Monthly Archives: May 2020

Inside stories

It’s six-thirty in the morning of another indeterminate day. I stumble to the kitchen, down a glass of water and fill the kettle. Now to feed Frederica, the sourdough culture, who’s been relegated from the airing cupboard to the fridge, in an attempt to curb her bubbly personality. She’s the closest I’m likely to get to owning a pet at this stage in my life, and I find myself chatting to her as I spoon a little of the precious flour supply into her jar.

Back in 1976, my then husband and I hitch hiked from Wiltshire to Ireland. An old school friend of his had bought a smallholding near Sligo. The farm had no phone line, and mobiles were a distant dream, so we filled a couple of backpacks, hit the road and hoped there’d be someone home when we arrived. I’ve never forgotten the journey. The summer had been intense. There was barely a blade of grass that hadn’t been burned brown. We were picked up near Ross-on-Wye by the driver of an empty coach on his way to Holyhead. My husband loved to talk, so I settled back to enjoy the scenery. Nothing I’d read about the drought had prepared me for the skeletons. Gaunt and grey, the charred remains of hundreds of acres of Forestry Commission trees lined the roads through Snowdonia like hungry ghosts, occasional wisps of smoke still rising from the barely-extinguished forest fires.

There are so many tales I could tell of that summer living the hippie dream. There was the village shop that sold crisps with pre-decimal prices on the packets, more than five years after decimalisation, there was the stream where we washed because the farm had no mains water, and there were the endless tales Martin brought back from the local market. He grew vegetables not commonly cultivated in rural Ireland in the seventies, including Brussels sprouts. These had caught the eye of an elderly farmer
So, what are they exactly?
They’re like tiny cabbages
And why would I want tiny cabbages when I can grow great big ones of my own?
Forty-four years on, and it’s the tiny things that matter most. Our larger aspirations have been laid waste by a virus so small it can’t be seen with a conventional microscope. Our lives have shrunk to the size of our living rooms, and to admit I talk to a sourdough culture called Frederica sounds nowhere near as crazy as it would’ve done way back last year.

When my brothers were born, the NHS was not ten years old. I’d be lying if I said I could remember which afternoon it was every week that Mum bundled them into the twin pram for the walk to the clinic, but I know it wasn’t Monday. Monday was divvy day at Williams Brothers, so we shopped on Monday. That was a much longer walk. The clinic building was makeshift, and I have a vague recollection of corrugated iron, but the staff were brisk and efficient. I remember my brothers, stripped to their terry nappies, wailing as they were placed in the scales that took pride of place. We’d come home with purple tins of National Dried Milk in the basket under the pram, and bottles of cod liver oil and rose hip syrup, whose tastes I love to this day.

Chocolate buttons were a rare luxury in the late 1950s, but in my mind they are forever associated with the sting of a needle in the upper arm. The small room behind the scales was where all the immunisations took place. The room had two doors. A queue of anxious mums and fearful children would form at the left-hand door, and a steady procession of tearful children would emerge on the right. I think the chocolate button one of the nurses popped into your mouth as the other popped the needle into your arm was supposed to distract you from the pain.

I consider myself beyond fortunate to have been born in post-war Britain. Uncomfortable though my memories of the clinic may be, I’m truly thankful I never had to face the slow suffocation of diphtheria, the agony of tetanus, or life in an iron lung. My mind often chafes at the way my world has shrunk of late, and it’s easy to forget I’ve had a lifetime of comfort and safety, and experiences beyond the wildest dreams of half the world. Whatever the future holds, I’ve already seen and done far more than most people, past, present or future, ever will.

With Frederica back in the fridge, it’s time for the morning walk. Alert as meerkats on sentry duty, my companion and I venture into the sunlight. I take photographs of the ever-changing minutiae of the world around me. Today the seed pods of the buttercups are swelling, the fern fronds continue to unfurl in an infinite range of patterns, and there are tiny, white flowers on the holly tree. In sixty-six years on this beautiful earth, I’ve never noticed those before. The meadow grasses dance higher than yesterday, the bluebells are fading to reveal their green hearts, and a lace of cow parsley spreads alongside the path.

It’s almost eight weeks since lockdown drove us all inside, although in truth, it’s been rather longer for those of us who realised early on our lives were at risk if we didn’t act. COVID-19 has broadsided everyone. Nobody knows who’s got it, who’s had it, or what effect it might have on anyone who catches it. In comfortable Britain, we’ve enjoyed two generations of antibiotics and immunisations, and we’re not used to illnesses we can’t control. This time no-one’s immune, there’s no cure, no defence except isolation, and nobody seems to be in control.

When it became clear COVID-19 was rampant, there was talk of herd immunity. The government denied they’d said that faster than Tim Martin could dismiss his staff. Apparently, allowing half a million and more people to die isn’t a popular strategy. Who knew? Nevertheless, the idea wasn’t far from the mark. For most of human history, our sole defence has been our own immune systems. During the last couple of hundred years, antibiotics, antiretrovirals, antiseptics and immunisation have joined our armoury. Antiseptics, bleach and soap are highly effective against COVID-19, but despite what Donald Trump tells you, they only work outside the human body. Once the virus gets inside, nothing works at all. Scientists are searching round the clock for a cure, or better still, a vaccine, but they haven’t found it yet.

