Lockdown Log, Day 32

We are now well into the fifth week of lockdown in the UK and all the signs are that it will continue for some time to come, with social distancing possibly being a feature of life for the remainder of the year. The global death toll now stands at more than 190,000 and it is the uncertainty about when things might begin to change for the better that is beginning to take its toll on even the most positive and hopeful people. That and the lack of physical contact – especially the inter-generational contact of parents with their children and grandchildren. Online meetings are all very well but, as a friend said just yesterday: ‘It is great to see a screen full of the smiling faces of friends but then after a while someone has to hit the button, you all disappear and I am on my own again.’ And for the families of those who have died during this period – whether as a result of Covid-19 or for any other reason – there is the awfulness of not being able to mark the death of a loved one with a shared commemoration. My church family is mourning the death of a dearly loved 93-year-old who had been poorly for a few months and died a week ago. The matriarch of a vast extended family as well as a pillar of the local community, she deserved to have a really great send-off and for her family to know how appreciated and valued she was; the thought of that memorial service being postponed for many months, which will leave her closest relatives in a state of suspended grief, is very hard indeed.

Back in March – which seems in some respects so long ago and yet, because so little of note has happened in our enclosed worlds, it could almost be yesterday – we could cheerfully postpone travel plans for a year and could look forward to getting together with family and friends in the coming months if not at the weekend. But now it is beginning to sink in that such optimism may have been misplaced and that we may be waiting, together with people all around the world, for a tried and tested vaccine to be widely available before it is possible to travel safely abroad or have proper gatherings again.

Nevertheless, it is important to pair that realistic assessment with a good helping of gratitude and thankfulness: we are well; our family is all well; we have space, sunshine, food, shelter, glorious views over the local countryside and some of the most wonderful spring weather. What is more, we have the luxury of time to devote to a whole range of activities. There is useful work to be done for charities and community groups who are busier than ever in the current situation; the climate crisis is ever-present, and keeping abreast of how the two global emergencies are overlapping and affecting each other is an interesting challenge; and there are opportunities to make progress on projects that had been postponed, and to catch up on missed films and the reading pile – which seems to be growing ever higher thanks to the local bookshop’s deliveries.

Whether an easing of isolation is weeks, or more likely many months, away, let’s continue to make the very best of whatever our present circumstances are, cherish the new appreciation we have of those who work in key sectors – health, social care and food provision and the emergency services – and not forget that when the threat of the virus has passed we should keep hold of and build on the good things it has brought about. There will doubtless be a need to learn from mistakes that will have been made in tackling Covid-19, but also to try and understand what aspects of life pre-virus need to change for good in order to make further such pandemics less likely.

In trivial domestic news, I have managed to use a very old set of hair clippers – repaired by my handyman husband – to cut his hair without inflicting serious injury (which my sons may say, with a good deal of exaggeration, is better than I ever managed with them!) but I am not risking a return of that particular ‘favour’, despite what is happening to my own neglected head of hair. We have continued to explore and exploit the far reaches of our food cupboards and, with the ongoing scarcity of bread flour in the shops, some rather old flour and seeds have today been used to produce some excellent bread. Rather less tasty, but perfectly edible, a chunk of black pudding that had been lurking in the freezer for probably a little over four years was recently disguised among other ingredients to add to a mixed grill – a rare departure from our largely vegetarian diet. In attempting to restrict food shopping to once a week, we are more often being inventive with what is already available at home and, when the time comes and restrictions are eased, not only will we enjoy being able to eat out or with others, we will also have a much more streamlined stock of things in our cupboards and freezer. However, it seems that no amount of extra time makes it more likely that I will actually get housework done!


Lockdown Log, Day 27

It is hard to believe that it is very nearly four weeks since the UK lockdown was imposed and while it is difficult to be physically separated from family and friends our situation is very easy indeed compared to those who have been bereaved in recent weeks, whose jobs are under threat or who are having to juggle work alongside home-schooling their children. In fact, every few days I have to remind myself that, had we not been ‘grounded’ by the virus pandemic, we would have been separated from family and friends for a month anyway and would currently be somewhere in northern China on a train heading west towards the border with Kazakhstan. Distracted by all sorts of other enticing reading, I had not got around to any of the various books about the Silk Road that we had acquired as background reading and I now realise that I have been given an opportunity to rectify that and to do some vicarious travelling before we are able to take our postponed trip.

