The Arrival of James Kenneth Sullivan

I am delighted to announce the arrival of our 7th grandchild, James Kenneth Sullivan, second son of Elisabeth and Robert about 7pm on 3 December 2017. He weighed 10 lb l0 oz. Our daughter managed to deliver the baby herself, but required some assistance via forceps and James’ face was marked a little, but this is rapidly fading.

I was considering how, despite the vast improvement in pre-natal care and good advice for the parents, and however favourable the odds, every pregnant woman knows that as she waits on the final approach to the birth, she stands in danger of death.

I also realise that every woman’s experience of childbirth is quite different, not only do her own births turn out to be completely different from each other, but her experiences are not the same as anyone else’s. I resented people describing my births as ‘easy’. There is no such thing as an ‘easy’ birth, but I now realise that at 8 hours. 4 hours and 2 hours respectively, I was certainly fortunate. In fact the 2 hour birth was the most difficult because everything happens too quickly and you do not have time to catch your breath and prepare yourself mentally for the next stage. I therefore was secretly rather dismissive of people who required medical intervention or pain relief – though of course I never said so. One of my babies weighed 9 lbs 12 oz and I am not a big woman.

Yet in the case of my daughter, her first child weighed 9 lbs plus and took 20 hours to be delivered and at the end of it she looked so awful that I was shocked and alarmed. Mother and baby recovered though, so all was well.

This time she agreed to be induced when a week overdue, and also had an epidural. She was in labour for 48 hours, the first half of which was not painful or uncomfortable. For the second day she had an epidural and found the experience to be much less stressful. For this second tme she was able to endure the 48 hours and participate fully in the birth process, and mother and baby were able to return home the next day, both doing very well.

I should perhaps point out that I was not denied pain relief. I was offered epidurals but declined; I was hooked up to gas and air but it made me feel drunk, so I stopped breathing it in. In each birth there came a point where, having ‘ridden out’ the contractions – visualising each one as a wave and rising as if on the water and waiting while it ebbed away – the pain was so intense I found myself thinking, ‘I can’t stand much more of this.’ Each time for the ‘three times’ this feeling heralded the end of the period of the contractions, and I passed smoothly on to the final pushing stage, which is exhausting but not intrinsically painful. Had I been facing a further 40 hours of labour at this point, I too would have called for an epidural, gas and air, whatever. I found the breathing which we’d practised so diligently at the weekly Classes for New Mothers to be completely useless.

There is no virtue whatsoever in suffering unnecessary pain. Besides, who is to judge what ochers are actually experiencing when in pain. You want to take as much painkiller as you need; and as little as you can manage with. You don’t want to be so exhausted and shattered that you can’t participate in and enjoy the first moments of caring for your baby.

Here’s to pain-reduced births and and healthy mothers and babies!

I look forward to getting to know James. William, his elder brother is a delightful child, and it was a pleasure to look after him while his parents were at the hospital. He went into ‘host’ mode and tried to look after us!

The photographs, courtesy of John M Armstrong, are of the brothers Sullivan, and of James and his quilt!

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BELIEVING IN MIRACLES

BELIEVING IN MIRACLES

We’ve been to Elisabeth’s. All her tests for blood sugar have been OK but one was not conclusive, so on this doubtful evidence her file recorded her as being diabetic, and someone rang up and harassed her at length about her diet; said she had to come in and have an emergency C section or at the very least be induced because in addition to having (they alleged) gestational diabetes, the due date was today (ie Saturday 19 November.) They insisted, it being a large baby, that her dates were a fortnight wrong. Also the baby was breech and they don’t seem to have the skill to organise breeches births. She was less combative than I would have been, though she got a bit upset and anxious. You’re always the best person to know the dates; her last baby was a large baby; his male relatives are all over 6 foot tall and she and his paternal grandmother are also 5’10”. (Everyone in this family is tall except for me!) Anyway, the baby turned round of his own accord; she doesn’t have diabetes; she’s not going to be induced or c sectioned unless there’s overpowering medical evidence why she should. I would guess the baby would be born within 7 – 10 days but not in the next day or two.

