ON BEING STUPID

ON BEING STUPID

I am discovering (at my advancing age!) that it is undeniably true that weaknesses and deficiencies you have had all your life but lived with and concealed tolerably well, get worse. I have many deficiencies.

I remember writing in my diary which begins in 1986 that if ever it fell into the hands of someone researching the customs and mores of our times, they should pay scant regard to the dates given for they were very unreliable. I can just about be depended on to get the year right. It seems to me that in the great scheme of things it makes very little difference whether things happened on a Wednesday or Thursday. I was always morbidly afraid of booking someone ‘s travel arrangements on the wrong day, but I had a colleague who was meticulous in her planning and she checked them for me and between the two of us we made no mistakes. I did any calculations she had to do – she couldn’t do anything vaguely mathematical whereas I had no difficulties in that area.

It does make a difference sometimes when exactly a thing was said or done – in the fields for example of law enforcement, medicine or sport it can make an enormous difference. These days I don’t seem to be able to send out an invitation without getting the date wrong.

I always had a superb memory for faces and a completely useless one for names. I don’t particularly want to know someone’s name. I can ask for it if I decide I’d like to see them again and their face has been recorded in my mental memory and will be accessible to me in 20 years or more, even if I saw them only once. I will also have formed a judgement of their character which in my experience is rarely wrong (though one has to be prepared to acknowledge that as a possibility.) I also absolutely hate wearing a name badge – I don’t want you to call me Anne if I’ve just met you – and I always ‘lose’ it at the earliest opportunity. Rory, working in a restaurant at the airport

used to wear someone else’s and would be particularly pleased if he found one that said Mohamed or even Fatima.

I’m not good at differentiating between left and right (although I am mildly ambidextrous). And I’ve come to the conclusion that the map in my head is upside down, for whenever there is doubt about whether one should turn left or right; you should at any rate go in the opposite direction of what I think, since I am almost invariably wrong. I never have any idea in which direction North is.

Fortunately my travelling companion in life is not only a superb logistics man and planner par excellence – and can ditch the plan and formulate another if necessary which often such people cannot do; he has maps in his head that are as miraculous as my collection of faces. He will remember the layout of a town even if he only visited it once 30 years ago. He also has an instinct for finding the restaurant area of an unknown town, and nobody can find toilets faster than him.

But he has been known to say to me, For a supposedly clever woman, you’re remarkably stupid at times. I have to agree with him.

WHA’s LIKE US?

SCOTS WHA HAE…

My eldest daughter Joanna is working as the Night Manager in a prominent Glasgow hotel, of a well known hotel group. She enjoys the job.

Of course in a city like Glasgow, it is impossible to escape forever some contact with violent drunks, but we have always felt that the majority of Glaswegians, from all walks of life being kind, friendly and helpful – gentlemen in the truest sense of the word – more than compensates for this problem. Glasgow men do not lack courage and initiative either. They dealt with terrorists at Glasgow Airport some years ago with deadly despatch before ever the police etc had arrived.

Joanna arrives on the scene with the incident in full happening and has to deal with it unaided and on the spot. She believes that generally the fact that she is a woman (and not one easily intimidated) is helpful because even a Glasgow villain would hesitate to attack a woman, certainly not in a public place. This man however is so drunk and so vicious and abusive in what he shouts at her, coming right up to her and yelling obscenities in her face that for a moment or two her courage fails her and she feels wobbly. She thinks, if he touches me, or if he reaches for a weapon, I will shout for someone to call the police. But in general she hopes to see the drunks off, either safe in their room if they are resident (often they are very big spenders with only occasional lapses) or out of the hotel if they are not resident. If the police are called, they come with all guns blazing, (metaphorically!) and the noise and disturbance upsets the other guests.

Somewhat to her surprise however she feels the offender hesitate, and he ceases abusing her, and just occasionally mumbles some protest sotto voce. He is not a resident, and he grudgingly agrees that she may call a taxi for him. Still feeling quite shaky, and thankful for the mystery of his swift capitulation, she turns round to get someone to summon a taxi.

Standing behind her is every male member of staff who is on duty, from the banqueting manager, the bar staff, the concierge, the night porter. Chefs are present in their white coats, one or two with the kitchen knives they were working with still in their hands. Other men are hastening towards them. They are standing, a dozen or so strong, quite silent, with their arms folded across their chests, in much the same way as the administration of the Scottish parliament received Cameron when he was foolish enough to go there. They are an intimidating sight. No wonder her drunk thought better of his treatment of her.

