A neighbour once admired my ‘collection’ of wooden boxes.   I thought, I don’t have a ‘collection’.    Collections are useless gatherings of unnecessary stuff that take up room and need dusting.

I once visited a house whose fairly large sitting room was shelved from floor to ceiling and filled
with hundreds of ceramic ladies.   I thought it was the stuff of nightmares.

So, I’m not a collector.    I just like boxes, and over the years I seem to have acquired a few.   How many?   One or two, I haven’t counted…

The first one I was given, I no longer possess.   (Possibly one of my children or grandchildren now has it.)
A girl I never particularly liked, but who had a knack for present giving, gave me a carved softwood Indian box with red lining.   I was always torn between love of the box, and memories of her.    I suppose she was
a nice enough girl but she was excessively organised and tidy.   Every theatre programme she had ever had was stored in date order in an attractive box tied with red ribbon.     She had a truly overwhelming desire to be married, and her wedding was planned down to the details of the flowers on the table, only no prospective husband had as yet turned up.    All her energies were devoted to this aim, and I think what she actually wanted of me was someone to share the hunt.      I on the other hand did not want to be
the pursuer but the pursued.        I found the whole state of affairs rather alarming, and felt sorry for the husband who would one day blunder into this trap.   I do not know what became of her, but I imagine she did find a husband – she had natural blonde hair, good legs, and was prepared to please – in the short term anyway.   I loved the box, but I suspect it is because of my recollection of her that I no longer own it.

Among the boxes (not that many…) that seem to have found a place in this house, are two that I love, of
dark wood painted with roses, which judging from their shape I imagine were  meant to hold a lady’s handkerchiefs and gloves, and these were given me by  John’s Aunt.    She also gave me a very
small wooden box with a ceramic rose plaque on it.   I have a box whose lid is made from the rare
Huron pine from Tasmania, which was almost brought to extinction because it  made such fine ships.    I have a  marquetry box I think from Morocco given me by Elisabeth, and a white painted  and inlaid with shell box from Africa given me by (Rory or Elisabeth.)    By my chair is a heavy metal engraved box
brought from India by Rory and Sarah which I keep filled with little cards to  entertain my grandchildren.    I have a  black enamel box from Kyoto with storks on it.    Recently arrived is a cylindrical box of
cherry bark from Kiroshiki, which I had  sadly decided was too expensive but John bought me anyway.    Some of ‘our’ boxes are used by John – I  suppose he imagines he owns them!    There is a marquetry one, showing Fuji that we bought in Hakone.    There is one with metal within its design  which I won in a raffle.   I had already  won a fridge in that raffle, and I am afraid when I saw the second prize was a
box, I did not return it to be redistributed as I might otherwise have done.   We also have two round wooden boxes for  cuff-links or similar items, 5 of which we bought under a bridge in Melbourne,  and the other three of which are owned by Rory, Lawrence, and Elisabeth’s ex  boyfriend.   When she and he parted, I
did regret the box!    I also have larger  Japanese wooden boxes which were used to store ceramics (now there’s another  love, but that’s a different story…)    These boxes have Japanese writing on them, which I presume says the name  of the shop, but I don’t know that.

My children share my  enthusiasm, and when Elisabeth was quite a small girl, I lent her £42 – a huge
investment for her – and she bought 7 carved dark wooden boxes from India,  which are now in Japan housing her jewellery, and in the company of her growing  collection of boxes and jewellery.

I don’t really know why I like  boxes so much.    Someone once told me it  was because they shut, and were, like me, full of secrets.   (I don’t know what she meant;  I am sunny and transparent, an open book, as
you all know.)

I like keeping ‘stuff’ in  the boxes.   I like the feel and the  shape and the smell of them.   I like the
skill that has gone into the making.    I  like to remember the tree that it came from and the country of its origin.    I just like boxes.

No, I’m not a  collector.   They just come, somehow.