Research on COVID-19 is in its infancy. Nobody understands the long-term effects of the virus, or why it does so much more damage to some people than to others. It seems to me that until these things are understood, any return to ‘normal’ is likely to be at the cost of many lives. All the conspiracy theories, anti-lockdown rallies, burning of 5G masts, denial, point-scoring, statistical manipulation and fake news in the world can’t change the facts. We’re in the grip of a pandemic. Nobody knows where it came from, nobody is immune, and until we have a vaccine or a reliable treatment, soap and social distance will be our only real defences.

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Raw carrots, woollen horses and rose-tinted spectacles

One of the more unexpected consequences of lockdown has been the rediscovery of my fondness for raw carrots. It’s not that I ever actually forgot that I liked raw carrots. I suppose what I mean is, I’ve reacquainted myself with the simple pleasure of eating them.

When I was a child, supper was an important part of the daily routine. It wasn’t a meal as such, more a bedtime snack. Supper took many forms. It might be leftover gravy from the Sunday roast, heated and eaten as soup. Sometimes it was toast and dripping, or bread and milk. It might be a home-grown apple. I can even remember a brief phase when it consisted primarily of ice cubes.

One of my supper favourites was a raw carrot. Unlike formal meals, supper was only lightly supervised, so I had freedom to experiment in ways that would have been considered ‘playing with my food’ at any other time of day. A carrot, I soon discovered, is a vegetable of two parts. There’s a deeper orange outer layer, which becomes darker and harder on the teeth as the carrot grows bigger. There’s also an inner core. This is lighter, juicier and often sweeter than the outer layer, although it can become woody if the carrot grows very large. It’s fairly easy to remove the outer layer carefully with one’s teeth and eat it, I found, without damaging the inner core. By this means, I was able to save my favourite part of the carrot until last. With practice, the same technique can be applied to a bourbon biscuit, although the cream’s inclined to disintegrate rather more easily than the centre of a carrot.

I have no idea where I first came upon the idea that a person who saves their favourite part of a meal until last is a natural optimist. The theory, if I recall correctly, is that a pessimist will eat the best first, for fear someone will steal it, whereas an optimist has a more positive view of human nature. To be honest, to steal food from someone else’s plate would have been so far beyond the pale when I was a child I’m not sure the possibility of it happening entered my head. I saved the best for the sheer delight of enjoying of it. On the other hand, I suppose delight is a crucial part of optimism, and I’ve spent much of my life being taken to task for seeing the world through rose-tinted spectacles, so perhaps the theory holds good. These days, sadly, my spectacles are untinted, and absolutely necessary if I’m to see anything at all.

My self-sufficiency must’ve made me an undemanding child, but I sometimes I wonder whether my parents noticed my childhood was lived pretty much wholly in my imagination. The stories in my head seemed to me vastly superior to a world of which I could make little sense. What was the point of sitting at a desk all day? How was it my best friend could turn on me without warning? Why was a stuffed sock on a garden cane the closest I could get to a pony?

On wet days, I’d beg my mother to let me go through the family photographs, kept in the end drawer of the sideboard. This seemed a world full of magic. I’d leaf through worn envelopes, where women in full length skirts stood arm-in-arm with men in dark suits and stiff collars. I handled the photographs as if they might crumble to dust at any moment. If Mum wasn’t too busy, she’d stop by from time to time to tell me a little about one or other of these strangers. The naked baby on the bearskin rug was her own mother, my grandmother. The girl on the gate was Granny, my father’s mother, taken long before my father was even thought of. The curly-headed boy in the Scout uniform was Dad. There was a photo of a stern woman in black, with a new-born baby on her knee. Granny and Mum stood either side of her. Here, four generations had been photographed together for the only time in history, just weeks before my great-grandmother died. The baby, of course, was me.

Magical though my excursions to the past were, there seemed always something lacking. I loved my visits to a world long gone, but what I was really searching for was an answer. I wanted to know why I felt at home with dragons and princesses, ponies and pirate ships, flowing gowns and flying machines, yet so out of step with the world of scraped knees, inkwells and playground bullies. Could these grainy photos hold the key to the mystery? Was I a changeling, perhaps? Or a fairy princess? Maybe I’d been smuggled, at great peril, out of a distant land, and would discover my magical powers when I came of age.

Of course, I never found what I was looking for. The stories have become faded as the photos. I don’t remember the names of the imaginary princesses, what happened to the pirate ships, or the colours of the ponies that galloped the prairies of the back garden. What I do remember is the garden itself. If I close my eyes I can still see the concrete patio where the pirate ship stood, the coal bunker that housed a horse made from a stuffed sock, the apple trees that screened the vegetable patch where I ate the world’s most delicious raspberries, and the track where the grass was worn away by the tyres of my brothers’ bicycles. It’s not the fantasies I dream of a night, when my mind is free to roam, but the place I loved. It’s the smell of orange blossom, the tart bite of a windfall apple, head-bowed peonies, crimson by the path, and the pop of purple-hearted fuschia buds. These are the memories that remain. And now I understand that to love little things was the magic all along. An imagination powerful enough to create a wild horse from a woollen sock, a travelling companion from a stone, or a pirate ship from two logs and a broomstick can find beauty one way or another, no matter how dark the days. Turns out those rose-tinted spectacles are a magical power after all.

