Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Hill of the Red Kites

When on the news they say, 'Motorway closed due to accident' - what do they mean by 'closed'? There's nothing stopping you getting on to it and the only warning of possible trouble ahead is a flashing 50 sign. What there should be is a gantry on the slip road reading ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE - YOUR DAY/JOURNEY/LIFE IS F****D.

So we sailed on to the M40 at 11am, a wee bit late for our family reunion in Mill Hill, but nothing a few hugs and apologies wouldn't smooth over, and I'd phoned to say it might happen. Here's all the things I didn't do: charge the mobile phone; have the telephone number of our hosts; check the travel news; put a bottle of water and bag of emergency nibbles in the car; replace the empty boiled sweet box; install satnav (although that was apparently useless in the event); take up knitting and have my kit with me; put a really good book in my handbag.

In subsection 2 of Sod's Law it states that traffic jams always begin around the bend from the last possible exit. And so it was. We spent two hours inching towards the Lewknor Junction. Now, take away the anxiety, the disappointment, the worrying about what had happened to some poor person (he died, apparently, EIGHT HOURS previously, but then forensics move in), the horrified speculation of how much that person in the taxi is going to have to pay, and is he on his way to Heathrow? Take all that away, and the mounting desire for something to eat or drink as hubby munches his way through various no-no's, and it's a beautiful day. I have never seen Wheatley to Lewknor in such exquisite detail. Sheep as big as ponies in lush fields, opal clouds on duck egg skies, filigree trees and distant horizons. Villages we have sped past so often - we now begin to wonder what they might be called (Tetsbury and Postcombe). And then there are the red kites. Re-introduced about twenty years ago and originally a rare site, now they are common. You no longer say, 'There's a red kite' - you just start counting. I've managed seven as a top total so far. They soar, they glide, they take your mind off earthly matters. But this traffic jam is something else. . .

Sometimes I go trance like and cannot think where we are, or on which side of the chalk cutting. Then I spot the Stokenchurch radio mast on the top of the ridge before us and get my bearings. David has tried the mobile phone and found the battery is low. He calls 118 118 but it cuts out. We're jiggered. An elderly man in the next lane gets out of his car and opens the boot. It is stuffed with Christmas presents. He unwraps one and takes out a mobile phone. I feel tempted to go and mug him, but the only getaway is the hard shoulder and that's blocked by the cars of people taking a pee on the embankment. Still, I can see Stokenchurch ahead. All will be well. As the hours pass, Stokenchurch takes on the ethereal air of the ever-unobtainable goal. But we inch forwards, the land begins to rise, we are approaching the Chilterns escarpment.

Suddenly everything changes at once. David tries the phone again and gets through, gets the number off 118 118 and phones Stephen. Simultaneously, the traffic begins to move - it's all over. David decides with Stephen that we will press on, even though it's now 2 o'clock. Simultaneously I decide to come off at the Lewknor junction, because I'm no longer thirsty but parched to the point of running a temperature. We swing off the motorway and up a hill, looking for a garage. What we found was another traffic jam. At this point, I go on a wobbly. David calls it hysteria, I call it a momentary lapse into tearful self-pity. I have never been this thirsty. We turn back and decide to swap places. 'There was a turning just down here - a little factory or something.' There it is and we turn in. I put the car in neutral and got out, leaving the engine running. We were only swapping places. But David said, 'Do you want to stretch and walk about?' and believe me I did. 'Turn the engine off,' I said. And like a very good hubby he did exactly what he'd been told. I reckon what happened next was due to mutual negligence but apparently the fault's all mine. He turned the engine off and the car, in neutral, began to slide forwards. David tried to jump into the driving seat and missed. Half hanging out of the car, he began to whizz towards the factory wall, right into the corner. I stood with face in hands watching this disaster unfold in a state of suspended belief. This could not be happening. I'd wake up in a minute and find that the day hasn't begun yet. This is not my life. I watched what could be the maiming or crippling or death of David, and the end of Smudger, the car. But David managed to turn the wheel, even though he was hanging on to it. Smudge missed the factory by a whisker and turned into a neatly stacked row of pallets. The whole thing ended with a mild thud, a dented bonnet, and my rush to hug husband being repelled by his rage.

'Listen,' I said, after the lecture on where hysteria gets you, 'all I want is water, and I will knock at the next door to get it.'

The next door was a woodworking showroom a little further down the hill. We turned in. I got out. A plaintive call was coming from the tall beeches on the hill behind this little estate. This is where the red kites live, this is where they live and nest. I looked in the showroom, which seemed empty, and went towards the bungalow. A man came out. By now, barely able to speak for lack of saliva, I asked for water. 'Toilet?' he said. 'It's in there.' Everywhere on the veranda, in flower pots or on the walls, were messages saying 'Welcome'. It turns out that this family is very used to people off the motorway coming for help. 'Water?' said the sprightly lady inside. 'Have a cup of tea. And you must be hungry. Ryvita and cheese?' The son, who is the woodworker, helped David find something called a 'text' (OK I know what it is, just don't use it) on the mobile so that we could call Stephen for a longer talk/explanation from a landline, and to say that we were turning for home.

This is a very long story. I'll cut the middle. Michael and Ady made us so welcome. Within an hour or two we had more or less swapped life stories. We talked cats and heard the story of the rescued kitten who came to be called Florence. 'Our cat is called Florence,' we said. We learned of their misfortunes, which had led to the loss of house and pension and put them here, in a mobile home which now, clad with wood, has curiously taken root into the landscape. We told them what we did, and they seemed genuinely interested and asked questions. Now I wouldn't expect a woodworker of the Chilterns (who is, after all, an incarnation of the Wycombe bodger) to be interested in the Italian Renaissance. Well, that's assumptions for you. David went and got our box of books from the car. I presented Michael with A Tabernacle for the Sun in thanks for all that they'd done for us. He glanced at the book, his eyes went wide, he clasped the book to his breast. 'What is it?' we all asked. Ady crossed to him and prised the book away. She gasped. 'I'm a Proud,' she said, 'and I've never met anyone else with that name.'

