant) and that I only smiled at him during lessons because I liked them. Hopefully, I lifted my tear-streaked face, but he turned abruptly, without looking at me.

In the German Secondary School System Middle School was the less academic branch of higher education. Although core subjects were taught, i.e. foreign languages, maths, geography, history etc., the school for academically gifted children was the Grammar School, where subjects included classics, science, music, German literature, etc. School fees were higher and students stayed on to 18/19 years of age.

At that time, in the 1950s and early 60s, both Middle and Grammar schools were occupying the same large building. It was one of the few in the town left unbombed and everywhere schools and other establishments budged up to make room for those who had lost their premises.

The heads of both schools, their senior staff and representatives of the governing body, including my fellow student’s Dad, had decided that the situation in Thomaneks’ classroom had become toxic and it would be impossible to restore order. I would have to leave. I would be offered a place in the same year at the Grammar School; school fees would be waived and I would continue to receive a scholarship. It was to be hoped that I was bright enough to catch up. It was fait accompli. Take it or leave it. The alternative was to return to basic education in the ordinary compulsory state system for all children, which precluded any chance of further academic education. Nowadays the choice would be called a No-Brainer.

Within days I was a Grammar School pupil. Some teachers disliked me from the beginning, rumours of misconduct had gone round both schools but, as now and always, gossip and rumours come and go. The girl whose Dad had spoken up for me and my parents befriended me, we discovered a joint liking for literature and poetry. I didn’t catch up in all subjects, certainly not in those I hadn’t been taught for three years, and I slipped from being top of the class to somewhere in the middle. By and by new, younger teachers came for whom I was an ordinary pupil, not tainted with having caused a teacher’s fall from grace, and we took/didn’t take to each other as such things are arranged in the natural course of events.

Middle School and Grammar School took outdoor breaks at different times but on the same school playground. Sometimes we’d overlap slightly and I’d see Thomanek doing supervising duty. I knew better than to smile at him and besides, he always turned his back on me.

there’s a paragraph or two to do with another lamp to come and a bit of an afterword. But the drama is all over.