Another year in books

2018 all booksDuring 2018, I read 43 books: 25 fiction, 17 non-fiction and one poetry. I read new works by authors whose work I have already enjoyed, as well as discovering some new favourites. I learned a bit about brain surgery, nursing and cocoa – and a range of other things as well. I also had the great privilege of meeting a number of the writers whose books I have admired this year. It has been a good year for reading and I look forward to what this new year brings.



When No Birds Sing

This piece was my entry for a recent local writers’ group 2000-word short story competition. I don’t really ‘do’ fiction but we were given the theme – ‘and no birds sing’ – and my story was based entirely on the history of my 2x great aunt, Hilda Beatrice Tiller (14.11.1875 – 28.12.1958). It did not get placed, but it did get very pleasing feedback from some of my family.


July 1898

The vast expanse of the sky is a perfect cornflower blue above them as they walk – Hilda and her Henry – hand in hand across the short, sheep-shorn grass and along the clifftop path. Only very far away do tiny cotton-wool clouds kiss the distant horizon. ‘There’ll be a storm in a day or two,’ he says, pausing briefly to scan the sky. He would be right, of course; no one knew the signs as well as he did.

April 1911

In their tiny cottage near the Cobb, Hilda sits waiting as she so often does now. On her lap, untouched for the past hour or more, is the latest in a series of rag rugs – a pastime that helps her cope with the long, silent evenings and brings in a few extra shillings when she sells them to grateful neighbours. The colours are for the most part muted – remnants of local people’s worn-out work clothes in browns and greys – relieved here and there by a dash of scarlet, blue or green. Hilda sighs; she doesn’t know quite why she waits night after night for the sound of the door opening, accompanied always by the sound of the bell that hangs above it, a chirrup like that of the spring songbirds in the meadows nearby, reassuring her that Henry’s work is done for another night and he is home safe again. He will come at last – as always – and chide her for staying up to wait when she could have been sleeping. Lying peacefully in the small bed at one side of their single upstairs room, Harold sleeps unperturbed. He is almost five years old now and takes it for granted that although the sea can be dangerous it will always treat his daddy right, always bring him back to him and his mum. But Hilda is older and wiser – she knows that her brave husband’s work can be dangerous. How could it be anything else: the coastguard is only needed when there is trouble offshore and once the siren sounds he is off, and Hilda is left to wait – again.

June 1895

Hilda and Henry have salt in their veins; their ancestors walked the same coast paths, scratched a living from the same inshore villages and maintained a healthy respect for the unforgiving power of the open sea. Henry had tried his hand at plumbing for a while but the sea had always been his dream and now, not yet nineteen, he is in the Navy. Although fearful, Hilda watches her childhood sweetheart leave for the first of many times, her heart as heavy as a ship’s anchor and yet soaring like a topsail with pride. This is her boy and the sea will make him into her man.

September 1905

Hilda’s seafaring man leaves and returns in a slow-motion mimicry of the tides – weeks or months passing between outwardly cheerful farewells and tear-stained, joyous reunions – and then, at last, and to her immense relief, he kneels on that clifftop path, produces a simple band from his trouser pocket and asks her to share his life. ‘Get up, you great lummock, before you green your knees,’ she teases, but her broad smile and the rosy blush that spreads across her face tells him all that he needs to know. He rises obediently – on land she will always be the captain of their ship – folds her in a warm embrace and then, stepping back, he becomes quiet and thoughtful. ‘You do know, don’t you,’ he says, as his fingers toy with stray wisps of her hair. He is a strange and endearing mixture of tender and clumsy and fails miserably to tuck her hair back beneath the starched white cap, settling instead for winding it behind her ear. ‘You do know, don’t you, that I cannot leave the Navy? I’ll still be off at sea. Do you mind awful much?’ She does – but she also knows that she could never change him without losing what she loves most about him. While she will always be content to stay at home, to be a living, breathing but fixed part of this place, he brings a spirit of adventure into her life, with tales of faraway places and foreign parts – and she has come to love the excitement of it.