I remember [when I was expecting Rory] for the first time during the years when I was pregnant, they offered genetic counselling. Among the questions they asked was one on haemophilia which had been in our family (my mother’s people all married their cousins.) The doctor who discussed matters with me was one I had never seen before (of middle Eastern origin: basically of the-womens-they-know-nothing school.) Looking at his notes and not at me, he announced that they had been unable to determine whether or not I was a carrier, and they required samples of blood from all my relatives, and that they had decided that they would test for the sex of the baby and abort all male children as a precautionary measure. Fortunately my anger overcame any anxieties I might have had. Completely ignoring him, I said to the nurse that I would get dressed now and I would speak with her after that. I sailed past him as though he were a piece of furniture. As I was dressing I could hear her getting on to him about his terrible bedside manner. When I came out he began a somewhat grudging apology which I completely ignored. I spoke pleasantly to the nurse and thanked her for the advice they had given me; I said that I did not wish to pursue genetic counselling any further; I would not be supplying the blood of my relatives; I would not have a test for the sex of my baby, nor would I be having any abortion. Hopefully I would see her next week. She agreed to all of this and I swept out like a grand duchess. My male child was perfectly alright. I never saw that doctor again – I hope they sacked him.

It’s a difficult balancing act in relation to the hospital. You do need their assistance (and in every case once we got to the birthing point, the nurses and entire team were superb. ) Joanna’s team were from Oregon and knew their stuff; Elisabeth’s team were from Ireland and coped well; but the team for Rory were local girls. John said to them, Do you think you can deliver a son, and a Scot​​; is that possible? Everything is possible said the midwife but we can only help out what has been put there already. But all went well. I held the baby in my arms and knew as I looked into his eyes, dark and filmy as a kitten’s that he would be absolutely fine. John took him and said to him ‘Welcome to the world, son.’

Then, I rose with John’s help and disappeared into the bathroom; washed; brushed my hair and my teeth and was just settling down with my son in my arms when the nursing staff came rushing back, terribly anxious because they had abandoned us on our own and not been there had anything happened. Since they were dealing with a lady whose reactions to her various experiences were punctuated by screams and curses of a horrible variety (she clearly was not the middle class lady she posed as) we felt they were quite justified and had enjoyed the half hour to ourselves. They made us tea and toast which tasted to us like nectar and ambrosia.

On that day when my final child was born, I went back to the ward with my lovely baby upon my knee, covered I felt, both of us, in mystery, glory and triumph. I knew that I would not walk this path again. The baby had only opened his eyes once and had taken a long and careful look at me. He did not know that if I had been a meek and obedient to authority kind of woman, he would not be making his way back to the ward and from there home as rapidly as I could arrange it.

But every birth is a triumph in its own right and a miracle too.

Angels and ministers of state attend Elisabeth!

SUN RISES IN THE EAST

UN RISES IN THE EAST

The sun rises in the East, and I am happy that our bedroom faces in this direction. I am most decidedly a morning person, so this arrangement suits me, and now I come to think about it, our bedroom has often caught the morning sun in the various houses where we have lived.

John pulls back the curtains at 7 am, and I lie, warm and snug under my covers, the back of my bed raised behind me, and I watch the dawn develop. Sometimes (not often in England) the sun rises in a perfect fiery ball and roars its way upwards into the sky. Usually you just glimpse its golden brightness visible through lines of cloud; or the blackness of night gradually seeps away leaving banks of colour, from a liquid gold, fiery or blushing pink, to a pale green… On occasion however it just lightens from impenetrable black into a dull and sullen grey. However in general it is very beautiful, different every day and no two days are ever the same.

Sometimes (again, not often here) there are cloudless skies, but more usually there are clouds forming and moving, of infinite variety. I have always been a cloud- watcher I used to lie on my back on a steeply sloping field next to our house and watch them scudding over, generally in the same direction (from South West to North East I presume). Every so often it would vary in its disciplined propulsion and then I would rush off and say to my mother, Clouds are going in the wrong direction! She never looked as if she was as perturbed as I thought she should have been.