She held the book and seemed to want to ask it a question. Out of that I learned that she was a spiritual healer. 'I've been looking for one of those,' I said. And so it went on, this extraordinary, out-of-time meeting with like minds and same souls.

When David was doing his death-defying stunt act, I was thinking, 'This cannot get worse - this is horror - this is not real.' When I was sitting on Michael and Ady's sofa drinking tea, I thought, 'This is real life. This is the life I know.' Somewhere between 11am and 2pm we went through a rent into a horrible world many people consider to be normal. Not for us it isn't. Normal life is magical, serendipitous and utterly unpredictable. Before we left, we visited the mysterious showroom. It was dark, strangely uninviting, just a shed really with a poker-worked sign saying 'showroom.' What we walked into was a vision of polished wood, mostly oak, yew and elm, great slabs of tree whose shape has dictated what they become - mostly tables - and your heart near burst from the beauty. When we finally drew ourselves away, we stood looking up at a circling, wheeling multitude of red kites, young males, apparently. They were just having a glide around in the air before bed time. It was their passagiata - the evening 'stroll' - a time to be seen, a time to stretch the wings and perfect the glide.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Down in the ole bayou

It's not ash at all, it's fine bonemeal that's pouring through my fingers, strangely light, strangely heavy all at once. This is my mother. . . 'Decay is where life begins,' says Rob cheerfully, sending the spade down into the muddy hole to churn in the bonemeal. The water rushes up to greet it. Nearby stands the tree in its pot, a taxodium or swamp cypress.

'Are you sure?' Rob had asked after he had briefed us on arrival, saying that this was a deciduous conifer being planted in a flooded river bank. 'Conifer? How seventies,' I thought. 'Only I'm very excited about this tree. There aren't many trees you can plant in water-logged land.' 'Is it nice and frondy or is it the Bald Cypress?' I asked. 'Oh, it's nice and frondy, but deciduous you understand. The thing is, in order to breathe, it sends up roots called knees which have air vents at the top. It pushes the environmental boundaries does this tree. I'm very excited about it. It will be a centre-piece of the new developement of the gardens. People will come specifically to visit it; it will be included on study tours. It will really stand out, your mother's tree.' I sought desperately in all this to find anything related to Sybil. Yes, she loved Waterperry Gardens, but she also loved primulas and apple trees in blossom, that kind of thing. A swamp cypress? I don't think so. As we walked to the site, I imagined her with us in livelier days (though she wouldn't have got far over that terrain with her wheeler), and her face has that look when she's determined to appear interested even when she hasn't a clue what you're talking about. All she wants is a cup of tea. . .

We arrive on site. 'Here we are,' says Rob breezily, 'the swamp cypress, and all around it will be snowdrops in spring for your mum.' This clinches it. Location, location, location. It is a foggy December day. The trees are dripping, the ground squelching, the river flowing. The site is near the pond I have long loved but never seen from this side. We plant the tree in mud. Afterwards Rob and Julian took us on a tour of the riverbank they are opening up. In his work there, Rob has entered the mind of the 18th century gentleman who designed it, putting a bridge here and a bridge there, each giving a different view, whether into the formal gardens or the natural, willow-lined landscape, and we started to get glimpses of how it had been and how it would be, a great Romantic vision of man in harmony with landscape. The ground is being cleared and the riverside walk restored. Soon there will be a Palladian bridge made of wood crossing the stream. So the taxodium will be bordered by little bridges and a pond, inhabiting its own patch with all its knobbly knees protruding. Well, Mum, it's a bit strange as trees go, but what a great place for a picnic!

Friday, 30 October 2009


Prato is about twelve miles north of Florence and it's a bit like going to the moon in preference to visiting the earth. But there is so much to recommend it, not least having the place to yourself, especially in October. We did mean to visit Florence - I had it down twice on my itinerary - but the charms of Prato and the peaceful life got to us.

We stayed in BB.Magico, which is just off the cathedral square. Being so central meant that no monument or museum was more than a ten minute walk away, which is about all I could manage with a fallen arch. It was a working trip - researching the life of Filippo Lippi - but we needed a holiday as well. I'd seen all the Lippi's by the end of the second day (or was it the first?) so after that I could just concentrate on being there. The Calvana hills are a backdrop to the city and one day we sat outside a bar looking at them in a severe rain storm. Only the English. . .

As the week progressed, we got deeper into the project. We'd asked where Lippi had lived but no one could tell us. Then, on Sunday evening and out on a fruitless walk to find somewhere open where we could buy something to eat, David crossed the street to read a marble plaque. 'Here lived Filippo Lippi'. I'd spent the week thus far making up the location, given the paucity of information - I'd got it wrong by about twenty paces.

Then we told the lovely Cristina, who lives on the first floor of the house we were staying in, what we were looking for, and she thought she knew someone who could help. Enter Simona, on our last day - a whirlwind of facts and information.

I haven't mentioned it before on this blog, but perhaps now is the time to come out. I anguished for a long time, once the trilogy was complete, as to what my next novel would be. A nudge from a friend sent me hurtling into the 1450s. It's a prequel, and the trilogy is set to become a quartet. Amongst other things, it deals with Botticelli's youth. I hope to be finished next year, in time for his 500th anniversary.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Sybil Grace Proud

I went in to say goodnight and she had gone. At least I thought she had. David wasn't sure, either. It's not as easy to tell as you might think. After this morning's rain, it was a very beautiful afternoon, a perfect summer's evening and now, at midnight, it's calm and still. We have a candle burning as we await the doctor. Tomorrow the storm of paperwork and phone calls begin, but tonight it is calm and quiet. Deep peace of the running wave to you, Mum. God bless.
It was this time last week when a visiting out-of-hours doctor decided enough was enough and put Mum on the Liverpool Care Pathway. This recognises that death is imminent and puts comfort as the top priority. Our GP gave Mum 48 hours. A week ago.