December 1906

Harold is their only child – a sadness in Hilda’s life that the many nephews and nieces who seem to arrive with almost monotonous regularity only serve to exaggerate. She has known from the day of Harold’s birth, a day that she only just survived, that there could be no further children, that in this alone she would always disappoint her Henry, who proved to be a doting father and would have relished having a whole tribe to fashion into his very own crew. But just as she would never display anything but openhearted lovingkindness to the swarm of nephews and nieces, so Henry would never betray the merest hint of dismay that their family has failed to grow in size. She has a good man, a generous and loving man, and she knows it and is grateful.

September 1939

They say a war is coming again and Hilda shudders at the thought. Her companion, Ellen, is eighty years old and can no longer comprehend the headlines that Hilda sees almost daily as she goes out to the shops to buy ingredients for their regular but unadventurous and meagre meals. Hilda almost envies Ellen the creeping senility that will protect the older woman from what they may yet have to face: more young men separated from their families and sent far away; more scarred and damaged men returning to vainly try and rebuild some semblance of the lives they left behind. Hilda mourns for what is happening again and, as the evening light fades, she closes the curtains, tiptoes across the dark floorboards, turns on the table lamp and takes up another rag rug. She is waiting again – and this time, much of Europe is waiting too.

August 1902

Henry’s latest letter has arrived and Hilda is thrilled to read that he will soon be close by. There is to be a grand review of the fleet in the middle of the month – to mark the coronation of the new king – and it will take place off Spithead, just along the coast. But fifty miles might as well be a thousand miles; she certainly won’t be given any time off to make a journey that might give her even a chance of waving towards his ship. Her employers are kindly – George and his two sisters, Mary and Harriet – but they are all so much older than she is, none of them have ever married and how could they possibly understand their parlourmaid’s longing to be there, to share in the cheering and the emotion of the crowds, and to have her heart leap in her chest at the knowledge that her Henry – her own sweetheart – is part of it all, out there on the waves.

Christmas 1958

Hilda sits propped up in her room, dwarfed by the blankets and eiderdown piled onto the high bed. She is so old – and very tired – but Harold and Ethel have come to visit, giving the live-in maid a day off to be with her own family for their Christmas meal. Hilda is still at 19 Rose Gardens; the genteel, detached house has been her home now for well over twenty years and Hilda has spent much of that time alone apart from the daily fussing and dusting that a succession of young maids have undertaken. But they haven’t been company, not like Ellen was company, although – truth to tell – she wasn’t great at conversation once her mind had started to wander off. But Ellen, with whom she shared those companionable, bygone years in mutual consolation, has been dead for over sixteen years now and Harold and Ethel have come every Sunday to keep her company. On Christmas day they bring a portion from their special lunch for her but this year she cannot get down to the old mahogany dining table, and the room remains bare and cold. Her bedroom is cosy though, and Fanny the maid has made it cheerful with some holly sprigs and paper chains. ‘Such a silly fuss for an old woman,’ Hilda mutters when her son and his wife remark on how nice it looks. But she is grateful for the warm food, and for their visit. ‘Ethel is a good girl,’ thinks Hilda. ‘Yes, she’s a good girl. But, goodness me, she must be forty-five now!’ and Hilda chuckles to herself, not realising that salty tears are creeping down her deeply lined cheeks as she ponders the happy but sterile marriage that has failed to bring her the solace of grandchildren in her advancing years. There is just her sturdy carpenter son – thank the Lord that he did not have to go to war, that his young wife did not suffer the anxiety that she had gone through – her strong, blue-eyed boy, who had always been the spitting image of his father. She loved to see him, could not believe that he was over fifty now – but sometimes it tore at her heart to realise that this was what her Henry might have looked like.

May 1915

It had been inevitable that Henry would face greater danger once the war started. His long years in the Navy’s Coastguard Service, much of it spent only just offshore or even based on land, meant that he was already trained and ready when the call-up came. Their happy years on the Cobb came to an abrupt end in July last year and the following month he had been sent off on the Goliath, a beast of a ship. With a name like that, did no one realise it might well come to a bad end? Did no one read their Bibles anymore? Hilda and Harold had stayed on in the cottage, waiting for news that came only many days or even weeks after the faraway actions. There were small victories, and then losses, but this campaign – some of the papers were calling it Churchill’s Gallipoli campaign – had taken so many of the local seafaring men over recent months and Hilda has fear in her chest day and night. She knows that it might be many weeks before the tinkling of the doorbell could possibly herald Henry’s safe return and yet she cannot bear to feel the disappointment when Harold occasionally comes in at the front door; last week she banned him from using it, insisting that he use only the back door.