There are trees in our own and our neighbours’ gardens but there is one very large and spreading tree, now bare of leaves in a further away garden. I enjoy watching the birds occupy this tree. They too watch the wind and the clouds for anything useful. They fly off one by one, in different directions. Yesterday there we were seven mirds in the tree; today not a solitary one.

I find ‘MEditation’ incredibly difficult to do – so boring, mind rebels – but it occurs to me that this sitting, peacefully observing the sun rise yet again, and being thankful for this miracle which has happened everyday since the beginning of time, and will continue to happen until the end of time – which day will surely come – only I will not be there by then- is as good a form of meditation as anything.

Lastly, behind the Tree of Seven Birds, so distant that I could not reliably identify them, but biggish so probably crows, a flock of birds filled the sky for a brief moment. A murder of crows, I thought; and then reflected on the probable origin of that unkind and unfair phrase.

For about ten days of the year, the sun strikes a mirror which reflects onto another and shines full on me as I lie in my bed. Although this is entirely a fortuitous event, unplanned by me, I feel as thrilled and delighted as my Celtic ancestor, standing in Maes Howe, the beautifully built tomb on Orkney must have felt when the sun shone down the entry tunnel and illuminated the dark interior.

May the light shine upon us.

PAINTED CEILING

I’m remembering that someone (much cleverer than I am) wrote: There is nothing new under the sun.

John and I went with Elisabeth to view the ceiling currently being restored on the Painted Hall at Greenwich.

Greenwich with its proximity to the river and its collection of Christopher Wren buildings is wonderfully calming and restorative. We park and make for the Painted Hall where we are to be met by someone who will guide us through a route suitable for wheelchairs. I am to use a lift; others have to climb 70 stairs. Elisabeth, in the last month of her pregnancy, elects to accompany me!

It is always interesting to be taken through a building in your wheelchair because you see beind the grand showy rooms to the more modest ones where people actually live. When we emerge into the body of the hall, we find that a temporary wooden floor has been made and we see we are – for someone of John’s height – where one could just comfortably examine the art work. The artist was one James Thornhill and his team, working to cover a very large canvas. He was obviously a conventionally competent painter. Apparently the team included specialists in painting things such as flowers.

We were standing on a floor which covered the entire area but one was aware of how difficult working conditions must have been. I imagine a small platform had been hauled up by pulley, and they then had to lie, working above their heads with the awful drop to the floor on all sides of them.

The subject matter shows William and Mary and all their relatives in a ‘heavenly’ setting. Our national vanity and arrogance are quite breathtaking. William of Orange is portrayed as Hercules, and Mary Stewart is shown as the goddess Athene. Being trampled under William’s feet is the tyrant King of France. I thought, there’s nothing new about Brexit.

It was extremely interesting. There was a distortion in the drawing to allow for the viewer being far below at ground level. The colours were quite fresh. There were details in the painting that could not have been seen by any viewer.

I’d like to see it again when the temporary ceiling has been removed.

Then we were escorted back down in the lift, walked through the lovely Christopher Wren buildings, past the Cutty Sark, and on to lunch.

THE JOYS OF CARAVANNING

We went out the other day to look at caravans and confirm that we didn’t need a new one – but guess what – we decided we did!

Many non-caravanning people do not understand the appeal of caravans and simply regard them as a hazard and nuisance on the road. But a caravan adapted to your needs can provide you with a very comfortable base for your holiday in a safe and attractive environment for between 20 and thirty pounds per night for two people. For this you get a spacious ’emplacement’ with a space for your caravan in the middle and room for your awning on one side and your vehicle on the other.

Caravan sites vary enormously from the spotlessly clean, excessively controlled affair where your caravan has to be parked at an exact angle, with impressively equipped communal kitchen, washing up area, laundry and shower room. Occasionally there is even a bath. On the other hand you can have a windswept field with long grass and a few sheep in it with no facilities at all. When we moved from England to Scotland we stayed on a very peculiar site with rather unsavory people on it. When I opened my bedroom curtains one morning, I discovered my window had been lined up with another caravan’s which was far too near ours and I was afforded an excellent view of its interior which was empty of all furniture apart from a dining chair on which a naked man was seated, strumming on a guitar. We were on another site that same evening. (This is the only caravan site I’ve ever come across which has been like this.)

