IMG_2101Although my birthday is in early December, I often defer my treats, not liking the ho-ho-hoing, and so the other week Anne, Barbara and Carolyn took me to Jeremy’s for lunch which was very nice.   They also brought me flowers.

I belong to the plonk-it-in-a-jar school of flower arranging.    I went,  many years ago, to a six week flower arranging course, with Carolyn, Anne and the late Geraldine Lane.   I was surprised to discover that everyone had their own unique style which persisted throughout.   Carolyn, as with nearly everything, showed real ability, and produced elegant arrangements and went on to do more advanced courses.   She gave me, for example, an original and lovely arrangement of flowers in a box for my 60th birthday.   Geraldine followed the rules and her arrangements were precise and attractive.   Anne had a kind of over-flowing English summer garden exuberance about her charming arrangements, and I learnt to plonk it in a jar with slightly more style than previously.

I’ve never really liked flowers ‘tortured into shape’, and I positively despise those flower arranging competitions where an entry can consist of 5 flowers, an eggcup, a fishing rod, and a spider’s web, and the resulting collection is entitled, Sorrow.   (‘Sorry’ might be more appropriate!)

When I visited Japan however, I was intrigued by the beautiful ikebana flower arrangements that decorated some of the Zen temples.   A most elegant and arresting composition could be created using a very few flowers.

Last year I visited Fallings Waters, Pennsylvania, USA which in addition to being Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic house through which a river flows, also has a shop where every object is covetable.   We bought two of our children lovely wooden vases intended for ikebana.    I looked up books on ikebana to accompany this gift.  I wanted one written by a Japanese person, but I was astounded at the cost of these – £400 – £500 in some cases.   I read that ikebana takes seven years of training and to complete an arrangement consisting of a branch and two flowers might take two and a half hours.

In some respects I’m a Philistine in matters oriental.   I once asked a hapless young, kimono clad girl who was organising the reception of tourists at a tea pavilion:  ‘How long will this take, how much does it cost, and can we do it right now?’    She should have said to me, ‘Go home, geijin, (foreigner) such mysteries are not for you.’   But she was polite in the Japanese fashion, and simply arranged for us to participate immediately.  I still wasn’t impressed!

But to return to the birthday flowers, I assembled, in about half an hour, these two arrangements.   I enjoyed doing them.   Anne’s attempt at ikebana.

I like how you can use meaningful props.   So in these two photographs, (courtesy of John), the green glass bottle is my favourite vase,   It’s a Mateus Rose bottle I picked up on the shore beside my grandfather’s house on the island of Lewis when with my mother, and the rub of the ocean has rendered its glass opaque.


The other arrangement contains (apart from the flowers) a wooden tray I bought in Ueno, Tokyo;  a metal pinholder I acquired at Brodick, Isle of Arran;  a glass jar which once held pudding;   green stones that Rory picked up in Strahan, Tasmania and shoved in his pocket to carry round the world before giving them to me on his return.   The little green boar (to hold tooth picks, I think,) was a gift to me from a ceramics shop in Asakusa, Tokyo, where we bought – er  – one or two things.

So, clearly it’s not ikebana.   I haven’t trained for seven years, it didn’t take two and a half hours, and I’m geijin and will forever remain so.   But I enjoyed the process, I like the results, and perhaps I’ll get better at it.



Although I’m a devotee of Kindle and of buying books in the middle of the night, I also from time to time order half a dozen or so books from the library, from a list I have written in a blue notebook with a cat on the cover.   The list almost fills the book, so when ordering any title, I have long since forgotten why the title appealed to me.

This week something went wrong in my ordering process.   I was seeking a book by Barry Unsworth, as annoyingly the actual book of his I had selected was not available.   I must have pressed the wrong button because instead of getting one, I ended up with three.   My vague recollection was that I had read and enjoyed a book by this author about a group of mediaeval ‘players’ (actors) which was most evocative about those times.