Revolving Many Memories


Returned from Geneva, after the marriage of my son, I sit
here like Sir Bedevere, ‘revolving many memories.’

I haven’t written any diary since the beginning of April –
possibly the longest gap of my life, but as one by one the fragments of recall
slot in to their place in the endless vaults of memory, I walk the long
corridors of my inner house and find my writing room as inviting as ever, so I
step in and close the door, and here I sit once more.

This has been a difficult and event filled year and although
cautious about declaring that we have survived the ordeals (who knows what
tomorrow will bring) I do feel achievement, gratitude and a sense of relaxation
to be returning to ‘normal’ now at home.

In attending Rory’s wedding, I returned to Switzerland after
an absence of over 40 years, and found it largely unchanged, and my opinion of
it the same as well.    In its topography
of course it is a lovely country, and it was delightful to relax in Sarah’s
parents comfortable  apartment in
Chamix-Lac and watch the lake, forest and mountains fade in and out of view in
the mist.   Those of you who are Scots
will realise when I say I am a woman who panics on the old road to Aplecross,
that I felt by the time we had ascended to the alpine village that we had
probably reached the lower echelons of heaven!
Here too we were able to have some private time with Elisabeth and Rob.

There was the pleasure later of meeting up with guests, some
well known to us and others just newly met, who had come to share in our
rejoicing and grace our happy event with their presence.    Our hotel in Route d’Aerodrome had pesky
little flies, and pesky little aeroplanes too who would fling themselves in a
foolhardy manner down the short runway and then with much flapping of wings and
pedalling by passengers just succeed in clearing the roof of our building before
stuttering off into the darkness to come bumbling back a few hours later.   But it was also where we had a wonderful
meal with Elisabeth and Rob, with superb food.
(Tomatoes in chocolate:

The little church at Gingins was lovely; an unusual shape
but pleasingly plain though with lovely stained glass windows, some modern and
some older.    It was known for some
reason as The Temple of Gingins, and it amused me to think of my son being
married at some pagan temple (I swear by Apollo…) – he is a lawless Armstrong
after all!    When I first saw him
walking up the road towards the church, his kilt swinging with his step, and
accompanied by Matt, his Best Man,  Rory
looked so archetypally Scottish and handsome (forgive me: I am his mother, god
help him, so must be excused) with all his essential qualities fleetingly
visible in his concealed nervousness, that I felt like weeping at the sight of
him. But I could not because he would have failed to understand why I was
weeping on what was undoubtedly a day of joy and happiness.

John, still a comfort in a weary land for me, and I went
in to the church early, and felt it filling up behind us.   Then we saw Alexandra leading her little
sisters down the steps, all of whom looked as if they understood that this was an
important occasion and they were privileged to take part.    Sarah, the bride, princess of the day in
the settings she had chosen, looked happy and glowing as a bride should in her
beautiful dress.    My own lovely
daughters, gracious and courageous women both, who had so generously supported
John and me, beamed across the church their encouragement.   Elisabeth had delivered a fine version of a
sonnet at the civil ceremony, and Joanna read out an Irish blessing – a superb
piece of writing – and was so moved by the occasion that her  delivery faltered a little, but it made the
words all the more moving.    I noted how
well Sarah’s parents looked, and how thoughtful and pleased Richard seemed as
he watched his daughter become a wife.
Martha, Sarah’s sister, was very pretty, and her brother Tom had a
handsome and vigorous face.   The female
cleric who presided over the religious part of the celebration had good looks
and presence, and the nottaire, also a lady, brought warmth and an air of
celebration to the legal (civil) section.
The friends of the family received us with real kindness, and it was
good to see our own family and friends gathered in this unfamiliar place to
share a memorable event.     And don’t
men look handsome when they dress in their suits?    All the ladies looked lovely in their
finery and it was especially nice to share the event with my sister in law,
Susan, and my friends, Anne and Carolyn.

