From there to here…


The Vaucluse is the most beautiful place on earth. Well, perhaps not THE most beautiful. Cappodocia, Turkey probably is….then there’s Holy Island. Well, alright, there are quite a few beautiful place on earth and the Vaucluse is one of them. In fact, on our recent holiday,  I found it so beautiful, that it actually hurt in a Look-God-you-know-I-need-beauty-why-am-I-in suburbia? sort of way. (But God, who is used to my moaning, just chuckled and did a thing, which is what this post is about really.)

wp-1470511169339.jpg

wp-1470511082956.jpg

The old house – shuttered and sprawling, with honey coloured stone – was run by a wonderful couple called Olivier and Christele. When translated, their website said things like, “We are a small family who love to receive and share the living environment so privileged,” and “We will guide you through our discoveries and our hot heart”. The living environment was indeed privileged with its vine covered terraces, inviting pool and shady corners. And their hot hearts provided us with ample breakfasts of lush fruit, home-made yoghurt and melt-in-the-mouth croissants. To say nothing of the cheese, and wine to die for (the latter not for breakfast obviously). The first night we ate outside as guests at their Table d’Hote along with five Belgians and a French couple (few English make it to these parts).  Olivier regaled us with stories of his visit to Brighton where he’d been required to put coins in a meter to make the lights work. We politely asked when this was. It turned out to be forty years ago.

wp-1470510165205.jpg

During the day we read by the pool or drove to tiny villages balanced so precariously on the edge of hills, that they seemed to float in a shimmer of heat and silence. We explored caves. We followed the River Sorgue to its source above Fontaine de Vaucluse and wandered in covered markets. We ate in brasseries in squares of sunshine or in the flower filled courtyard outside our room. We slept behind shutters which made the room so dark, you blundered into cupboards trying to go to the loo. We pushed them aside when we woke, blinking in bold sunshine. It was,  let me tell you, a slice of heaven.

wp-1470509585598.jpg

wp-1470510047554.jpg

But here’s the thing. As I went through the various stages that we all go through on holiday – 1) This place is incredible. We are so blessed 2) I want to live here forever. It’s not fair 3) Nothing lasts forever, even life itself. Just enjoy it, you fool – I went on Facebook. That, in itself, is of course not particularly interesting. It happens all the time, rather too often in fact, and it was good for me not to have it available 24/7 for a week or so. But when I went on it one day I recognised, with a beat, some photos of my local area – Richmond, the River Thames, the lock at Teddington.  It seems that a friend, a beautiful and talented musician we knew in Turkey, was visiting our area. She had posted some photos of it on Facebook, excited about her visit.

My immediate reactions were, somewhat paradoxically, both surprise that she thought they were worth posting (after all this was Richmond Upon Thames, not Cappadocia or Istanbul or the Vaucluse), along with a beat of recognition and love for the place. How strange! Here was I, bemoaning my incipient return to “suburbia” and here was she, posting photos of her holiday there with excitement and pleasure. It opened my eyes. I actually live in a very pretty part of London. I should be grateful.

We’ve been back for three days now. We keep saying things like, “They’ll be having aperitifs on the terrace now,” or “I wonder if Olivier is raking up leaves”. The fascinating glimpse into the lives of these people – the cycle of guests arriving and departing (How can they remain so welcoming, so interested?) – is still with us. In an attempt to keep the spirit of our holiday alive, tonight we had aperitifs on the patio – a Peroni and a Pimm’s. We sat in the garden enjoying the environment so privileged. And then I served my husband a Saturday supper with my hot heart – pizza in front of the TV.

Come back Olivier – all is forgiven. I quite enjoyed the Brighton story really…

wp-1470510117691.jpg

wp-1470510877691.jpg

 

Advertisements

Happy Valentine’s – Scars in our Eyes


I have scars in my eyes. Particularly the left one. If I were to wink at you with my right eye, you would have no nose. You might argue that this is a good thing in a way, but I assure you however misshapen your nose (I have one nostril higher than the other), it’s better than having no nose at all.  Faces look like donuts , soft, featureless, with a hole. I see your hair,  ear, the pattern on the curtains, the edges of things but not the essence. I open my other eye, and all is normal again. To my relief your nose returns, in all its glory.

wp-1455462339798.jpg

This doesn’t bother me at all now. When it first happened years ago, it was traumatic to say the least. But, after treatment for a very rare condition, my right eye was saved and I can still read the bottom line on the eye chart. People function perfectly well with one eye. After all, my right eye’s near-perfect, my left has peripheral vision, and my brain makes up the rest. The only thing I can’t seem to do is light candles. Apparently, watching this is quite hilarious.

When my nephew was small, apart from being blonde, blue-eyed and very angelic, he had this great party trick. My brother-in-law would say to him, “Now Little One, what do you love?” And he’d put his finger to his cheek, cock his head, think for a bit, and begin.

