Saturday, August 29, 2020

The trouble with soundbites

 'You did well,' Dave said, 'but you sounded rather tense.'

'I wasn't tense, I was a bit upset.'

We were talking about my 'appearance' on Woman's Hour yesterday. 

I probably was a bit tense, and it's not surprising. I am used to being on local radio, either via the phone, or in person, and it doesn't faze me. Being on a live call on national radio is different. 

They email and text you a link and you try to establish a connection with the studio via one of those. I tried both unsuccessfully. Then when I was successful I heard a repeating message: 'You're now connected to the BBC. Please stand by and someone will be with you shortly.' This is played on a loop, and meanwhile you have to talk over it so that the engineer can check they can hear you.  It took half an hour, spread over longer, to make it work. Then you have to sit listening to the programme on air for twenty minutes until it's the time for the feature you're in. So yes, I was tense.

Then you are asked two questions interleaved between other people's questions, and you have to find a sensible answer pronto. The whole session lasted just 8 minutes for 3 of us and Jenni Murray.

I listened to it last night in bed on catch-up. First I thought - Wow, that 95 year old woman was amazing! Then I thought - Why on earth did I mention the jewellery box? I could have said the hat I bought to get married in, 50 years ago:

At someone else's wedding 2 years ago

or Dave's favourite spoon for eating his yoghurt, or his guitar or his teddy:

And then, of course, there were all the belongings of the family-member-who-declines-to-be-named, who refused to put them in storage.

The fire happened 24 years ago and I had re-read the Times article I wrote about it to refresh my memory, and still I didn't really say what was important.

I also said something that wasn't true. I said it was the grandfather clock we bought for Dave's father that was rescued from the ashes. It wasn't. It was the one Dave inherited from Auntie Edith. I got mixed up.

The upshot  of all this is that from now on I shall be forgiving of people who say things in interviews they later regret. It is very hard to give a considered response to a question when you are on edge, and you know that time is short. 


Thursday, August 27, 2020

Losing my things in a fire


One of the Times pieces I included in my latest book - Days Are Where We Live - is one I wrote some years ago about losing almost all of our things in a fire.

I've been asked by BBC Woman's Hour to join a studio discussion about the experience, tomorrow morning, Friday August 28th. If it happens, it will be between 10 a.m. and 10.45 a.m. UK time.

Here is the piece:

Home is where the clutter is

Next time you open that kitchen drawer full of jumble and groan, don’t even think of calling a clutter consultant or a Feng Shui space clearer. Just be thankful instead. When I lost all my things in a fire, there were times when I yearned for my very own tangle of fossilised rubber bands, ancient postcards, last year's advent candle, furry balls of Blu-tak, crushed paper flowers from playgroup, tatty plant labels, tacky plastic novelties from Christmas crackers and old matchbox cars with scratched paintwork. The relics in that drawer are symbols of your family history, and in their own way are as precious as the antique oak bureau in the dining room or the original oil painting over the mantelpiece. Only when your belongings are snatched away do you learn which ones are irreplaceable.

When we sold our house and temporarily moved into furnished, rented accommodation I didn't think twice about putting our things into storage with the removal company. But my 10-year -old son refused to store a single item, and took every last Lego brick, four years worth of Beanos, and his complete rock and fossil collection.

We were still renting 18 months later, when we received a letter from the removal firm informing us that a fire had completely destroyed all our things. For me, it took a week for the reality to sink in, but my husband – ever practical, resourceful and proactive - came round sooner. He went to the warehouse with a garden fork and spade to sift through the ashes in search of any traces of our former existence, anything to soften our bereavement. When he arrived, he found a blackened shell of a building knee deep in filthy sludge, with burnt out washing machines and fridges poking out above the surface.

We had a brief summary inventory of what had been stored in our six containers and my husband set about locating the detritus from them by looking for a large non-flammable object from each, such as our tandem, my daughter's bicycle, a stone garden trough.  He managed to position all but one of the containers and retrieved just a few things from the disgusting, sodden ashes.

Most of these objects were pathetic items, but to us they were treasures. Amazingly, the plastic twin dolls I had dressed and played with as a child were there, twisted and deformed, but still dressed in the clothes I had made for them and to me, still loveable. He found his father's old spring balance and the disfigured brass face of one of our grandfather clocks. He discovered a handful of blue and green marbles from the collection I had kept in a carafe on the windowsill for the sun to shine through. They were blackened but reclaimable, and although they were not unique or valuable, to me they were priceless. At that time, with no tangible past, and no concrete future in the shape of a new home, the marbles gave me a link with our previous existence, and in a strange way, a feeling of security.