But there are always other books to tempt me away from good intentions: a quick scan of just a couple of our laden shelves suggests that, even of the fiction titles, there are perhaps one in every twenty or so that I have yet to read. So, I was really pleased recently to discover that the Japanese have a word for this trait that is well over a hundred years old: tsundoku is ‘acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them’. The word is a combination of terms for piling things up for later and leaving them, and for reading books. So tsundoku can be translated as one’s reading pile. I do have a reading pile but it is relatively modest, comprising newly bought books or books received as gifts that have yet to be read and, crucially, that have not yet been allocated a place on a shelf. I know for certain that there are other books – particularly large volumes that might threaten to overburden my bedside table – that also fall into the ‘yet to read’ category but that have already been found a home and are on my mental ‘to read’ list. The latest doorstop from Hilary Mantel is among these and I am currently watching again the television adaptation of Wolf Hall in preparation for a mammoth read of the second and third parts of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.


Meanwhile, I am nearing the end of a paperback novel – I periodically search the brilliant local Oxfam bookshop for books by favourite authors or titles from my ‘wishlist’ that I can get at a bargain price – but have also just had delivered a real treat of a hardback book. Our new local independent bookstore has, with every other bookshop in the country, had to close its doors to customers but fortunately it had been open just long enough to gain a loyal following. Offering a really wonderful service that included author events and book signings, and an inaugural book festival last autumn, it has gone fully online in recent weeks and is managing to take and process orders and then deliver them to doorsteps. It has been great during the lockdown to have twice had a phone call telling me that an ordered book had arrived and would be on its way later that day and then, when the doorbell rang some hours later – and after leaving an appropriate pause before opening the door, to find a brown paper bag sitting on the step and bookshop owner Ben on his bicycle, panniers laden with books, making sure that the book would be safely taken in. We had a socially distanced chat about my latest purchase, a title that had been on my wishlist for a while but that he had not come across before. It is a booklover’s delight, a book that celebrates tsundoku in all its various forms. I am already enjoying it and know that, when I have finished reading it, I will love dipping into it again and again. Biblio-Style: How We Live at Home with Books is fabulously illustrated and very cleverly arranged, with the private libraries of book collectors set alongside specialist bookshops and archives, all according to the way in which the owners regard their collections. Are they haphazard or organised, do they have a dedicated space or are they everywhere, does the owner collect all sorts of books or do they specialise? I have yet to work out exactly where our relatively modest library would fit into the author’s categories, let alone where this book will find its home in our collection.

My lockdown log of things that I am particularly grateful for has not been in any order at all – family and friends would have taken first place – but if it had been then books might well have been on the second day.

Lockdown Log, Day 17

All the indications now are that we will be in lockdown for at least an initial period of four weeks, and possibly longer – with the prospect that restrictions may well need to be re-imposed if a second and subsequent waves of infection occur after the initial outbreak is over. So while it is good to begin to have things to look forward to eventually – there are bound to be some great family get-togethers and other celebrations – it is probably wise to be cautious about how soon they will be able to take place; things may be pencilled in the diary but they all have question marks at the end. And, of course, for many people the chance to gather again will be a first opportunity to share grief or to join in corporate commemoration of lives lost.

In the meantime, we are continuing to adjust to the rather limited effects that relative isolation is having for us as working-from-home, semi-retireds. There has undoubtedly been a bit more television viewing, including sometimes catching lunchtime news bulletins, and I have also been more aware of what a great blessing it is to have varied interests that can all be pursued at home. I expect to write another time about the joy of books but there are other things I have been spending more time on as well. While missing attending occasional lectures in Oxford or London as I might usually be doing, I have instead been engaging with some of the online resources that are now available and yesterday spent an interesting hour learning from a Mathematics professor about the mathematical modelling of infectious disease outbreaks. I was also fortunate enough to spot back on 27 March that Professor N T Wright’s seven-part course on the life and times of Jesus was available to download free of charge for a twenty-four-hour period and I am enjoying watching his lectures and expect that I may well spread the whole course over quite a number of weeks. It is a delight to listen to and watch a speaker with such a clear voice, who manages somehow to be tranquil without being at all soporific.

