SPEAKING IN TONGUES

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When we visited the island of Lewis this summer, there were language issues!

While the preservation of minority languages and culture is, one has to presume, valuable, I am sceptical of a policy which displays Edinburgh street names in prominent Gaelic and tiny English.       In the Republic of Ireland their policy on having Irish Gaelic as an official language seems to work far more successfully.   Irish Gaelic is taught in mainstream schools;  some items on the national news will be in Gaelic, and a higher proportion of the population actually speak it.    But in Scotland with its population of 5.5 million, speakers of Gaelic amount to around 50,000.   The website I looked up says that this population is scattered throughout Scotland but as I recollect it this is not the case and you will only hear it spoken in the far west highlands and the western isles of Scotland.   And that group who speak Gaelic also will speak fluent English to the last man or woman.

I speak as one whose grandparents spoke this Gaelic as their first language, and my grandfather was a poet and songwriter in Gaelic.     I have been told that the cadence and phraseology of my English has been influenced by the structure of Gaelic, but I have no way of knowing this.   But things move on, and personally given the time and effort required to learn a language, I cannot see the point if less than 1% of the population speaks it.

Lewis also has its signing (where it has signing at all) in large Gaelic letters and tiny English ones,  but with the declared intention of eradicating English altogether.   As a tourist you do not feel warmly welcomed in Lewis.

We visited the Standing Stones at Callanais.  This is my third visit, and each time I am struck with the powerful feeling that it is not ‘right’ – in the sense that the original placing of the stones has been tampered with;  however it is still worth  a visit and the actual stones themselves are very beautiful  and  curiously evocative.   In the middle of the monument is an incongruous burial chamber, now open.   During our stay we visited the stones en masse, and later we returned, just John and me and the girls, whom we took out for the day to give their parents a short  well-earned break.

On that occasion a party of about a dozen were squatting in the burial pit, conducting some obscure ritual of their own devising.   There was a guru/self proclaimed leader, and acolytes who made responses, and lesser votaries whose role seemed to be restricted to saying Om in a ceaseless and annoying monologue.   This was irritating, but of course each to his own.   However, when they continued to occupy the central position for all the time that we remained there, denying other people access to the centre of the monument and showing no signs of closure or of sharing the sacred space with other travellers, we became annoyed.   The last straw was that the language being employed was German.

I said to John:  I’m going to stand in the centre of the circle and tell them – in English! that in their selfish monopoly of the stones  they will offend the spirit of the place and that they should consider their position lest the displeasure of the Great Mother falls upon them.   John agreed that no doubt I could call down the wrath of the goddess upon them, but recommended I did not attempt it as I was too exhausted to be High Priestess that day.   He however stepped right up beside them, photographed the monument (and them) and loudly said Om and Em and Um in different and opposing notes.   The guru looked thunderously displeased, John reported, and considered reprimanding him, but as John looked steadily at him across the barrel of his camera, the Teutonic new age priest thought better of it.   When we left, they were still squatting and om-ing.

But the funniest incident in the entire trip was at a very nice cafe at the Black House village where we stopped for some lunch.    There was only the cook and one young girl waiting and the place was rapidly filling up.   A party consisting of parents and two children arrived.  When the waitress approached him, the man said, Vous avez un menu francais?   We had difficulty in concealing our laughter.   Was he kidding?   They barely had a menu in English!   But he ploughed on, speaking only in French (much as we do in English in other countries).   Was he a member of the French as a Common Language Society?   Did he think Gaelic was an ancient version of French?   Was he simply echoing the behaviour of the natives in forcing a language no-one spoke upon everyone?   Was he stupid?  Or merely French?   Anyway, by the time the harassed waitress escaped from them, there wouldn’t have been a vote for the EU in the entire establishment!

English forever!

WHAT’S BEST?

Who said Citizen Kane was one of  the best  films ever made?    I’ve just watched its lamentably dull progress for the interminable hours it takes – in black and white as well! – and I think it’s one of the most boring and tedious films I’ve watched in a long time.