He managed to find something significant belonging to each member of our family, except for my daughter. She was living abroad when we moved and I had spent hours packing up her many books, unusual art posters, distinctive art deco furniture, and all her photographs. We searched painstakingly for something of Zoë's, but found nothing. The most heart-wrenching loss was the three storey Victorian dolls house my husband had made for her, and which she as a girl had decorated and furnished and cherished.

When it came to the insurance claim, having to list every lost item was a torture in its own right. Falling asleep at night I would remember something else, and think "oh no...." Trying to list our hundreds of books became a black parlour game. Lying back in the bath I would remember yet another book, and rush naked onto the landing, shouting a title down to my husband before I forgot it. We did get up to 637 books, but since then have missed dozens more.

Four years on it is still too painful to recall all the irreplaceable items that we lost. It is not the money, although we did lose out financially to some extent.  What is painful is the loss of all the trivial and substantial accretions of 25 years of family life, our books, and some inherited antique furniture, all with family connections and sentimental meaning. The plain, modest grandfather clock we had bought for my father-in-law when he first became a grandfather, and which we gave him a week before he unexpectedly died. The small chair my adored grandmother had been given as a child, and which my sister and I would race to sit in when visiting her house as children.

As an only child, and with no living family, my husband feels as though he has let his parents down by losing their things. He feels brutally cut off from his childhood and his roots, with nothing tangible remaining to connect him to his past. Gone is the oak swivel chair which his father sat in when he was resting from serving in his shop. Gone is the barometer that his father used to tap first thing every day. Gone are his family photographs.

But the most bitter loss of all is that of the albums containing all the photographs of our adult children when they were young. I can still close my eyes and see many of these photographs, but I will not be able to turn the pages and share them with our children and their children in later life. Friends and family have kindly raided their albums and old packets of photos for replacements for us, and this has been a great help. But so many favourite family photographs are of unposed moments, of funny games in the bath, dressing up in the back garden, or a child fallen asleep in a high chair, with a face sunk into soggy Marmite fingers. Photos from others are posed family groups. They don’t appeal like the tasty memories committed quickly to posterity by a quick snap with that cheap camera you keep in the kitchen cupboard

I am sad we have no things with family associations to pass on to our children. I had hoarded for any future grandchildren all the favourite pre-school books, and the best wooden bricks and toddler toys. I thought I was being frugal, and that in the future they would remind me of my children’s babyhood. I had packed away the Moses basket I had lined for my youngest child, and writing this I am in tears again.

It's common on suffering traumatic events to look for lessons and meanings in the hardship. The practical lessons for us are easy: don't trust anyone else to look after things that are irreplaceable, and be properly insured for what you do put in store. I have also learned what is precious and what is not: I can throw things away more easily, but what I keep I treasure. Any other lessons are more difficult to work out. Two months after the fire, I was diagnosed as having breast cancer and had a mastectomy. Compared with the fire, that felt like a piece of cake. Does this mean I am an unredeemed materialist? We didn't lose any of our family, so why are we grieving?

But I have learned another lesson. As an irrepressible optimist I subscribed to Adrian Henri’s sentiment “Don’t worry, baby, everything’s going to be all right.” Now I can admit the possibility that pessimists might sometimes be right. I am more sensitive to others’ anxieties, more moved by others’ hardships, more empathetic to others’ losses.

Our new house is now fully furnished, and I'm pleased with the effect. And although it will be a long time before it truly feels like home, my cluttered kitchen drawer is coming on a treat.


Monday, August 24, 2020


I had been considering writing a post about my love of margaritas (which is only occasionally indulged) but while margaritas are certainly a treat and a pleasure

Wendy and me and a margarita

I am not convinced that a journey down memory lane back to 2003 when I first encountered one is worth the words. 

I decided this after considering hugs.

Me and my sister Jen, last October

I want to make an art work about hugs, missing them as badly as I do, and this morning I spent two hours trawling through family photographs and drawing rough sketches of some of the hugs I found.

And after two hours I knew that margaritas will never come close. I was 54 before I first encountered the latter, and found out how terrific they are, but my life was not impoverished or empty up until that point. 

If I'd never had a hug, it would be a different matter. I would be a different person. Imagine....never, ever, experiencing a hug. 

This morning I realised again what a lucky person I am. My life has been full of love, from the moment I arrived, 70plus years ago. 

I want to leave you with a quote I just came across on Twitter and really liked. It doesn't really follow on but who cares?

Don't ever save anything for a special occasion. Being alive is the special occasion. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

Happiness writes white

I've been drawing and painting nasturtiums a lot just recently. This is the latest bunch on the painting table:

They will be the last this year, unfortunately, because the caterpillars have now munched their way through the whole border.