I am very fortunate indeed to have had an upbringing and schooling that left me with a love of learning and this is a real blessing at a time like this. Although I took a scientific route through higher education I have loved history for almost as long as I can remember; memories of school are inextricably linked with learning about ancient Egypt and, for some reason I can no longer fathom, how to draw Tudor table legs. For about four decades now I have had a keen – some might say almost obsessive – interest in genealogy, and researching family history has been completely revolutionised in recent years as millions and millions of records have been made available via the internet. Every so often I delve deeper into a branch or distant twig of our extensive family tree and I invariably find something fascinating. As a result I have been prompted to read about coal mining in the Black Country, the Crimean War, quarrying in Scotland and a whole range of other things I had never given a moment’s thought to before. I also like researching on behalf of other people and have done this for half a dozen or so friends who have either wanted to see if they had links to a particular historical figure with whom they share a surname or just to find out more about their ancestors. Some months ago I spotted in a friend’s facebook conversation that she had a relative with a quite unusual surname that also occurs in a family connected into mine by marriage. I was intrigued and hoped eventually to see if my friend and I might be connected as well. So from my point of view it was a real and very welcome gift just recently when she sent me the name and approximate birth date of her grandfather and I spent hours tracing backwards and then sideways and down to see if we might share connections: we did, and this is something I am going to continue enjoying to research for a while yet – it has already led me into Birmingham’s nineteenth-century glass industry.

With the amount of time I spend sitting at my desk, from where I can also enjoy stunning views over the Chiltern Hills as they become greener day by day, I have every reason to be extremely thankful for a really good desk chair – and for my reading glasses.

Lockdown Log, Day 6

29 March 2020. Today we should have been leaving on an extended trip, initially to visit our son in New Zealand. We would have been flying from the UK and following almost in reverse the route taken by the coronavirus in its journey from China to Europe and beyond. Our first stop was due to be a couple of days in Singapore and then on to Auckland, returning from New Zealand partly by train from Beijing across China and through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Russia to Moscow, from where we planned to also take trains across Europe and back home. The first indication that this was going to be impossible came in late January with the closure of the land border between northern China and Kazakhstan and over the last two months our travel plans have shrunk stage by stage until everything was finally put on hold until next year.


However, the enjoyment we would undoubtedly have had from seeing new places is not completely denied to us, even as we are restricted to occasional food-shopping excursions or isolated outdoor exercise. We have become, at least partially, armchair tourists instead; thanks to modern technology we can take virtual tours of gardens, museums, art galleries and heritage sites around the world and can also maintain contact with family and friends, seeing them in their homes as they adapt to a new pattern of living, wherever they may be. How very much harder it must have been when previous devastating disease outbreaks occurred, long before telephones were widely available: receiving a letter that all was well – or that someone had been taken ill – would always have been accompanied by the dread that things could have changed for the worse while the letter was on its way. And even further back in history, during the eleven centuries or more when outbreaks of the bubonic plague periodically swept through Europe, there was none of the reassurance we can find in knowing that experienced and talented scientists, technicians and doctors are working tirelessly to understand, treat and ultimately prevent this virus from causing as much illness and death as it might otherwise do. I am grateful, too, that the protective clothing and equipment that we all hope to see being made more widely available to front-line medical staff looks more like something astronauts might wear than the rather terrifying costumes of the seventeenth-century plague doctors.

Plague doctor

It might be tempting to think that some of the things that have made our world seem to be a smaller place in modern times – high-speed travel and global trade, for example – have contributed to the spread of this current pandemic but history suggests otherwise: that the extent of spread is actually nothing new and that even many hundreds of years ago, although it may have taken longer, a disease could still cross the globe. Illness and its causes know no national borders. What is undoubtedly new is the speed and extent of the response that nations have been able to mount, and it is with admiration and awe that we see on our television screens a number of huge conference centres up and down the UK being transformed into new hospitals, and armies of volunteers being recruited to help out with caring for the most vulnerable in our communities. We are learning to be thankful for such massive things and not to take our privileges in the global north for granted. My late father would have been ninety-six years old yesterday, and although he died some years ago his life had been extended by major and successful emergency surgery years earlier, when he suffered an aortic aneurysm. I have a good friend celebrating her ninety-third birthday in the coming week and a dearly loved family friend will be ninety-two the following week. They all lived through hardship and saw the pain and death caused by war but they have all in different ways benefited hugely from the National Health Service in this country.

