Au revoir to France

My name is William. I live in our house in London with my mother and father. My mother is the most beautiful mother in the whole world. She has blonde hair and when I snuggle up with her and twist my fingers in her hair, I know I’m a happy boy. My father is fun and I want to be as big as him and do all the things that he can do. He plays football with me, and takes me swimming and carries me up high on his shoulders. He also mostly drives our car. I watch him. I wonder how big I will have to grow before they let me do it. Our dog is Milo. He is just a dog. Daddy whistles and he comes. Sometimes when I whistle he does not come. Then he is a Very Bad Dog.

One day my Mummy was putting our clothes in a suitcase. She puts in so many of her clothes that Daddy cannot shut the case and gets annoyed. I am anxious that Fox goes in, but Mummy does not forget him. I do not know why we take all those clothes. It is warm and we don’t need any.

Daddy comes home from work and they put me in the car in my seat, surrounded by stuff and off we go. Nobody has told me where we are going.

We drive for ages and ages and eventually Mummy says its Plymouth. We line up with thé cars with dogs in them, and then we drive on to a very big ship. We have a very tiny room with 4 bunk beds in it to sleep in. It is called a cabin. Then we go wandering off through the ship – there are lots of these little rooms, and the floor moves up and down on the water. Then we meet Grandpa and Granma. I am very surprised to see them. Granma is in her wheelchair. She looks very tired. I wonder if my other grandparents are on this ship too, but if they are, we never fnd them.

We are to sleep on the bunks. (It is like sleeping on a shelf in a cupboard). Mummy tucks me in with Fox, and then she climbs into the bunk above me. We sleep. The bed rises and falls and rolls.

When we waken it is morning. Mummy dresses me before breakfast, even though I know I should get my breakfast in my pyjamas. I try to tell her this but she doesn’t listen, just gives me a roll. Then we go in the car and we drive off the ship. We have to queue for a man to look at us to see if we are who we say we are. How does he know, I wonder. But apparently we pass the test. Then we drive off the ship and drive into Roscoff. We are in France!

The four of them think Roscoff is a very nice town. It has very old buildings with statues carved in holes in the wall. There are nice shops and flowers beside the street. Grandpa has gone marching ahead and shouts to us to come. It is a hotel and thank goodness, they serve breakfast. I eat bread and jam, croissants and milk with a tiny bit of hot coffee in it. I am very hungry and it is all very good. Eventually we stream off in the hot hot car. Daddy is driving but he is on the wrong side of the road. I am very worried abut this, until I see that everyone else is doing the same so I relax and stop thinking about it.

We go to a French supermarket and they buy stuff. There seems to be a lot of bottles.

We find our house that we are going to stay in. I walk round it by myself. There is one big room with a cooking place, sofas and a TV, and a table where we eat beside the big doors that are windows. The dishes are kept in a wardrobe! Then there is a room with the washing machine in it and buckets and mops and all sorts of interesting things but they won’t let me go in it; and a bedroom and bathroom for Granma and Grandpa that the wheelchair can go in; and a toilet besde the stairs for everybody. Upstairs – I can climb them myself – are a bedroom for Mummy and Daddy and one for me. There is another bathroom but no bath so I get my bath in a thing like a little boat.

We stay here for a week and I do not want to leave it and neither does Milo. We visit small towns with churches with very ornate towers (called steeples.) We go to different beaches. They all have white sand, the cold, blue water that moves and tries to catch you, and nobody else on them but us. Grandpa has bought a little tent that I can sleep in. There are stones, and shells, and I make things with my bucket and spade. Milo digs holes – I don’t know why, he never finds anything in them, and I lie down in the hole. We have picnics. There is always sand on the food.

Most days we go out for lunch. I love when this happens. There is a special menu for me and Mummy discusses what I would like. But the things the adults are having are always more interesting. Granma will always give me some of hers. I eat lots of pancakes, and lots of icecreams. They are really good.