“I love cars!” His little eyes would brim with excitement, “And I love trains, and clouds, and sunshine and little cakes wiv icing on! I love Nanny, and the seaside, and ducks and chocolate…” Sometimes he’d pause for a minute and my brother-in-law would prompt, “What else do you love?” Then he’d be off again. “I love trees, and tractors and those lorries wiv milk bottles on and big fat rabbits…” It was an absolute joy to watch, because here was a child who was brimful with delight, and in love. And the recipient of his love was simply – Life.

I’ve never forgotten this, and I remembered years later when the treatment for my eyes began slowly to settle the watery curves, gaps and constant feeling of sea-sickness into something resembling normality. I watched the world from my bedroom window as I began to see detail again – faces, stars,  leaves on trees, and think how much I delighted in them, these tiny emblems of God’s love in the world. And as my vision returned, the scars left a reminder – there are gifts everywhere. Don’t forget to look. Past the thumbprint on the lens.

St Valentine was not a lover of women. He was a lover of life, of God, secretly marrying young couples when Emperor Claudius had forbidden it. When imprisoned for his deeds, it is said he helped and prayed for the blind daughter of the Roman who judged him, to such effect that Asterius became a believer himself. In 269, Valentine was sentenced to a three-part death (beating, stoning and decapitation) because of his belief that a Christian marriage should be available for those who wanted it. His last words were supposedly written in a note to Asterius’s daughter, signed “from your Valentine”, inspiring the romantic cards and gifts of today. But St. Valentine’s true gift to the world, was not cards but kindness.

There’s this great psalm that talks of the way God put us together in the womb, planning our days with infinite precision, forming physique and character – a love for trees or tractors (or in my nephew’s case, everything). You may not be serenaded with cards or roses today. There may be someone precious missing – a person, who adores you and is with you. You may not have been loved like this, or you may have loved and lost. In some way you feel you will never recover. It has scarred you and part of you has died inside.

But, you are loved  – by your world, whoever and whatever that may be – your family, your friends, God (who knows death and scars), the way the sun throws patterns on wood. These things are part of God’s Valentine’s to you, to the world. As Valentine the man was. as you are, a bringer not of cards but kindness.  (I have a colleague who is brilliant at this – always sharing helpful stuff, leaving chocolate on our desks.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dare to believe you could still live brimful with delight. Thumbprints on the lens but gifts to be found.

Don’t forget to look.

 

 

 

Happy Old Year and the Little Painted House


At what point do you stop saying Happy Christmas and start saying Happy New Year? I’m never quite sure. After all, the Twelve Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day so perhaps we shouldn’t say Happy New Year until 5th January, when incidentally, you’re  supposed to take down your decorations and NOT BEFORE (but who does that? Honestly. We’re practically feeding them to the cat by the 2nd.) I was thinking this on the way out today when I saw someone I know, and ended up shouting “Happy Chr-ew Year!” which sounded impressively nautical to me. Except that this person is not in the sea-going profession. I pulled my hat down and scuttled into an alleyway, pretending I was a confused person ( which I sort of am half the time).20151204_214653.jpgWhen people ask about my Christmas, I never quite know what to say, because there can be a kind of code to these things, can’t there? Apart from the obligatory “Lovely thank you…”, you could basically select from the following: – Nice and quiet (a bit boring ), Lots of fun and games (Never got to read my book), Wonderful to see the grand-kids (But thank goodness they don’t live with us). The other question I always love is, “So what did you do?” One day I swear I’m going to say, “Marked my Science books, skinny dipped in the Thames, then painted the back bedroom.” Of course it’s still worth asking because there’s always a mild frisson of excitement when someone says, “Went swimming” or “Climbed Snowdon” or  “Had roast halibut”. But let’s be honest, the real question is, “I know you opened presents, had or didn’t have stockings, did or didn’t go to church and ate turkey, but WHICH ORDER DID YOU DO THEM IN??” Why are we bothered? What does it matter? Is it merely the desire for a fascinating glimpse into others’ lives?  Or are we trying to measure up to some Christmas ideal we’re actually not sure about. As if the peace and quiet/fun and games/grand-children will at some point become a perfect experience, without the tiniest hitch, as long as we do it all in the right order.

20151225_133951.jpg

Bucks Fizz while cooking – the only way to do it…

And now for the New Year, full of things that have never been. Always a mixed blessing, with some stuff from the past year I’d rather forget, plenty I should have dealt with better, and a few I’d love to live again. But they’re gone, finit, bitirdi…How to welcome the new while making peace with the old?

