We ‘helped’ at a flitting this weekend.   Elisabeth and Robert moved from their rented flat near Finchley road, London, to their first ‘own’ home, in South London.

It reminded me of removals that we have done.    They all seem to contain broadly the same elements.

Firstly, as you actually move into the new house, there’s a great sense of relief that the looking, the offering, the bargaining, the weeks of waiting, the anxiety that it will all fall through, the sense of insecurity, are finally over.    For better for worse,  this is the one:  you’ve bought it (and pledged a great deal for it), and now it is yours.   This, for the foreseeable future, is your place.

As you’ve waited over the past weeks or months, with increasing impatience and anxiety, you’ve planned down to the smallest detail how you think you’d like this house to become, and it is with that image in your mind that you approach your new purchase.   As you walk to the door you are assailed by a mixture of emotions.    You still like it.    You’d still buy it.    Then you open the  door and a two fold reality hits you.   Empty of the previous owner’s possessions, the bare bones of the house are visible, and it is a nice house : spacious, light, an orderly flow, a happy spirit.   It smells fresh and sweet and light pours through it.   As with the chemistry between people, there is magic and mystery in this.    The house spoke to you.  It still does.

But then the present reality.   The house seller has been good to deal with, and has left the house in a perfectly acceptable state: clean, empty, welcoming.  She has left light bulbs and toilet rolls and done everything she ought to have done.   (May she prosper in her new abode.)     But now you can see that the house is tired, old-fashioned.    You can see where they had pictures on the wall.   There are stains you didn’t notice on the floors.     Every single room needs redecorating.   Carpets that you thought might do, probably won’t.     How come you never noticed any of this?    It is as if the house were an animal in a pet sanctuary seeking a new household.   It has danced and pirouetted and wagged its tail for you in the hope that you would find it charming, for it knows it has urgent need of a new owner – but now the effort has exhausted it and it lies slumped in a corner and you can do what you like with it.   For the present it has nothing more to give you.

It is immediately apparent to you that some of your plans must be abandoned forthwith.    The space is not large enough;  or the light is wrong;  or there is some insurmountable impediment you hadn’t noticed, like a chimney in the way.    Everything your eye lights on is a problem.   The house is habitable, it has heat, running water, security – but it is a thousand miles from being your home.

The removers arrive and begin unloading your stuff.   You have labelled it carefully and your helpers – your brothers and their wives, your parents, assist in the task.     The team is fed.    The removers thank you for being nice people to work with;  you pay them handsomely;  they depart.     You sit down among the mess and realise how extremely tired you are, and you look round and you wonder where you will begin;  how you will accomplish it all;  have you the flair, the practical skills, the organising skills, the financial clout, the drive…   You’d like to curl up in a quiet comfortable corner and have someone feed you;  but there is no quiet comfortable corner.   Although you had labelled everything with the utmost care, just at that point it seems impossible to find even a teaspoon.

Your mother has brought food of the hearty, nourishing kind, and everybody stops working and you open the champagne.     An informal meal, on picnic plates is served.   It is only as you tuck in you realise how hungry you are.   You sit on your deck, in the afternoon sun, as you had visualised doing.   This is the first party of your new home.

Your siblings with children of their own depart.   Your parents leave.   Your brother assists in the assembly of your bed.    You know where the linen is.   They too in their turn depart.

You and the house are exhausted together.   It has taken so much work and time and effort to get here, and now all you can see is endless, expensive work, so much so that you’ve no idea where to begin.

But  the house, now that you’re alone together, begins to stir once again and it talks to you quietly.    Just us at last?   I’ve been waiting for you for so long…    We will get along nicely together, it whispers.   I will grow young and beautiful again with you.     There is plenty of time.   Don’t worry that you are uncertain where to start.    I have done this before.     Welcome to your home.

(The photograph, courtesy of John Armstrong, shows Robert and Elisabeth Sullivan in the garden of their new home, with Rory and Sarah Armstrong and their son, Ewan, and  Alastair Sullivan and his fiancee, Ninjeri Pandit,  and myself.)