It seemed foolish not to spend the time anticipating the funeral. After all, when somebody dies you spend a frantic week making snap decisions, not always the right ones. This time I would be prepared. I do so love to be prepared. So over this week I've been devising a funeral to honour a lady who loved bright colours, laughter and large earrings - funky but not so funky as to be inappropriate. So I've trawled the net and researched coffins, urns, shrouds. I've discovered - to my horror - that I've lost my taste for hymns and find them maudlin and sentimental. I've also discovered that there's no such thing, apparently, as 'non-Christian hymns'. A 'non-Christian hymn', someone replied archly to just that question, 'is called a song'. So I've been through other people's lists of great funeral songs. I've thought of some of my own and discovered the joy of thinking of something and less than a minute later hearing it coming out of the computer. An idea of 'bagpipes playing Amazing Grace' presented quite a choice on YouTube but the Royal Dragoon Guards stood out as if their music actually had an extra dimension to everyone else's - kind of quadrophonic out of two speakers. And so I've had fun, learned things, had my mind blown. Then today, thinking about her smile, I began to conceive a powerpoint presentation of just that, Mum's smile. And then the grief set in.

It's all very well being prepared, but I'm now in full-scale bereavement while Mum's still breathing, and that is horrible. I want to wake her up, out of her drugged dreams and shout, Smile, Mum, for God's sake, just one more time. But no, she insists on playing the withered, breathing corpse, with lips drawn in and puckered over protruding cheeks and sunken gums. Rembrandt would have loved to draw her right now.

I suppose the chief merit of preparing a funeral is that you get the chance to get all cried out before the event. Then you can stand tall and impervious while everyone else sobs into hankies. 'Smile' will bring the chapel down - we'll be carrying 'em out on stretchers. Anyone left standing will be downed by Amazing Grace. I've been to too many funerals where my objective to remain dry-eyed has been too easily achieved. Not this one. I'll get 'em all.

Do you know, the music of Smile was written by Charlie Chaplin?

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Night Visitors

I woke up around two in the most profound presence of the Muse. As before, she came in the guise of a male poet long dead, but so alive in the imagination that awakening was a shock and a bereavement. In my half-asleepiness I either picked or knocked a spot on my leg which began to bleed profusely. And downstairs Mum was wailing. But I had to hold to the vision for a little while at least, for just long enough to remember in my waking state what it was I had been given: a novel, whole and complete, in a shell the size of a hazelnut. That's the way it happens: it comes packed in minute potency and 'writing' a novel is just a matter of unpacking it and translating. Water-to-water, that was the gist of it. But how wonderful, to be visited by the Muse - like meeting a water-carrier in the middle of the desert and knowing him as someone so utterly familiar. I haven't written, not properly, for months now. Somehow or other, the draft of a novel - a prequel to the trilogy - has emerged, but it's like a patchwork quilt. So here I am, in this aridity of creative work, being offered the opportunity, suddenly, to work on two novels at once.

So downstairs I go to help David with Mum and lights are snapping on and things being said which don't do self-esteem any good and Mum's wailing and wailing. We administer a sleeping draught to this writhing bunch of twigs. And while all this is happening, I clutch at my hazelnut and hope it doesn't get forgotten or trampled in the mud of frustrated negative emotion. Then back to bed to lay there thinking, air-writing, developing a frozen shoulder, until a couple of hours later Mum's calling again. I think she's feverish and may have an infection, although the thermometer says different. All normal. But now I'm at my desk, it's dawn and I must try and recollect as much as I can of the song I was given in that magical time which is 2am (see R L Stevenson and Travels with my Donkey).

I've been listening to Adam Nicolson's reflections on Homer on BBC iPlayer - a facility which prolongs your opportunity to hear something but at the same time makes it feel even more ephemeral since the caption tells you how many days left you have before this programme is wiped forever from the aether. Nicolson, as usual, is magnificent and his insights into the Iliad are startling. For instance, Troy wins the war when Priam kisses his dead son, Hector, in the presence of Achilles 'and Achilles understands'. Nicolson says the book is dealing with two main archetypes - Achilles, the cold-blooded killer, and Hector, the family man. These two are in all of us, he says; he also says that he hasn't resolved the tension within himself yet, which must have made unhappy listening for his wife. Whether as Achilles or Odysseus, Nicolson needs to travel alone to write. This is the image that haunts me; perhaps it's the image that provoked a visit from the Muse, immediately attended by all hell letting loose within the family.

And so it is dawn, and the spooks begin to vanish, normality returns - whatever delusion that is - and soon carers will be bouncing in full of life and blissful ignorance. But somewhere on that far horizon of grey and pink, the notes of an Orphic lute are sounding.

Friday, 31 July 2009

The Long Vigil

I've been lying awake fretting that it's only the end of July. I have never known such a long year, not since I was a child, wanting to be older than I was and seemingly stuck in a wet summer vacation without end. Wet, wet, wet. While I was out on the allotment in a break between showers yesterday, taking photographs for a competition with the theme 'summer's plenty', I saw the first signs of rot. The tomatoes are blighted and the onions I strewed about to confuse the cabbage butterflies have gone to mush.

The reason the year is long is my mother. She's spent most of the time in hospital in three long stints and nothing makes time stretch like repetitive activity, and there's nothing quite so repetitive as parking the car and walking the corridors of the JR hospital on a daily visit to someone who usually does not know you are there. I occupied myself getting angry about things, and there was plenty of scope for that. She came home again, perhaps for the last time, Monday before last. We had had four lessons in hoisting at the hospital but by the second day of her return she was deemed doubly incontinent and bed-ridden, and by the third day I was sending a stool off for analysis as the horrible truth dawned, that she had been returned to us - knowingly - with a renewed attack of c. difficile.

Since then we've got ourselves into a routine of watching and waiting. At first David and I took turns in sleeping. He'd stay up until 3 at which point we'd swop watches. But we've learnt that when my mother screams, wails or calls for help, there's nothing any human can do so we turned the baby monitor off and learned to sleep through it all. Until now. It's 3am and I'm up for some unaccountable reason. No one is calling but my soul. Or is it my conscience?

'Vigil' is Latin for 'awake'. According to the dictionary it means 'a period of staying awake during the time usually spent asleep, especially to keep watch or pray.' It's that latter part that's important, because my final clause of that definition is too often, 'especially to sit with your head in your hands feeling sorry for yourself.'