My favourite present this Christmas so far, is a little painted house bought by my daughter. It’s tall and narrow and covered with tiny windows. I’ve put it half way along the passage that leads from the front to the back of our house and I keep walking past, and loving it. An odd choice for a favourite perhaps, when compared to money and perfume and books, which I also love by the way. But the house is special, because at the back, there’s space for a candle and when you light it and turn it round, it looks magical. With the blind up and the night behind. Like a beacon. A strip of stone leaking light into darkness.

If we’re not careful we spend so much time feeling afraid. The past reproaches, the future threatens. The present can be ruined by both. If you have faith (and you probably do if you’ve visited the blog before), you’ll believe there’s a heartbeat at the core of the universe,  a Light punching holes in darkness and, in the distance, a city on a hill. There’s something comforting about pinpricks of light – the 2015 memories you cherish, the moments that lifted you at Christmas, the things you’re looking forward to. They are more precious when viewed alongside the darker things. I could turn the light on, put the blind down – I would see better if there was no darkness at all. But this way, the light from the little house makes my way unique, and beautiful.

So Happy Old Year. Peace and strength to you as you look back, and look forward, and look up. Towards the Light.

20151226_182337.jpg

 

 

 

Hills and giving thanks on All Hallows Eve


We’re climbing the Malvern Hills,  and I’m wheezing like a catfish. I briefly consider whether dropping dead on a narrow path between trees in sight of the summit, is a good way to go. An action exit, so to speak, in pursuit of something beautiful. But decide against it. There are few walkers up here and we might be left for days. Or eaten by foxes.

wpid-20151027_124837.jpg

The views are incredible. The Malvern Hills rise, sheer and spine-like, from the Severn Valley in the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. Eight miles long, from the highest summit you can see parts of thirteen counties, the Bristol Channel and the cathedrals of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford. The hills are known for their spring water, made famous by the area’s holy wells and later through the spa town of Great Malvern which clings, crab-like, to the side of the hills. Aldwyn, the monk who originally founded the Benedictine community and priory in 1085 because of its  remoteness, would rend his cassock if he could see the old town grown up around it now. Though he might be pleased that the holy wells originally thought to bring health and healing as early as the twelfth century, developed into a spa town in Victorian times later becoming the first bottled water plant in the world. Today the town is  beautiful, even in the rain.

wpid-20151027_130929.jpg

wpid-20151027_145710.jpg

wpid-20151027_142422.jpg

wpid-20151027_150644.jpg

It occurs to me that I could do with those healing properties now as I lurch, with bursting lungs up the steep incline towards the summit (not THE summit, I hasten to add, but the nearest one). My husband is positively bounding compared to me. The problem, when you have asthma, is you never know quite what’s going to trigger it. And, unwisely, I’d left my inhaler in the car. I briefly consider the problems the Air Ambulance Service might have landing on the scrubby slopes ahead of us, to say nothing of the headline in the Malvern Gazette- Asthmatic Londoner Loses Lung Function on Lower Levels #ourglorioushills

My husband stops and watches me critically. “Do you want to go back? Perhaps we should…”

I consider his question. I would like very much to go back, to correct those earlier years where I smoked for a while, drank too much and lived in beautiful but freezing, damp old places which did my lungs in. I would like to have lived wisely and well and looked after those vital body parts you need more than ever when you’re older – eyes, skin, lungs. Well, all of it is quite useful really, especially at work or ordering an Indian Takeaway, (JENKINS! cough, cough, J-E-N-K…No, I can’t say it louder! Cough, cough!).    But it’s too late for all that. The eagle has landed, so to speak. What to make of what’s left?

I look longingly at the view which is becoming more impressive by the step. As we rise, the Severn Valley unrolls and the town begins to hunch its shoulders beyond the trees. Having got this far, it would such a shame to miss the big view from  the top. My breathing’s not too bad, I decide. And I never know these days whether I’m being a tiny bit neurotic. I once told my doctor after a particularly bad winter that I was worried I’d forgotten how to breathe. A capable type with a distractingly large bosom, the sort you can’t take your eyes off even when reliably heterosexual, she gave me a long, measured look.

“You may have forgotten, Mrs Jenkins,” she said, “But your lungs won’t have. I would advise you to live your life and let them get on with it.”

Well this is my life, so I figure as long as I rest often, I should be alright. After all it’s not much further. After some persuasion, we continue. And after several breaks, no coughing fits and a near collision with a cyclist (A CYCLIST!! I want his lungs), we arrive at the top of the hill. And it’s breathtaking.

wpid-20151026_151701.jpg

wpid-20151027_120436.jpg

wpid-20151027_121221.jpg

We sit for a while enjoying our victory. On the way down I reflect that in my younger days it never occurred to me I’d get something like asthma. But then there are lots of good things I never thought I’d get to do either – live abroad, rebuild a house, raise socially acceptable children (this is a miracle in itself – God is good). And so many people live with far, far worse.