But sometimes things work out right.

Sometimes you have an art tutorial on zoom and you learn a lot.

Sometimes you ring the GP surgery and get hold of the doctor you really like. 

Sometimes you plan an event and it turns out to be the only sunny day that week. And when the day arrives, your grandson gets the top-notch GCSE results he deserves, so you have something to celebrate.

A friend told me the other day that he'd whipped the cream for a cake with a fork instead of a whisk: 'My mother used to do it and I wanted to have a go. You have to get your kicks where you can these days.' 

You certainly do. Currently Chrissie and I are both leading very quiet lives on account of you-know-what, so we planned a margarita-fest for yesterday teatime in the garden. We were both excited and both decided completely independently to dress up. And when Chrissie arrived at 5 p.m. the sun was still out.

Here we are, keeping our distance:

To top it off, Chrissie's daughter, her taxi driver for the event, went to fetch fish and chips and brought them here for tea in the garden.

It was perfect.

I remember my very first margarita. It was in a bar in Morrison, Colorado in 2003, the first time I flew to the States to visit Isaac. The worst one I ever had was in Monterey, and the best have been at the Velvet Cantina in San Francisco, and Bar Taco in Boulder. Oh dear, I've just discovered that Velvet Cantina has permanently closed on account of you-know-what. That's such a shame.

Dave, who does not drink, asked me yesterday what was so special about margaritas. I tried to explain, and ended up by saying, 'Basically, Dave, they are the only drinks I know that make you feel happy. It's impossible not to feel happy when you're drinking a margarita.'

'Hmm,' he said, 'what would make me feel happy is a new hammer.'

Monday, August 17, 2020

Vicarious living vs the real thing

I'm learning to enjoy a wider life vicariously. 

Zoë and family had a great week in Northumberland, Isaac and family went camping and rafting in Colorado for three days, and the family-member-who-declines-to-be-named and the lovely Jaine have just come home from sunny Croatia. Meanwhile my friend Het, who has been cooped up in a London flat for five months, has found freedom in Cornwall. 

It's genuinely heartwarming to think of them all getting away, because I am now over my temper tantrum that the trip with the sibs to Wensleydale in September is off the cards and I shan't be going away till next year.

Last week when I left Zoë's garden after a visit, she and I wanted to hug goodbye, and considered donning masks to do it. We didn't hug. We discussed the whole hugging thing and ended up with the younger grandson (14) hugging Zoë and pretending it was me. Odd, yes, but I did feel hugged.

Last week Dave found some 'tasty' bits of oak when he was clearing out his shed and he has been carving either Carpe diem (seize the day) or Viva hodie (live today) on all of them. He does multiples of everything he makes. These are the first ones he did. 

They sit on the stairs, so every time I go up to the loo I see them. 

He just finished these, and they are on the dresser:

A year before she died, my friend Mary had him carve Make each day count in some oak for her.

These are great sentiments, but I am burdened by them, because as I told you last week, I am already weighed down by this puritan on my shoulder urging me to use every minute productively.

I came across two quotes this morning, both of which I liked:

This last is from the writer and poet Charles Bukowski. I love the idea of death trembling. is this week's plan for living well - bike rides, picking flowers, drawing and painting. 

And when the sun comes out, Chrissie and I are going to get together in the garden and drink margaritas. I have never made them before, but I have the  recipe from a friendly bartender in Boulder, and I now have all the ingredients: 

Also salt. Because yes of course we'll have salt on the rim of our glasses.

Here's to a happy week, not looking at my feet.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

On holiday

My big sister rang yesterday to ask if I was all right because I hadn't blogged in ages, and also, how did I like the hot weather?

I said I was fine, and I liked the hot weather because I could pretend I was on holiday. It meant I didn't have to satisfy the puritanical being sitting on my right shoulder that insists I do something productive and meaningful everyday, preferably for the benefit of someone other than myself. So that, I said, is probably why I hadn't blogged - because I'd conceptually been on holiday - although I have been drawing, something which is for me and no-one else. 

Here is one of the said drawings, of my nasturtiums, because I'm pleased with it, even though I haven't got the jar perfectly upright. 

And now one coloured with inks:

Because I have no ideas in my head for another novel, I've been thinking about trading in words for pictures, and then I wondered about amalgamating them along the lines of this...

in which I quote from two of Mary Oliver's poems. It doesn't seem right, though, to be using someone else's words. I should be using my own.