I said something to one of the carers yesterday about waiting until Mum died and she looked shocked at my candour, but why pretend? This brittle, bruised, tiny little form who, every day, looks more and more like the figure of God in Philip Pullman's trilogy, cannot survive much longer. It is not possible. The week they called us in to say our final goodbyes, back in May, was the week my cat died, a seemingly robust little creature not yet two years old. She just laid under a bush and died.

Do I wish my mother dead? That is the shocking thought I prick myself with every day. But why shouldn't I? After all, she wishes herself dead. If she was my most favourite, best loved dog, I'd have put her down long ago to spare her any further agony. Her pain is physical, of course, but more it is spiritual, an existential misery that bursts out in screams of hair-tearing frustration. She has very little hair left.

Meanwhile I sit and wait, no longer sure what I shall feel when the wait is over. I try and pray but get taken with a fit of embarrasment before I can reach the end of any sentence. I am more vocal with God when I take him to task for his design of the human bladder. 'What a mess that is and you think you're so high and mighty, the great designer!' At Art in Action a sculptor from India gave me a tiny figure of Ganesha. It was a cheap piece of tinsel that made the aesthete in me recoil. I mean, really, do they have crackers at Diwali, and did he find this in one of them? But the little plastic God painted silver sits on our dining room table and each time I spot him, I ask Ganesh to remove all obstacles, for that is what he is god of, the imposition and the removal of obstacles. It's easier, you see, to pray to a little piece of plastic. It makes you forget, momentarily, that the person you are praying to is your own Self.

I don't know why, in the great scheme of things, that my mother was revived after her heart attack. Has she learned anything since of use to her in her soul's journey? It seems impossible. But it happened, the resuscitation. And now, thanks to a living will which is rolled up in a bottle and kept in the fridge (don't ask me why), it won't happen again.

Even so, even so, as I sit here awake in the middle of the night, I am ambivalent about the right to die, the hot topic of the moment. I often say to friends that, if the thought of the journey was not so horrendous, I'd have taken Mum to Zurich before now. I say that my views have changed. Throughout her life, Mum has believed in euthanasia - and she was never one to hold an opinion about anything other than 'it's all wrong!'. In her 80s she actually spoke to me directly about it. When the time came, would I help her? I said no, I wouldn't. I had principles I did not wish to contravene. Anally-retentive bigot or what? What do I know about anything? Where are my principles now? But if it came to it, here, in England, could I give the nod? I don't know.

This is my position at 3am in the morning at the end of July 2009. I am glad there is a debate. I am glad the law may become clearer if not actually change. I have great respect for the law. Many principles I've held in the past have been overtaken by the law and we always seem to be the better for it. [This is a slight divergence, but I've just finished reading Adam Nicolson's excellent book on the translation of the King James Bible, God's Secretaries, and he makes the point at the end that the language of that book, so beautiful it touches on the miraculous, is not only the product of a committe, but is also the product of men who didn't think twice about martyring their opponents. Nicolson says such language, such religiosity, is beyond us now, who live in a society where tolerance is practised although not always achieved. So what we would rather have, poetry or sweetness of life? I can't help but think that, as time passes and views change, we get more Christian, not less]. So in a cowardly fashion I shall sit back, wait for the law to change and then have no trouble in following it afterwards.

There is a school of thought, you see, which I've always subscribed to, which says that life is sacred and that every moment of it counts towards the next one. I do believe that. But what we're faced with here, as we watch and wait, is a beautiful theory pitted against an agonising reality. Those men who, in battle, put their guns to their horses's heads were not murderers - they were victims of love, the love that will do the worst to save the beloved any more pain. This, too, I think is in the great scheme of things and something our principles need to accommodate.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Gardening for free

On this rainy Saturday in June, I've been sorting out papers and came across something I must have scribbled in May 2008. But it's relevant to this year, too, except for the weather pattern which has been quite different.

As the primroses appeared in March, I stood on the garden path and scratched my head, for I could not remember planting them in the lawn. Granted 'lawn' is now a misnomer for that side of the path which I've surrendered to the wild. A golfer would call it 'the rough'. I have the leather jackets to thank for it, and the birds. The plague of craneflies a few years ago left a generation of grubs that ate the grass at the root. The next time we mowed, half the lawn disappeared into the mower like a wig going up a vacuum cleaner. I put down grass seed and the birds came to gorge themselves.

Looking up 'ground cover' on the internet, I found I already had a couple of the recommended plants growing in the rockery so I transplanted some pieces of bugle and dwarf comfrey and left Nature to it.

Nature is a consummate artist. Much of what has happened since has been through the agency of seed, so the snowdrops and primroses and species tulips are being spread about - but how is it that they grow in just the right places, as if by design? And who is it who plants the bulbs? Several years ago we dug a shrub out of the other part of the lawn - that word again, which just about qualifies in this case - and filled the hole with home-made compost. The following spring saw a bunch of red tulips in the place. 'Well,' we said, 'they came from the compost.' Except I hadn't composted any. Over the next couple of years, the tulips were joined by daffodils. This year neither appeared apart from a few leaves spearing out of the grass. 'Well, that show's over,' I thought. Two weeks later, a bunch of bluebells appeared. Just behind them, in what you might call the border, only it's more like a frayed edge, an iris suddenly bloomed.

This spring has been a discovery, of the violet under the rambling rose, the centurea I've always wanted but have no recollection of planting, the border in the front garden which I did plant, but not with this result in view, a glorious tapestry of merging plants rising and falling in height.

Someone came to read the meter. He was dull of face and looked as if meters are all he reads, but he suddenly asked me, 'Who does the garden?' I gave him the wrong answer. The true answer is 'Nature'. All I do is crawl about on my hands and kness in an exploration of wonder, giving a helping hand here and there, pulling out some goose grass, live-heading the dandelions, grubbing up the moon daisies for which I have a dislike bordering on superstitious dread - they are so very invasive, so very weedy. Sometimes I trim the grass, and the wheat and barley that grows under the bird feeders, with shears. Mowing is for high summer only, when all the visitors - the toads, frogs and newts - have gone. I divide snowdrops and dot them about. I shake the seed heads of annuals on to fresh ground. There is no cause any longer to go to garden centres and buy plants, so expensive that I can only ever afford one at a time and never the three or five always recommended. As for 'drifts' - they are for the seriously rich. I have surrendered to nature and am her willing handmaid.