Now, as the world is battling against an invisible enemy, whatever our initial disappointment at not travelling to visit family on the other side of the globe this spring – or at missing the funeral of a relative who died peacefully of old age recently – these seem rather small things compared to the sacrifices being made on behalf of us all by those whose work puts them at greater risk: not only the doctors and nurses but the hospital cleaners, the supermarket checkout staff, the pharmacists, the postal workers, the bin men and many others. Thank you to all of them.


Have you ever seen this woman?

1920 (approx) Winifred Bowdidge

A new season of Who Do You Think You Are? begins on BBC1 next week and it will be my must-see show for the weeks to come. If you are also interested in family history, and in the stories that leach out of old diaries and faded photograph albums, if you delight in finding one more ancestor who takes a line in your tree back into an earlier century – then read on. Perhaps you have seen a picture of someone without knowing how they fit in the family story, a picture that could just possibly be of Winifred?

She was born well before the suffrage movement reached its peak or hemlines lifted to reveal ankles and although she would later be described as having been a rather ‘fast’ young woman this may well not convey anything nearly as scandalous as one might imagine, simply that she was rather ahead of her time for someone who spent her early childhood during the Edwardian era. I have concluded that her parents were generous-hearted and fairly open-minded; they came to terms with the fact that Winifred would be the only child they could have after her birth made further pregnancies out of the question and, in 1902, they adopted a baby boy born out of wedlock to a family friend. This young woman apparently faced ostracism and disgrace at the hands of her own family but her newborn son went on to grow up in a loving household with an older sister who adored him.

Winifred left school in her teens and began a working life in the clerical, secretarial world – a working life that would span over forty years until her retirement at aged sixty. By 1939 she was a book-keeper in a hotel in Bournemouth, the place that was home from her birth until shortly before her death in 1985. But what did she do in her spare time? Who did she socialise with, and were there any relationships that held out the possibility of settling down into a family life of her own? These questions remain unanswered – and it seems that Winnie never left home. In the late spring or early summer of 1927 she fell pregnant and subsequently changed her title from Miss to Mrs. Unlike the mother of her adopted brother, she had the love and support of her parents, who helped her to bring up her daughter. She was not a careless teenager but a relatively mature woman in her late twenties – past the average age at which women married at that time in the UK – and she continued to work to provide for herself and her daughter, who benefitted from grandparents who must have effectively taken the place of a father. There is no record of anyone at all – apart from Winnie – ever knowing the identity of her child’s father. Did Winnie have a secret lover for an extended period, someone who was perhaps not free to marry – but who might have carried her picture as a keepsake? Or was there a more distressing story behind her pregnancy: was she taken advantage of by a senior colleague or a hotel guest, someone she dare not expose?

Have you ever seen this woman? She was my much-loved grandmother and I have been trying for decades to find out who my grandfather was.

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?


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

These are a few of my favourite things …

A few weeks ago I was asked to contribute to a local church magazine feature on ‘favourites’ – specifically a favourite hymn, book and place. I left it rather late and ended up responding with a hasty list that was very much a case of ‘the first thing that popped into my head’. Although I did wonder, soon afterwards, whether my choices might have been different if I had taken more time to think about it, there is probably something to be said for the instinctive response: perhaps these choices did represent my deepest-seated feelings.

I started with my favourite hymn and while it was tempting to go for one of today’s popular choruses I couldn’t shake the attachment I feel towards ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’, largely because I relate to the reference to letting our ‘ordered lives’ speak about the beauty of God’s peace. However, I later discovered that the original poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker writer, had 11 other verses before the section that went on to become the hymn, and that they are very unlike anything that we would be used to singing in church. The long poem, The Brewing of Soma, is about Vedic priests brewing and drinking a ritual potion, the soma, in an attempt to experience divinity and the writer goes on to contrast this with the true method of finding contact with the divine, through sober lives, seeking silence and practising selflessness – the Quaker way. Apparently the hymn was the second most popular in the UK according to a 2005 BBC Songs of Praise poll.