Today the news comes, the postman sombre and unsmiling as he hands her the telegram edged with black, giving her a brief sympathetic nod and then jumping back on his bicycle – fleeing before there is a chance of being swamped by an outpouring of grief; he has done this too many times now not to know what could happen. But Hilda is controlled; she has dreaded yet expected it, perhaps even prepared for it deep down. Her tears will come later when she has to tell young Harold that his daddy isn’t coming home this time, that the great beast of a ship has been hit by three torpedoes and has sunk with the loss of almost six hundred men, and that in some distant place called Morto Bay his daddy is sleeping forever under the sea. And when, in years to come, she looks back on the remaining few months that she and Harold stay on in this cottage, she will think of it as the time when no birds sing to herald a welcome return. For now, Hilda turns slowly back from the gate and enters the front door; reaching up, she takes down the bell hanging just inside, cradles it in her trembling hands and ponders where to hide it.

Connected but not joined up?


I have every reason to be very grateful indeed for the twenty-first century’s enhanced connectivity: with two children on the other side of the world, regular contact is through WhatsApp and Skype calls and although I have some regrets that there will not be bundles of letters for our descendants to discover and cherish, I am realistic enough to know that with the frenetic pace of life today, regular letter writing is, sadly, a thing of the past and it is necessary to be content with occasional postcards as the only evidence of hand-written communication.

But it is not just in the maintaining of all-important family and other relationships that our interconnectedness brings benefits. It is now difficult to recall just how much of the day-to-day stuff of life used to happen at such a leisurely pace: bills received by post and paid by writing out cheques and returning them by post; official enquiries sent off through the post and replies still awaited some weeks later – not knowing when or whether the original requests had made it to their destinations; exchanges between colleagues, even within the same building, that were sent on paper and carried by clerical messengers whose task was largely to run hither and thither in lieu of face-to-face meetings. How much more straightforward and quicker all these things, and many more, have become with the use of the internet, email, mobile phones and instant messaging. I have reconnected via facebook with old friends from childhood and from university days and have marvelled at the discovery of ‘friends of friends’ who are themselves linked via social media – people whom I would never have expected to be connected turn out to be so, either directly or only at one remove from each other. I have also managed to trace missing distant relatives using online searches and have amassed a huge database of my children’s ancestry – begun by trawling through the records of local studies libraries but greatly enhanced by internet-based genealogical tools, with new data now added month by month and most of it without leaving home. So I would be devastated to lose this new connectivity, but has it come at a price and do we assume that because we are now all part of a worldwide web of linkages, what happens around us is similarly joined up?

The more I hear about national and global circumstances, the more convinced I am that many problems result from a lack of joined-up thinking and processes, and I find it frustrating that those in positions of power and who have the potential to bring about change do not seem to recognise that failures of communication – in an age of unprecedented mass communication – are often significant contributors to large problems. If, as has been claimed, we cannot have meaningful relationships with more than a maximum of 100 to 150 other individuals, how can it be either efficient or cost-effective to construct ever larger national and global organisations in which the right hand loses touch with what the left hand is doing? We may be better connected than ever but are we actually communicating much less effectively at many levels – don’t we need to concentrate more on something else derived from the same root word, and to nurture community, whether that is by creating smaller and effective networks within large organisations, by devolving decision-making to the places where those decisions are to be implemented or by setting up local initiatives to tackle what have been identified as national problems? With increased connectivity there has arisen a parallel phenomenon: increased isolation and loneliness. But when we look at the local picture rather than trying to start with the global or national, there are opportunities for effective action for everyone, beginning right where we all are. Just because a group has as its primary function the sharing of a common interest in history, singing, art or food doesn’t mean that it cannot also function effectively as a way of including the isolated, feeding the need for human contact and lifting the depression of the lonely – perhaps it just needs some more joined-up thinking?


