John filling in the recent Census form highlighted my uncooperative attitude to most questions.    There are some people who like answering questions about themselves – or indeed any questions.   I have never been one of them.   Of course I am not talking here of friendly interest in one’s well being, or even the kind of questions that intimates, who know most of your secrets anyway, can pose.    We can all recognise the difference between a loving question, and one of a different kind.     And some people in the course of their job are perfectly entitled to ask questions.       No, it’s the invasive or manipulative questions you don’t want to answer.

I suspect these characteristics must be ingrained from an early age, for I used to hate it when ‘adults’ could apparently ask you any question they liked – often ones they would not have dared to ask your parents – and you were rude and disrespectful if you did not promptly reply and a liar if you prevaricated.   (Sadly, I’m afraid even from an early age, I was all three.)

Some people are very good at extracting information from others, apparently painlessly, and I think among the necessary skills for this is patience.     It’s being prepared to release information about yourself so as to create a safe environment, being willing to let the conversation ebb and flow, being reliably discreet so you are worthy of being trusted, and listening carefully.    It’s not really about asking questions at all.

I rarely complete any non obligatory questionnaire.   Not only does it get tedious and boring, but I find I have a (quite genuine) capacity to mis-interpret questions.   I once applied for a railway season ticket.   The railway clerk perused the form and then said, you haven’t indicated how long you want the season ticket to run?   The choices were 1 month or three months.   I pointed out that the form said, ‘Words not required to be deleted.’   The clerk looked at me.   ‘So, you didn’t delete them?’    I nodded.   He shook his head at my stupidity.   ‘No-one’s ever interpreted it in that way before.’   (This sort of thing happens quite frequently.)

Occasionally some minor inducement makes me start an advertising questionnaire.   I never submit them.   Somewhere about the sixth question I lose the will to live.   ‘How do you rate our product compared with x, y or z?’    I don’t care about any of the products, I don’t have an opinion on this, and I can’t be bothered forming one.

I recall doing with my children one of those tests  about how you function.   I can’t remember the exact hows or the whats of it, but it turned out Rory and I were the same type, classified as only 1% of the population.   While some aspects of this were flattering, the person chosen as an example of the type was Donald Rumsfeld, which was a trifle alarming.   The comment was that this type of person will have an opinion on everything they have decided it is worth having an opinion on.   I rather liked that double decision.

I generally feel if I’m asked more than 2 questions on the trot, I’m viewing the questioner critically.

As for going to the door or answering the telephone, to be asked a question, well, that’s not good.   How long ago was it since we had put our double glazing in?   I was tempted to respond, What business is that of yours?     But the spectre of being rude always haunts the British, so I said quite pleasantly (I thought) if the caller cared to state his business, I would see if I could help him – whereupon he shut his notebook with a bang, said, I don’t have to put up with this! – and departed.

Sometimes there are discussions about the ethics of telling the truth.    Now I hope I am a truthful person.    Certainly if being asked for your testimony in a court of law or anywhere when the subject of discussion is important to someone, or their reputation, it is critically important to tell the truth.   To bear false witness against someone would be wicked.   But if on the other hand somebody asks you an impertinent question that’s no business of theirs, then I feel fully entitled to answer whatever I like.

And have you noticed, when there’s some question that you are being asked which you find difficult to answer, the minute you think up an answer both robust and satisfying, you are never asked the question again?

Then there’s those who ask questions but don’t listen to your reply.    I used to volunteer help one afternoon a week in my children’s school, usually being asked to help people with their creative writing, or reading.    I gave my help on a purely voluntary basis.      There was one very bossy teacher whom I (and my children) disliked.    There were always several mothers in the school, helping.    One day this teacher (none of whose pupils were ever in my charge)  came in to where several of us were, and I was getting on well helping a boy who hardly ever said anything to get his thoughts down on paper.    He was talking about his grandmother who had recently died and clearly the late lady had not departed into the great void unlamented.    The work we did together was sent home and his mother came to the teacher to thank her and to say his work had opened up a valuable conversation between herself and her son.   Ms In-Total-Command interrupted us although other women were free.   “I want to record a programme on the radio at 2.30,” she informed me.   “The radio and recorder are in the library.   Can you make a note, and go and record it for me?’    I stopped the boy mid flow and looked at her.   “No, I’m afraid not.” I said, smiling.   “I’m not a good person to ask to do this.   I won’t remember the time and I’m useless with technology.    I suggest you ask one of these other ladies.   Any of them are bound to be better than I would be.’   She glared at me.   ‘I’ve asked you,’ she said, and stomped off, with the manner of General Patten dealing with a deserter.     I shrugged, turned back to the boy, and thought no more about it.   Later she came back, presumably having discovered I had made no attempt to record the material, bristling with rage, and stood right in front of me and said, heavy with sarcasm, ‘Thank you so much for taking my recording.’    I thought, Should I say, I told you  I wasn’t going to do it?     Should I say, I’m not yours to command.    Should I say, I’m not an 8 year old you can intimidate.   Should I say, Dreadfully sorry – and pretend it was a mistake.    But in the end I just replied,  ‘It was nothing.’   This was certainly true.

