Thursday, June 26, 2008

Back from my visits

I've had a wonderful five days visiting family and friends. It went like this:

Saturday evening ~ went to a friend's 60th birthday barbecue in Worcester.

Sunday ~ spent the day with one of my sons and his three children in Malvern.

Monday ~ spent the morning shopping in Malvern, and visited an old family friend in the afternoon.

Tuesday ~ went to a bring-your-own sandwiches lunch party with the local group of Growing Old Disgracefully, then more shopping, then supper with my son and granddaughter.

Wednesday ~ home again, tired but content.

High spot ~

Engaging fully with my 6-year-old grandson for the first time, and eventually receiving his seal of approval, when he suddenly flung himself onto the sofa, leaned up against me, and laid his head (none too gently) on my bosom! And what brought about this happy conclusion? Well, first he and I took turns to do sums in his work book, and to award each other gold stars which we stuck in the book. Then we tried to play an impossibly complex game called Tantrix, which I gave him several years ago, without realising how difficult it was. Then we worked through a horrendously violent comic book, reading just the exclamatory bits, such as: WHOOOOOSH!, CRRAAACK!, SQUEEELCHH!, EEEEK! etc. That is to say that I was doing the reading, giving it all the breath, vigour and harshness of consonants that seemed to be called for. Finally, we compared scars, as we have both of us been through major heart surgery.

Conversation with his brother and sister was a little difficult to fit in to this bonding session, but I did manage to catch up with his brother's plans for A levels and possibly having his tongue pierced, and his sister's make-up preferences, along with her reassurances that she was wearing transfers and not tattoos on her stomach. I did not hesitate to express my distaste for both piercings and tattoos.

Passing pleasures ~

  • Finding an old fashioned chain pull in a cafe loo.
  • Tables in the same cafe made out of old plank doors, still showing the marks of where the latches and latchplates had been.
  • Finding lots of places dealing in Free Trade goods
  • My granddaughter choosing to keep me company when I left the food bar while the others were ordering, only to find I was going to the public loo, and not to the Post Office as she thought.
  • An old Victorian letter box.
  • A pigeon with a difference.

Momentary miseries ~

  • No grab rail or non-slip mat in the bath-cum-shower - very necessary for stiff, unsteady oldies.
  • Two waiters in a posh restaurant with metal tips on their shoes, who went clack, clack, clack across the wood laminate floors every time they moved, disturbing the relaxation and concentration that should go with good (and expensive) food.
Time and effort well spent.

Green burial - more

I wrote here about my visit to a green burial site. Afterwards I talked to a couple of funeral directors, who made it clear that there would be no difficulty about a woodland burial, not even if I wanted to travel 100 miles or so to buried in another county, so I decided to sound out my children on the subject, since they would be doing the organising.

My son in Australia sent an entirely supportive reply, of which I simply must quote you the first paragraph. I should tell you that I headed my email: "Serious subject - please pay attention!" My son's response was headed: "SERIOUS RESPONSE!!!?????"

"Glad to understand what plans you have. Does the burial involve planting a tree on top of you so the full cycle of nature is complete – ashes to ashes, body to compost, nutrients to tree etc. This is what I had heard was available. If so I look forward to celebrating your contribution to bringing back the original ‘wild wood’ of England. Will the tree need fertilizing – I pee on our compost heap to help it get started but I’m not sure what the protocols are on doing this at burials. Perhaps you could advise?"

That's my son, bless him, he's always on my wavelength.

The Manneken Pis, famous Brussels landmark.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Off visiting ...

I'm leaving shortly to do a round of visits to friends and family in the West Midlands. I'll be back Wednesday evening, hopefully with something to talk about.

'Bye for now!

[From "The Little Book of Hugs" drawn by Mimi Noland]

Friday, June 20, 2008

A piece of research - update

Or: Aren't people wonderful?!

Some time ago I wrote here about the research I was doing into the British Engine Insurance Company, which employed both my husband and his father throughout their working lives, and which had also, I believed, employed my husband's grandfather. In the course of trying to confirm this last fact, I had come across the name of a booklet published by the company to celebrate its centenary in 1978 :: "100 Years of British Engine". I very much wanted to get hold of a copy of this booklet, and someone who found this article on my blog was kind enough to offer to send me a copy, which had been his father's, on indefinite loan. I have had the use of his copy for some months now and it has proved of considerable interest.

Meanwhile, I had written a short piece about my research, and my discovery that all three generations of my husband's family had indeed worked for British Engine, and submitted it to the six-monthly pensioners' magazine, which is published by the organisation which pays the pensions of those who worked for British Engine (and their widows). I added a footnote to the effect that I was still hoping to acquire a copy of the "100 Years" booklet.

The latest issue arrived through my letterbox last week. Within 24 hours the editor was ringing me to say that no less than four people had contacted her, and were offering (variously) either to photocopy, lend, or give me the book. I asked for all the contact details, so that I could accept the offer of my choice, and acknowledge the kindess of the others in person. This has brought the following satisfying outcomes:

  • There was a phone conversation with one person who had offered to lend me his book; I was able to tell him that I did not need it, as I had had an offer of the book as a gift . He then told me about another book he had, containing a chapter on British Engine, and as this sounded interesting, I immediately searched the web and found a copy for only £4, and ordered it.