When I examine the three books, (Moonraker’s Gift, Pascali’s Island, The Greeks have a Word for it,) they don’t in any way bring to mind the formerly enjoyed story.   But it is going to be difficult to get the library to produce a book by an author whose name I do not know, and none of whose titles I can remember.


I like, in fiction as well as in life, men of action and practical competence.   If the hero is a soldier, he should be fighting battles, planning campaigns, leading armies.   He shouldn’t be obsessing over whether war is valid.   (That has its place, but it’s not in a novel.)  If he’s a churchman, he should be building cathedrals, spreading his creed, pursuing his career – doing things, in other words.   There’s a school of English novels where the ‘hero’ sort of angsts and frets his way ineffectively from front to back and I have no more time for this kind of novel than I have for this type of man.   I find I don’t actually care whether he justifies his moral position, and besides what on earth does it matter since he never DOES anything on which one would be obliged to take up a position.   These three novels appear to be of this ilk.


I rifle through them with varying degrees of tedium.   I read the first few pages.   I read the last page.   I read a couple of pages from random sections within, all in the hope that some page, some paragraph, some sentence will arouse in me a curiosity to see what happens next.    Nothing.   All angst and hesitation.


In my younger days I used to pride myself on always completing a book once I had started it.   But these days I reckon life is too short.   Boring books, like boring people, are best avoided.   So I return the three tomes unread to the library.


If anyone can figure out who was the author of the charming book I read about the group of mediaeval players, then I’ll put HIM on my list!





My step-daughter, Kerri, is engaged to be married.   We are all thrilled for her, and wish her and her fiancé, and her 7 year old daughter, every happiness in their new family.

Relations between stepmother and stepchildren are  supposedly difficult, yet I always found my stepchildren were more than willing to meet me half way.   They never lived with us full time, however, which probably made the situation less pressured.

My stepson, Darren, who is the elder, is a clever fellow, not obviously like his father in personality, self contained, tall, physically impressive, good looking.    He has that faint air of Don’t-mess-with-me, concealed beneath a thin veil of apparent good nature, common to all the Armstrong males.     He holds strong opinions and has high standards in things he cares about.   I have always found him to be of sound judgement.    He always treated me with every courtesy:  I cannot recall him ever saying (to me) a rude or unkind thing.   He is one of the people most graceful in departure that I have ever met, and this is such a wonderful attribute that it is a pity that more people do not possess it.   He married earlier, and he has a lovely wife and nice family that clearly give him great pleasure.     (Actually, when I re-read what I have written he is much more like his father than at first appears.)

Kerri is more out-going than her brother, and although she has a perfectly good mother of her own, I have had the pleasure of sharing some of the fun aspects between mother and daughter – helping her learn how to dress;  a distraught call from university saying she could only remember how to cook baked beans; my being required from a standing start to produce an assessment of D H Lawrence for an exam she hadn’t realised she’d have to sit that day (of course she passed!).   She became a teacher, and eventually Head of English and Drama at her school and I enjoy talking to her on these matters.   She’s an attractive woman, tall, honey blonde, a generous smile, an engaging personality.   She’s good-natured (a most rare quality in our family : I would say she was the easiest going member of it by far).   She’s always charming company.   She’s a devoted mother to her little girl.

One of the things I was most anxious about in relation to my step-children was how they would react to my own children, because when they were all small my stepchildren were so much the bigger and more powerful.  But I was touched and grateful to find that they were very kind and extremely patient to their half sisters and brother.

They shared our holidays, so we have memories in common of being together on my father’s fields in Banffshire; on Arran;  a holiday in Lewis;  holidays in France.    In France, elderly French gentlemen used to make me a little bow of acknowledgement as the Maman of such a fine, large family, and I always guiltily felt like saying (but didn’t), Ah no, all the credit is not due to me!