The trouble is that my words come in a bunch, in an article, a book, or a blog post. And I can't think of any pithy sentences worth quoting. The most memorable single sentences or phrases I have written that immediately spring to mind have all been said by Dave.

e.g. 'if you want to risk your life for a haddock' 


'I think I'd feel unnerved if they removed my head.'

both of which suggest a cartoon and not a beautiful abstract painting or design. But I will investigate the collected works of Sue Hepworth and see what I can come up with. 

On Wednesday, Dave and had an early morning walk along the Derwent from Curbar to Froggatt and back, and I took this photo:

And on Thursday I rode to the end of the Trail and took this video to show you what's there. The sound you can hear is the river Wye below.

Yesterday Liz and I took an easy early stroll along Curbar Edge, which is parallellish to the river walk, but obviously, much higher up:

It was cool and misty:

I recommend both walks, but they are popular, and you need to go early or late if you don't like crowds. I'd rather stay home than be in a crowd.

The natural world is a solace in these dark times. I may have been on holiday but I've been signing petitions as if my life depended on it. 

Sometimes other people's lives depend on it.

Here is a petition which calls for fair grades for A levels and GCSE exams:

And then there's the issue of children risking their lives by crossing the channel in dangerous boats.

The best way for the dangerous crossings to stop is to provide safe and legal routes for those seeking sanctuary, yet the government is failing to provide certainty on replacements for two such schemes that have ended or are ending this year.

The government says it wants to reduce the numbers of people crossing the Channel, but if children and separated families cannot access family reunion, they are going to have no choice but risk their lives.

This is a petition calling on the chief Brexit negotiator to make it a priority to find a replacement for refugee family reunion at the next round of negotiations (17th-21st August 2020).

Saturday, August 08, 2020


It's been a tricky week. I've been fed up. I've been wanting the old life back.  

A friend said 'Yes I'm OK, but I don't want to live like this.'

But we have no choice. Do we? We have to. 

I watched Out of Africa for the nth time a couple of weeks ago. When Karen's husband leaves home to fight in the war, she says: 'It's an odd feeling, farewell. There is such envy in it. Men go off to be tested, for courage. And if we're tested at all, it's for patience, for doing without, for how well we can endure loneliness.'

It made me think about the second world war, and how that generation coped with the hardships and privations and threat. It went on for years. They didn't know when it would end. Just as we don't know if the present world we find ourselves in will end, or whether this is how it's going to be from now on.

I've decided to read some eye witness accounts of life in the UK during the war and see if I can absorb some wisdom and stoicism and learn how to get on with it and stop moaning.

I've chucked in Anna Karenina anyway, 40 pages from the end. It feels like a failure, having waded through 700+ pages of it. But I need to be engrossed in a book, and there are so many other things to read, and things which might be helpful. Also, I could be dead next week. Why waste my last few days on a book I am not enjoying? And a kind friend who has read it twice offered to check those last 40 pages and tell me if I have missed anything important. Yes, yes, I'm a lightweight, but I have never pretended to be otherwise.

Yesterday afternoon Chrissie asked me on Facetime how I was, and without thinking, I said 'Blissed out.' After an up and down week, I'd had breakfast in the garden

and then set off early for a walk with Liz. We parked at Alport and walked along Lathkildale.

The video shows a place we stopped for twenty minutes to think, and to absorb the peace. I first came across this place when I was 15 and it was so special it stuck in my mind, until I saw it again 30 years later.

This is higher up the river, above Conksbury bridge.

And this is the view after we climbed up the hill and turned round to come back downstream.

You can probably appreciate why I was 'blissed out.'

Thursday, August 06, 2020


75 years ago today, at quarter past eight in the morning, a US plane dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima city centre, a busy residential and business district, crowded with people going about their daily business. The fireball created by that single bomb destroyed 13 square kilometres of the city.

The heart of the explosion reached a temperature of several million degrees centigrade, resulting in a heat flash over a wide area, vaporising all human tissue. Within a radius of half a mile of the centre of the blast, every person was killed. All that was left of people caught out in the open were their shadows burnt into stone. Beyond this central area, people were killed by the heat and blast waves, either out in the open or inside buildings collapsing and bursting into flame.

Many of those who survived the immediate blast died shortly afterwards from fatal burns. Others with possibly less fatal injuries died because of the breakdown of rescue and medical services, much of which had been destroyed, with personnel themselves killed. Within two or three days, radiation victims who were near the hypocentre developed symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, bloody diarrhoea and hair loss. Most died within a week.

Radiation victims further away from the explosion developed symptoms one to four weeks after the explosion. Many survivors – known in Japanese as hibakusha – still suffer to this day from the impact of radiation. Pregnant women who survived the bomb faced additional horrors, for many babies were stillborn, and those born alive were often deformed, and faced higher infant mortality rates than normal.