The best exponent of the art of answering questions in a way that ended the discussion that I have observed was the late James Callaghan (Prime Minister.)    ‘Sunny Jim’ as he was nick-named (I gather because he wasn’t) had, for public presentation a genial, avuncular style.   But if you watch him being interviewed he had a steely resolution and a knack of answering questions politely but in such a way that it did not seem possible to pursue that subject any further.

There are of course different styles of questioning.   I watched Tony Hayward of BP (who was admittedly rather inept as a spokesman) being interrogated by American senators and other politicians on the regrettable oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico.   The questioners were (by our standards) rude and aggressive, and almost all took the opportunity to condemn him publicly, one supposes with an eye to their voters at home.    (I am not suggesting they did not have cause for complaint.)

I thought there was an interesting contrast between that style of examination and the one employed by Lord Chilcott, chairing the enquiring into the events leading up to the Iraq war.    At the time, Chilcott was criticised for being ‘too soft’ on witnesses.     I did not think so.     I thought he was the type of person Lord Byron might have had in mind when he wrote:

He was the mildest mannered man

Who ever scuttled a ship

Or cut a throat

With such true breeding of a gentleman

You never could discern his thought.

I thought he was typical of a type of Englishman, mild but inexorable, who with extreme politeness would manoeuvre you to the edge of a cliff where, still murmuring expressions of deep regret, he would push you over.   I enjoyed how, for example, with their polite and respectful questions, they still obliged the former Attorney General to describe how he had regarded the war as illegal, pressure had been applied to him, he had been sent on a visit to America, and when he returned, he had changed his mind.    We don’t need them to say anything more.   We can draw our own conclusions.

Finally, I was amused to note that in the questionnaire to applicants of The Apprentice (2010), the question was posed, What is the worst lie you have ever told?    The worst lie?    Are they kidding?   Presumably, you told it for a reason.   They cannot be expecting a truthful answer, surely.    Will it suffice to make something up that’s innocuous and entertaining, and then add in invisible ink, (This one.)?

Here endeth the article.   Any questions, any one?


I can’t remember where I came across this poem, but it expresses some of the gratitude I feel for the gifts my father gave me from his generous heart.

In the Evening by Bobi Jones

In the evening by the fire my father flows back to me.

The things we did together, and myself often

Unkind.   His kindly courtesy ghosts

Its way here and shelters my heart under its proud and simple wing.

When the great emptiness swelled him beyond the void

I did not realise he would remain within me despite a departure so final.

And that he would dart into my head as though relaxing at home

In the evening by the fire with his feet on the shelf of my mind.

Behind the world’s back, in the evening by the fire

His love wanders down.   Behold it all comes back.

It infuses my veins to create their power

To shine on my memory of the days that were so dear.

And I too will wander along the evening of some day

To the hearth where all is bound together, the store of all beloved things.

When he was the age that I now am, my father still had about 25 years of life ahead of him.  At that time,  I was aware of his strengths and failings, but I do not think I judged the balance of his personality fairly or generously.    I did not understand that not only could he, being human, not be perfect, it would not be desirable for one’s parent to be so.   Nor did I understand the balances that lay between him and my mother.   I have grown sufficiently mature to understand that in all liklihood, I do not judge them correctly now.



Today is, in the UK anyway, Father’s Day.   Although many people deplore the commercialisation of such days (are we to have Second Daughter’s Day;  Third Wife of Uncle’s Day?) – on the other hand it does no harm at all to take a little time to reflect on what is surely a significant role in anyone’s life.