The Joy of Books

The Joy of Books

Encouraged by a friend who is a much speedier and more voracious reader than I am, but who nevertheless seems able to retain the essence of the many books she reads each year, I decided towards the end of 2016 to record all of my ‘leisure’ reading by posting a short review of each completed book on my facebook timeline. I thoroughly enjoyed doing this and have kept it going after completing a first year of books. Not only did it encourage me to read more widely – and to make a greater effort to get through the titles lying in wait in my ‘yet to be read’ basket, it also reminded me just how much I love the feel, the appearance and the variety of physical books. It was therefore a real delight – although not without expense and hard work – that during the latter part of my first year of book-reviewing, we had some adjustable library-style shelving installed in both our living rooms, effectively converting one of them into a library-cum-sitting room and allowing all our many volumes to be much better organised by subject and genre. So, as I am now into a new year of reading, and of writing about reading, here is a quick look back at what 2017 contained, both in books and in sorting books: firstly, the twenty-six books I read:

2017 collage

… and then the major project and the many, many hundreds of books that I moved, and in some cases moved again – and again.


Family Room 2 [June 2017]  Family Room 1 [June 2017]


2017.10.27  2017.10.27[4]

2017.10.29  2017.10.29[4]

The lovely dividers that the carpenters made for us!


And after:

2017.11.16[3] 2017.11.16

What a privilege and a joy to be able to be surrounded by such a wealth of knowledge, colour, imagination, beauty, poetry, humour and wisdom – in the shape of books.

With my head in the sink!

I have been a Christian for over 40 years but have never found it easy to talk to those outside the church about my faith or about what I believe – and I suspect I am not alone in that. However, the other day I ended up having an unexpected and quite astonishing conversation with a relative stranger.

I was at the hairdresser’s and the young man who has only been there for a few months was washing my hair. Stereotypically chatty for a salon employee, he asked if I had a busy weekend coming up and I mentioned that I would be in London on Saturday for a conference. ‘Oh, what’s that about?’ he asked, so I took a deep breath and told him it was about encouraging the churches to be more involved in creation care. What followed almost took my breath away. This lad was clearly not a churchgoer but the one thing he knew about Christians was ‘Love your neighbour’ and he was absolutely adamant that if a church was not fully on board with looking after the environment then it was failing and was hypocritical. I slightly hesitantly tried to suggest that Christians in such congregations were not necessarily ‘lying’ (his assessment) but that they had failed to make the necessary connections between the teachings of the Christian faith and the threats posed by climate change. He may just have followed this up in order to make conversation, but it did seem that his interest was aroused by the subject and he went on to quiz me about which church I attended, how I had become a Christian and which of the local churches he should attend if he wanted to give one a try. It was a God-given opportunity, and I was able to respond out of my own experience and without any hesitation – not something that I had expected to be doing as part of a cut and blow dry!

This encounter lasted only a matter of minutes, but was very striking none the less and I was left with the overwhelming impression that if he were in any way typical of the younger generation then many of them are really concerned about the environment – about their future and the problems they will inherit from us – and if they do not see this concern reflected by the church then the church will not attract them. The obvious flip side to that is that if they can see churches engaging with these issues, taking relevant action and speaking out on behalf of the poor and vulnerable – and future generations – who are going to be so badly affected if we cannot begin to stem the tide of climate change, then the church gains credibility and is seen to be demonstrating the love it talks about. Then, we may make new disciples.

What were you thinking?

I have the silent ‘No!’ of a total stranger ringing in my head this morning and I am surprised to find that it is dominating my thoughts after this year’s Good Friday Walk of Witness.