You could certainly ask of Glasgow men, Wha’s like us? (The answer being, Gey few, and they’re a’ deid – which isn’t exactly encouraging!) I’m married to a Glaswegian so I know all about this.

I’ve never been a daughter of the city of Glasgow though I’m fond of the city, and would be proud to be reckoned as one of that august body. I do not know if Joanna would count herself one of them either – she grew up in Sussex after all. However, the ladies of the City of Glasgow should be dealt with using extreme caution. If anything, they are more deadly than the males.

THINGS I CAN AND CANNOT DO

THINGS I CAN AND CANNOT DO…

I don’t do any sport. I can’t play card games. I don’t play board games. I can’t see the point in any of those things. So you run a mile faster than anybody else. So what?

I wouldn’t exactly say I wasn’t competitive. It’s more that there are very few fields I’m prepared to compete in. Certainly as far as any artistic endeavours I might practice, I’m very happy to enjoy other people’s efforts and I praise and encourage and don’t feel in the least put out if their talents are greater than mine. (This is just as well as it happens all the time!)

Sometimes people come along who want to have a dominant position in a group or family. Although I don’t think I attempt to dominate, I’m extremely resistant to someone else being dominant over me. This brings out the very worst in me.

I went to a school end of year meeting in which teachers stayed in their classroom and parents had interviews timed with them. During the course of the evening these inevitably got muddled up but everyone was good natured and we just went in in the order in which we had arrived at the door. We turned up for our last interview just in advance of a young couple which consisted of an amiable looking young man and a very bossy young woman. Also present and there before us was a tired solitary lady. The organising woman interrogated the hapless mother: when was her interview scheduled? She then triumphantly displayed her own letter of invitation and she was indeed scheduled for interview before the weary parent. You could see the lady was too tired to fight; she acquiesced at once. Flush with her victory, the woman turned to me. As she opened her mouth to demand what time our interview was, I said to her: ‘Don’t even think about it.’ Disconcerted, she began to protest. I cut coldly through her spiel. I informed her that we had been unavoidably detained and that we were due home after attending this interview. I said we would go in, according to custom, in the order in which we had arrived at the door. The woman argued but John and I talked to one another and pointedly ignored her. The solitary lady was not long and smiled at us in gratitude as she left. The teacher asked who was next; John said we were; MS Organise for England launched into an incoherent and very long winded account of events. Teacher who also seemed extremely tired , muttered something inappropriate under his breath and disappeared back into relative safety of his classroom. I was not especially interested in his subject but asked how a little piece of research he was doing had gone down. He brightened and we discussed this at considerable length! When after a very long time we came out, I sailed past Ms Bossy without a glance.

There are two areas in which I am endlessly interested. One is words and the other is sewing. But you know about these. Also perhaps food, wine, travel. Birds.

Oh and clothes. I have to admit to a slight interest in clothes!

IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT

IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT.

I read in some newspaper article that insomnia was not associated with early or premature death. Apparently, often people who can’t sleep lie awake fretting about their sleeplessness and worrying about whether this will result in their death. As a lifelong insomniac (on and off) I am happy to report that this has never been something I’ve worried about. Some ‘experts’ recommend that you get up and do things, but I think this is a very bad idea. It’s OK to get up briefly to go to the loo, or make yourself a hot drink or do anything which makes you more comfortable; but you should in my experience remain in bed, where you are at least resting.

I enjoy the night-time. I remember glorious and memorable sights, glimpsed in the night. An owl that flew past me as I visited the outside toilet in Kingsmuir, coming so close that his feathers disturbed the air on my face and hair and who looked at me with great disapproving eyes. Or the magnificent Milky Way, blazing its trail among the stars. The white heads of barley swaying like ocean waves in the lovely Angus valley and me wishing I could be in one of these fields skimming across the grain. Ducks and geese at the appropriate time used to descend noisily on our fields to feed quickly and then fly on for Iceland. Later I myself visited Iceland a mysterious and beautiful place that appears to hover between this life and the place of the spirits. It was magical. I was never afraid of the darkness (I could see in the dark better than most people).

I like how in the night, there is plenty of time and some left over. It’s good for writing blogs. Writing it in your head it remains flexible and plastic (or so I hope) and can be readily disposed of, or re-written with slight changes made which nuance it. But once you have committed it to paper, it has a life of its own. It’s like the baby. Once born, he’s his own man, no longer part of you. If you lose a piece of writing once you have written it, you will never be able to reproduce it with the wit and style you achieved the first time. You can let your ideas soar and carry you along. You can take a problem to bed with you, and there are enough hours to examine it at your leisure. There’s an intellectual pleasure in stripping a problem down to its component parts, and then laying these out in order of importance. Then you can decide on the best and quickest way of taking action, and if it’s someone else’s problem, how you will advise the person whose problem it is.