 Struggling with a mounting crisis recently, in my efforts to bolster my psychological and mental strength, in that metaphorical cry for help one makes in the small  hours in dead of night when there’s only you and the darkness, I summoned as my second last appeal for assistance, the spirits of our ancestors, specifically our fathers.    I thought, why am I calling on our fathers, and not on our mothers?       Then I thought, when you’re a child and you’re in a dangerous situation;  when you’re a teenager on your gap year in a tight spot, who do you want to appear at the school gate or at your hostel door, metaphorically riding in on his white horse in all his battle gear with his flags flying – it’s your father (and in due course, your partner in life.)

 But your father, once he’s fought off the dragons and snatched you to safety – well, that’s as far as heroes go, isn’t it?  By the time he’s carried you on his milk white steed back to the castle – well, by that time he’s wondering what somebody might have prepared for his dinner, or whether his roses need dead-heading, or whether Rory McIlroy will win the American Golf Open.      He’s done his bit.   He deposits you proudly in the care of your mother, (or whoever stands in for her) and then he goes off about his manly business.    She then has months or weeks of nursing, counselling, feeding, encouraging to get you back ready to face the world (and she doesn’t have the glory of the rescue.)

 And of course for some women, no man comes to the rescue, and these sisters have to do it for themselves.    We women who have had the privilege of being protected by men should bow low before these valiant ladies.

 But it’s Father’s Day.   What is a more glorious sight than a man in all his strength and beauty as he comes to meet you in the hopeful light of dawn?


I look in the mirror – something I have avoided doing lately – and behold! It is I, myself, again – and not the pitiful waif who has stared back at me of late with haunted eyes and tousled hair.    Suddenly my skin is clear, my eyes are bright and my hair sits as it should.

I examine my image carefully.   Myself looks back, sharp eyed, focussed.   I was always here, she says.   I know that, I reply.   There is a duality at the heart of being human.

I look thin, travel weary, as if I have been on a long journey to countries not always friendly.    But I know my survival is a miracle of love and the kindness of others.   In my mind’s eye I take one last look at the landscape behind me and shudder.     Then I turn my back on it, and think that I must gather my resources quickly and repossess what is mine.   My needs have been great, and they have been most generously met;  my faith in the essential decency and kindness of most people has been restored.   But the time is long overdue for me to stop requiring help and start rendering it.

It has been an arduous journey, long and dangerous, but swiftly completed.   Some people may feel that they would prefer to keep the unloved orphan I appeared to be, instead of accepting the return of my bold self, and I hope to persuade them though possibly unpredictable and by no means a safe bet, there’s much more fun and satisfaction to be had with me than there is in any waif.    However, a failure to meet on neutral ground may be one of the sad casualties, collateral damage as it were.   I will do all in my power to recover what I can, but realistically, not everything is capable of being salvaged.  

As for my beloved fellow traveller, I welcome his return.   With him beside me, the recovery of most things might just be possible.



These Summer days I tend to waken early with the piping call of dawn.    Squinting as quietly as possible at my Day Book with its list of tasks to be done, (most of which I don’t do anyway), I read:  Phone Lynda; make a cake;  sew John’s sleeve;  think about albatross. 

I’m ticking them off in my mind and putting in my mental to do today list, when I stumble across the albatross.

 Why should I think about an albatross?    I picture the albatross.    I have seen them at Otago, NZ,   On land like an enormous white seagull with huge feet and in the air, so light and graceful and with such a spread of wing they resemble a glider.   Think about albatross.

 I think about the Ancient Mariner with the albatross hung round his neck.    I can’t remember how it got there – had he shot it ?– but anyway his salvation was secured because he saw some lowly worm of some kind on the deck of the ship, and ‘he blessed them unawares’.    I’m not sure that in my present situation this is terribly helpful, but I bless all lowly worms in  any case.

 Is it a metaphor about the solitary and the partnered?    The albatross wanders the Southern oceans of the world for five to seven years alone, and then returns to where he came from.   The male gets back a week or two before the female and begins to prepare for her arrival.   Sometimes she is late and he begins to get anxious.    If their partnership is successful, they produce one chick in every 5 – 7 years and may produce 12 offspring in a breeding lifetime.    When the chick flies his maiden flight he leaves them altogether, and he does not return for 7 or so years.

 There are many extrapolations that could be drawn from an albatross story, but none of them seem exactly pertinent.    I put on my glasses and peer at the list.

 Think about RELAXATION.    (Those glasses do need cleaning.)   Think about relaxation.   How typical of me to THINK about relaxation instead of doing it.   The idiocy of the whole thing appeals to me.  Albatross is nothing like relaxation.    Also I can’t read my own notes…

 I settle back to think about relaxation.    Then I think, to pot with it.   I’d rather think about the albatross.