So tonight, on All Hallows Eve, I’m celebrating goodness. I don’t celebrate Halloween though I’m happy to give out sweets to the neighbouring kids who do. I didn’t encourage my own kids to dress up etc. (there were sometimes alternative parties at church) though when teenagers, I didn’t stop them if they wanted to. In Turkey, we gave out sweets to children celebrating the Muslim festivals to be friendly and culturally relevant, and I don’t see this as too different. In my opinion it’s just not worth offending and upsetting people over. It doesn’t help with the negative press believers sometimes experience. But this is just my personal view.

Tomorrow is All Saints Day when they pray for the dead in Orthodox churches. Protestants generally regard all Christians as saints and if they keep All Saints Day they use it to remember all Christians past and present. So I’m remembering Aldwyn and the Benedictines for starting a monastery in a beautiful place, my grandparents who started our family long ago in India, my parents. I’m giving thanks for my husband and my children and my cat (who sleeps with his paws crossed so is definitely a believer).  And for all my family and friends, who mean so much to me, whatever they believe about life, God and Halloween.

I’m also thankful for hilltop views and autumn leaves and Ventolin. For holidays and small children and good doctors (whatever the size of their bosoms). For quiet water and sunsets and tiny little cakes with cream in.

wpid-20151028_131530.jpg

wpid-20151027_090306.jpg

wpid-20151031_170014.jpg

And that God, wiser and more far seeing than we can ever imagine, somehow uses the random yuck that life flings at us, to make the small things sweeter. Like breathing.

Who and what are you grateful for, this All Hallows Eve?

wpid-20151031_183355.jpg

 

A lifetime of holidays and I’m still learning…


So it wasn’t the best weather, and it wasn’t the best place.  The windscreen wipers squeaked double-time all the way there and there was rain on and off all week. It was cold. The upstairs shower didn’t work and the toilets were dodgy. The roof in the conservatory leaked in three places and the smoke alarm bleeped all night, until we took the batteries out, choosing sleep over fumes and crisped skin.

But we got over it. And once we got over it, it was wonderful. There was lying around and reading, and reading, and lying around (for the over 50s).  DVDs and Youtube and Youtube and DVDs for the overs 18s. There were seaside towns to explore,  cafes for getting warm and eating cake,  and  beaches, and sudden bursts of sunshine, the latter two actually coinciding once for twelve whole minutes on a beach in Cromer.  The cottage was pretty, if dysfunctional, and in the evenings we took it in turns to cook, or loaf in evening light spilling gold into the back room.

wpid-20150728_124437.jpg

 

wpid-20150725_173743.jpg

And it strikes me how strange it is that we’re always taken aback when holidays, in common with Christmas and new kitchens, aren’t perfect. They should be. After all, we’ve paid for them and we’ve waded through a lot to get to them – all that planning and pontificating, making arrangements (so much of life is making arrangements). To say nothing of the daily grind that has dominated your life since your last holiday – cooking, shopping, keeping clean.  You’ve gone up in the roof and found the cases, though no one’s seen the toiletries bags since Brittany, and as for the automatic cat feeder, didn’t you lend it to someone at Easter? Then there’s the whole, Shall we leave the low-energy lounge/kitchen light on, blinds up or down, curtains open or closed at the back/front, plugs in/out? And by the time you’ve packed the cases, written an essay to the cat feeder and the plant-waterer and the rubbish-putter-outer (you couldn’t possibly impose on the one person to do all of this), you sink into your car feeling you need a holiday. But you’ve got to put up with the long drive/flight before you can even dream of one, let alone the blood-pressure-raising interrogation for the next few miles or so – “Did you turn the coffee machine/iron/hair straighteners off? Did you slam the dodgy freezer door?” (This all before it starts to rain.)

So after all that, and sitting in roadworks and traffic for hours, the place had better be perfect. And if it isn’t. we’re surprised, then irritated, then annoyed. This is our holiday! 

But after we’ve had a cup of tea, talked of complaint letters, unclenched a little, we shake our heads, shrug. We notice the rain has stopped, there’s a view across fields. The lounge is cosy and has a log burner, some pretty brickwork. And for miles and miles there are fields dotted with tiny hamlets, and trees and water. And arching above it all, singing, the wide  Norfolk sky. It’s pure gold.

wpid-20150725_173424.jpg

wpid-20150727_130440.jpg

And it suddenly hits us, that holidays are a break from  routine, not  life. They still require us to do the things that make life work, most of the time – laugh, ignore rubbish, watch for gold. We remember, with a clunk, this hitting us last year and all the years before…But somehow in the middle of all the toiletry bag hunting and the why-isn’t-this-perfect ranting, we forgot it. Again.

I sometimes think that God, if you believe in him, and I absolutely always do, apart from on planes and once briefly in a kebab shop in Brighton,  must sometimes put his head in his hands and sigh.