We were lucky in many things, but especially in the
weather.    There was no day without some
rain, but the sun came out obligingly whenever we needed it.    It was also
‘lucky’ that guests, having arrived early for the religious service on
Saturday were just wandering past on an exploratory walk by the lakeside as we
gathered there for the civic.   In celtic
society where great emphasis was placed on the stringent laws of hospitality, a
place was kept for the unexpected guest, so this charming young couple were
briskly swept up by the rest of us and gathered in, their protests about lack
of suitable clothes completely ignored.  They
were the kind of people who would look good in an old sack anyway!  The ‘grand old lady’ of the occasion was
Katherine’s Aunt, and she seemed to enjoy the event in her unassuming way.

Sophie, Sarah’s colleague and the translator for the
‘civic’ turned out to be one of those people you’d pick to stand beside you in
the heat of the battle because of her watchful competence, her cheerful
reliability and her unselfishness.   And
Matt, Rory’s friend of long standing and Best Man, proved indeed to be a good
man and true.    Throughout the day he
had been largely a withdrawn, silent figure.
Yet he stood up at the end and delivered what I thought was a
magnificent speech, one in which I recognised someone who knew our complex and
elusive son exceedingly well, and who, I saw, was a match for Rory in intelligence,
insight and thinking power.    He had
experienced difficulties in getting to the wedding and had been obliged to come
without his wife which we regretted.   He
delivered his amusing speech with grace and generosity, tact and
thoughtfulness.   He knew our man, and he
spoke well of him, and for his truth and courtesy he can count us among his
friends forever.

After that we could all relax.   There was a lovely reception on the terrace
of a vineyard with a stunning view of the lake.   We could see the Jet d’Eau at Geneva and there
was that kind of evening light that illuminates every crevice of the
mountains.   We moved into a marquee for
the meal, which was delicious.
Katherine and I took our hats off together and flung them in a corner.

There were some irritating and amusing incidents.   Various people had run foul of Swiss
bureaucracy (though none to serious effect.)
There were annoying flies who seemed to lurk outside your room (however
many you killed) and rush in whenever the door opened.     Things were so expensive you would see men
bracing themselves as they glanced at the bill.    All the branches of our family (except
possibly – I don’t know – the bride and groom) had rip-roaring rows of the
I’ll-just-go-home-by-myself type, which statement fortunately the wretched man
who has caused the lady this distress has the wit and kindness to ignore, and
therefore shortly after to be restored to his accustomed role as hero.   Taxis seemed to be the cause of some grief
(quite apart from the extraordinary cost.)
One man had to be decidedly firm in explaining that this was NOT his
hotel, and no, his wife in her wedding finery could not be expected to leg it
across the vineyards;  another couple
discovered that though they had been delivered – at vast expense – to their
correct hotel, neither of them had a key;
the main building could not be opened, and they had to walk in darkness
to the bride’s parents’ home and sneak in un-noticed to the sofa;  and another unfortunate fellow had to offer
an eyewateringly expensive tip on top of the excruciating bill because his companion
had been unwell.   (I won’t name names –
you know who you are!)

We sent down a party to assist Joanna and Lawrence to put
up their tent on arrival, so John supervising because he had erected it
previously; Rob and Rory assisting;
Lawrence nominally in charge because it was his tent and he needed to
learn how to do it, but too exhausted to function unaided;   three crying children;  a frazzled Joanna, plus Elisabeth and
me.    We girls took the children on a
little tour of the campsite and the four men had the tent up in no time. But
the looks of dismay of the orderly elderly Swiss caravanners  around us at our sudden invasion of the
field, with car doors slamming, orders being shouted, children crying, general
chaos and disorder, was quite amusing.
It was great fun being all together with our children and their
partners, in each of whom, we do rejoice.