Looking at a photograph, part of the coverage of the recent death of the Baroness  Thatcher showing the lady seated at her dressing-table, I reflected that I had never used one.   My own mother, as I recall, though attentive to her make-up and appearance, never sat down at one either.   In fact I have no recollection of my mother putting on make-up at all so presumably she did so in some private place.

My only criticism of the photograph of Margaret Thatcher is that it is a portrait of the lady in full public attire, where normally such an illustration would be in an intimate and delightful dishabille – a private moment which, though obviously contrived, pretends to be stolen.

I often regard with mild envy other women’s charming tables at which presumably they sit, with little drawers and shelves for their make-up, boxes for their jewellery, bottles of perfumes, glass dishes, flowers, all the delights of feminine frippery.    One imagines the lady of the house, attired perhaps in a silk and lace peignoir spending a leisurely private half hour getting ready for whatever her day promises.   (I can hear hollow laughter, but we can dream surely?)

Yet I know, even if I got one, I won’t sit at it.

When I was very young, I worked for a man in charge of a factory employing about 500 people.   I would lay out my clothes, jewellery, shoes etc the night before, and I could exit from bed to car in about 10 minutes.   The boss found it most productive if we could have an hour or so together sorting out his day before anyone else arrived.    I’d always been a morning person so it wasn’t hard for me to accommodate him in this way, and it had the added advantage that since I started work an hour or more ahead of the official time, going off to the hairdressers or for a long lunch was never a problem.    When occasionally I encountered the resentment of other women over this, I would wonder irritably where they were when the boss and I would slip into the empty car park in the grey light of dawn (in our separate cars.)    We’d have our session, both of us glaring so hard if anyone interrupted that people only did so in dire emergency.    Then he would put on his hard hat and  protective coat and retreat into the plant, and he’d say to me, ‘You go and put  your face on now.’    I’d take my  bag of tricks to the empty ladies’ loo (and get decidedly disgruntled if anyone came in before I was finished).    There I’d stand over  a sink and use the mirror above.   I suppose I developed  the habit of standing…

Now a desk, a proper desk, with a notice board and shelves above, and drawers and a waste paper bucket, that is for my exclusive use – well, now you’re talking.  I’ve always had one of those, and I can’t imagine being without it.


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We’ve been in France, always a pleasure at any time, but especially in June.       We flew to Nice, and stayed with Belgian friends in their lovely ‘mas’ in the small wooded hills inland from St Raphael.     It was good to spend time with them again talking of earlier times we had met, in Scotland, Sussex, London, Antwerp and on the Belgian coast.   John enjoyed swimming in their large pool and just resting and reading in their garden was very relaxing.

We ventured out with them on various outings of course.   Even the local supermarket in France is always fascinating.   We went to an interesting market in the nearby town of Fayence which was hilly and picturesque.      The market contained clothes (I bought a white dress decorated with poppies);  linen (I bought some of that too);  leather goods;  jewellery;  spices;  food.   We drove to St Raphael, where I had never been before, an attractive coastal town with a pleasant promenade where we met up with friends from Scotland and had lunch sitting outside in the sun.    We also had lunch another  day in the garden of a lovely old mill in Montauroux.      We went to Grasse, and visited the perfume house Fragonard where I bought some small presents, and a pair of white china birds (I seem to be amassing a collection, though I don’t ‘collect’, I just acquire things and yes, there is a difference!)  and we walked its narrow streets (some of them have steps ) and entered a 12th century cathedral built on a massive scale with columns of enormous girth, and looked at their war memorial.    Mort pour la France, they say.   I said to our hosts, we don’t say. ‘Died for Britain.’   What do you say, they asked?  I thought, there is no equivalent,   After some thought, I said, we say, ‘Their name liveth forever more’.   They thought that was a good enough alternative.

France did not seem entirely in good order.   There was a faint air of sullen resentment about the population, and you got the impression they were uncertain of their future.    People were not generally as kind and helpful over the wheelchair as they are in the UK (though there were notable exceptions to this of course.)      John practically had to fight to preserve our chairs in a cafe when Hedwig and I had gone briefly to examine a nearby stall.    He had to go so far as to ‘stand up’ ( as he described childhood encounters with the bullies.)   But all was in order when we got back to our chairs except that we could see that the men were still coming down from their adrenalin rush!