 

 

 

 

The Blessing of Good Signage


I’ve had a revelation. About signage. It happened the other day at a church in the middle of Derbyshire. Despite the cold, and slicing rain, the approach was beautiful – a thumb of stone, a fist of graves and  beneath the lychgate, crocuses.  Inside did not disappoint either. There was amber light, wood and brass, and slabs of paving as soft as upturned faces. It was one of those places that fills you with stillness.

wpid-20150213_144108.jpg

 

wpid-20150213_143305.jpg

But I do not remain still for long. I spend most of the time, as usual, in front of the noticeboard. I see that there is All Age Communion on the first Sunday of the month at 10am. (Regrettably there are no 9.30 or 11.15 services on these days). I wonder briefly if that punches a hole in anyone’s routine. A bit of an upheaval perhaps if you are a creature of habit. I see that there is, “… a fine choir which sings at 9.30 or 10am each Sunday and occasionally in the evening”. that there are regular organ recitals, bible lectures and rambles and that I need to contact Alison for details of the Chattabox group. But best of all, there’s an advert for a talk at a neighbouring town.

wpid-20150213_142749.jpg

Isn’t it wonderful? These are the things that matter to the people who live there. They would matter to me too; remembering which Sunday the kick-off’s at 10 instead of 9.30 or 11, on which evenings the fine choir sings, and to book my ticket for the Pie and Pea supper. There’s something gloriously togetherish about these things. Who needs the Odeon or the West End? Give me the Pack Horse Routes of Derbyshire any day…

But this is why I love signs and notices. They say more about the person who put them there than anything else. This one, in a well known British supermarket, for example –wpid-20150314_100813.jpg

A snappy piece of signage. The sub text? We’re going to make it impossible for you to make this saving because after reading the terms and conditions, you’ll be brain dead anyway.

Then there was this one –

wpid-20140814_164610.jpg

The sub text – I care about Facebook likes and being thought of as adventurous and you must do too, or you wouldn’t be on this plane in the first place  (Wrong. I have to be practically drugged and carried onto planes these days.)

But there are other signs too – the ones that tell you things without saying very much at all.

I brew beer, I'm a Christian and I have a sense of humour

I brew beer, I’m a Christian and I have a sense of humour

wpid-20141205_125841.jpg

In or out? I’ve done both several times in ten minutes. Not sure I’ve made the right decision though…

There's beauty in dead places

There’s beauty in dead places

Life returns, even in graveyards

Life returns, even in graveyards

When you see the rainbow, you forget the rain.

Rainbows – my speciality

I’m a firm believer in signs. I think life holds more of them than we realise. We have to watch for them. Often we have to wait too.

But I think they say more about the Person who put them there, than anything else…

 

I follow a talented blogger, Ellie, who paints pictures of the signs she sees and writes about them. It’s well worth a look if you’re into signage 😉

yellow-flowers

 

  https://propheticpostcards.wordpress.com/

How Merry is Yours so Far?


I’ve been struggling with semantic honesty lately. Don’t know why, but I’ve found myself analysing what we say and imagining what would happen if we took each other at our word. For an English person this could be social suicide because so much of what we say is cultural, not literal, as in, I really should be going, Oh, must you? (Thought you’d never leave…) or Good Christmas? Lovely thanks! Really quiet…(It was actually quite boring).

When my children were small, an American friend pointed out that I was setting myself up for angst by asking my children, Shall we clean our teeth? instead of her direct, Go and clean your teeth! After all, I had no intention of cleaning mine and the question set up the – quite likely – scenario of the children refusing and me chasing them until they caved in (must warn my son’s fiancee). But change is harder than you think and it felt wrong to be so straight. Why? Will Brits just do anything to avoid directness?

There’s a joke in our house that my husband will never say yes or no. Darling, are you in tonight? As far as I know. Dad, is your computer on? It certainly seems to be. Sometimes we even amuse ourselves by conspiring to get him to say the definitive words and it’s hilarious how adept he is at avoiding them. Has he been forever scarred by his past, working for a) a local authority, and b) a private company, as a surveyor? British builders are famed for scratching their heads and mentioning best case scenarios but avoiding definitive dates.

Dad, are you carving the turkey yet? I certainly seem to be...

Dad, are you carving the turkey yet? I certainly seem to be…

In our house on Christmas Day when we see someone for the first time we say Happy Christmas! in a heartfelt and congratulatory way, as in, It’s Christmas Day and this is the first time I’ve seen you and so I greet you with festive joy!  I hasten to add that we don’t say Good Morning to each other formally on normal days but then we get up earlier and 2 out of 3 of us are so groggy and depressed that it actually is morning, that a cursory grunt is the best you can expect.