It can be tiring and very boring lying awake for long hours. You have to be happy in your own company to survive. But if you just endure it; enjoy the good aspects of it; pray for the people you love (and if you are lion-hearted enough for those you do not love,) then the night will

Eventually the time will come when Sleep slips once again into your chamber, wondering what on earth all the fuss is about where he’s been. But you can’t stay annoyed with him for long and so you can at last switch brain off and drift away into the land of dreams.

Returning to our medical experts. They did not know if there were risks from the state of insomnia. They did not know if it contributed to illnesses which might have a material influence on the subject’s longevity. In fact, when you consider it, all they really discovered was that insomnia can affect people of all ages. How many tens of thousands of pounds of research funding did it take, I wonder, for them to make this ground-breaking discovery?

DEATH ISLAND

DEATH ISLAND

The island of Arran, which is a magic and beautiful island in the firth of Clyde, is becoming for me an island of death, as we have attended 7 funerals there. The cemetery is on a hillside opposite the lovely Holy Island and the scenario is so striking it resembles a film scene. I was on Arran last week accompanying John to a memorial service for his brother-in-law, Howard Driver.

The first of these 7 funerals I attended was of John’s mother, and as I stood in a wind swept storm, sheltering my two daughters, my stepdaughter and my small son under the outstretched wings of my black coat, watching the coffin being lowered into its last resting place by her second husband, son, son in law, nephew and older grandsons (all of whom were over 6 feet tall and sombre in their formal blacks,) I reflected that the lady has certainly not lacked handsome men to send her off into the afterlife.

This was at that time one of very few funerals I had attended in my life. My maternal grandfather had died when I was about 7 or 8. I had heard the telephone ring one night, and my mother weeping, and I had guessed what had happened. My father came to tell me, but he could not bring himself to utter the dread words, so as he fumbled for an appropriate phrase, beginning, I am sorry to tell you that your grandfather has… has passed away, and I thought, what does that mean, so I asked, is he dead? My father said Yes, and I understood that I would never see him again and knew that we were mortal. I recall that although I was sorry and would miss him, I did not weep. I was the only one of his grandchildren to attend the funeral (the others were in Canada and this was before the age of easy air travel.) As people gathered in my grandmother’s sitting-room, I heard her remark that I was his favourite grandchild and even at that tender age I knew that she ought not to have said this, and more than likely it was untrue: I was probably just the one he saw the most. The only other thing I remember about that occasion was that I was sent to a neighbour whom my grandmother and mother criticised for her meanness while the actual committal took place, and when the icecream-van came and she bought her own daughter an ice-cream cone, but not one for me, I saw what they meant.

Then decades passed and I was fortunate that apart from my grandparents, everyone I loved still walked the earth.

In your youth, you tend to go to funerals either of elderly relatives who seem to you in your ignorant folly so aged that you do not see in their death any pattern that your own life will follow, or of real tragedies, where youths have died of misadventure. As you get older, you begin to attend the funerals of your parents’ generation : but it is still a shocking moment when you stand in the church for a contemporary.

There are various points where your loss is brought home to you. Writing to the principal mourner trying to come to a just and insightful conclusion about the deceased; being truthful so that a credible portrait emerges of the departed but still gives comfort can be a delicate operation and you may come to realise that you did not know the deceased that well; or that you depended on her or him more than you understood. But whatever you feel, one thing you know for certain is that it’s too late now. If you haven’t resolved any disagreements, that opportunity is lost.

I am always distressed when I first glimpse the actual coffin. It is so small. How come the life and vitality of the deceased had been reduced to this insignificant container?

The music is generally unbearably poignant. When we scattered my mother’s ashes on the seashore on Lewis and Rory walked slowly along the waterline playing on his saxophone, When A Man Loves a Woman, by Percy Sledge – the first time Sarah his wife had ever heard him play, – I was moved. When we were in church on Arran at the funeral of John’s stepfather, we were standing among his children as the first hymn was played. They were distressed and unable to participate, so John beside me lifted up his voice and sang on their behalf and I realised for the first time what a good voice he has.

When you come to the final phrases; Our dear brother here departed; dust to dust and ashes to ashes; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life; there is comfort in the age-old words although you wonder how many of the people standing there actually believe this. I myself feel that the mysteries of the afterlife have not been revealed to us, but I have hope and belief that I will see my relatives and friends in the afterlife, even if it is not in the form offered by christianity.