On 9 August, the US dropped an atom bomb on Nagasaki. This bomb was more powerful than that dropped at Hiroshima and had the same tragic consequences.

What is morally wrong cannot be politically right. 

Nuclear weapons are obscene and should be banned. 

What's more, they serve no legitimate purpose. The UK's own National Security Strategy identifies the real threats we face today as terrorism, cyber-attacks and climate change. Nuclear weapons would be useless in dealing with these. The money spent on them could be better spent on health, education and housing. 

This year, because of the pandemic, Bakewell Quakers will not be holding their annual Hiroshima Peace Vigil. This is us on two previous years:

Monday, August 03, 2020

Days are where we live

A friend who is reading my latest book, DAYS ARE WHERE WE LIVE, said she liked the title, and I said 'Oh, do you know where it comes from?'

She didn't. So maybe you don't either.

It's from my favourite Larkin poem:


What are days for?
Days are where we live.   
They come, they wake us   
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:   
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor   
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Philip Larkin

Saturday, August 01, 2020

My pandemic Friday

It’s not getting any easier is it?

Do you think it is?

Yesterday I was looking under the sofa for my sketchpad so that I could sit in the shade in the garden and draw my feet

and I came across the paintings I did for the lockdown competition for people over 70. The one that popped out was the Seven days in Lockdown, which illustrated my mood swings through a week in May and often depended on the sleep I’d had the night before.

I don’t have nightmares or sleepless nights anymore – in fact this week I dreamt I was newly married to Greg Wise. Beat that! And I generally sleep well. But I still have days when I feel depressed and hopeless and times when I feel very very happy, nearly always because I’ve been on a new walk with a friend and it’s been a sunny day.

Yesterday I woke up feeling gloomy. I tried to cheer myself up by picking sweet peas in my pyjamas before breakfast. I have never worked out why this cocktail of warm air, loose clothing and sweet damp nature is so cheering, but it is. Here’s a photo from happier times when my hair was not 5 months past the need for a haircut:

After breakfast I set off on a bike ride in order to beat the crowds and the heat, but my legs ached and I didn’t go far. I ended up at Monsal Head after only 15 minutes:

And then swooped down to the river. 

Here’s a video of the view from the bridge:

I sat down and wrote some questions in my notebook about the coming months. And I remembered my decision a month or so ago that my aim for a day should be to accomplish three simple things, and then not to worry. That thought guided the rest of my day. It was very helpful. 

Zoë has just got back from her holiday in Craster. Craster is on the Northumbrian coast and is where the wonderful Mick Oxley lives - the artist who takes a photo of the sea and sky every morning from his window and posts it on Twitter. His daily photos are the very best thing on Twitter. (@SeaSkyCraster)

Zoë texted me from her hols and asked if I'd like her to bring me back a kipper. Craster kippers are like no other kippers. If you’ve never had one, and even if you think you don’t like kippers, you should try one. Dave can’t stand the smell of kippers, as he can’t stand the smell of lots of things I want to eat - stilton, parmesan, bacon, fish pie...hey ho. Having Aspergers makes him very sensitive to sensory stimulation. It’s a pain in the neck, but there it is. Because he knows I’ve got pandemic blues, he said he didn't mind Zoë bringing me back a kipper.

So I cooked one with all the windows and doors open and ate it outside while Dave was on his bike ride and it was delicious. 

But the best thing by far about yesterday was that it was Lux's 10th birthday. 

Tenth!  And the family Facetimed me so I could see her opening her presents. 

That girl! She is sensitive and thoughtful and funny and charming and talented and reflective and sweet and brave. And I love her to bits.

Here she is, arriving in my life, as documented in DAYS ARE WHERE WE LIVE

July 30th 2010
It’s a still quiet morning here, at 5.42 a.m. The dawn was red and yellow and deep dark grey – beautiful. I am up and awake because I am waiting for news of the baby. The Little Red Hen went into labour 13 hours ago and all through last evening we got updates and now there is no response to my texts, and Isaac’s last tweet said “update: no update.” San Francisco is an awfully long way away, and 13 hours is a long time to be in labour, although I know it’s not been heavy going all that time, because on Isaac’s first call he said Wendy was having contractions every four minutes and eating cereal in between. Several hours later, his text read “Wendy is eating a burrito.” But that was a whole English night ago. What is she eating, now?
10 a.m. I am still waiting. Poor Wendy. I don’t think she’ll be eating anything.


August 1st 2010
My darling new and first American grand-daughter arrived in the world on Saturday after a long long labour, and then a Caesarean. She’s called Lux.

I can’t wait to meet her in September.

Bless you, Lux.