Finally, a most delightful party at Grande-Fontaine where
Richard and Katherine have their main home.
Her garden is one of those where great skill and effort has been
expended to create a garden that just looks like it was always growing there
naturally.    Food and hospitality here
and the tact and kindness of their friends were equally wonderful.   In addition we discovered a new and
unexplored part of France, unspoilt and utterly charming which we hope to
explore (should the pound ever recover) at our leisure.   Lons-le-Saunier was one of those French
towns for the French, with an elegant square and delightful streets leading off
it, and a colonnaded avenue of nice shops (all closed: our men are not
stupid.)   We stayed in a farmhouse with
huge, simple rooms, where the children could wander among hens and farm
animals, and where you sat down to dinner each night with no menu but just
received what had been picked from the garden.

And, lastly, our lovely young couple, happy to be setting
out together on their journey through life.
They had a good send off from their family and friends.   May they make good all their promises, and
may the god by whom they swore their oaths guard and walk with them, always.



I’ve been thinking about old age, and that we should be
trained in how to do it.   So much
training is given in how to do practically everything, yet it seems to me we
still arrive at the great changes in life more or less unprepared.

Few people, embarking on marriage, full of hope and good
intentions and anxious to enter into matrimony (even though they are warned in
the marriage service that it is an estate not to be entered into lightly),
actually have any idea of what is involved.
A good marriage is a bulwark
against misfortune, and a great source of strength and happiness, yet it nearly
always has to be paid for by some costly sacrifice somewhere along the way.    The participants have in our culture
generally chosen of their own free will, but they do not know why they have
made that choice.    The general bargain
(society’s expectations of marriage) is made;
a private bargain is agreed (eg one will work, one will raise the
children), but often a secret bargain is also struck, and what that is may not
be apparent in the beginning even to the bride and groom.

Few couples, gazing with delight into the cradle holding
their first born, and anticipating the joy that a child does indeed bring, have
a realistic grasp of the enormous cost that will be incurred.    The father may have to work for years of
unremitting toil to keep it warm, fed and educated.   The mother may spend her best years of
strength and beauty in the drudgery of its physical care.    In the end, the better the job is done, the
more carelessly the child leaves you without a backwards glance, and suddenly,
in your parental role, you are redundant.
You have to give up being the hand that rocks the cradle, or guides the
tiller, and watch from the rocky shoreline as your child launches their frail
craft on the dangerous waters of life alone;
and probably you have to provision the boat, and wave it off cheerfully,
stifling your anxieties.   Did you listen
to your parents’ advice?   No, you
didn’t.   You made your own mistakes and
if you are ever to be mature it is necessary that you do so.

Once your children have offspring of their own, they
become slightly more   sympathetic as they realise the enormity of
the undertaking, and that the best you can hope for is to be a good enough

As for old age, it snakes up on you stealthily.   I watched a recent programme on Prince
Phillip at 90 and had great sympathy for him.
Even though inhabiting a frail, 90 years old body, he still seemed the
same vital and exciting man the Queen had fallen in love with;  and certainly you could still see that in his
day he must have been one of the handsomest men to walk the planet.

Recently I chanced across a poem entitled, Beautiful Old
Age, by D H Lawrence (though one must point out that he himself died at 45 and
therefore had no personal experience).
I leave you with  the last few

And a girl should say

It must be wonderful to live and grow old.

Look at my mother, how rich and still she is.

And a young man should think, By Jove,

My father has faced all weathers, but it’s been a life!




A group of which I am a member was discussing the work of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-
1804).   One of us had, as part of his philosophy degree, written a long piece on Kant and was therefore more
knowledgeable than some of the rest of us, especially me.   I had heard of Kant, knew he was a philosopher, but little else.    Being of a rather lazy disposition, and Kant being both obscure and convoluted, I was grateful to have someone else who had grafted away at the hard study.   A few penetrating questions (it’s knowing what to ask!) from your correspondent and others produced a concise and cogent
explanation, and I thought a reasonably attractive picture of the views of the philosopher emerged.

I thought I would attempt to read a biography and the expert colleague recommended a study by Roger Scruton which, somewhat to my surprise, was available for Kindle.

