Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Wednesday’s fortuitous facial with a sneeze thrown in.

Image Wikia - Miss Piggy

No small pleasure this, more a great bit of luck: Helen, the beautician, rang to say she had a cancellation and did I want to make use of it, my original appointment having fallen through. I’m always happy to have a shave and some hot towels applied to my face, I’ll even put up with a massage and a mask, and today’s treatment was a joy, as always. 

Something in one of the products she used made me sneeze; as this would be a very meagre little post otherwise, I’ll add some wisdom which might come in useful during the winter months:

“Concerning Sternutation or Sneezing, and the custom of saluting or blessing upon that motion, it is pretended and generally believed to derive its original from a disease wherein Sternutation proved fatal, and such as Sneezed died . . . . Yet Sneezing being properly a motion of the brain, suddenly expelling through the nostrils what is offensive to it, it cannot but afford some evidence of mental vigour. Sir Thomas Browne 1646

Another bit of luck: I met no one on a three mile stretch of very narrow country lane, with both edges muddy and deeply rutted; I’d have had a heck of a job to get out of the way of another vehicle, particularly if that vehicle had been a tractor.

(Only day 2 of my positive thinking week and I’m already scratching around in the mud for material).

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Tuesday’s Positively Pleasurable Permutation

Two moments of awareness in one day, who’d have thought it: -

It’s not that I wouldn’t have seen this chink of light breaking
through the darkness of the afternoon but today I made an effort 
to let it please me instead of just shivering and scuttling for home
as quickly as possible.

Paul came this morning to start the great tidy up of the woodland garden.
He also took the time to strim a path for me from the side gate down to the moat.
This path, which is normally very overgrown, becomes slippery once rain 
freezes and icy patches form. Now I can see where I put my boots and
 may save myself from a tumble down the bank.
Thank you Paul.

There is one pleasure yet to come tonight: it’s poetry evening chez Friko. The subject is ‘Battle’ (as opposed to war poetry). Not a subject I find riveting but I’ve found a couple of potboilers, one of which is funny: "The Battle of Hastings", which ends with ‘Arold on ‘is 'orse with an eyeful of arrow and a ‘awk on 'is ‘and, preferably to be read in a Cockney accent. while the other is a patriotic, gung-ho thing - "The Battle of the Baltic” - which is full of cannon, gore and hearts of oak.

I’d better get the wine and nibbles ready.

Monday, 23 November 2015

A Week’s Worth of Positive Thought

birch in November


Try as I might I can’t find anything good about November, except that it’s nearly over and hasn’t been too onerous a month this year. In fact, it’s been flying by; what happened to it, where did it go? There’s been barely enough time to indulge in proper misery and the trough of despond and I hardly touched sides, although I tried my best. (Any more cliché-d phrases and I shall make myself sick).

Misery and I are good friends, and sometimes I positively relish her. Still, I’m going to try and give her up, at least for a week. The fault for this decision lies with a friend I met in the village yesterday. We were standing in the middle of the roadway - we do that here in Valley’s End, cars frequently have to make their way around gossiping villagers - catching up. It was dark and dank and dismal and I was hoping she would join me in a moan and a whinge about  . . . .  well, anything really. I’m not fussed. But no, she said she had decided to find something to be pleased about in every day, little, unimportant things maybe, but something to cheer herself up. I had always thought of her as made of sterner stuff, stiff-upper-lip stuff, after all, she is a scientist, but there you are, this mania for ‘positive thinking’ can hit anyone at any time.

Alison was particularly chuffed yesterday because she had been making mayonnaise; the mayonnaise had promptly curdled and she was about to throw it out when she pulled herself up, addressed herself in a firm voice and set about uncurdling it. She succeeded and she has a jar of decent mayonnaise to show for it.

So, just to see what it feels like, I too am going to try to find a small pleasure in every day for one week. And shall report on success or failure here.

I do so hope I won’t regret this. 

Saturday, 21 November 2015

My Friend The Tree Is Dead*

For the average German the forest is more than just the sum of the trees. When trees are threatened, Germans go on the warpath. I well remember the time of the late 70s when “sour rain” (i.e. acid rain), supposedly coming from Scandinavia, caused the great dying of the forests, particularly coniferous forests like the Schwarzwald (Black Forest). At the time the damage was thought to be irreversible. In Germany the forest is not only a cultural landscape formed through forestry and the result of modern recreational activities ranging from GPS-guided hikes to treetop trails. Much more than that, the woods and trees possess great symbolic, spiritual and fairytale-like charismatic powers and have always been celebrated in German poetry, art and music. Many of the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm are set in Enchanted Forests.  In this way the forest is deeply rooted in the German consciousness – not only when we are using the woods for recreational purposes.