  • I had an email exchange with someone who had offered to photocopy his book for me, but who valued it too much to part with it, as it had been signed and presented to him by the General Manager himself. He, like the previous book owner, was able to throw a good deal of light for me onto the whys and wherefores of the virtual disappearance of British Engine in 1996. The company was by then a subsidiary of Royal Insurance, which in 1996 joined up with Sun Alliance. In the same year, British Engine's building in Manchester, Longridge House, was destroyed by a bomb, and with it their systems and records. The combination of these two events in the same year had the effect of consigning the company to history.

  • Then there was a telephone conversation with someone in Ireland, who was offering to send me not one but two (different) centenary books, as he was trying to reduce his accumulated possessions and would be only too happy to see them go to someone who would get something out of them. We must have chatted, about the books, about British Engine, about this and that and something else, for at least half-an-hour, and as someone who really enjoys the great variety of human accents and dialects, I felt enriched in every way by this contact. His two books are now in my possession, and I shall be able to return the copy I have on loan to its owner.

  • Finally, there was an exchange of letters with someone who turned out to be an old friend! He and his wife used to go with my husband and myself to the Christmas Pantomime at the Players' Theatre in London, back in the 1970s when they were both working in London. He too has offered me his book to keep, but it doesn't look as though I shall be needing it now. However, he has friends who live near me, whom he and his wife will be visiting in July, and I shall be surprised if we do not end up getting together and talking over old times.

Now isn't that a magnificent yield from my research efforts, and a few moments given to writing a short piece for a pensioners' magazine? Life is so rich and varied, and the internet extends the possibilites of surprise and pleasure, far beyond what I could have imagined when I started my blog three years ago.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Maude's ditty

Encouraged by Keith's comment on my previous post, I found a little verse forming itself in my mind:

Lace for the elderly
Purple for passion
This dress is 'me'
And it's also in fashion
Closeups will show you
The flab and the wrinkles
But also the smile
And the fun-loving twinkles
Nowhere to go in it
Oh! what a pity
I'm keeping it though
'Cos it makes me look pretty!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"Come into the garden, Maude ..."


I wrote here about ordering clothes which were too young for me from the Kaleidoscope catalogue, just for the fun of trying them on. Their latest catalogue had a beautiful evening dress, and I knew, I just knew when I looked at it on the young model, that even on me it would look good. I ordered a size 20 - (I don't delude myself - much!) - but it was actually huge, and much too long. Even so I could see that I had been right, and that it suited me. So I sent for an 18, just to try on you know, no point in keeping it, as I never go to the sort of posh occasion where I could wear it. Sarah Jane, my adopted granddaughter companion, who aids and abets me in all these sartorial follies, was agog to see me in the right size.

Today I put it on for her. Wow! I found a pendant of just the right length to cover up my rather ugly heart surgery scar - (I practically never wear low necklines now) - and a pair of glitzy earrings from my younger days, and . . . . . "I have to take some photos" SJ said, "let's go into the garden". And so began the photo shoot.

The first 20 shots or so didn't come out at all, as SJ had not understood the subtleties of my camera. So we started again, with more success. "Work it, baby!" SJ kept telling me. I knew what she meant, but I'm neither supple enough nor unselfconscious enough to do that properly! There was a lot of giggling, and a whole lot more when we looked at the pictures on screen, and I thought up captions for some of the less elegant poses. I can probably leave those to your imaginations. Here are some of the results, and you can tell me after, if you think I deserve to keep the dress or not. (All right, I know I'm fishing!)

[I think you'll find the middle one in the top row won't enlarge, so you can't study my legs in detail! JT]

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Nostalgia time - me and my Vespa

My new Vespa - 1954

Two up for a jaunt - my flatmate comes too

Doing some shopping

Setting off for a tour with my brother

The Simplon Pass on the way to Italy

On the beach at Lake Geneva

Maintenance work - we take this seriously you know!

Saturday, June 07, 2008

A sad anniversary

The other day I came across something in my dressing-up box - now seldom used - which started me on a rich vein of nostalgia. What I found was a bag containing 10 small white aprons, of a kind worn by waitresses of a bygone age.

Twenty years ago this summer my village lost its secondary school. The Local Education Authority was pursuing a policy of closing secondary schools situated in villages and sending pupils to the neighbouring towns. Two other village communities in this area had already lost their secondary schools and we were next on the list. My youngest son had attended the school for 7 years, but had left before it was threatened with closure. During his years there it had been MY school too, and for a further three years before it closed.

I had joined the Parent Teacher Association early on, then been a PTA nominee for the first parent governor the school had had, and had ended up as Chairman of a Governing Body fighting for the school's survival. But however hard we campaigned, the governors had also to take the responsibilty of preparing for the future, if and when the school should finally close.