Orson Welles a great actor?   He appears to me to have only one ‘mode’ – bullying bore.   We all know the Randolph Hearst story;  how he built a vast mansion  for his mistress and funded her career as an opera singer undeterred by the fact that she couldn’t sing.   That’s the story of the film.   It’s not enough.    So who said he was a great actor?   Could it have been Orson Welles?   Certainly he appears to have been a great self publicist!

On the other hand, I’ve just accompanied John with great reluctance to view Captain Phillips.   This is a film about  Somalian pirates with Tom Hanks as the eponymous hero.   Nothing could be further from my idea of a good film.   But John hearing it recommended by friends, wanted to see it, and he has trundled along patiently to many a ‘Portrait of a Lady’ or ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ (the clothes, the clothes…) without complaint.   And contrary to all my expectations, it was a good film.   Tom Hanks was excellent in the principal role, and the film was edge-of-you-seat riveting from beginning to end.   So, Captain Phillips (and Tom Hanks)  for an Oscar…

Did I say that?

CAN SHE SEW CUSHIONS?

In my family, two questions were asked about any prospective suitor (only partly in jest.)   Of a man, it was, Can he build wardrobes?    (These were most decidedly going to be necessary in our family.)   And of a woman, can she sew cushions?   For me, learning to sew was clearly imperative.

I cut my teeth on my mother’s sewing machine which was a reliable Singer with numerous discs that you applied to make different stitches.   I think it was largely on account of my ineptitude in handling her original hand turned model (SHE could manage it quite easily) that she exchanged that old faithful for an electric machine.

Later when I had money as a young working woman, I bought myself a state of the art sewing machine by Janome.   The computerised day had dawned.   My machine could be programmed at the touch of a button to do a straight  stitch or a fancy embroidery stitch, to attach a zip or make a buttonhole.   It could also embroider butterflies or penguins, for which purpose I never used it.   I think it cost, in the early seventies, about £500, though I am not certain of this.  In any case, a lot of money.

I brought it with me to my marriage, and it has been a reliable work horse ever since.   I should have kept a record of all the things I made on it.   Firstly, there is the mending: the seams re-sewn, the pockets fixed, the sheets darned.   When my children were small, I made most of their clothes.    I made Elisabeth a grey corduroy jacket, trimmed with red knitting and with a matching red fair isle hat and gloves.   I made Joanna a Mary blue velvet dress trimmed with lace, and  a matching velvet hooded cape trimmed with marabou which ensured that both girls played Mary in the nativity plays.   When Rory was born I made and hand embroidered with poppies a pram cover which John used to hide when we left the pram unattended, in case someone stole it.    I made curtains beyond recall.   I made full length curtains  for our bedroom when we came down here, and a matching cover  for our bed, hand quilted.   I made 2 full sets of sofa covers for 2 three seater sofas with six cushions, piped.   I made the two girls and myself tartan dresses with linen collar and cuffs.   I made myself dresses, trousers, skirts, blouses, evening dresses.   I made pyjamas and night attire  for everybody beyond counting.

In due course the grandchildren arrived.  I made them quilts.   I made party dresses.   I made velvet capes trimmed with fur or feathers.  I made pyjamas and dressing-gowns.    I made aprons, bags…   I made curtains, throws and cushions for my children’s houses.

In all these things, my sewing machine was my faithful and diligent companion for  almost 30 years.   I was quite skilled at keeping it in reasonable  repair.   And t hen, about a year ago, it began to fail.   It would stutter and stick (rather like myself!) over any thickness of material.   Since I’m making bags and quilts, there are plenty of thick sections.    I had it professionally serviced, but even so I seemed to spend more time on fixing it than using it.

The other day however, it kept failing and had to be coaxed into resuming, several times.   It was like a car that couldn’t go uphill.   I realised even as I swore at it, that it was worn out: the engine lacked power.

I thought, a little sadly, that it owed me no money, but its glory days were over.   I advised John of my problems, and before I had packed it away he had researched on the internet and suggested that the best place to replace it was John Lewis.   As we drove (John doesn’t let the grass grow under his  feet), I wrote a list of my requirements.    (Sewing penguins was not among them.)

Faced with an array of machines ranging from £89 – £1000, I was a bit put off, but a lovely John Lewis lady from Barbados – I could hardly concentrate on what she was actually saying from listening to her brown sugar accent and her creative employment of ‘H’s – came and advised me.