We have caravanned for 40 years. Your requirements change. We had a 5 berth when we had the children with us. For the past ten years or so we’ve had a 2 berth. Now we’ve bought a 4 berth. This has as well as the usual seating area which can convert into a comfortable double bed, two single bunks which are permanently made up, and which are 4” wider than previously, \and one of which is 6’3” long. This means we do not have the labour of making up the bed twice daily, and I can retire to lie in my bed easing my painful back but still being part of the group; and grandchildren can sleep with us while their parents go out to dinner. This is a new design and should also appeal to families with teenagers.

Awnings which are like large tents attached to the side of caravans and which double the covered floor space have also now improved. They now ‘blow up’ with an electric pump which makes them a lot easier to erect.

Another development over the past ten years has been ‘the mover’ which is a remote control whch will move the caravan forwards. back and sideways without you’re having to humph it.

You can equip your caravan for your personal needs. Book, music, TV all go with you. The caravan will carry your clothes hanging up (although the wardrobe’s miniature dimensions are not one of its best selling points. ) Cooking simple meals is not difficult, and you can always eat out.

You’re very much out in the open air. Lying in your caravan while heavy rain pours down your windows, or on a clear night you can see stars through your roof light, or surviving a thunder storm – these are all enjoyable experiences.

As I made clear in my blog on Norfolk, most other caravanners are helpful and friendly. But occasionally you come across somebody memorably awful. We were, I think, in Belgium one summer and an older British couple parked next to us. We had three children with us and did not have time for prolonged social exchanges. A friendly wave or good morning was as much as we could manage. They invited us for a glass of wine that evening but we declined because we had to supervise the children. Clearly this didn’t suit our neighbours. They terminated the exchanges of waves, good morning etc. We then watched in fascinated horror while they entrapped a different English speaking couple every night. They would lull them into a false sense of security with duff wine. They would then indulge in one long boast : their country house; their flat in town; their glittering careers; the generous salaries they enjoyed; their dining out in famous restaurants; their holidays etc ad nauseum. This was boring and tedious in the extreme, particularly since exactly the same speech was offered night after night. On the last night, before he and we were due to leave the next morning, he was showing his guests out when John said to me (quite loudly), “Oh, Annie. He forgot to tell them that his drive is one mile long.” He looked at us with extreme hostility but said nothing. We left that site at first light and were enjoying croissants and coffee many miles away.

THE GATEWAY TO ENGLAND

We’ve been in Kent for the past week in our caravan at Hythe. We enjoyed it although the weather was mixed – but as ever, on the bad days we weren’t having picnics so it was all fun. For Autumn, it was quite mild.

The site was very busy, but there was plenty of space allocated to each ’emplacement’, so you did not get irritated by your neighbour’s preoccupation with celebrities, or the fact that her husband spoke to the dog more than he did to her. (Given the drivel she would spout, the dog probably made more sense.)

We went in to Hythe, which was fascinating in that it was so old fashioned. It had draper’s shops with stuff in drawers served to you by women dressed entirely in black, and your purchases wrapped up in parcels tied with string.

While Kent was not unfriendly, I think it would be fair to say that it is reserved in the case of strangers and one can understand why. It is very flat (though it has some low hills) and perhaps because of that, the sea is not often a dominant presence, even though it surrounds the county on 3 sides. It has fertile soil, lighter than the heavy clay of Sussex, and is well wooded, and has many orchards; also there are fields of cabbages, potatoes, maize, and hops. The houses were mostly of brick; some were very old.