Have a lovely Christmas! we all hooted to each other on leaving work. Give someone the Christmas they’re dreaming of…says the John Lewis advert. Have yourself a merry little Christmas…croons Frank Sinatra immortalising the words of Judy Garland in the film Meet Me in St Louis. (Interestingly, the lyrics, written by Hugh Martin, were changed as they were considered too depressing.) Despite the advertising and the hype and the fact that we all know we’re spinning this impossible tale of perfection and romance, we still do it, but I wonder what we actually mean when we say these things?

There's a fire and a cat and Christmas colours - all will be well...

There’s a fire and a cat and Christmas colours – all will be well…

Well, just so we’re clear, judging from the things that are making my Christmas merry so far, this is how you can be more precise when wishing me a happy time next year (so we both know where we are) and there’s semantic integrity: –

1. May your mother-in-law, who’s had a stroke, say as clear as anything “I really should be helping!”

2. May you find brioche in the shape of a Christmas tree.

wpid-20141226_101326.jpg

3. Hope there’s great festive listening on Radio 4 for you while cooking.

4. Hope someone buys your minister husband a musical tie for his Christmas preach.

5. Hope no one gets ill or vomits.

wpid-20141226_191340.jpg

 

wpid-20141227_151749.jpg

6. Wishing your cat joyful hiding in bags.

7. When unearthing Christmas decs, may you find something pretty a friend made.

8. Hope your advent lights work.

wpid-20141225_122449.jpg

9. Hoping you get fun labels (A family thing due to the boredom of writing labels. E.g. You are Matthew, We are your parents, It is Christmas, Be Happy… Love Mum and Dad)

10. May there be sunshine.

wpid-20141225_123419.jpg

Every year we remind ourselves it won’t be perfect. People will get sick, there’ll be blocked drains or arguments or duplicate presents. But a tiny part of us, buried deep down like a vein, still hopes it will be. And God, who does Christmas every year and knows what works, just smiles and gives us a baby, hidden small between festive ties and brioche. But he’s there and sometimes, when you say the word s-l-o-w-l-y you can hear him. In the ancient magic of that word which is maybe more than just festive sibilance – C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.

And, in fact, there’s been semantic integrity all along. I just forget to notice it.

Thanks a lot to those who regularly read this blog.

Hope you’ve had a good Christmas and wishing you a Happy New Year, whatever these things may mean, for you…

wpid-20141226_181311.jpg

What’s making yours merry?

 

 

 

Waiting for Grandad


The old man leans on the gate at the edge of the park. It is heavier than he remembers but then so are most things. Like his own stomach and the bag of weekly shopping. He sighs. If only he had taken better care of himself when the whole damn thing had started – the ageing, weakening, sagging thing. He could be like Malcolm next door, still running at the age of 75 despite the inconvenience of bow legs, and piles.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe gate swings open and they amble in. Tilda runs ahead, pigtails bobbing.

“Look, Grandad! Look!” She’s crouching by a clump of bluebells, strokes velvet leaves with fat fingers.

He and Renee look at each other, smile. She leans on him slightly as they walk. He feels the weight of her, fragile and bird-light. Tilda looks up and grins at them, a scatter of freckles and missing teeth.

“They’re beautiful! Be careful not to damage them now!” calls Renee.

“I won’t!” shouts Tilda and darts away on dimpled legs.

Trees curve above them, the path winds, dappled and fringed with blossom or water. Memory floats ahead to the bridge, the river, the view of the church. So when they get there, calling for Tilda, his yearning to see it and to be there looking down on pleated water, his wife at his side, is free of pain and he can just enjoy it. He puts his arm round her ignoring the stab of agony through his right shoulder and whispers in her ear. She smiles.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe colours in the woodland garden are pastel – white, pink, lemon. The path snakes out of sight beneath trees where they sat with their own children not long ago – picnics and cricket and Hide-and-Seek. There’s even a glimpse of Ellie’s blue jacket between trees and the sound of her counting, while the others run for it when her eyes close.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Do you remember those days?”

Renee smiles and squeezes his arm. “As if it was yesterday!” she says, “And it’s lovely to look back. But we have to keep going remember, to look forward.” He nods though he can’t help wondering what on earth there is to look forward to.

Today is a beautiful day though, he thinks, admiring the smell of sun on earth and shadows on grass.  Tilda hides behind bushes, jumps from stumps. He marvels at her speed, her agility. He loves looking after her while her parents work.

“Catch me Grandad!” Her voice echoes, bounces off trees, “Catch me! Quick!”

On the way back there are azaleas and cherry blossom, Renee’s favourite. She points out the house they’d planned to retire in. They laugh. They both know the old brick semi with its white fence and square of lawn was all they ever wanted really. That and her prize-winning angel cake.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Come on, Tilda!” he calls, as they reach the water again, “Stay near us! Time to take Granny home…”

The clouds have gathered and there’s a chill in the air. As they stroll back, the trees lean in, blocking out the sky. He shivers. At the bridge he hunts for familiar, for safe – the view of the church, railings, folded light on water.