One day we go out and we find a field covered in stones that stand up, in rows. The adults are very interested in this, but I can’t see the point in these rows – they don’t go anywhere. In the garden of our cottage there are huge boulders as big as our shed, and they think these have once been part of a stone circle. I don’t think they’ve thought this through – these boulders are so huge, nobody could move them, and what would be the point?

I love it here. There are new things to see, every day. There are wonderful things to eat. Daddy doesn’t have to go to work, and there is always someone to play with me. Milo and I are sorry when it is time to go home.

Mummy says to say Au revoir to France. It means we will see it again.


We went to Nymans on Saturday – Robert with Milo, Elisabeth, William and me.

Robert and Milo went off to do the woodland walk, and Elisabeth and I explored the garden. The davidias were out, as well as many azaleas. They have unusual magnolias. The wisteria flowers were dangling off their support. The herbaceous border was bright with tree peonies and ceanothis, but the late summer border which in only a few months will be a riot of colour, was lifeless and empty.

We sat in one of the outside booths and had tea. We three adults had cake with our drinks. William elected to share my cake (this may well be because he calculates that he will be given a greater percentage of my cake. He is not stupid.) Then Elisabeth wants to show Robert something she’s noticed on her way round, so they leave me for ten minutes or so in charge of William.

I still have a small piece of cake left but I need to make it last. Looking for something to interest him, I inspect my handbag. He does not care for my purse. He thoroughly despises my handkerchief. He does not care for my little red quilted bag which contains my Disabled Toilet key, and a lipstick and a tiny Japanese mirror, though he does look at himself in the mirror. Then he spots in the murky depths of the bag a small enamelled tn.

It’s blue and gold with a celtic design on it, and John bought it for me at some place in Ireland where there were stone cells for monks, beside the sea. The tin is circular and has a lid which shuts with a click and to open it you press a tiny stopper and the lid pops open. I use it to carry my day’s supply of pills. But this tin is just empty in my bag so I let William play with it, I make the remaining piece of cake into large crumbs and put some in the tin and shut it. William then tries really hard to open it. He understands the mechanism completely but his fingers lack the strength and dexterity to effect the opening. I help him. He removes the crumbs and eats them. I fill it up with more crumbs and we repeat this process several times. Eventually we finish the crumbs. William explores my lap and finds a currant which he carefully places in the tin. I close the tin. I open the tin. He eats the currant. His parents return.

The little tin has kept us wholly occupied!



I was thinking recently of how much I cared about my possessions, and came to the conclusion, not really very much. That’s not to say that I don’t value them and enjoy them, for I do; and of course I wouldn’t like to lose them. Yet faced with the question, what would you save from the fire, I just think the baby (if you had one) and the cat (likewise). My writing I couldn’t replace; but then I had the pleasure of writing it. I don’t really have sentimental attachment to stuff. I’d just get new stuff.

So I look at the collection of objects on the sill of my bedroom window.

On the left is a small square ceramic white lidless box, containing about a dozen small green stones roughly the size of an old penny. I have always been very fond of ceramics and also of boxes so this is a double hitter. The stones within are greenstone, which Rory picked up on the beach at McQuarrie Harbour, Tasmania. He shoved them in his pocket and carried them with him round the world on his gap year trip. When eventually he came home, he emptied the pockets of his threadbare jeans out on the kitchen table and gave the raw gemstones to me. I say I don’t feel sentimental about stuff, but had he brought me emeralds, I could not have valued them more. They are beautiful; he bent and chose each one. They are like a talisman. And I have been also to McQuarrie, though not with him. I have walked the beach of the lagoon, and studied the alarming wall of foaming green water piling up in its outlet to the Pacific, while a enormous gull struts along the empty beach as if he owns it, keeping his evil eye on us.

Next come one of two rectangular green ceramic dishes which I bought in Sainsbury’s bathroom section, half price. On each of them stand 2 small candles, layers of different shades of green wax in small clear glasses, a gift from Joanna, and a white ceramic bird. I bought the birds in the South of France, while we were the guests of Hedwig and Hily van bladel, and Hedwig had produced this marvellous shop of furniture and ‘objets’, out of thin air.