As a diarist, blogger and would be novelist, I appreciate the diverse skills a good biographer must
possess, and which I myself do not have.   He must have patience and persistence to undertake the necessary
research, and charm to winkle out documents and letters from reluctant owners.   He must have powers of
organisation to sort his material, and judgement-  not all evidence will be reliable.   He has to have empathy for his subject but also maintain detachment.    He himself should have an elegant, but self effacing, writing style.   (Margaret Drabble’s biography of Arnold Bennett seemed to me to be principally about Margaret Drabble.)   Imagination is obviously required, but it must be exercised with restraint – it is most annoying to read conjecture presented as fact, especially when the scene described had no witnesses.

This made me wonder what would happen if a biographer’s research uncovered something so distasteful
about the subject that the writer had to revise his opinion completely, and reminded me of my own feelings concerning Sir Christopher Wren.

As someone interested in architecture, I was an admirer of Wren.    He is the creator of many beautiful buildings and it has been said that his architecture still dominates the skyline of London (if you discount the
high rises.)   Dining as a guest at the High Table at Wadham, drinking the finest Nuit St Georges I have ever tasted –  (when Elisabeth graduated from Oxford), under the benign gaze of the portrait of Sir Christopher Wren, perhaps its most illustrious alumni, I felt an affectionate pride in him.

I liked the amusing ditty by Ogden Nash:

Said Sir Christopher Wren

I’m going to dine with some men.

If anyone calls,

Say I’m designing  St Paul’s.

I was watching a programme on something entirely unrelated – I think it was about how medical progress was made.   The narrator recounted how Wren wished to prove that the brain was more necessary to the survival of the body than the spleen.   He took a spaniel, tied it down, cut it open, removed its spleen, and sewed it up again, all entirely without anaesthetic (none being available then.)   The spaniel survived for some time.

Now I could be a cartoonist if only I could draw.   But in the absence of the necessary skill on my part – picture if you will the Pearly Gates of Heaven.   As the would be entrant approaches, the Gates have already parted slightly and St Peter, all smiles and affability, has come out to greet the new arrival.    Behind him, all the predeceased architects  of history have gathered to clap the hero in.     Wren advances with brisk confidence, carrying in his arms a magnificent  model of St. Paul’s Cathedral.     St  Peter is just about to give the signal for the gates to be swung wide open, and  the leader of the heavenly orchestra grips his baton when round the corner, very slowly but with great determination, creeps a small dog.     Right in Sir Christopher’s path he stops  and lies down in the dust.   He stretches  his paws out in front of him and lays his face upon them, with his great brown  eyes fixed steadily on the face of St Peter.

Will designing St Paul’s  be enough to swing the gates open for Sir Christopher Wren?   I do not know.   Who am I to judge?    But for what it’s worth, I’m for the  spaniel.




Recently given a bouquet of peonies, I was admiring their beauty but reflecting that they could never be among my favourite flowers because they have little scent.    Although when I complained about this lack to a friend with a lovely garden, he promptly escorted me to a clump which did indeed have a sweet and delicate fragrance.

I seem to like my indoor flowers opulent and showy – the orchids and lilies like starlets on a stage – no shrinking violets for me.   In our house we usually have lilies – I like the huge white scented ones, the red spotted stargazers, the pale pinks; or orchids with their waxy hothouse beauty.   Lovely though they are with their exotic formal beauty, orchids could never rise to top my favourites list because their perfume is either very faint, or in some cases downright unpleasant.   I also love garden flowers and wild ones but I can never bear to pick them.

And how the flowers reflect the seasons.   Spring with the welcome sweet white narcissus and later in that fortnight of glory, the lilacs of whom the purple flowered smells slightly different from the later white.    High summer of course brings that queen of the scented kingdom, the rose, with its peppery fragrance.    Later, the delicate sweet pea delights us.   The pungent smell of the pelargonium leaf, which I do like, does not appeal to everyone.   Winter has few flowery scents – though it has characteristic ones like wood smoke – but spring is heralded before it arrives by the teasing wafts of elusive daphne bholua, and by the bowls of hyacinths.   Some flowers delight us by their scarcity value – would the wonderfully fragrant lily of the valley be so beloved if instead of its tiny inconspicuous – but beautiful bells – it was bright and showy?