They follow the path, heave at the gate, pass the pub. Soon they near the graveyard with its spring flowers and drift of blossom.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Oh! Look! Can we walk through? It’s so beautiful!” cries Renee pulling his arm.

“Alright,” he replies though he’d rather not.

The trees clasp hands in lacy sleeves. On the graves there are bluebells and tulips. It certainly is beautiful here, he thinks. No wonder she loves it…

“Dad. Are you…are you alright?” Ellie’s voice is gentle. Time tumbles. He feels unsteady, looks at her, confused, then down at the hand in his and sees smooth fingers between his knobbly ones.

“Ellie?” he says.

She gives him a squeeze. “You’ve been miles away, haven’t you?” she says, “You’re probably tired after the walk.”

She fills watering cans, tidies the grave. He just stands there, watching. Until he realises that the tennis ball in his throat has swollen and burst and made his face wet. Then he moves away. He does not want his daughter to see him upset.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen she’s finished they make their way home. They pass the church as the bells begin to ring. The door is open and the nave is filled with lemon coloured light. He pauses. There are shadowy people in there, some kneeling, some sitting, all so still. Of course his eyesight is not what it used to be but he fancies he can see her in her usual place at the front, head bowed. Behind her on the pew, a perfect cuboid of greaseproof paper for after-service coffee. He blinks and she disappears. He hopes the God-man whose love she so trusted, is keeping her safe somewhere…

“Dad?” enquires Ellie, “Shall we…? The boys are coming and Tilda will  be home from Jake’s and desperate to see you.”

He nods. They walk slowly, listening to birds and bells across quiet streets.

They arrive at the house at last, Ellie exclaiming at the sight of Tilda’s car in the drive. His son-in-law is in the front garden. His grandsons are on the way. In the hall there’s the smell of tea, and angel cake. And as he hears squeals and a pounding on the stairs, he decides that God has many ways of bringing back life. If we let him, if we listen…

He leans on his stick smiling, allows himself to be engulfed. Then he’s led into the sitting room for tea.IMAG0058

 

 

 

Moles and Glimpses of Things


What do you do on a thin day in winter when you’re not at work, your To Do List is vile and the air outside beckons with cut glass finger? You go out of course, with your husband or your friend, to Richmond Park. You worry you’ll regret this later because there are decisions and emails and appointments to sort, and school work hissing at you from a pile in the corner. Also the carpets look like a scene from Armageddon, on Day Two. But it’s your day off…so you leave them. After the week you’ve had, you know what you need. This takes enormous will power and, as you settle in the car with your new camera and the prospect of a walk and a latte, you congratulate yourself on your mental strength.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When you get to the park, there are birds, and trees and wide spaces filled with pastel coloured light. You remember with relief that there’s this whole world outside home, school and church that exists quietly without your input and has a different rhythm, a kind of slow-time which fills you with breath, like a yawn. In the silence you walk on wet leaves and down pathways which pull you irresistibly towards the views from Pembroke Lodge. If someone asked you at this point what was on your To Do List, you wouldn’t even remember. The Great Outdoors has worked its magic again and you’ve emerged from tight spaces, a crumpled paper smoothed out for re-use.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What you love most, apart from the trees and the silence and the views across the city, are the glimpses of things; windows, smoky trees, the gracious rise of houses; threads of gold on a winter’s day. There are steps and pathways and an old gate with a glimpse of meadows on the other side, which you can’t walk in today, but you’re happy that they’re there. Best of all there’s a viewing point on top of King Henry’s Mound where you can see a keyhole glimpse of St Paul’s Cathedral, ten miles away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You go into Pembroke Lodge and are amused to read about its history before you tuck into lunch and a latte, which is extravagant for you, but delays the moment when you take up that other life, at least for a bit. As you eat, you marvel at the fact that this lodge began life as a cottage occupied by a mole catcher. It’s hard to imagine that mole catching was once a full-time job, but there we are. This was around 1754. It seems that “his sole duty was to prevent the peril to huntsmen presented by molehills”. This you find fascinating. You know that Richmond Park was one of the Kings’ hunting grounds but who’d have thought that moles could be dangerous? So dangerous, in fact, that their activities caused extreme peril to huntsmen who could not take to their horses without fear of mole related plots, to dismount them and kill their steeds. Your husband, or friend, wonders what happened to the moles. You briefly discuss the virtues of Mole Pie or Fillet of Mole with Mushrooms. How would you catch a mole in the 1700s? One imagines it would be fairly basic, the mole catcher coming home to his house on the hill, with mole juice on his hand, to ask his family, “What shall we do with the moles today? Anyone need a sponge?” It makes you laugh, but inside you do feel sorry, for the moles.