I went cautiously into the front garden last week. After a spring that has been long, cold and wet, it was the first visit of the season, and I expected to spend all morning writing a list of things to do that would take weeks to achieve. But there was so little to do that would I just did it, taking the seed heads off the iceplant and cutting down the ornamental grasses and penstemmons. No, nothing else to do but crawl about enjoying all the surprise free gifts.

My surrender to nature came when I decided not to have the front lawn treated anymore. Yes, four quarterly treatments did create a handsome lawn worthy of the name, but I missed the daisies. Now the front is turning into a rough like the back, but is there anything quite so glorious as watching your cat chase flies in long grass? My only job for this year is to look after the cowslip seeds chilling in the fridge. I've waited five years but they've never arrived on their own, so I guess I shall just have to put them in the ground myself.

And then the JR again

After two weeks, Mum returned to us from Witney hospital. Another two weeks and we had just about restored her, got her eating again and even, finally, got her eyes tested. Two weeks after that, the glasses arrived. Five days later, Mum was rushed back into the JR with a strangulated hernia. We did not dare send the glasses with her.

At first all seemed well after the operation but a couple of days later she had a heart attack, all her beats and pulses stopped and she flat-lined. They resuscitated her, at the cost of a few ribs. Twice we went in to say our last goodbyes, but every other day she revives. Now it's June and we're still waiting for a place at Witney. Mum must be the longest ever resident in the Surgical Emergency Unit, but they are treating her well. And we have trusted them with the glasses, which they've bar-coded.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Community Hospital

She arrived at Witney Community Hospital yesterday morning. We arrived there in the evening and found her deranged. We've seen her deranged before, but this seemed more complete and final somehow. She found it difficult to focus on either of us and spoke drivel non-stop, but every now and again focussed on thin air, lit up and said 'Oh, hello!' I see dead people. . .

She's in a bay shared by three other ladies, each of them friendly enough if a bit withdrawn. The little old lady all shrunken and toothless in the next bed was the only one who had any conversation. You have to keep reminding yourself that this person has a past, was once a lively, robust woman. As for our little crone, she fought hard not to eat, but we got some icecream down her, the inside of a custard tart and half a jam sandwich. The food at Witney is incomparably better than at the JR, and when we looked at the menu card filled in for the next day, we couldn't have done it better ourselves.

The staff nurse introduced himself as John. He's a scouser and sounds just like Derek Acorah - the psychic in 'Most Haunted'. I hear dead people. . .. He's a bundle of jokes and laughter and spent a lot of time with us trying to get to know Mum better. Now, that's how to do it. Are you listening, JR? The staff were really concerned about her lost glasses. The JR had insisted it would be best to get an optician to see her once she was back home; she wasn't back home for two months, and then the optician was away for a fortnight. The appointment is next week. They were concerned and they were helpful. I know exactly what to do now.

God bless community hospitals, and let's curse those buffoons dedicated to their demise, convinced that health provision on an industrial scale is the best way forward.

Friday, 10 April 2009

On the Road Again

She was home for a week and a bit. In that time we had the benefit of the best home help service we've ever had: a small team in uniform who always arrived when they said they would, were cheerful and efficient. I positively looked forward to their coming. But then on Thursday Mum stopped making sense, slept all day and went droopy on the right hand side. I confess I dithered. I knew that as soon as I lifted the phone, they'd be taking her back. I wanted to go off to the allotment and just leave things to nature, but it wasn't possible. I lifted the phone and ten minutes later da-da da-da an ambulance arrived and we were back on the road again.

It turned out not to be a stroke. The paramedics had revived her from a hypoglacaemic attack with a glass of sugary milk on the way to hospital. So, it should have been easy to get her home again, but no. They wanted to keep her in overnight for observation, so they did. Yesterday we had a series of phone calls asking us if we thought we could cope. Why not? Aren't we used to it? But then someone let it slip that they couldn't release her if they thought we couldn't cope. After one hysterical phone call saying 'You have two minutes to decide!' I agreed she should be transferred to Witney Community Hospital. Almost our greatest grief was the potential loss of our hard-won care package.

Frankie saved us. Frankie saved us over and over again. In this whole nightmare, Frankie our Care Manager has kept us sane and most lucidly informed. She's been magnificent. Last night she stopped off on her way home late from work to put a letter through our door detailing everything that had happened over the day and all the contact details we needed for the new agencies now involved. We've lost her now, with the move to another hospital, but we'll be sneaking round this morning to leave an Easter egg on her doorstep. All being well, Mum will be back within the week, slightly more mobile, and the care package will resume. Meanwhile we continue work on the big present we've bought her, a summerhouse to be called 'Sybil's Cave' where, we hope, she can sit over the coming months and enjoy the garden.

Anyone watching last night's harrowing Panorama on home care will have been grief-struck. I have no doubt these things happen - we've experienced some of it ourselves with a past agency. Never grow old but if you must, don't grow old alone.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Art of Reviewing

Ma has served her sentence and will be released on Monday. So, in between rearranging her room, etc., I can return to more literary reflections. I have just finished Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book. It is certainly one of the finest pieces of contemporary fiction that I've read and stands head and shoulders above those which are either more commercial or more literary. I'm really not sure how to define 'literary' but in this context I mean novels carried sheerly by the beauty of their prose with only a passing nod to plot. I've read two of those recently and having exclaimed at beauty on each page, found it more and more difficult to pick them up each evening until, finally, I didn't bother. And then I began on Brooks. This is not what this blog's about. May be the next one. This one is about my misgivings regarding reviews. I have read what the press has said about Brooks, and I have read what the customers say on Amazon, and I believe she is the victim of a widespread disservice of being damned with faint praise.

I like Amazon reviews, but then I get good ones. In fact, my Amazon reviews are what keep me going in the dark times, to think that there are people out there completely unknown to me who have enjoyed a novel so much they've taken the trouble to write about it. Each time it happens, I stand amazed. Equally I stand amazed when I look up reviews of a book by a well known author and find there is none. Or, as in the case of Brooks, that she has not been unanimously awarded five stars.

