Wednesday, 1 April 2020

And Now For Something Entirely Different.....

the end of culture as I know it, for the time being anyway. I hope.

Creativity is in short supply in my household, all I can think of doing is unravel the rugs and knit face masks with the proceeds. That is if I knew how to knit. Years ago I gave away all jigsaw puzzles, half finished embroidery tablecloths went down the charity route and painting by numbers has never appealed. Reading is a habit I won’t tire of anytime soon, unfortunately the last book I picked from the long list of “waiting to be read” is Isabell Allende’s “In the Midst of Winter”, too good to be put aside but also too deeply harrowing to be read without frequent recourse to a sip of wine and a piece of chocolate. I really need to forget about the improving kind of reading material and go back to the shelves of old favourites for a laugh. For a little light relief I watched the first two episodes of the new Sunday night costume saga “Belgravia”, Downton Abbey in the time of Waterloo; Mr. Fellowes, do you really need more dosh that badly?

However, to culture, the high brow variety.

Have you ever sat among an audience, clinging to the armrests of your seat, trying to prevent yourself shouting at the players? That’s what happened to me during “The Whip”, a brand new play about the abolition of slavery in 1834. On the surface, the achievement appears to be a heroic victory for human decency, in truth, slavery was followed by the appalling 'apprenticeship scheme', slavery by another name, with worse punishment. Slave owners were compensated for the loss of their ‘property’ with a multi-million pound Sterling windfall; in 2015 the money borrowed for this ‘bailout' was finally paid off by the British taxpayer. What made me want to shout and climb the stage was the naked greed, the inhumanity, corruption, mendacity, portrayed by the actors. I believed it all, and it reminded me forcibly of our own times.

How different was the National Theatre’s “Cyrano De Bergerac”. Until quite late into the first scene I was still waiting for the play to begin, confused by a lineup of actors rapping at a fast and furious pace. This is a radical reboot of Rostand’s 1897 ‘wooing-by-proxy’ romantic classic and, once I understood what was going on, I loved it. James McAvoy was a fierce, proud, word-intoxicated Cyrano, never stumbling, never missing a beat. Yes, I loved it.

And that will be that for the time being. All theatres are closed, as are all cinemas. No more live shows, no more streaming. Tickets already bought and paid for are invalid; I have no idea if the Royal Shakespeare Company will make refunds. The probable loss of money is not my first concern, I am more saddened by the loss of one of my favourite pastimes. My friends and I have tickets for performances at Stratford for two consecutive days in May, with an overnight stay at a fancy hotel.

Ah well.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Brace Yourselves,

there’s worse to come, Apparently.

Everything is dead, there is no life in Valley’s End at all, except for the volunteers who help those forced to stay at home. I hardly even see or hear any dog walkers in the castle grounds. I went to the surgery yesterday morning for a blood test and a consultation with the practice nurse. I saw one cyclist and one car, no other pedestrians, for the 20 minutes it took me to get there. All doors to the surgery were closed, I had to ring a brand new bell to be allowed in. A receptionist came to the door, told me to use the hand gel and wait in the empty waiting room. I was assured that there would be nobody else waiting at the same time. The nurse soon called me in, she stayed at the farther end of the consulting room and I stopped by the door while we talked. She had to come close to take my blood but we instantly moved apart again when she had finished.

It seems I have both COPD and asthma. Both recently diagnosed and only now confirmed. What a time to choose to develop lung disease! New medication works, I can breathe without wheezing.

I had a few general questions for Nurse Marian about Marzena, my cleaner, and Paul, the gardener. Would I be allowed to have them still? Both need the income. Provided we all keep a 2 m distance,  wash our hands, or even better, for me to stay in a different room from Marzena and away from Paul in the garden, there should be no problem. Both are sensible people and want to risk neither their own health nor mine.

I also had a more serious question for Marian. If I caught the virus, what were my chances? Would I die? She looked me in the eye and said, instantly, without hesitation and a dead straight face: “Yes”.
That’s telling me in no uncertain terms!

I suppose I am one of the lucky ones; I may be alone without family near, able or willing to help, but I have friends with whom I am in touch. We all keep an eye on each other. I am also resourceful; I live in a house with a good private outdoor space rather than an apartment block. I am quite able to look after myself and never need anyone to entertain me. The only family member moved to ring me without prompting was my former son-in-law, even my own son needed a reminder. He apologised for the lapse. Another bit of luck is that I am apparently on my supermarket’s list of vulnerable customers. How I got there is anybody’s guess. However, that means that they offer me a regular weekly delivery slot. There’s no guarantee that I get everything I order online, but they usually find an acceptable alternative. I even have a sufficient supply of toilet paper! Not having to stand in a queue is a huge weight off my shoulders.