Me child

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Everyday heroes

I was born less than ten years after VE Day. A sobering thought, especially as I’ve always considered World War II a distant historical event. But looking back, I realise The War has impacted my life in ways I’ve only begun to understand during these strange times.

My mother was less than a month short of her tenth birthday when war was declared. Within weeks, she was sent away from her London home to live with a family of strangers in a small town in Northamptonshire. No checks back then, to make sure the people who took in the thousands of evacuees were safe. My father was just fourteen. He was briefly evacuated from London to a village in Essex. I have the impression his experience was happier than Mum’s, but he was never one for talking about his feelings.

Like his father before him, Dad started work with the Electricity Board at the age of fifteen. He enrolled in evening classes, to study electrical engineering, and thus, when the time came for him to be called up, he was in a unique position. His employers agreed to consider his job a reserve occupation, so long as he passed all his exams. One failed exam, and he’d be called up without a second chance. As a result, my father spent his war in North London. He worked full time, studied in the evenings, and took turns at fire watch as the bombs rained down by night. Despite the stress and lack of sleep, he passed every last exam, otherwise I suppose I might never have come into being.

I sometimes wonder whether our collective imagination has erased much of the trauma of war. The London of my childhood was peppered with derelict buildings, demolished not by property developers, but by the bombs that had fallen night after night, as terrified people hid under stairs or kitchen tables, or ran for the nearest air raid shelter. People like my father, scarcely more than a boy himself, risked their lives to keep watch for the fires that broke out after the bombs had fallen, and to fight them, often using only rudimentary equipment.

Food and clothing were in short supply throughout the war, and were strictly rationed. Vegetable growing was a necessity, not a hobby. In the main, clothes were hand-made, and mending was a crucial skill. Socks and stockings were darned, tears stitched meticulously, and elbows patched. Hems were let down as children grew, then turned up again for the next child. I remember my mother describing how people would save their sugar and butter rations for weeks ahead, so as to be able to bake a real cake for Christmas or a family birthday. Expensive presents were out of the question of course, as was any kind of waste. My grandfather still kept his wartime bees and bantams in his North London garden when I was a child. I remember the tiny eggs, and the near-black honey on Granny’s home-baked bread for tea.

I’ve learned too much about the consequences of war ever to glorify it, but equally I’ll never belittle the sacrifices of those who’ve lived it. Those who survive carry trauma all their lives, those who die take a part of every one of us with them, and the heroes of war are not always the ones who carry guns. In the war of my parents’ experience, life was held by the thread of darning needles, the taste of cakes baked from shared rations, the smell of fresh-dug earth and the sting of the bees on my grandfather’s arthritic hands. These were the stuff of every day, the hope that heroes would come home, and the promise that the future would be better. In lockdown, small things take on significance again – the daily walk, the sourdough culture in the airing cupboard, an old knitting pattern, a new book – and perhaps it’s no accident that the lens most often on my camera now is best suited to shots of bees, buttercups and bluebells.

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of VE Day, we find ourselves locked down in the face of an invisible enemy, as dangerous as the Luftwaffe and far less predictable. The Luftwaffe took out less than 45.000 civilians in six years. In just four months, more than 30,000 plucky Brits have lost their lives to COVID-19. Nevertheless, several newspapers have heralded the predicted easing of ‘draconian’ lockdown measures next week as cause for celebration. ‘Happy Monday’, The Sun headline blared yesterday. There are also rumours that the Prime Minister faces opposition within his own party for being over-cautious about easing restrictions.

We live in an age of grand plans and sky’s-the-limit. We’re accustomed to instant answers, to what-we-want-when-we-want, so it’s hard to believe something we can’t hear, see, smell, taste or touch can change all that. Anyone who hasn’t yet seen the effects of COVID-19, or lost someone they loved, can perhaps be forgiven for questioning the need for caution, especially as the government continues to drag its feet over support for those whose homes and livelihoods are threatened. But, there’s too much at stake to risk a headlong rush back to ‘normal’. The Luftwaffe had been roundly defeated by the time VE Day arrived. COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc. There’s no cure, no effective protection apart from isolation, no vaccine and people are losing their lives every day. 626 of us have died in the past 24 hours according to the latest figures, including a six-week-old baby. Tonight, 626 heartbroken families are learning the gut-wrenching realities of grief. Thousands of people are facing life without a mother, father, sister, son, daughter, brother, aunty, granny, uncle, grandad or best friend. Of course, the tabloids and their wealthy owners are free to celebrate if that’s what they want, but you’ll have to forgive me if I sit this one out

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