Whether one connects or not with a book is, of course, a very subjective matter. Last week, for instance, I gave a class of students doing the Oxford Diploma in Creative Writing a passage from Melvyn Bragg's Credo as an example of going the extra inch in dramatising. Most of them got very exercised about it - not, to my horror, about it being a graphic account of rape, but about the quality of its writing. They trashed it. They trashed Bragg. I staggered out of the class with my self-confidence - what there is of it - severely threatened. Had I boo-booed? Had I revealed myself as someone with a terrible taste in novels? Well, no, I don't believe I had. What had been revealed was the absolute arrogance on the part of most readers who will dismember an author's work, his efforts and his reputation with no apparent authority or qualification for doing so. This is review by the mob. These were they who lust after public execution. I kid you not, this group was baying. Why?

It's not the first time I've met it. Indeed, looking back, I think each time I select a passage to make a point I lay myself - and the hapless author - open to such attacks. Well, beware you budding writers! Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that the fate of this book was set when Brooks won the Pullitzer Prize for her previous one. It doesn't do to win prizes in literature, not if you don't like your subsequent work being worried at by rottweilers. Why do people destroy others? Envy, that's why. And so perhaps that's the reason why Bragg was trashed, because he is a famous TV presenter.

As readers, let's cultivate a more generous spirit and know that, when something strikes a false chord in us, that something is only the hammer and it's our strings which are producing the discord. Let me put it another way: opinions differ from person to person. If we don't like a book, by all means we should say so and say why - having the courage of our convictions - but we should not count anybody who disagrees with us as a fool. The problem may well be all our own. With regard to the two 'literary' efforts I tried recently, I haven't written reviews: that is my way of commenting. And it's my way of acknowledging that those who have read these books and absolutely loved them are at perfect liberty to hold such views.

What becomes obvious in reading most reviews is that people read as readers, not as writers. Perhaps - here I console myself - I often find myself at odds with others because I read as a writer, and that's why my appreciation differs. If most people actually knew what it is like putting a book together, devising a plot, establishing the right narrative structure, creating credible characters, their opinions might be better informed and more gently offered. What Brooks has achieved, and I say this as a writer, is a virtuoso piece of story telling, a novel which is not only brilliantly and beautifully written but is also unputdownable.

And to whoever it was on the Amazon site who said that People of the Book is a good holiday read - i.e. reading about the relentless persecution of the Jews over the ages is a great way to relax on the beach - may we never meet, for you are truly scary.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

What happens when somebody thinks

One of the nurses has not only worked out what Mum wants when she calls out all the time, but has had an idea what to do. When we got to the ward yesterday, we found Mum sitting quietly in a wheelchair at reception! Company is what she wants and needs. Not the kind that taxes her with conversation but the kind that includes her as it goes about its business. She greeted us with a smile and for a reward we took her out to see the sunny day.

The John Radcliffe needs a garden. How can you lift a patient's spirit by wheeling her round a carpark? If a garden is not possible, then how about some daffodils planted on the banks?

We asked the Matron to taste the food Mum was given last evening. Understandably, she declined. So we would like to set up a challenge to everyone involved - the dietician, the consultant, the bosses of Carillion: taste the food! If you decline, you have no right whatsoever to put on a patient's notes 'rejects food' as if it is somehow her problem. 'Food inedible' is what should be noted. We took Mum to the cafe and she swigged down a fruit smoothie without a problem.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009


What was the point of getting her hair done? By 6pm she had pulled on it so much all the curl had gone and it's back to lank strands. She pulls on her hair and cries out. She claws at her forehead and cries out. She tries to readjust herself in the uncomfortable seat and cries out. 'I want to go HOME!'

My darling mother is now deranged. I will live forever with the guilt of not having stuck to my guns when, three weeks ago, I phoned the consultant to have her moved to the Witney hospital where they have dormitory wards. He talked me out of it.

Science and scientists - so convinced of themselves and that everything they utter is the truth. They do not know best all the time. They do not. Trust your instincts. I certainly should have trusted mine.

Now I can hardly bear what is going on and if anyone asks me how mother is I sidle quickly away like a crab because I do not, cannot talk about it anymore. I wait now for her to go to the home she cries for, the place where there is no pain, the place we came from.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

An Infirmary for the Infirm

I learnt it on Time Team this week - an infirmary was where the old and sick went for simple care. Perhaps that's what the Radcliffe Infirmary was, the old hospital in Jericho pulled down for development a year or so ago. Certainly it's where geratology used to be. Now that it's in the John Radcliffe, everything has changed because this industrial-sized hospital on its hill overlooking Oxford is 'acute'. I'm not sure of all the ins and outs of that, only that it means another set of rules for the staff of Adams Ward to work by which happen to be irrelevant at best, irrational at worst. And that is why they are unhappy.

The wheels grind slowly. After a week or so complaining about Mum's lost glasses, someone asked me the name of the optician yesterday. Who knows - perhaps Mum will get her hair done today, for the first time since admission.

Tomorrow I've been called in to see the Matron. At least they want to know what I have to say.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Soap Aria

Now for something in a lighter vein. . .

Here in this house, we love handmade soap. It is our only weakness. The best is from Marseilles but you can't always get it, so yesterday, passing a likely shop in London, we popped in and spent nearly a fiver on a bar of Tuscan soap. It said on the front that it had been 'saponified and packaged with love and care'. 'Saponified' is, of course, a classy way of saying 'soapified', which made it irresistible. On the back, however, the script got even better.

Absorbed in a bloomy landscape, an alluring soap in its semplicity but with an irresistible charm.

So now I can saponify myself in the shower each morning while dreaming of those bloomy Tuscan landscapes.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009


[I wrote this to send to a newspaper but then decided not to. I don't want a big fuss, and there's always another side to the story. This just happens to be mine, and this is the right place for it.]

She is locked up and in solitary confinement, half-starved and neglected, left to wet herself. She is ninety-three years old. Where? In the John Radcliffe hospital, Oxford.