I was unprepared for what happened yesterday when, to my surprise, I was invited to again help carry the heavy cross through the streets of Tring. There had been no specific request for ladies to help this year but Revd Jane was there, ready at the back and looking out for other volunteers, so I joined in. It may be simply the passage of time but it didn’t seem quite so hard this year, perhaps because there were more, and taller, men in front taking even more of the weight. So, once our strides were in step and we were into the long straight section of our journey, I occasionally looked up from the ground and observed some of the reaction to this annual local event. Most people out and about on Good Friday, seeing that the traffic has been halted and catching the sound of the approaching drum with its sombre single beat, repeated like a heavy footfall, stop and watch in respectful silence as we pass by – a crowd of witnesses following after a large heavy cross. But this time there was a bus, halted in its journey by the yellow-clad marshals. There were only a few passengers but one caught my eye as he sat there, stony-faced and shaking his head repeatedly from side to side, almost as if he could not believe what he was seeing.

What were you thinking? Perhaps you were simply annoyed at the delay to your journey, but it seemed to be more than that – the ‘No’ much more than a dismissive denial. What were you thinking? Were you surprised to see women helping to carry the cross? Or were you disapproving of my failing to be dressed in the appropriately funereal dark clothing of the others who together took the part of that first, perhaps less-willing ‘volunteer’,  Simon of Cyrene, who was compelled by the Romans to carry Jesus’ cross towards Calvary? Did you even perhaps think – seeing the concentration on our faces, misconstrued as anguish – that this was some sort of church discipline being enacted along our high street: a group of ‘sinners’ being publicly humiliated in some way as a punishment? That shaking head has made me look at what we do each year through the eyes of a stranger, and to wonder what it might look like to someone less familiar with the story of Easter week. What were you thinking? Were you perhaps reflecting, as we had been doing just an hour earlier in church, on the thoughts and feelings of Jesus as he hung on the cross in agony on that first Good Friday? Were you thinking about yourself and what was done for you on that day so long ago – or were you simply annoyed at the delay to your bus? What were you thinking – and will your ‘No’ become a joyful, hopeful, celebratory ‘Yes!’ when tomorrow dawns?

On the loss of parents

(Originally written some years ago but reworked for our local churches magazine as part of a series on life’s challenges.)

The loss of a family member is always very sad but it is a part of the natural course of events that when we get older we are faced with the death of our parents. Nevertheless, the circumstances can make a very great difference for all concerned.

The 13 November 2003 was a dry, late-autumn day and my father spent the morning raking leaves in the garden, came indoors and ate lunch with his wife, then sat down in their living room for coffee – and died. He was four and a half months short of his eightieth birthday. A post-mortem revealed that hugely elevated blood pressure had been undiagnosed and untreated. My mother was absolutely devastated but she said a number of times that it was exactly the sort of death my father would have wanted – no illness, no doctors, no hospitals; he had not suffered. Amid our shock and grief at this sudden and unexpected loss, we all recognised the truth of this and took some comfort from it, but over the next few years my mother suffered a great deal.

Following my father’s funeral, my mother seemed to cope fairly well at first. Friends did all they could and my sister and I visited regularly. But it very soon became apparent that my parents had done so much together in the almost 30 years since his early retirement from the RAF that my mother scarcely knew how to function without him. It seemed that for many years she had hardly ever left the house alone; to do anything or visit the shops entailed a car journey and she never went on her own. She had not driven a car in the UK for years, only sharing the driving on their thrice-yearly trips to their holiday home in France. However, she could not stay in her home in an isolated Wiltshire hamlet without driving, so in early 2004 she bought a smaller car, had some refresher lessons and gradually ventured out. But during that year it was increasingly obvious that she was becoming withdrawn and not eating properly. She began to say that she didn’t want to go on living and eventually my sister and I took her, despite great reluctance on her part, to see her doctor. Anti-depressants were prescribed and, after much persuasion, she also agreed to try bereavement counselling. However, before the second session could be booked, she was taken into hospital. She had lost so much weight that she had begun to collapse and it was no longer possible for her to stay at home.