There’s much worse to come, this whole misery is to last for a long time yet. we are told that the peak of the epidemic in the UK will not be reached for another two to three weeks. Even that is no more than a guesstimate, of course. How anybody can think - and say - that things will be back to normal by Easter (Hey there, Mr Trump) in a country which has barely begun it’s COVID 19 journey buggers belief.

I repeat my mantra from the previous post: Take care, look after yourselves and your loved ones and Good Luck to all of us.

Saturday, 21 March 2020


I’ve been wondering if blogging is still appropriate in these uncertain times but, maybe now more than ever, we need to keep in touch with others ? And as we are no longer free to meet up in person, whether family, friends or neighbours, digital contacts are becoming more and more important? In good times we consider each other friends here in blogland, how much more need do we have of a friendly comment in fearful times. That’s what I think, anyway, and if you are still around, maybe you do too.

Although Valley’s End has no cases of coronavirus yet it is coming closer and closer and, no doubt, our tiny backwater will sooner or later fall prey. The village is preparing itself, the Good Neighbours group is recruiting under 70s to help with shopping, picking up prescriptions and keeping an eye on the vulnerable by phone. Over 70s are urged to avoid all social contact, stay at home except for walks in our beautiful countryside and, if meeting other walkers, to stand well away during chats. Naturally, stop and chat we will, a friendly place like ours prides itself on its networks of social interactions. Sadly, only at a distance now. Friends and acquaintances ring each other up - I’ve never had so many phone calls! - which helps a lot. Nobody must feel lost and forgotten and lacking assistance.

Personally I have been in isolation for a couple of weeks already, only Paul and the cleaner come. I still go to the village corner shop while we are free of the disease. The supermarket delivers to my door, as does the butcher. I read, garden a bit (it’s still rather chilly for longer hours outside), watch TV and DVDs,  go for solitary walks and speak to people on the phone. I have started to cook proper meals again too. Yesterday, for the first time in ages, I cooked meat and potatoes and vegetables. I even had gravy! I ate it at the kitchen table, poured myself a glass of wine to go with it and enjoyed the food like I haven’t ever enjoyed my quickly thrown together, cooked from frozen, dishes. My regime is not really all that different from ordinary days and still quite bearable. I have relaxed my routine, get up later and go to bed later, often reading into the night. I find that exercise is very important, sometimes, on a really lazy day, when I’ve not been outside at all, by bedtime my bottom and back hurt from all the sitting and I stagger up the stairs like a very old woman.

Now that we have passed the vernal equinox the days are longer than the nights and we welcome the warmer months. It should help with staying positive.

What really makes me very angry are people who say : “Well, if I get it, I get it.” People who take no notice of others’ vulnerability, who continue to go out and about without having a valid reason, who congregate in large groups. People who party regardless. I want to say to them : “It’s not about you, I don’t care if you get it, I don’t care how ill you get, I care about the people you infect, who might be somebody’s loved one, the valuable hospital space you take up, the health workers you might infect. Stopping the spread of the disease, that’s what's important, not your personal convenience.

So, dear friends, take care of yourselves and your loved ones and good luck to all of us. Back soon.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

The Dreaded Plague and a Very Expensive Haircut

First it was Brexit, then the floods and now Coronavirus.
The various news media have all been obsessed with just one subject at a time and there’s no getting away from it.

I have started to look at my friends with a very gimlet eye and those that I know to be of the hither-and-thither-shuffling persuasion I will not see much of while this whole virus business is going on. I have no problem with people who travel, use distance public transport and have a hectic social life at any other time, but not now. Over 70s are encouraged to remain relatively stationary and as most of us don’t go out to work, a few weeks of fixed aboding shouldn’t be too onerous. I have some extra provisions in, plenty of books, a garden for pottering, birds to watch, music to listen to, fellow bloggers to interact with, and locals whom I can see when the need moves me. I am on steroids for asthma and therefore have a weakened immune system. Deliberately exposing myself to catching the virus would be silly. It’ll be unlucky enough to catch it involuntarily.

So this is me for a bit.

I went for a haircut the other day, a regular 5-weekly event which takes a fairly small outlay and a car journey of no more than 30 minutes total there and back. It was one of the cold and wet specials England goes in for with abundant gusto and I was looking forward to getting back beside the Aga. It’s a very narrow, winding country road which makes it difficult to go fast and I was taking my time, a typically rolling English road made by the rolling English drunkard. Almost back in Valley’s End the disaster happened. I hit a deep pothole, filled with water and therefore invisible, and first the front tyre, then the back tyre, burst. It was an explosive sound and I was momentarily thrown and quite scared. Once I collected my wits I knew I couldn’t stay where I was, anyone coming round the bend would have hit me, so I limped the car a few hundred meters, very slowly, leaning on its right side, until I could safely pull it off the lane. It’s never a bad idea to be close to your particular mechanic, ever since we moved here we’ve used the same chap and it only took him 10 minutes to come and rescue me. He drove me home, then picked up the car. He was back before evening, all four tyres present and correct.