When someone whom I had found exceptionally difficult in life died, I felt a relief (though I was sorry for their sake that their life had been cut short). Someone who had loved the person said it was nice to feel they were now in heaven. I thought to myself, how could it be heaven if they were in it. I am bound to record that my view has changed and I can see that I need to learn to be more tolerant and forgiving, otherwise I myself will not pass through the pearly gates. How could I be fit for any kind of paradise if I were still carrying around my grievances from decades previous?

John’s family had organised Howard’s funeral extremely well. It was an occasion where everyone, whatever their history, was made warmly welcome. My safety and comfort had been carefully considered. I felt cherished and valued by the family, for which kindness I was thankful.

Funerals like these, where the family has put the needs of other mourners before their own, are humbling occasions but you come away feeling uplifted.

Go in peace, Howard.

BUILDING IT YOURSELF

My brother and I sold our parents’ house recently.

This made me remember how my father, in his sixties, bought a plot of land in Huntly, Banffshire, and built a house on it. When I say ‘built a house’ I mean that exactly – he built it with his own hands, with a very little help from his son and his son-in-law. I believe he hired a plumber and an electrician. It was on this labour that the inheritance that we have received was based.

There was an old croft on the site – just a ‘bothy’ really – the kind of building that is made of stone and had originally held people on one side and cattle in another. It had a Victorian fire place but no roof, but my father repaired it and my parents lived in very basic accommodation there for several years. They acquired a caravan and slept in that. At first they had no electricity nor running water.

My father was a man who made life difficult for himself (and other people) but he had some fine qualities; one of which was that he was capable of tremendous endurance and another that he was extremely industrious. He was also surprisingly lucky, for it turned out that that not only did he have water on his land, he had the only water supply in the whole area which never failed, even in the driest summer. He could himself divine for water, though he hired a professional before he sunk the well; and he had a well dug nine rings deep which ‘temple of Neptune’ I used to visit ceremoniously every time I went there in a little procession through the long summer grasses; my father and me, the three children, and two cats.

My father would not have managed this gargantuan task without the support of my mother. She could make even the most unpromising space comfortable and she could cook and bake delicious food on the most primitive of cooking equipment. When her only cooking equipment was an open fire, my father used to drive to my house in the central belt, pick up equipment and supplies, and I would have baked fruit cakes and pies and things which my mother could not have managed and he would take these away with him.

Gradually they introduced services, so that eventually they had a very comfortable house with three bedrooms, bathroom, a farmhouse kitchen; the bothy became a barn and store, and they lived there for twenty ears. My children loved going there every summer; in my father’s fields they enjoyed a freedom and country life that they had little opportunity for else where.

The authorities were extremely helpful to my father. I think the magnitude of the task he was undertaking appealed to their sense of adventure. The buildings inspector called frequently and would advise how to go about things that would be required.

There were of course problems with neighbours. (My father invariably had problems with neighbours, who generally died or went bankrupt or at any event had to leave: I as a child used to feel a little sorry for the neighbours because they never realised until too late that what they were dealing was not what they had supposed.) When my parents applied for electricity, the obvious place was to put a telegraph pole on a corner of the neighbour’s land (well away from his house, where it did not spoil his view or cause any inconvenience.) The neighbour refused permission, and my parents were faced with an alternative which would have cost thousands more. An official came out from the Electricity Board; my father showed him the alternatives and explained how they needed the neighbour’s permission but this was refused. The official looked grim, and called upon the neighbour; my father telling him it was a waste of time. The official came back, and said that permission would be granted, and indeed the electricity was shortly afterwards installed. We later learned that he had threatened that the Board would take up the case; it would fight it right up to the Secretary of State for Scotland; that it would undoubtedly win, and it would pursue its costs vigorously and he could expect a bill of tens of thousands of pounds.

It was a lovely place, and my brother and I still benefit from my parents hard work and creative efforts.

FARO

 

We have recently returned from a short holiday with Elisabeth and Robert near Faro in S E Portugal.

The flights there (and back) were fine although my incipient claustrophobia, normally held in reasonable mode by the force of my intellect was galloping up and down the aisle making offensive gestures at passengers who were too near, talked too loud, drank too much or breathed too fast!