Two millennia ago, when Germany was 90% woodland, (compared to about 20% now) the army of Hermann defeated the then greatest military power on earth, the Roman army, by setting an ambush in a narrow corridor between  impassable swamps on one side and hilly, thicketed forests on the other, the great battle of the Teutoburger Wald in 9 AD. The victory gave the woodland warriors a symbol of invincibility in the forest.

Even hard-headed German politicians subscribe to the cult of trees; in a 1983 interview Chancellor Helmut Kohl said : mythology,  Germans and the forest, they all belong together.

still standing - beech and truncated horse chestnut

Which brings me to the death of our own ancient horse chestnut. It has been sickening for some time - a few years ago we lightened its load by having the sail trimmed drastically - but during the recent gales on two consecutive days and nights it finally gave up the fight. During the first night the left hand fork came down and the next night the long branch on the right collapsed. No one was hurt but the garden beneath took a direct hit. My heart broke when I saw the terminally damaged giant.

the left fork

There was no help for it, the tree had to come down completely. Tree fellers moved in and set to work, trimming what was left of the canopy, power-sawing, chopping and chipping mercilessly, and carting the slaughtered remains away.

There is now a great gap in the hedge, allowing clear views across the valley; you’d say that’s not so bad, but it also allows the wind coming up the valley funnel newly opened access to the garden, probably bringing down several smaller trees which were damaged in the giant’s fall in the process.

The damage to the woodland garden is considerable, tree fellers trampling all over it during the removal of the horse chestnut hasn’t done it any favours. Fences are down, the leaf mould enclosure is no more, and a few terracotta pots have been shattered, their contents lost in the general mayhem.

As a dedicated tree hugger minus one very special specimen I am very sad.

*Title borrowed from a German song by Alexandra
 "Mein Freund Der Baum Ist Tot".

Friday, 13 November 2015

A Do-Gooding Liberal Goes To The Pub.

The first thing I heard was a woman’s loud voice: “ Oh, he’s gorgeous. What a lovely boy.” She went on and on in the same vein. “What a darling. Look at his beautiful eyes. Just look at them. Oh, you darling, you are a beauty, Here, let me cuddle you.” And more. “You are a sweetie, and so good. Isn’t he well-behaved”.

I was sitting, on my own, at a corner table in the Church Inn in Ludlow, right hand stabbing at scampi, chips and salad, left hand holding my iPhone book.  I couldn’t see who this miracle creature was, but obviously the cutest thing on two legs. Two legs? Surely not, nobody makes as much fuss of a child. Besides, there’s always a ‘coo-chi-coo in it when there’s a baby involved. This creature was not being patronised, this creature was admired as a paragon and petted.

Ah, petted. It had to be an animal, most probably a dog. The Church Inn allows dogs to come in. Children are allowed in too but  not quite as welcome. Finally, the woman stopped shouting and a couple came past my table, making for the exit. They had a large, rather stout and very hairy dog in tow.  He was indeed well-behaved and docile, his lead hanging fairly loose and all three of them relaxed. The waitress, for such she was, followed them for a few steps, stopping at a table opposite me. “He’s lovely,” she sighed and “isn’t he a big boy.”

She had my full attention now that I could see her. Fortyish, a bit buxom, like all the best barmaids, dressed in tight-fitting black clothes, black boots, with dark abundant hair pinned back with combs. A real pub landlady.

The table opposite me was occupied by a middle aged couple, having a sandwich lunch. They were clearly regulars, because the waitress appeared to know them.

“I prefer them to children”, she offered. “You wouldn’t believe the kids that come in here sometimes. Chucking food around, crying and shouting, running between the tables and having big enough tantrums to frighten the customers away. The other day there was a kid who scribbled all over the table with his crayons. Would you believe it?”

“I wouldn’t mind so much if they were regulars. No, they come in once and think they own the place. Think their kids can get away with murder. Tourists are the worst.” November is not tourist season, there was no danger that one of that particular breed of customer was within earshot. Ludlow depends very much on the tourist trade and it would never do to insult a tourist to his face.

“Give me dogs any day". She stopped for a minute to make sure she wasn’t offending the couple at the table. “Do you have children?” The couple shook their heads. “Right, you’re like me. I don’t have kids either, never wanted any. Dogs are less hassle any day.”

“Actually,” she continued, in full flow once again, “I blame the parents. Do they stop the little darlings from creating havoc? Do they, heck. Not likely. It’s all - here her voice attempted a posh accent - 'do stop it, darling; don’t do that'. But they don’t really stop them. Bloody liberal do-gooders. "

Eh? I must have missed something. Where and when did liberal do-gooders come into the picture?