My mother was taken in in February because of kidney retention. She had to go – there was no other option, even though we knew what to expect. For, at that age, once you are in hospital it is very difficult to get out again. There has to be a ‘care-package’ in place and, for that to happen, Social Services have to find an agency who can supply carers. Apparently there are staff shortages amongst carers: it is a job which takes a special person. One who can care. One who can wipe the bottom of another. These people are amazing, and they are on the minimum wage. A 20% increase in wages would give them an extra pound an hour. So it’s not difficult to understand why few people can be found to fill the vacancies. Meanwhile, the elderly lie waiting in hospital gridlocking the system.

The Adams Ward at the John Radcliffe opened at the end of 2008 to great fanfares. Here it is: geritology of the future. No longer will the aged be kept in dormitory wards, surrounded by raving lunatics, kleptomaniacs and MRSA bugs. Now they will have dignity and privacy. Now they will have single rooms. The Adams Ward is the future. Our future. Yours and mine.

The main door into the ward locks automatically and you have to ring a bell to enter. This requires someone on the inside to press a button to release the lock. Do they then come to meet you, greet you, show you where your relative is? No. By the time you reach the desk, they have disappeared. Or they are still there, dog-faced and apparently finding your arrival incomprehensible. If you are really persistent, they will begin to speak to you but it seems their smiles were surgically removed when they took the job.

I find my mother without assistance. I know her voice, and she is calling for help. ‘Help me someone! Please help me!’ In a matter of days of being transferred to the new ward, she has become a pest and a nuisance. She is treated as if that is her fault and staff, when they finally arrive to my pressing of the buzzer, breeze in with a snappy, ‘What is it now?’ What are they like when I’m not there?

She clutches my hand. ‘Get me out of here. Please get me out! Please! What have I done to deserve this?’

What indeed. Usually you have to face a trial by jury before society treats you this way.

The ward sister is truly shocked when, a week later, I begin to complain. What is there to complain about? Single rooms? But they are wonderful, just what everybody wants, and all new builds will have them.

Now three-quarters of me agrees with this. If I were there, I’d love a room to myself. I could read books, speak on the phone to friends, watch that extortionately expensive TV that hangs like a periscope and perhaps even discover computer gaming. That is, if I were well enough. If you are not well enough, or too old and frail, then all day and every day for at least twelve hours, you are on your own with your own thoughts, and that really is not healthy. The ward sister says, but who wouldn’t want a single room? Who would want to be in a ward shared with raving lunatics, kleptomaniacs and MSRA? I say – why is that the alternative? Why can’t we have these rooms – which are in fact lovely with their ensuite showers and toilets – for two, or three, even four? No, she says, everyone wants their privacy and dignity. In an institution that cannot hear what anyone says, I find myself bursting into tears, because I do not want to die like this, and I do not want my mother to die like this.

On my mother’s medical notes, it says she is incontinent. Three times on my almost daily visits I’ve found the buzzer left out of reach. No one along the corridor can hear her frail calls from inside her room. And I’ve been there, used the buzzer myself, and waited 20 minutes for it to be answered. Incontinent? No, she is not. Neither is she suffering ‘macular degeneration’ as the notes state. She was already half-blind when she arrived and had been for many years. But her glasses are lost, switched with someone else’s, and now she can’t see out of the window, the only distraction she has in a long day, apart from flying visits from people with injections, commodes or inedible food.

Sybil was one of the most popular people this planet has known. Non-judgemental, forgiving, she befriended everyone and anybody. She has a smile which wins friends (even amongst raving lunatics and kleptomaniacs). She becomes radiant when meeting anyone whether for the first or the millionth time. In her prime, while still at work, she would receive around one hundred cards on her birthday. She’s outlived her family and most of her friends. Of those that survive, only one has been to see her in the hospital. Hospitals have dreadful reputations and are best avoided by the well. We all say it. So Sybil – the wonderful mother, the much-loved aunt and friend to so many – lies abandoned and shrivelling in misery. Abject misery. Misery of the kind to break hardened criminals.

‘What have I done to deserve this?’ she whimpers, clutching my hand.

‘Nothing, Mum, absolutely nothing.’

The human being is a social animal. We live in herds. A few of us seek solitude to commune with nature or God, but for most, we live in groups – families, communities, societies. Something happens to us when we are in company: there is some subtle, molecular exchange between us. In some curious way, we nourish each other just by our presence. Once, when I lived and worked alone in Hackney, I discovered that all I had to do to avoid depression was to go out each day and walk the high street. I didn’t have to speak to anyone to feel better: I just had to walk amongst them. Depression descends quickly on the isolated. For my mother, in her new accommodation, they’ve upped the dosage of her happy pill but it's not working.

Anyone who, like me, grew up in the 1950s will remember Pete Seager’s song, Little Boxes. We all thought it was a protest against the domestic estates being built at the time. As it turns out, it was a prophecy. As we have lived, so shall we die, in little boxes, little boxes, little boxes made of ticky-tacky. And do you know, everyone in the ‘business’ thinks it’s a jolly good thing, even Age Concern.

If we must have this system, let us at least recognise its shortcomings and do our best to ameliorate them. Visitors should be welcomed and encouraged. Do doors have to be locked? Do visiting times really have to be restricted to late afternoons? And couldn’t staff be sent to Asda training centres to learn how to smile, say hello and ask simple questions, such as ‘how are you today?’ or ‘can I help?’ They may find that such small, effortless exchanges are all it takes to make themselves – as well as their patients and visitors – happy.

Sybil, Christmas 2008, at home where she lives with her daughter and son-in-law.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Some days the sun shines

There is a bar in Summertown called Joe's and today we tried it for lunch. David had tagliatelle and I had Caesar salad, and both were so good we were almost weepy with gratitude. We topped the meal off with chocolate pot, creme brulee and two coffees. The cappucinos were frothy right down to the bottom of the cup and tasted most marvellously of coffee - not an experience to be had in either the local Costas or Starbucks, where the coffee tastes like tainted hot water with a scum of froth on top. On the way back, we were approached by a willowy blonde bearing a tray of taster cups outside Starbucks. What? Starbucks touting for trade? 'Yuk! No thanks!' I said. 'I know what that tastes like.' 'Try Joe's,' David told her. 'The coffee is great there!' A beautiful blonde speechless and nonplussed, a corporation witheringly, publicly and loudly dismissed? Oh, God, it felt good! So good! And the sun is shining today.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Advice for Young Writers

I teach creative writing to American students studying at Oxford University. Among this year's students is one who is a star. She writes so brilliantly that, after reading her latest offering, all I can do is sigh with pleasure - and not a little envy. For some time I've been encouraging her to submit work to publishers but she procrastinates. Today I found out why: she is scared of her own future.