Then come a pair of small glass birds, which I bought in a charity shop in Hurstpeirpoint, with Carolyn. I remember we both had a spectacularly good haul that day, for she also spotted for me a black summer suit with a jacket embroidered with white flowers and a flared skirt the same. I said it would not suit me because the skirt was flared at the hem; she said it would be fine because of the embroidery. Carolyn had such excellent taste that one always deferred to her judgement: she was right as usual. I bought it very doubtfully, but it did suit me, and (a great bonus!) it was comfortable to wear.

The glass birds sit on a small rectangular Japanese dish decorated with thistles which Elisabeth and I bought in a china shop in Asakuso, Tokyo.

Finally there is one of a pair of pale green dishes given to me by Joanna, used to serve avocado. (When I wrote this I thought there was only one avocado dish outstanding, but I have since discovered the other.) It holds 2 onyx eggs in a mottled green, white and a pale brown. I do not remember how I came by the onyx eggs. I liked them (I tend to like anything made of stone.) My mother had a collection of them which I used to add to when I saw one. Perhaps John bought me those two for myself; perhaps Eugene gave me them after my mother died. I don’t know – but I’m pleased to have them.

So there’s a collection of objects liked by me. There’s no financial value in them. It is nice to have them, but if (God forfend!) I should lose these articles, I’d be sad, but not heart broken.

I would still have the memories.

season of looking forward

We went to Nyman’s today (one of the great Sussex gardens, probably at its best in May, but with a magnificent and famous summer border made of annuals ). It was one of those mild and dreary winter days when you could never say it was actually raining but the air was heavy with moisture and everything was constantly wet. I sat in the car and read the paper while John took Milo (Elisabeth and Robert’s dog who is residing with us somewhat reluctantly while his family is in New Zealand) through the woods where dogs are permitted. Underfoot was hard going because there were inches deep of mud. MILO loves mud. When he came back, wagging his tail, clearly delighted, people were taking detours to avoid him and he had mud everywhere, even on the top of his head. ( I presume it was Milo people were avoiding and not John, although he alleges that when he marches along, growling and scowling, and wearing his Grumphy Old Man hat, crowds part before him!)

John and I then walked in the garden proper, where we stuck to the paths. Although this kind of damp days do not enhance visual perception, they are wonderful for smell.

We passed through a wooded area with clumps of snowdrops. How cool and lovely they look, with their drooping delicate white flowers and their dainty edging of green. They remind me of Carolyn. Her birthday was on 3oth January and I used to try to find her a birthday card with snowdrops on it,for not only was this flower in blossom when it was her birthday, it was somehow emblematic of her with its dainty strength-in-fragility; and besides she was no strumpet of a nasturtium or overblown dahlia. Beside the snowdrops in Nymans are the larger leukojums which always look clumsy and oversized by comparison.

They have quite a large collection of Davidia here (the handkerchief tree, which has large white bracts in late/April or May and in certain glorious years this blossoming coincides with rivers of bluebells lapping at their feet)) and they are noticeable at this time of year with their distinctive shape – trunk rising straight to higher then human height, and then very wide horizontal branches, plus their oval fruits dangle like small eggs from an Easter decorated tree.

I smell the sarcoccoca before I spot it – an entirely nondescript flower on a bush with the scent of a sweet with writing on it we used to get as children. There were daffodils at the stage of stalks swollen with flowers to come. The many magnolias were in fat bud. We came across a daphne bholua with its pink flowers quite noticeable yet of its exquisite fragrance, not a trace. I marched round it, sniffing here and there: nothing. Yet on our return I could smell its sweet perfume long before we could see it, although once again, when we actually arrived at it, it gave off no smell.

The famous late summer border composed entirely of annuals was just a dark empty stretch, a blaze of colour only in the Head Gardener’s notebook at present, and the herbacious border although it had life stirring in it, in no way suggested how glorious it could look in just a few months.

I had brought back to my house from Elisabeth’s some hyacinth bulbs that she had planted in a creamy ceramic bowl, and now they are flowering, waxy white on my kitchen table, with their wonderful smell floating mysteriously now and then on the invisible air streams.