We were whisked by our escort through the crowds and arrived at the Baggage Carousel. John and our escort deposited me in my wheelchair in the Baggage Hall and went to claim the luggage. I then noticed a well dressed women in her 80s perhaps, who did everything with a dramatic flourish designed I felt to draw everyone’s attention. Then suddenly I recognised her as a former TV broadcaster on domestic and forces radio and tv (though initially I couldn’t remember her name.) She had a golf clubs carrier on her luggage cart which stuck out sideways and she banged this into my wheelchair. She then apologised to an embarrassingly excessive degree and wouldn’t stop. I felt like saying, You didn’t hurt me or cause any damage, you’ve apologised perfectly adequately, now for heaven’s sake, go away! I thought she was slightly drunk; but I realised afterwards that she had sensed that spark of recognition and was waiting for me to say, Weren’t you so and so? I have met quite a few famous people and have never acknowledged their celebrity in the smallest degree. If they want to tell you who they are that’s fine but it has to come from them. It must be awful to be so needful of recognition. (The lady was Judith Chalmers)

Robert was meeting us which was a great help and we made the 20 minute journey through the backhills behind Faro Airport which is so near to the sea that I was convinced we were going to land on the beach. At the last minute you scramble up onto the airport and then the pilot frantically brakes with all his strength and you just manage to slide to a screeching halt at your docking station!

The farmhouse was found at the end of a very steep and very narrow track which later caused John some grief with his hi re car which was brand new but in the end there was no problem.

It was beautifully situated. We could see no habitation from our various terraces; just trees and in the distance, the sea. The house was spacious enough though to be comfortable, though shall we say of very different ‘taste’ to ourselves. Our children had kindly given up their bedroom for us which was on the ground floor and easily accessible by wheelchair. The bathroom next door was a large room with corner bath which the boys would swim in when having their bath.

We had been to Portugal three times before, once with all our children plus Alexandra, once on our own and once with Anne and Barbara, but this was our first time in East Portugal. We preferred it. It was not so horribly over developed or infested with golf courses; the towns were attractive and shops were for local people. There is a sandbar across the coast at this point, so there are lagoons rich in bird-life behind it. We saw a large black diver of some description which covered huge distances in his dive. We saw a little group of flamingos fly overhead, an elegant pattern with their long legs and necks, about 20 of them, and Elisabeth the previous week had seen them descend like a pink cloud. We had screech owls round the house. We also saw our first swallows at the house, beautiful with pink throats and long forked tails. In March there were no insects bothering us (though they have hideous black flying creatures as large as egg-cups) but the presence of insect screens and mosquito nets everywhere would suggest that they are sometimes present.

Less appealing were the guard dogs at nearby properties, one of which gave Rob an opportunistic bite on his calf, still nasty and vicious looking when we were there a week later. Everyone local including the medics treated this injury with great disdain – it’s just a little nip – and they regard the Brits as being afraid of dogs and paranoid about La Rage, as the French call rabies. Rob seemed to be healthy enough however.

There were only a few trees that I recognised. There were hills covered in olives of course; and oranges with fruit and flowers; a few lemons; cork oaks; yucca and cacti; trees that were black and appeared to consist largely of thorns. The other flora I did not recognise.

We stayed mostly close to home. The children would rest in the afternoon which meant that everybody got a little relaxing time. (There was quite a large pool). There were nearby towns and villages where we would go for groceries or vegetables and have a coffee and a delicious cake. One day we had lunch in a busy establishment which appeared to be the village canteen, where you dine with others at a refectory type table and where you had the dish of the day and the food was very good rather like what you would get in the kitchen of a friend’s mother (who knew how to cook.) At the other end of the spectrum we had lunch at an elegant restaurant literally at the foot of our road, where everything was as it should be and lovely and the food was delicious. Elisabeth and Robert walked out one evening to have dinner there leaving us in charge, and came walking back beneath the stars (taking detours to avoid rabid dogs!) We went to a modern shopping centre in Faro which was what you would expect. We went to a fish market held in a beautiful market hall and with a biggish market around it; to one of the lagoon resorts where William tried out his new bike, and we went to the town of Loule, very pleasant and authentic the way inland towns in coastal places often are.

The Portuguese are easy to get along with and very kind to children. It amazes me that Portugal, a very small country backed on two sides by the muscular Spain, managed to survive as a nation at all. Although it is Roman Catholic, its churches do not occupy dominating positions in townships, and after the service on Palm Sunday when the congregation walked amongst us, I noticed there was no ostentatious display of clothes.

We thought we might, in future years, take our caravan to the South of Portugal in March, thereby extending the caravanning seasons.

We enjoyed the holiday, and the time spent with Elisabeth and Rob and their children. Not forgetting Milo of course.

(The photographs, courtesy of John M Armstrong, show William and Robert cutting William’s birthday cake (2) while Milo waits to ‘help’; one of the local small towns, and William trying out his new balance bike.)