There appeared to be two main bodies of native peoples. There are some, descended one supposes from the Viking Normans, where the men are very tall, with thin faces, and fairish hair and while not perhaps handsome, are personable; and the woman of that type is beautiful. We had lunch in a small inn we chanced upon at St Mary’s in the Marsh, where we visited the local church which was surprisingly large for such a small village. In the church the vicar was attempting to reassure a young woman that the flower arrangements for her wedding that weekend would be fine. The bride, even in her jeans, was lovely, long blonde haired, very pale skinned, with an unblemished oval face, fine arching eyebrows, a long nose, blue eyes and a mouth that could have been painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I wondered if Joan, the fair maid of Kent, had looked like this. In the pub a local family of several generations was celebrating someone’s birthday, and the young women, while not as beautiful as the bride, were after the same fashion. Another type of face, seen mostly in men, was square and flat and dark.

Not by any stretch of the imagination could you describe Dover as an attractive town; but it is interesting. You become aware as you look at it that invaders have marched through it many times. There is a lovely bronze age boat in a museum which is well worth a visit. It is a large vessel – about the size of a Maori war canoe, made of oak, using the entire length of a trunk, split and tied together with yew withies. The joints of these were packed with moss and beeswax. There was no evidence of sails – no cavity to lodge the end of the mast in – and the part where the rudder had been (if there was one) was missing. But I thought it was moving, seeing how man has been resourceful and ingenious using what items were available to him throughout history. It was thought the boat had been used for trading with Europe, because of its size.

We also saw the remains of a Roman fort at Richborough, which was huge, and we supposed had been used as an administrative and store centre at the entry point of Britain.

Folkstone was not an attractive town but it had a grand hotel, lovely promenade on the upper levels of the cliff with beautiful gardens and views out to sea. The other areas of the town were rather shabby and there was no evidence of any ferries being active. Broadstairs was also an upmarket coastal town. We visited Tenterden, whch has nice buildings and shops.

We revisited Margate and Ramsgate. These towns which are very run down have beautiful Georgian architecture, and will be lovely after a period of gentrification which is already beginning to take shape. In Margate we went to the Turner, which is an attractive modern building – nice cafe and museum shop. But what a shame about the art (exhibition). Now everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but there were paintings of African atrocities which could have been executed in blood. I hurried past. There were ‘sculptures’ where I thought the artist – one Phyllida Barlow – was mocking us. One of her works for example was a large heap of broken pallets heaped on the and floor under a rusty length of pipe dangling overhead. It was untitled. We could have proposed a title: Useless junk sneers at our gullibility. This exhibition is described as ‘Bringing togther works by British sculptor Phyllida Barlow, British-Kenyan painter Michael Armitage, and J M W Turner. There were two representations by Turner, both the size of a postcard, and they looked to me to be the piece of paper on which one blots one’s brush. One felt they were rather taking liberties with the great man’s name.) Then on to Ramsgate (the Sands Hotel where we had a delicious lunch on a terrace looking out to sea. ) John had biscuits and cheese at the end of the meal. When we rose to go, a seagull who had been standing motionless on a lamppost for most of our meal, suddenly dive-bombed our table and made off with some cheese biscuits. I could feel the feathers of his wings against my hair.

We made an unsuccessful attempt on Canterbury (which we have visited before). We turned in to the old city where Disabled parking was promised but found it completely chaotic within, so crowded with pedestrians that we had difficulty proceeding through the streets. We decided to give Canterbury a miss (if only we could escape it! ) I have sometimes wondered why Canterbury is the first diocese of the Church of England, but being in Kent I realised it was because it was the nearest to Rome.

We visited Dover Castle (built by Henry II) which is very large and was used in various wars including of course the second World War. In Kent there are also several castles built in the time of Henry VIII who fortunately of course had plenty of money from plundering the wealth of the church. We visited Deal, and Walmer. They were a kind of rose shape and their guns could cover 360 degrees. Walmer was furnished, quite skilfully for the rounded ‘petals’ of the building were not standard in size, and the garden was lovely; full of roses, dahlias, and fruit and berry trees. The Queen Mother had been Warden of the Cinque ports and she had stayed here, but the principle Warden (and who died here) had been the Duke of Wellington.