As for the driving…   Even John, fearless explorer and adventurer that he us, decided that should we return to this area, it would be inadvisable to attempt the twisting, narrow roads and apparently suicidal drivers with a British car, and he would feel more comfortable flying and hiring one.

But these were minor irritations and we had a lovely time.   The company was fun, the food DSC01725delicious, the weather glorious.

La France en ete.   What more could you want?

(The first photo shows me beside the market, the one of John and me is beside the cathedral in Grasse.)   Both courtesy of John Armstrong.


I have always loved June.

In Scotland, after the darkness of winter, it was a time of endless light.   We went to bed in full daylight and any time you woke in the night, everything was bright and waiting for you.   It was usually warm, and the dreaded midgies had not yet amassed the full strength of their annoying army.      Birds toiled ceaselessly to feed their growing nestlings.   The swallows who had survived their legendary migration would show off their acrobatic manoeuvres above our heads.   Honeysuckle would  scent the air.    Any lime trees would be electric with the buzz of bees.     Although the hawthorn is called ‘May’, often the hedgerows would be white with it well into June.   It was a time of light, warmth and  plenty and I loved it as  a girl.

When we had young children ourselves, we would sneak them out of school a  week or so early (and  don’t anyone tell me this damaged their education: they went to Glasgow, Oxford and Manchester universities respectively) and set off with our caravan on our own great migration.   Starved of sun over the long winter, we would crave its warmth.   We would descend down the map, out of Scotland and the frozen North, through the pleasant, green England, across the Channel, and into France.   Then, near some beach, or on an island in the Loire, our children in their turn as I had done, would bask in the perpetual light, getting up early, going to bed late and rejoicing in the life giving sun.   It was the time of noisy frogs and the repetitive cuckoo.   The living was easy.   We had survived the winter.

So there’s June for you.    And here’s a poem written by Robert Bain on the unfairness of being forced to attend school at that time, with which as a girl I heartily agreed.   I have made a rough translation, should you require one, but it has its own beauty in the vernacular.

Schule in June

By Robert Bain


There’s no a clood in the sky,
The hill’s clear as can be,
An’ the broon road’s windin’ ower it,
But – no for me!

It’s June, wi’ a splurge o’ colour
In glen an’ on hill,
An’ it’s me wad be lyin’ up yonner,
But then – there’s the schule.

There’s a wude wi’ a burn rinnin’ through it,
Caller an’ cool,
Whaur the sun splashes licht on the bracken
An’ dapples the pool.

There’s a sang in the soon’ o’ the watter,
Sang sighs in the air,
An’ the worl’ disnae maitter a docken
To yin that’s up there.

A hop an’ a step frae the windie,
Just fower mile awa,
An’ I could be lyin’ there thinkin’
O’ naething ava’.

Ay! – the schule is a winnerfu’ place,
Gin ye tak it a’ roon,
An’ I’ve no objection to lessons,
Whiles – but in June?

Here’s a translation, if you need one, but it’s better in the dialect:

School in June.

There’s not a cloud in the sky

The hill’s as clear as can be,

And the brown road winding over it,

But – not for me.

It’s June with a splurge of colour

In glen and hill,

And it’s me would be lying up yonder,

But then – there’s the school.

There’s a wood with a stream running through it,

Clear and cool,

Where the sun splashes light on the bracken,

And dapples the pool.

There’s a song in the sound of the water,

Song sighs in the air,

And the world doesn’t matter a docken

To one who’s up there.

A hop and a step from the window,

Just four miles away,

And I could be lying there thinking

Of nothing at all.

Yes, the school is a wonderful place,

Taken all round,

And I’ve no objection to lessons,

Sometimes – but in June?

(A docken is a weed that grows freely and is difficult to uproot, so a worthless, undesirable thing.   Its leaves however provide a soothing antidote to nettle stings.)