When it came to selecting a favourite book, it was extremely difficult. I am not the sort of reader who has firm favourites, returned to year after year and read so often that passages can be quoted; in fact, I don’t think there is any book – apart from the ones favoured by my children as bedtime stories when they were very young – that I have ever read more than once. In the end, and in part because I knew that others had already chosen titles by one of my favourite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, I went for a much less well-known volume that was given to me as a gift a couple of years ago. Common People by Alison Light is a book I would like to have written myself and when I am absorbed in family history research and find out something fascinating about an ancestor I do occasionally fantasise about having a go myself one day and producing my own family’s version of Common People.


Finally, in choosing a favourite place, I could very easily have opted for one of the places I have been fortunate enough to visit on holidays or other trips over the years. Most recently, I had been to Slovenia and spent a day at Lake Bled, reckoned by many to be one of the most picturesque spots in Europe. It was indeed beautiful but in the end I conceded that my real favourite place is home. I have lived in Tring for over 34 years and have no desire to move. However, when it comes to visiting I love going back to Oxford. It is a beautiful city and after a somewhat nomadic childhood I spent four years there as a student and it was the first place that I look back on and think of as ‘home’, even though I had just left my family home behind. I always look forward to going back to Oxford and realise that there are many parts of it that I have yet to discover. Like all cities it is continually changing and evolving but the oldest parts have a great feeling of continuity and permanence. Oxford is where I met my husband and many of the friends who remain an important part of my life many decades later; it is also where I became a Christian almost 44 years ago, and where that ongoing life journey began.


Having reflected on these three ‘favourites’, I have decided to expand the remit somewhat. So, what are my other favourite things? My favourite foods are good bread, cheese, banana and chocolate, home-grown young peas straight from the pod – and there is probably no sort of cake that I don’t enjoy! When it comes to drink, there is nothing to beat a good cup of tea.

My pastimes of choice are researching my family’s history, reading, watching television crime or historical drama and knitting. The latter two I usually prefer to combine, largely because it does make watching television seem slightly less time-wasting; however, this can become untenable if the best thing to watch is a Scandinavian series with English subtitles. It is very easy to miss a crucial piece of dialogue when it coincides with having to read a knitting pattern or carry out a tricky manoeuvre with a cable needle!

Among other favourite things are family Christmases, with all the family gathered around the table to enjoy a special meal after opening gifts together; being in front of a crackling fire when the wind is whistling and the rain is lashing at the windows; walking barefoot on a warm beach; receiving unexpected postcards or letters from friends or family members; catching up with friends over tea and cake somewhere nice; and holding babies until they fall asleep.


After all those lovely things, perhaps it is only fair to balance the picture a bit with some pet hates. Waste – in all its various forms – probably comes top of my list, with litter and gratuitous use of foul language close behind. In that everlasting conundrum, I am also hypocritically intolerant of intolerance! I am a word pedant who is saddened by misplaced apostrophes or semi-colons used where there should be colons (sad, I know). I really dislike raw onion popping up in restaurant food, crisp green salads that have been rendered soggy and greasy by overdressing and – in a hangover from a life-scarring childhood experience – custard with lumps is a real no-no. I have also decided that rice cakes cannot be redeemed, no matter what you put on top of them – and I have tried, I really have. I haven’t ever tried eating a polystyrene tile but I can imagine that it would be just like a rice cake; they will never make it near my favourites list.

Postcard for Jan

Postcard story [09.08.16]Postcard for Jan

Shortly after dropping my first ever postcard story into the letterbox I found myself reflecting that this was not unlike a would-be crime writer sending their first draft to Agatha Christie! But now I have taken the plunge I may even try and do this again one day.

If I was a writer of more imaginative prose I might tell the story of the three children whose flying car took a detour one night. They landed gently on the damp green flatness, narrowly avoiding overshooting onto the pebbly shore and scrambled out in disarray. ‘Let’s play a trick on these Highland folk,’ one of them gleefully suggested. Producing a hazel twig from beneath the car seat they took it in turns to mutter with great enthusiasm a whole range of weird and wonderful incantations until at last there was an eerie rumbling and above them something stirred and turned half around.

However, I write less fictitious stuff on the whole so I will content myself with expressing sympathy for the Bonnie Prince who does not follow the gaze of many tourists admiring the view down the loch but looks enquiringly at ninety degrees out over the adjacent hills. If only he could turn a further quarter circle he might catch a glimpse of the Hogwart’s Express as it chuffs over the viaduct – for that is what most of today’s visitors have come to see!

(Glenfinnan, Inverness-shire)