So now I am the proud possessor of a new Janome DC 3050, cost £319, so less than my old one though it fulfils all my requirements.  It embroiders hearts and flowers but not penguins.   I’m not quite sure what to do with the old one.  Although I could make it ‘work’, I can’t give it to anyone as its worn out and unreliable.   I think I’ll just send it to the local recycling centre.

I’m not sentimental about stuff.   You use it while it works, and when it’s done you get new stuff.   That old sewing machine however worked hard, it produced a vast array of articles, and it gave me pleasure and satisfaction.   It was well worth that £500.

PS    Clever clogs above who could produce all these fabulous garments still had the ignominious experience of having to return with the long suffering but patient husband to John Lewis because I couldn’t get  the machine to run properly (wrongly threaded.)   The kind saleslady did say that at least one purchaser per week came back in with the same problem.   (I think their diagrams are pretty useless.)   But I suspect she was just kindly telling me this  so I wouldn’t feel as stupid as, clearly, I am!

ON BARBARA LEAVING

One stormy winter’s night, several years ago, as darkness fell, I heard a knock at the door.   Surprised that anyone would call unexpectedly at such a  time, I discovered on the doorstep a slight, fair lady about my own age, whose car had broken down.   She had come out minus her mobile phone and she  requested the use of our telephone.   We brought her in.   Her husband, she told us, was at a dinner to mark his retirement.   The lady was Barbara K— and she became my friend.

We phoned for help for her car.   We warmed her up and fed her.   John went out and waited for the AA man.   She and I talked.

There are as many surprising things about Barbara as there were about our meeting.

Normally when I make a friend, I’ve looked at the person and considered them for some time.  (I’m not talking  here about  the ranks of one’s friendly acquaintances, valued though they are.)     I’m always slightly reluctant to admit anyone to the inner circle of my intimates because once they’re in that circle, I’m never going to be indifferent to them again.    So I generally view them for some time from my watchtower, as it were.   If all goes well, I descend to the gate and observe them through the bars.   Eventually, I open the gates.   Surprisingly, perhaps, after all this scrutiny, most people do choose to enter when the gates are open, though some with caution.   I don’t think I could be described as friendly and open at first glance.

But there was none of this with Barbara.   She stormed the gates, and there she was.

She’s a pretty lady, but self deprecating.   She’s clever too, but you’d never know it to hear her speak of herself.   She runs a nice line in artless, seemingly rambling chat. But she’s extremely smart and savvy and her observations are spot-on.    I love talking to her.   She’s witty and amusing, and also sensitive and deep.   She’s also very kind, generous and unselfish and gives of herself without counting the cost, perhaps more sometimes than she should.

So over the last few years, I’ve enjoyed her company.    She shares many of my interests.   She’s very good at crafts and sewing and she has a fantastic eye for colour.   She’s fun.    She made a fabulous silk ‘coat of many colours’ from samples of silk curtains, which as well as being beautiful, cost next to nothing and is light, luxurious and warm.    Her husband is lovely too and he and John walked and golfed.   We had lunch together.   We all like camping/caravanning.

So you can imagine my dismay when she announced out of the blue that for perfectly good reasons they were moving to Goring.   Goring? I thought.   What’s Goring got that we haven’t got in Haywards Heath?    Well, it has the sea obviously…   I would say, facetiously, that it hasn’t got ME, but people might think I meant this seriously.   I know I’m not a prominent person in Barbara’s life – she’s got children, step-children, grandchildren, friends of long standing.   Even so, I thought, Goring….

I’m going to miss her.   I know Goring isn’t far away.    I hope to visit there and gain a good impression of Goring.    I hope they’ll come back and stay with us here.   We might meet elsewhere together with our camping/caravan outfits.   It’s a different phase.   Besides, I want her to be happy.

She blew in on a storm, but I hope she sails out on a sunny day, and may she always find friends to share with as easily as she chanced upon me.    But after all, this is a woman who can disarm the best guarded citadels with practised ease.   So I guess she’ll be perfectly fine.   I’m the one who’ll do the missing.