It wasn’t all plain sailing of course.  Your stepchildren as teenagers are just as much a pain as your own children will prove to be later.   We had a foretaste of the difficulties of each stage of growing up children in advance of actually experiencing it ourselves.  I remember wondering after the first few weekends the young children spent with us what was wrong with them that I was utterly exhausted after their visits!  Of course I later learned there was nothing whatever wrong with them:  bringing up children is just utterly exhausting!

As I write this, I realise how extremely fortunate I was in my step-children.   Being the children of divorced parents is not a joy ride for anybody.    Plus I am by no means a conventional or unchallenging person to deal with at close quarters.      John’s love for them and desire to be a good  father to them as much as circumstances permitted was the foundation stone we all leaned on, but the children themselves showed courage and resilience, and a capacity for forgiveness and tolerance, that enabled them to surmount all these difficulties with considerable style.   I’m very proud of my stepchildren, and honoured to be a guest at their weddings.



Usually the period between Christmas and New Year, which I term ‘the week between the years’ is one of quiet contemplation.    I make a leisurely review of the year past, and cast my eye into the future.    But this time, the period was hectic and full of unexpected events.

We were expecting all of our 3  children and their families at various times across the holiday, but we were not expecting a dash to Scotland through the storms to attend the funeral of John’s Uncle, the last relative remaining to us of the older generation.

Some random memories of the 2014 Christmas period:

My pleasure at the arrival of the various families at our home, like watching migrating geese coming in to land on a lake in small groups.

My enjoyment of the presents I received, from a carved version of the words I had used at my mother’s memorial, then mounted on linen by my husband, to a tiny, pretty tape measure, and many nice things in between.

How our grandson, as the paper was unwrapped from a wooden garage we gave him complete with little cars, gave an involuntary dance of delight.

My youngest grand-daughter asking (kindly), why I shook so much – was it because I was ‘so dwedfully old’?

Driving through England in the early hours and seeing the sun rising,  red ball of fire, in a glorious circle above the horizon.

Waiting for the Arran ferry (we’ve done that so often) under a brilliant blue sky with a flat calm sea, knowing that there were great storms all around us.

The unexpected surprise that our hotel in Arran had been most tastefully and comfortably refurbished since we last used it.  (Glenisle Hotel, Arran.)

Meeting relatives and old friends in Arran, even although on a sad occasion.

A slight confusion at the funeral service resulting in impromptu laughter among the relatives and reflecting how our uncle would have enjoyed this.

Listening to John sing at the funeral service and the lovely cadences and timbre of his voice.

Standing more soberly on the hillside in Arran, watching our male relatives lower our uncle to his last resting place, with my arms linked with my sister in law and our uncle’s niece, as we upheld one another.

Driving through southern Scotland aiming for Dumfries, and finding road after road flooded and closed (with no warning – just the black water glittering in our headlights, and a road sign saying, Road Closed.)

Having to return to Ayr – practically where we’d started from, and the first hotel we enquired at couldn’t be bothered with us; nor could they think of any other hotel in Ayr.  We felt like being at the Inn in Bethlehem.

The welcome and comfort of the Scots Baronial style hotel who did take us in.   (The Savoy Park Hotel, Ayr.

Coming down to breakfast at 7.30 am on New Year’s Eve, which was when it was supposed to begin serving, and finding the place in darkness, and one solitary boy who was  doing his best, switching on lights as fast as he could and galloping off to the kitchen to shake the chef into action!   (Breakfast came reasonably promptly and was good.)

Doing a 100 mile detour to avoid floods and discovering that Stranraer which I’ve always been curious about is in fact a ferry port and nothing else.

My relief when we crossed the border INTO England and sunshine and clear roads!

Returning home to a warm house, a meal ready, our bed freshly made, and our daughter and son in law and grandchildren ready to listen to our tales of adventure.

Making plans for events with family and friends for 2014.

So, an Irish blessing for you all:

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

And rains fall soft upon your fields.

And until we meet again.

May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

Of course it won’t be as easy as that;  but even so, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.