Not all flowers smell delightful of course.   Daisies are rather pungent; some orchids smell of rotting flesh.    Other smells in themselves pleasant – such as philadelphus or mock orange, can, on a hot day become overpowering and headache inducing.

The seasons themselves have a recognisable smell – there’s the fresh, green smell of spring;   the hot and dusty taste of summer;   and who has not gone out into her garden on a perfectly nice late summer’s day and caught the smell of Autumn, damp, smoky, indescribable but recognisable, far off and down wind, yet fast approaching?

Countries have a distinctive smell.    I don’t think you recognise the smell of your own – it’s like your regular perfume; you no longer notice it.   But Thailand smells of sweaty trainers.   Australia smells sharp and pungent with overtones of menthol.     India smells of spices.    Sweden smells of pine tree resin.

We can often smell bodies of water long before we see them.   It surprised me how very different in scent are the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.    The Atlantic, in whose salty arms we rest, is a brawling virago, with an astringent, salty, stormy, ozone laden smell.    She can be moody and temperamental, and is to be treated with respect but she protects us and is our mother.   Whereas the Pacific on the other hand smells sweet, with a hint of honeyed spices and tropical islands, and she sweeps in, sea green and lovely with garlands in her  hair.   She’s not to be trusted at all.

There are evocative domestic smells.   I can still recall the difference in the smell of my grandfather’s jacket – tweed and the sweet pipe tobacco he smoked; and my father’s tweed laden with honey and the smoke he used to quieten the bees.   And what about the almost edible smell of baby, milky, sweet, clean?     Or that smell, slightly like once worn socks but not unpleasant, when you pushed your face into your cat’s fur?

I’ll close with the tale of how we left Scotland, the land of our birth.   We had lived in our house in Central Scotland for the 12 years of our marriage.   At the back and corner of the house, underneath the dining room window, we had planted a honeysuckle.   I imagined that in summer the glorious smell of honeysuckle would seep in through the open window and intoxicate us.   The plant grew – the gardener (John) tended it.   It took so many years to flower that the impatient gardener was for uprooting it, but I always granted it stay of execution.   Eventually, it did flower, but I was bitterly disappointed – no fragrance.   Since I had purchased it expressly for its scent, if I had remembered where I’d bought it I’d have gone back and complained.   Still, it did look pretty.   Now although I have always been someone who likes to ride out at dawn with the day fresh and promising unknown adventure before you, I also felt sad at leaving my native land.   Once you leave a place, it is no longer yours, and even if you do return – which I had no expectation of doing – you are not any more  the person you once were nor is it the same as when you left it.   I had loved my country, enjoyed my house – all my children had been born there, and now I was leaving it.   So I came down the echoing stairs, through the dust and general disorder, paintings stripped from the walls, the dog anxious.    I walked towards the dining room window to see what the July day had to offer and was ambushed by a strong, sweet and unexpected perfume which danced around me and filled up the whole house.   Our honeysuckle, tardy and slow as it had been, had at last, on our final day, got its act together just in time and now it embraced us with its fragrant valediction.

I had been whispering my sorrow into the wind for weeks and no answer had come back to me.   I felt as if my beloved country, waiting to the very last, had blessed me in the leaving of it.

So, may Scotland bloom forever, even though it is no longer mine.

I’ll leave you with this link to a beautiful song about exile, written as a poem by Violet Jacobs, and sung in this recording by Jim Reid.     The song is called the Wild Geese, and here is Eugene’s photograph of geese rising up in flight at Gruinart.   The photo of an orchid above was taken by John in Japan. .