Well, there’s an account of our Autumn holiday in the caravan in East Kent. The weather was mixed but we still enjoyed it. The food on the holiday was uniformly good. The houses were not particularly beautiful. I was not greatly impressed with the shopping although we ‘looked at’ one or two. But it has gentle village architecture…. lovely old farmhouses that look as though the farmer in residence could trace his ancestry back to the stone age, gardens, interesting and lovely houses, harbours ranging from the ‘smart’ to one where locals sat on the seawall, pint of (locally brewed and quite delicious our visitor got hopelessly lost and was as panic stricken as the boy being asked to skipper the bronze age boat across the Channel.

I almost forgot. Rory and Sarah and their children came down to Kent on our penultimate day and we went together on the little train to Dungeness. The train trundles along the bottom of people’s gardens; the countryside is whisking your face. Some gardens are delightfully planned and present  an elegant orderliness; others are just mess and disorder. You see into the charming domesticity of English villages. All in all, for a peaceful restful holiday, pleasant local villages, nice meals, it was all quite charming.

 

While peace lasts, Kent is a good place to visit.

John SINGER SARGENT

Some years ago I went to an exhibition of water colour sketches painted on his travels by (in my opinion) the greatest ever artist produced by these islands – J M W Turner. Although they were just quick impressions produced for the artist’s own pleasure, they captured the essence of each place, and I was interested to note that where I had also visited the location, although over a century had passed, my impression of it was much the same as Turner’s.

Last week I went with my daughter Elisabeth, and John and our grandson William, to an exhibition of watercolours by the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent, at the Dulwich picture gallery.

These were largely small landscapes (sketches) executed by Sargent at the end of his career when he had had enough of the demands made by sitters wanting their portraits painted, and took himself off, switched to watercolours and did landscapes.

I am a big fan of John Singer Sargent. In any exhibition of portraits, his will stand out in their excellence. He seems to have the knack of creaing a portrait that is a beautiful object in its own right; a reliable likeness of the subject; presumably a reasonably flattering portrayal because the clients liked them; BUT we the wider audience can see that, for example,  despite the youthful prettiness of the sitter, she is a shallow young woman thinking largely of how to satisfy her desire for clothes, jewels, social prominence etc.

The exhibition paintings are not what I expected. They do not have that deceptively fragile appearance of some watercolours which are misty and almost translucent. These are far brighter and deeper in colour than I had imagined. Some of them are unconventional in their presentation, looking at the subject from below or cutting it off where you don’t expect it. The written commentary in the art gallery suggested that the artist was forcing us to look at things differently. However I don’t believe that he was thinking about future audiences at all. I think he was acting entirely to please himself and what attracted him to these particular subjects was their degree of technical difficulty. He, of course, entirely overcame that.

I came across a sketch from his travels, of somewhere in Scotland. The British countryside is so diverse that if you have travelled through the UK extensively you know whether a picture is of Scotland, Yorkshire or Dorset, even if they are all apparently of the same tree. Sargent’s picture of Scotland lacks authenticity. It does not feel of heather and gorse and Atlantic wind. It is just a tree.

I have often wondered if a portrait painter makes a judgement of his sitter or if he just paints what he sees. John got a chalk drawing done of me once in Waverley Market in Edinburgh. I thought I would give the man doing the work the benefit of my wit and charm so having ascertained that if I held my position, conversation would not put him off, I set out to entertain him. I was however considerably taken aback when I asked him what he found most difficult about doing a portrait of someone and he replied: ‘Sometimes it is difficult to avoid being beguiled by the sitter.’ (We were pleased with the result, which is as grave and reflective a representation as I most truly am; but most friends have regarded it as not flattering.)

So, returning to Sargent, I came to the conclusion that his was a technical excellence; he was supremely good at putting paint to canvas in the image of what lay before him. So, in my opinion, John Singer Sargent is still very, very good.

Just not as good as Turner.

PS William is not (yet anyway) an admirer of John Singer Sargent. As soon as we entered the exhibition rooms he began to shout, Bye bye (which is his way of indicating that an interview is at an end,) and his melancholy and irritated cry punctuated our entire visit. Somehow I doubt if he would have been any more impressed by Turner!