Milo smells of mud and wet dog – an acquired taste. I think.

I reflect that this is the season of Looking Forward. We still have February and March to get through and I remember from my Northern childhood that these could be ferocious months. Although it seems many years since the sea froze at our ankles and our breath made viewing patches on the inside of our bedroom windows, the winter wolf just sleeps in his den: eventually he will emerge again and stalk us with his deadly intent. But not, I think, this winter.





(Luke 12:7, King James version.)

You may recall that I injured my back and have since retired from view as it were. As pain levels rose from present but not really bothersome, through actually quite painful in places, to the implacable intolerably painful, continuous, and quite unbearable, I could see my own behaviour slip into patterns that I myself looked at disapprovingly as if I were the mother of a troublesome child. (Normally I identify with the mother but this time I am the roaring child.)

Try and stay calm and be pleasant, my mother self says, ineffectually, as I sob quietly (well she would probably say noisily) in my chair. “What do you know about it?” I snarl at her and she goes away, shaking her head. When someone calls, I just think, Tell them to clear off. The telephone rings and I say, before I even know who it is, I don’t want to talk to anybody. I don’t want to eat either, and I can’t sleep, and I just want to sit in a warm place, not move, or answer questions, and be left alone.

Eventually John and the physiotherapist coax (force) me to seek an appointment with the doctor. He sees me fairly promptly and John made the appointment and I wonder what he actually said. The doctor suggests some neuropathic drug to take which should ease the pain and enable the damage to heal. It’s probably rotting my brain as we speak, but it certainly relieves the pain, bringing it down to a manageable extent. Maybe I will live after all. I begin making lists of things that need doing (but not, it should be pointed out, actually doing any of them.)

Just out of interest my hair was in a dreadful state during the worst few days of that crisis. It’s another thing we should remember : to try to be grateful for gifts we take for granted. I’ve always had very undemanding hair. In my youth it was a dark brown, entirely without red in it, and I wore it shoulder length or in a ponytail. This suited me and was cheap and easy. I used to swish it over my naked babies after the bath. It had a slight kink in it that made the ends flick. From about 21 I had a small fountain of grey hairs from the middle of my forehead which I left as it was. (My hair became grey quite prematurely. I think this is an Isle of Lewis gene. My grandfather had white hair as a young man and my son has a pronounced wing of white hair.) Sometime in my 30s I decided I was too old to have long hair and had it cut short (in Aberdeen of all places.) This made it very easy to look after. For more than 30 years I’ve had it cut short. The absence of weight makes it curl; so I shower, towel dry it, put on some moose, run my fingers through it to style it, leave it for 10 minutes to dry naturally, then comb it out, a little spray, and it’s an attractive hairstyle. It’s never been permed or coloured. I doubt if it’s care costs me more than £200 a year. But last week it just sulked and whatever I did, it lay, lank and unlovely on my head. I got very exasperated with it and wondered whose horrible, lank, ugly hair I’d got and who had stolen my own desirable easy wavy hair. Wonder of wonders it has returned and when I look in the mirror it is I myself I see, still queen in my own kingdom.

My back is by no means recovered, but there is hope that it might improve.

Thanks to those who put up with me last week, especially my irritable but supportive and loving husband.






For 2016, which demonstrated clearly that life can still surprise you…

For our beautiful country, whose outermost regions we explored this year.

For steam trains, which continue to enchant me

For our friends, those from the days of our youth and those met more recently, who continue to maintain an interest in us, to put up with us, to tolerate the inconvenience of taking me on their outings

For our siblings and cousin, who keep in touch and remember us

For the parents of our children’s spouses, who share what is most precious to them generously with us

For the beloved spouses themselves who love our children and make them happy, are kind and fun to be with

For our darling children (every blessing be upon them)

For all our grandchildren who are so different and each so full of life and blessed with their own talents (may every hair of their heads be accounted for)

For our own parents, aunts, relatives and friends who have departed before us

For those who may have harboured animosity towards us – may your sins be forgiven you as we hope ours will be

For my partner in life, husband, friend, head of our family, John. Without him, I would enjoy none of these blessings. He’s the prince who came riding; the man of my life.