Insurance companies don’t cover pothole damage. This is deemed to be an ‘at-fault’ claim. So, as well as paying an excess, you could lose some of your no-claims bonus, and risk higher premiums in future.

I was interested in the etymology of ‘pothole’  : a depression or hollow in a road surface caused by wear or subsidence. From dialectal pot (“pit, hollow, cavity”) +‎ hole in Middle English.

Some say potholes are so called because of the potters who dug up chunks of clay from the Roman Empire's smooth roadways, more than 3,000 years ago. That explanation is more romantic but possibly less likely than the ordinary etymological one.

Friday, 6 March 2020

By no Means a Surfeit of Culture (part 1)

Surfeit: (noun) an excessive amount of something

or , acc. to Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night Act 1, scene 1"

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

Well, for me it wasn’t an excess of anything, just enough, more like, and there’s more to follow yet, and certainly not enough to sicken the appetite; rather, let me call it a sufficiency.

The Sleeping Beauty is a grand, formal and very human ballet. It's packed full of radiant dancing and touches of observation, often both at once; it is danced with great depth, contrast and warmth.

 Magnificent scenery, exquisite costumes,
Tchaikovsky’s exuberant score, and a huge cast, what’s not to like? And, of course, it all ends happily-ever-after, Princess Aurora is awakened by Prince Florimund and wicked Carabosse disappears, never to be seen again.

Nobody speaks, is betrayed, dies or goes mad in Jerome Robbins’s ballet “Dances at a Gathering,” but this hourlong, pure-dance work, set to an anthology of Chopin piano pieces, is nonetheless a multilayered masterpiece of theatre.

"Within months of its 1969 premiere (with New York City Ballet, which revives it this week), there was so much talk about its characters and narratives that Robbins (the choreographer)sent a letter to the quarterly Ballet Review written like a telegram: “THERE ARE NO STORIES TO ANY OF THE DANCES IN DANCES AT A GATHERING. THERE ARE NO PLOTS AND NO ROLES. THE DANCERS ARE THEMSELVES DANCING WITH EACH OTHER TO THAT MUSIC IN THAT PLACE.”

You make of it what you will. You could, like I did, simply watch and follow breathlessly, as Chopin’s various pieces unfold, with music and dance merging into one brilliant experience.

As good as Sleeping Beauty and Dances at a Gathering were they came nowhere near the brand new ballet 'The Cellist', the story of the life of Jacqueline du Pre, who died, at 42, 30years ago. The story is told through the instrument, which is danced by Marcelino Sambe, and goes from her childhood and first lessons through her years as a player of extraordinary talent to her illness and death, the cello falling silent at last.

It was a breathtaking performance, inspirational, powerfully affecting, utterly moving. I rarely go overboard for a ballet, but see this if you can.

So what a huge difference the film of ‘Downton Abbey’ was compared to anything else I’ve seen during the first two months of the year. Firstly, the theatre was crammed full of old people, many on sticks, in wheelchairs, pushing walking aids, accompanied by carers. Chatty and lively, excited to be 'out on licence’, humming like bees in a beehive, they were shepherded to their seats, where they stayed, relatively quietly, waiting for their favourite show to unfold and Maggie Smith’s acerbic comments to tickle their funnybone. There was much laughter at the appropriate moments and quite a few satisfied sighs when Downton’s ‘belowstairs’ got one over on the Royal entourage.

Personally, I thought the film was harmless fun, nothing to get excited over, rather painting-by-numbers and predictable; I watched the TV series and this was in much the same vein. I expect you’ve all long seen it and enjoyed it. I did too, finally.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020


It is time for all the heroes to go home
if they have any; time for all of us common ones
to locate ourselves by the real things
we live by.

William Stafford

It’s quite unbelievable, we have had the fourth flood! Five, if you count separate floods on two consecutive days. And it’s not over yet, there is more heavy rain to come by the end of the week and showers in between. Shrewsbury town centre is still under water. I was supposed to go to a funeral in the town yesterday. I’m afraid I chickened out, together with three friends who were going in the same car. We went to the local pub instead and drank a toast to the deceased. We weren’t exactly proud of ourselves but we felt safer and quite relieved once we had come to a decision. It doesn’t do for the old and infirm (one of us was in a wheelchair - one in her early nineties -  one disabled and only me reasonably mobile) to be foolhardy.