After some weeks in hospital and numerous tests to eliminate any physical cause for the weight loss, she was transferred to the elderly psychiatric assessment unit of the local hospital. We all found this a distressing situation but were desperate for her health to improve and were reassured by the environment and the staff. She had her own room in  bright and spotless surroundings, with excellent care, but many of the other patients were suffering from dementia and some were noisy, which made her anxious; she had been used to privacy and her own space and she just wanted to go home. She refused to eat properly, displaying many of the signs of anorexia nervosa, and despite frequent visits from close friends and family she seemed determined to starve herself to death while nevertheless denying that this was her intention. Nothing that anyone could say or do made any difference. She wanted to die and said so, but she also said that to kill herself would be ‘wicked’. To make no effort to live was apparently a different matter.

The medical staff tried everything to alleviate the severe depression: different anti-depressants were tried and when all this failed electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) was recommended. This was frightening for my mother and, despite sedation, sometimes painful – and after a number of courses it was clear that it wasn’t helping. So, after eight months in the unit the doctors reluctantly admitted defeat and she moved into an elderly care home nearby. After a couple of months there – when it became clear that the longed-for improvement just wasn’t going to happen – my parents’ house was put on the market and my mother moved to a smaller and more personal care home in Wendover, nearer to me and her only grandchildren. But all she wanted was to be with my father again; as far as she was concerned she had lost the whole reason for her existence, the most stable feature of her life. During 2006 her physical health declined and in early autumn she was taken into hospital with a chest infection, given antibiotics and after a few days was back in the home. But weeks later there was another infection and by now the medical staff from the local practice knew her circumstances – and her wishes – better. The GP who came out told us that she had developed pneumonia. It could be treated, but he knew that wasn’t what she wanted. If nothing radical was done she could be kept comfortable but wouldn’t live more than a few days. What did we think? That was very hard indeed, and my sister and I talked about it at length. The last two years had been hard on us all but awful for our mother. There seemed to be no hope that she would ever lift out of the depths of grief she was in and so we agreed that she should stay where she was. We stayed with her and in the early hours of 29 October 2006 she died in her sleep, aged 78. In the final three years of her life she had suffered a great deal, affected by the massive changes in her life circumstances and, even more, by the loss of her frame of reference.

Neither of my parents had been churchgoers – their attendance limited largely to weddings and funerals – and they had found my ‘conversion’ as a student rather alienating. As far as my father was concerned, he lived in a Christian country, was nominally C of E and that made him a Christian. He seemed to find talk of God embarrassing, certainly never spoke about death or what he believed about a life beyond death, and apparently regarded religion as a crutch for other people. My mother was slightly more open to the idea of God, and both my sister and I had been encouraged to say ‘bedtime prayers’ as young children, but for both of my parents Christianity seemed to be rooted in the Bible stories of their schooldays – something that perhaps they had left behind in the years of the Second World War. Nevertheless, they lived by a moral code drawn from the teaching of the Bible, they respected the faith of sincere believers and they regarded the Church as part of the fabric of British society. The Christian faith impacted on my parents only through the lives of other people and I have no way of knowing whether, had my mother been a committed Christian, things might have been different for her final years. The fact that her grief became a depressive illness suggests not.

My parents’ deaths inevitably raised questions for me about their relationship with God, but I had never really believed that if you hadn’t been ‘born again’, or had a definable conversion experience, you were destined for an eternal hell; my understanding of a loving, just and righteous God makes me more of a ‘universalist’ than that. On the night of my father’s death my mother had asked me if she would see him again and I had told her that I believed she would. It was what she needed desperately to hear at that point and I also believed it.

A few days after her death I had to visit the doctors’ surgery in Wendover for some paperwork and, hearing me mention my mother’s name, a nurse from the practice approached me. She explained that she had got to know my mother in her last few months of life, only ever seeing her as a frail, elderly woman who wanted to die. She was a Christian and she went on to tell me how she had woken her husband in the early hours of 29 October to tell him that she thought Ricky (my mother) might have died. She had dreamed of her as a younger woman, upright, lively and, above all, smiling. She wasn’t suffering any more. This encounter was one of those rare occasions when I really felt that I had heard God speak to me personally – and I cannot read or write about it, even now, without tears. It was all the reassurance that I needed to move forward on my own life’s journey, in the knowledge that somehow, in some way that I will never understand in this life, and do not need to, my parents are now at peace and are held safely in the hands of God.Ricky & Don