In college vacations she has worked for literary agents and publishers, so she knows the business from the inside and is painfully aware that these days the usual trajectory for a successful novelist is to begin incandescently and then peter out in a shower of sparks. Gone are the days when an aspiring novelist's career was nurtured by editor and publisher. My student knows the game and knows she doesn't want to play it.

God help us - what do I advise her? Any ideas? Publish under a pseudonym until she feels she is at her prime and then burst upon an unsuspecting world fully-formed? It's one way, but I'd be grateful for any serious ideas. It really is a problem for the twenty-somethings with real talent.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

BT Compensation

Back in the blizzard of IT failure that afflicted us September to November last year, we had a week without the phone working. At first BT denied the fault was theirs. When the fault was at last tackled and fixed, they admitted it had been caused by the engineer installing broadband a couple of years previously.

I had a look at their website regarding compensation. Not only had we suffered the consequences of a week without the phone, but it had cost us a great deal using a mobile to call their 'free' helpline. The BT website was difficult to navigate but it seemed that compensation would be offered on a sliding scale and comes in the form of line rental rebates. When I googled the subject, however, I heard the howls of the disaffected: it was obviously going to be a great test of patience to pursue the matter. But I pursued it.

Here follows a list of what happened next but remember that weeks if not months passed between each stage.

1. I filled in the form on line to register the complaint.
2. BT phoned (Indian call centre) and offered compensation of £11.65. I rejected this as derisory and asked for the matter to be referred to a manager.
3. Another call from India - back to square one.
4. A letter from English address, saying 'we are happy you've agreed to 50p as compensation.'
5. I wrote to that person at that address.
6. A month later I get a call from someone trained to RSC standards of acting who absolutely seduced my ears with her apologies on behalf of BT. Compensation offered - £40. Accepted.

I was on the very point of following my New Year resolution ('Seek Alternatives') but now I shall stay with BT a little longer.

If you got here by googling 'BT Compensation' you want the address, don't you? Here it is:

Jillian G Lewis
Customer Service Director
BT plc
Correspondence Centre
DH98 1BT

Good luck! Don't let the bastards grind you down. . .

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Last Night I had a Dream

My philosophical friends look down on dreams as the products of idle minds. My psychological friends keep records of them and try and plumb their symbolism. I stand somewhere in between, or I did until the dreams stopped a couple of months ago. Now I know how important they are: they are the movement of the psyche as it breathes.

One of my students last term sat in my study coughing and spluttering. I suppose in retrospect I should applaud his strength of will in getting to his tutorial at all. At the time I thought, Oh no. . . and, sure enough, I was coughing a couple of days later. That was November. Here, in mid-January, I am still coughing. In that time, the dreams stopped, psyche stopped breathing.

I write between the solstices and it's always tough with the run-up to Christmas plunging you into a completely unnecessary busy-ness. This year it was tougher than usual but at least the coughing - which was viral - began to abate around mid-December. Richard Surface put me on to a book, one of those magical, self-motivational, life-changing books we all need now and again. This one is called 'The War of Art' by Stephen Pressfield. It begins by describing the enemy, which at first he calls 'Resistance' and, later, 'Ego'. The book goes on to describe the role of the Muses. It is an exceptional book which I wholeheartedly recommend. I began reading it on Christmas Eve and the results were immediate: at 11.15pm, I got off the sofa and went to Midnight Mass for the first time in eight years. Three days later, I quit smoking, but by then something else had begun to happen and it had become impossible to smoke anyway, but this particular quitting was easy. I had Resistance in my sites and knew when to take a pot shot.

Somewhere in the book Pressfield says that the Pro always turns up for work, even when he has 'flu. Well, that must be man 'flu; by the day after Boxing Day, I had woman 'flu. By the end of that week, that precious week of the year which is more or less All Mine, I had just enough breath in me to call the doctor.

'Blow in this,' he said, handing me a tube, and I couldn't. 'Asthma,' he said, 'triggered by a chest infection.' So then it was a ten-day course of antibiotics, a five-day course of steroids, and introduction to life with a puffer. The steroids were interesting: I started to dream again and feel creative. For five days, writing flowed. Before and since it has been like making a cake without ever adding liquid, just forever rubbing in more and more dry ingredients. Yes, I'm a pro and I've turned up every day, but for many days I was back in bed within the hour without the energy even to read. But the steroids helped.

Saw the doc again two days ago when the antibiotics finished and he's put me on a 'preventer', which is a brown inhaler. I had a couple of puffs before going to bed last night - and then I began to dream. I began to dream about my book and its characters, listened to them saying crazy, anachronistic things and even in my sleep exulted. I woke up several times to check the clock to see if I could get up yet and, at 6am, allowed it. I haven't coughed yet and here I am, writing a blog for the first time in months.

My next read is going to be a book I saw reviewed in Resurgence about story-telling as a healing art, how stories relate to different organs in the body. I'll give details when I've read it, but for now I'm intrigued, for this much I know: the airways and perhaps the lungs relate to psyche, pneuma and spiritus. It is not accidental - how could it be - that the Greek and Latin words for soul, spirit and Holy Ghost relate to breathing words. For the last few weeks I've not only not been a writer, I've barely been human: Muse-less, dreamless, God-less. It was one of the unhappiest times I've suffered and, if it's all over, then I am mightily relieved and grateful. Thank you God and Science for the brown puffer.

Just a little postscript. The reason I quit smoking very suddenly and without preamble was a) because I couldn't breathe properly and b) because I knew the full implications of that. Whether or not smoking was killing this body, it was definitely choking the Muse - and that was enough to stop.