I am blessed among women.


The fatigue caused by my painful back rendered me asleep in a chair during the day. I woke up, shaking violently and the sudden shift from immobility to movement was painful. I became aware of the strong presence of my mother in the room. In the years since her death, I have never dreamt of my mother, and of my father, only once. I rarely dream of real people.

I do not mean that I saw, heard or had any concrete experience of my mother. The most likely explanation is that I had indeed been dreaming of her and this had caused me to waken and shake. But this had never happened before, and in my post sleep confusion I was not thinking clearly. My initial thought was that I had died and my mother had come to meet me. I was disinclined to go. Besides (logic, thank God, cutting in) I was living and breathing. I thought, I am not dead yet.

With the resumption of my normal logical and sensible inner dialogue, I felt comfortable with my mother’s ‘presence’ and decided she could rest with me for as long as was necessary, but when I looked for her to advise her of this, all trace of her had completely vanished. I felt a sense of loss.

There are many writers in my family – my grandfather, mother, brother and cousin are or were all accomplished exponents of the art, with different subjects and style. My mother’s letters were a great pleasure to me, and I still miss them. She was a far better critic of a book or article than I will ever be. She could always find erudite points that I had overlooked, or spot references to other works of literature. Her article would establish some clever theme to work around, and it would all be produced with a dainty elegance and lightness of touch that I, quite frankly, envied. I knew she lacked my power, but she had refinement.

It was a source of great irritation to me that despite my mother being a clever, well-read and well-educated woman with skill, talent and nicety of purpose , and her capacity for graceful and well observed analysis, she had an incurable tendency to sympathise with what I would dismiss as knaves of dismal motivation. She had few companions and she liked me to read and discuss books which had struck her for one reason or another. This was a pleasure, but difficulties began to creep in over her enthusiasm for what I privately termed New Age Drivel. This proved to be a source of considerable friction between my mother and me. She enthused about Erich von Danachan (spacemen visited the earth and the desert drawings in South America were the runways for their space vehicles. ), David Icke (the Royals are descended from alien lizards), and theories that there were persons alive today who were descendants of a liaison between Christ and Mary Magdalene. When in response to the latter I pointed out that it could not be proved that they had ever actually existed so one could not prove that there were offspring, and even if it had been true, so what? – she became annoyed. As she grew older and increasingly retreated into this twaddle, I found myself in difficulties. I had no wish to distress her, but if I expressed any reservations, however mildly, she became offended; if I just listened and said ah-hah, she accused me of with-holding my powers of analysis; and if I declined to read it she said I was intellectually lazy. I found it impossible to do what she wanted, which was read the material, enthuse about it in conversation, and believe. (On reflection, her obsession with this subject (she had dozens of books to read) may have been the start of the loss of her mental powers in the last few years of her life.)

My mother at her best was a lively and stimulating companion, with a capacity to be comforting, welcoming and sympathetic. You could always go to her with your trouble (she was particularly good in her role as grandmother and gave sensible and balanced advice) and come away feeling comforted and supported. She was a good advisor for me because she could always see both sides of an argument.

She believed in the magic powers of crystals worn on one’s person. I did not, but when she rummaged in her pockets one day and presented me with a white crystal, I recognised that it was not just the mineral qualities that were being offered. The stone was a symbol of her mother’s love; her tendering caring, and her good wishes for me. I accepted the token with gratitude.

I reflect that I am fortunate in the generous support of my husband, children, family and friends. And that even calling up the memory of my mother is still a comfort to me. A weakness for works of fiction, masquerading as facts, is hardly a mortal sin. My mother loved me. I look at my daughters and daughter in law, with their tender love for their infants, and how their babies rejoice and flourish in the protection of their love, and I think this love and care, carried down from one generation to another is the only repayment we can offer to our own mothers for their care and cherishing of us.

My back is very slowly improving.

Love conquers all.