My image as a high-flying, brainy, intellectual and altogether smartypanty, (yea, sure) if foreign, pillar of our particular society is taking a thorough beating. There I was, at a party for people on the losing side of the Remain/Leave partition, every member an academic, artist, engineer and professional, all vocal and committed to our joint cause. All talking absolute sense (that is, if you are on our side of the argument), with the debate hotting up a bit as the evening progressed. This was the first party I had been invited to since I’ve been on my own, all previous invitations have been to small groups, lunches and dinner parties. Whenever I find myself in such company I instantly feel like an impostor, a fraud, somebody who shouldn’t really be there. My reaction to such discomfort? I talk, I argue, I debate, tell stories, until many eyes are on me. Afterwards, at home, I feel utterly embarrassed.

This time there was an additional embarrassment: my frequent attendance at the 'Ladies who Lunch’ was brought up by a gossipy guest and it seems that it is by no means a secret that I have truck with Leavers and right-wingers. There were nods all round when I asked if everyone in Valley’s End knew. Luckily, this was cause for good-natured hilarity and I was teased mercilessly, rather than shunned and berated. Having felt uncomfortable about the Ladies’ conversation a few times now, I will try and see less of them, although I have no wish to offend them. Yes, their opinions can drive me mad, but they are kind and welcoming every time.

Like I said, this was the very first larger party I attended on my own. I knew a few of the guests and the hostess is a fellow foreigner and we therefore can get together and vent about ‘the English and their quaint customs’ and find we have a lot in common.We’ve both been here for decades. But, I did miss Beloved, all the others were coupled and went home  two-by-two. No matter how welcoming and friendly people are, it takes quite an effort to find your personal shaped niche to settle into by yourself.

I am off to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford with two friends tomorrow - both eminently able-bodied. That means I won’t have to look after anyone but myself if we get stuck in a flood somewhere. The play, “The Whip" is brand new, not sure that I will enjoy it. “Electrifying, compelling”, says the blurb.

Monday, 17 February 2020

On the Home Front

Valley’s End is flooded for the third time in just a few weeks; storm Dennis was worse than last weekend’s Ciara. In my twenty years here I have not seen the bottom field, where I regularly walked my dogs,  as deep under water as this morning. The rain has been incessant and there’s more to come  next week. I am so sorry for my neighbours who live along the river bank and whose cottages and houses are inundated with muddy brown river water from further up the valley in the Welsh hills.

I have stopped slavishly following the news, I just can’t bear it anymore. There is never anything good on offer, just the same endlessly miserable, spiteful, nasty, mean reports and opinion pieces, full of doom and gloom. It is all too depressing. Instead I watch the birds busily devouring everything I put out for them from my kitchen window. I have been wondering: all those tiny creatures like siskins, blue tits, gold finches, nuthatches, what happens to them during storms?
Are they blown off course? Or do they shelter in the hedges during
the worst of the weather? I have whole families of gold finches
(middle picture) landing on my feeders, would they be the same
birds as the ones before the storms? They love sunflower hearts, perhaps they fight for the right to return? As soon as I fill the container the gold finches are back. The others are all happy with peanuts, fat balls and mixed seeds. As their name implies, nuthatches love peanuts best. (the bird with the go-faster eye stripe)

The previous week we had one good day and Paul and I worked in the garden, the first time this year. It was still very cold and the wind had already started, but there was a bit of sunshine and we managed a decent three hours.

I’ve told you about Paul before, he isn’t a patch on old gardener, but I’ve got used to him. He actually volunteered a comment or two while we were having our tea break. Last autumn he was still deep in the clutches of depression, barely able to function. Sometimes he seemed to be falling asleep on his feet. I can’t just turn him off while he is so poorly, I’d feel mean and unkind; I think he is glad that I am still employing him and perhaps that’s why he seemed brighter this year. It is also possible that he has recovered a bit, he has treatments and sees somebody regularly.

This person, who is a kind of health visitor, also helps him in practical ways. Paul has no other income than the money he makes from gardening
and a few artistic things like designing and
creating greetings cards, bird boxes, trugs,
and other woodworkings, large and small.
He is a creative soul and when he feels well
enough he spends time in his workshop.
He lives on an amount that wouldn’t cover my utilities bills, much less food and drink and treats. For years I and another employer have tried to push him into applying for benefit payments but he always insisted that he didn’t want to do this. This health visitor has persuaded him and helped with filling in the relevant forms and I am very hopeful that he will at least receive some financial assistance. I know people who are so good at milking the system that they are doing very nicely, and have done for years, yet someone like Paul, who certainly deserves help, goes without.

As you can see from the picture snowdrops will soon be over but the hellebores are only just coming into their own. Roll on spring.