“Bloody liberal do-gooders, that’s who I blame,” she continued. When I was naughty as a kid, I got a clip round the earhole and a smart smack on the back of my legs. Didn’t do me any harm. Nowadays, you’re not allowed to touch them.” The couple agreed with her and all three snorted in disgust.” No, give me dogs any day. No trouble, dogs.”

All this time I kept my head well down and my eyes fixed to the screen of my phone but certainly no longer reading. Would the waitress recognise me for who I am when she saw me? A bloody do-gooding liberal? Finally, she turned away from the table opposite, came over to me and reached for my now empty plate.

“Alright?” she asked in a mellow voice, and much reduced volume. “Everything alright Darling?” Weakly I nodded. “Yes thanks, lovely.”

Tuesday, 10 November 2015


Even a person like me, often given to cynicism, runs up against unexpected kindness, both of friends and of strangers. “The Kindness of Strangers” is a lovely phrase, no wonder it was taken into the language with such enthusiasm. Tennessee Williams has Blanche DuBois say it at the end of “A Streetcar Named Desire”. In the play it is a very sad phrase, Blanche is a lonely, confused woman, broken and about to be taken into an institution; she has no real friends and the kindness of strangers she has experienced has been much in her imagination.

Recently, Beloved and I have been shown much genuine kindness. Late yesterday afternoon was a case in point; I returned a friend’s call, who had phoned to offer to take Millie for a walk while were out. The friend had already gone out and come back home, but when I mentioned that Millie had been in the car with us all afternoon and had not had a walk, she said she’d take her out anyway, although it was getting dark by then. I was tired from driving and taking Beloved to see health professionals and very grateful for having this additional task lifted from my shoulders.

Beloved now has a small army of personal carers visit him in the morning to get him ready for the day. They have little to do because he is quite independent again, but getting in and out of the bath can be tricky; they are professionals and know how to keep their charges safe. Their work can be unpleasant and stressful, they work long hours for minimal pay, yet each one of them is friendly, smiling and willing, full of good cheer and compassion. And, above all, common sense. Good old practical common sense allied with natural, abundant kindness. I wish there were a way for me to make those in power realise the goodness and worth of these people and see that their remuneration matched their qualities and labour.

I had a day ‘off’ last week, to go into town and do some urgent shopping which had been neglected for months. I’d left Beloved with a lady from one of those charities that give the occasional respite to full-time carers - I was a little taken aback when I got home to find that she had left her own and Beloved’s washing up for me to do, but Beloved said she was a pleasant woman and he didn’t mind too much having her around during my absence. Anyway, she’s not the one who showed special kindness, that was left to a middle-aged woman on the park-and-ride bus back to the carpark where I’d left the car. As I entered the bus, laden with bags and parcels, scanning the interior for a vacant seat, this woman got up and offered me her seat near the door. I was fairly surprised, it’s never happened to me before but, reader, I took it. Perhaps the woman saw how exhausted I was. It was my first visit to town after being ill; something of my need for a rest must have been obvious to her and she simply got up and stepped into the crowded aisle before I had even got over my surprise and internal debate whether to accept her kindness. Sitting down felt enormously satisfying and I have every intention to do the same for an old lady the next time I feel able to stand on the bus.

You might ask what the picture of a spider has to do with kindness? She was stuck in the bath this morning and I rescued her, but took her only as far as the outside window ledge from where I left her to find her own way home. She’s probably shinning up the drainpipe right now and climbing through the plug hole back into the bath.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Late Bloomers and New Arrivals

Millie and I go for little walks again, mainly around the castle. She is quite happy to revisit her favourite nooks and crannies and avidly reads the news left on every tussock by her friends. In her turn she leaves little messages for them. Like me, she is saying: I’m back!

There are still visitors of the human family kind around too.
After climbing onto the castle mound they take time to admire 
the beautiful scenery of the South Shropshire Hills.

Having had to ignore the garden for almost the whole of spring and summer
I finally found time and energy to have a wander around this month.
Considering it’s November, there are still a lot of treasures to be seen:

drooping fuchsia lanterns

 the silver seed heads of clematis in a rosemary bush

 variegated eleagnus and virginia creeper growing on the house wall
set each other off to perfection

 two varieties of geranium peep out from their foliage
amid fallen leaves

 a mophead hydrangea  

 shiny yellow flowers of hypericum  Hidcote

 and the South African osteospermum

and the next day the fog descended and 
stayed with us for three days.

Millie and I didn’t stay out for very long and to judge by the dearth
of messages left for her, neither did her friends.