Mole

Over the years the lodge was expanded and became a grand home owned by countesses and lords. It was visited by Queen Victoria, Gladstone, Dickens, Tennyson and Lewis Carroll. Bertrand Russell grew up there. Then it became a regimental head-quarters during the war. Finally it was converted into flats for park staff with a cafeteria on the ground floor for the public. It’s also hired out for occasions.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

1378707_10152554120666091_1012711064_n

As you drive home, the lodge breaking up like a dream in the wing mirror, you wonder about the mole catcher and what he would think of it now: the wide sweep of stone, the cafe, the famous people who have lived there or visited. Before you know it you are whisking between shops, stopping at lights, staring at women with shopping or children. And you’re back in that other world again.

But when you get home, you feel different, lighter. Your To Do List won’t kill you and your school work is snoozing beneath a pile of newspapers. You tidy, hoover. And when you’ve finished, you yawn and stretch and put the kettle on. You notice things like patterned light on the desk, the view from the window. You’re still in slow-time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And on Monday, when you tunnel to work through streets laced with rain, and your mind skitters like a mole along the unlived rat-runs of your day, think of this; the space and the silence and the pastel light. And look for patterns on the pavement and the way the sky’s getting lighter; glimpses of gold on a dark day. And remind yourself – there will be other days. Like an old gate with a glimpse of meadows that you can’t walk in, it’s enough to know they’re there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Home


 

Welcome to my new home.

SONY DSC

The front entrance

 Not the easiest place to get to but you can cross at low tide. It’s only 3 miles along the causeway. You should note though that the island is cut off twice a day when the sea returns and the road disappears under pleated water. You may wish to look carefully at the Tide Tables. Otherwise you might end up like this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-13830017

You approach the island from the north so you get your first glimpse of the place beyond the village. A huddle of houses, a spire, a ruined priory. Then you see it – Beblowe Crag, a jagged tooth of whinstone and perched upon it a fairy tale castle.

SONY DSC

View from the village

Holy Island or Lindisfarne is a tiny island off the coast of Northumbria in the North Sea. The Vikings liked to invade it and so did the Scots, so it was fortified around 1570 and remained defensive until Scottish James 1 became king of England in 1603. The two kingdoms were combined and the castle became a garrison, a naval store and then a coastguard station.

At the beginning of the twentieth century a tourist went for a walk, found it and fell in love. Luckily for Edward Hudson, as founder of Country Life Magazine he had the money to indulge his new passion. When he bought the lease from the crown in 1901, he declared, “I want to have fun with the place.” His friend Edwin Lutyens was a gifted architect and together they refurbished the castle in the seventeenth century Dutch style – simple, beautiful, understated. It’s like walking straight into a Vermeer painting.

SONY DSC

The landing

IMAG0021

My bedroom

Now owned by the National Trust, the rooms remain fully furnished as if the owner’s just popped out for a bit. You can wander round with your nose in the air, mentally clad in a bustle and crushed velvet, pretending the old man behind you is your butler. Any minute, with a swish of your skirts, you could swing round and declare in your best BBC accent, “I thenk we’ll teek tea in the Droring Room today…”

I don't even know who these people are. They followed me right in!

I don’t even know who these people are! They followed me in…

I love the whole castle but I think my favourite parts are the kitchen…

Imagine peeling potatoes with a view like that! You'd probably hurt yourself...

Imagine peeling potatoes with a view like this! You’d probably hurt yourself…

…And the Upper Battery (roof terrace)

SONY DSC

The view from the Upper Battery

You can see hundreds of seals from here. You can also see the priory, unused since 1550 when Henry VIII disbanded it. Since 635, through the work of Aidan and Cuthbert and later the famous Lindisfarne Gospels, Holy Island and its priory had been the cradle of English Christianity.  Henry had the stones from the priory used to build the castle.

A wise friend once said that our longing for beautiful homes is really a hunger for heaven. I love that. A home in heaven that won’t get old and cruddy. On earth you have to spend so much time and money to keep stuff looking good. Hudson found this with Lindisfarne. Having bought it in 1918, he sold it three years later. He simply couldn’t afford to run the place.

It would still be my dream home. But it might be a pain if you run out of milk and need to borrow from the neighbours. And I bet the delivery charge on a Tesco’s shop is scandalous.  The winters are pretty grim too. According to a National Trust employee who stays there, it’s no fun stumbling around at night in a power cut looking for the loo.

Perhaps I’ll stay here for the time being. After all I haven’t actually told the National Trust I’m moving in yet.  I suppose my Saturday lie-ins might be a problem in the tourist season. I could wear my silk pyjamas. They’d fit right in. If I’m lucky no one will even notice I’m there…

If you could have the home of your dreams, where would it be and why?

SONY DSC