This meant that while campaigning, I also had to work with the Chair of Governors of the other school, with which it was proposed we should amalgamate, and with the help of the area Education Officer appoint a headteacher, and interview the staff of both schools who were now in competition for their own jobs. Fortunately she and I understood each other well, and working creatively with her towards a new school offered some relief to the despair of trying to save the old. It was however a very stressful and schizophrenic time. I am happy to say that the amalgamation when it took place resulted in a very successful school, which is not always the case with amalgamations. But I still mourn for our own school, and the loss of those school places is still acutely felt in young families in the village and further afield, as populations grow, and every year there is a shortage of places in the nearest schools.

However, this is far away from aprons, if you remember where I started. During my time on the PTA I assisted with many PTA dances and other functions, and looking back I am a bit surprised to realise how often I exercised my artistic capacities rather than my literary ones, which come more easily to me. I made decorations for the Christmas dance on two occasions, and for a Victorian Music Hall. But on the night of the aprons we were putting on a meal for parents in the main hall, accompanied by a variety show by a local group of players. We decorated the tables with artificial carnation buttonholes, made from crepe paper and doyleys, and we enlisted the help of senior girls to serve at the tables. We asked them to wear black skirts and white tops, and I was able to make aprons for them out of old pillowcases and sheets which I had inherited, many of which had embroidery or fancy edgings, as you can see from the photographs. For caps we made cutouts on yellow card (the school colour) threaded with black ribbon, and the headteacher, in his beautiful handwriting, lettered the name of the school on each of them. I remember that the girls really looked cute - (just as my teddybear does wearing one now!).

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Green burial

Last weekend a friend and I visited a green burial site in Worcestershire, the county in which I spend most of my childhood. At the entrance to the park you pass this little pond full of yellow irises, with buttercups on its banks.

Within the park there is the most incredibly lush meadowland, with a driveway through it, an area for parking, and lots of footpaths to give access to the graves. As it is on rising land there are wonderful views over the Worcestershire countryside beyond, and there are a number of bench seats where one can sit in quiet contemplation.

Some of the graves are tended, some are not, but most have a small plaque at one end. There are no gravestones or monuments, but trees have been planted on some of them.

In addition to the wild flowers among the meadow grasses, there were other beautiful blooms on individual graves which were outstanding.

The feeling of tranquillity was exactly what I was looking for, and what finally did it for me was to hear the cuckoo calling. It is a sound which is so evocative of my childhood, and I seldom hear it where I am living now. I think it would ease the pain of going to know that I was going to lie in that meadowland when I was gone. I left with my mind made up.
Though what my children will think of taking me for a two-hour drive to bury me, I dread to ask! It is worth clicking on the pictures to enlarge them, by the way, to get the detail of the meadow growth.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Behind the smile terror lurks

I usually write here about things which are life affirming, because that is what I think most people want to read, and that is what I need to write about if I am to enjoy blogging. So I write about what is funny, or interesting, or moving, or thought provoking. But this blog is also about being old, and today I need to write about what lies behind my enthusiasm for life, which my readers comment on from time to time.

We all know in our heads that we are going to die one day. For most of our lives we imagine that to be so far in the future that we really don’t need to be conscious of it at all. And if it was not so, life would be miserable, and we should probably make a pretty poor showing at it.

Later, as our bodies become noticeably less reliable, we may find that the end of our life has begun to come into focus, and we may start thinking about what it will be like. But if we are well most of the time, the force of life within us will still bear us along, and the chances are we will still be thinking: “It’s not my time just yet - I’ve still got a way to go”.

And then one day, if you are like me, in a moment of mind-blowing clarity, you may realise that your own imminent mortality has become a reality, and is part of your daily perception of who you are and what you are about. You may suddenly feel that the dark angel is sitting on your shoulder, rather than lurking on the horizon.

The loss of my husband left me acutely aware of being now the oldest in the family. Of course, I don’t have to be the next to go, but hey! just look at the odds. My heart attack four months ago revealed that two of the four grafts I had done 15 years ago have become blocked again, and I have to face the implications of that too. So now I know in my gut that my time is drawing to a close.

As a result a real sense of urgency has overtaken me: so much to finish, so many people to see, so much to put right if I can. And then there are the unanswered questions, the unspent passion, and the unfinished lives that I shall never see come to fruition. I don’t want to leave all this behind. I can’t bear the remorseless cycle of life and death, which demands that after so much effort, so much caring, so much creativity, it must all become the past, me included.

Will it be enough if among my descendants, someone decides to trace their forbears, and discovers my existence on a genealogy website? Will it be enough if my blog is still out there in cyberspace, available to be read by all? Will it be enough if my sons still think of me with sadness, but also with impatience at my remembered weaknesses and follies? My blog helps me to screen out the fear of being nothing any more, and to maintain an appetite for life, which I hope is one of the best ways to prolong it, because ....


The drawings I have used to illustrate this piece were done by Valerie Beeby, digital artist and web designer, as part of a feature on her own website about drawing the faces of fear. I am much indebted to her for permission to use them in this way, as they add a touch of humour to an otherwise rather bleak message. You can see more of her work here: