THE SONG OF THE NIGHTINGALE

I’m sitting, on Mother’s Day, in the coffee shop of the National Trust’s property at Ightham Mote in Kent. John has gone outside to wait for Elisabeth, Robert and William to arrive. We’ve bagged a table and obtained a high chair. I’m sitting in my wheelchair as it’s more comfortable, and we’ve wedged a toy we’ve brought for William in the high chair. It’s a very large gorilla – we can only just stuff him in; with an engaging face and bright yellow eyes that follow you round the room. His long arms dangle down. It’s interesting how other visitors, after an initial startled glance, resolve into an attitude of calm indifference, as though a lady in a wheelchair accompanied by her pet gorilla in a baby’s high chair were quite an ordinary sight. (When William arrives, they relax and come over to us and enjoy the joke. He is a very engaging gorilla! And boy, of course.)

For the past few days, we’ve been wakened by the song of the nightingale. This, I regret to say, is not the unmitigated joy one might suppose! We haven’t heard them for a few years, so of course we’re delighted that they’ve prospered enough to be back. I have actually seen the nightingales here, only once, on the feeder. They were slightly larger than a thrush, a nondescript brown with some red in it. I had always supposed, before I heard it (they do not venture as far North as Scotland) that their famous song was of a joy and sweetness comparable with the thrush, robin or lark. Whereas in fact it is a long and complex series of shrieks, twizzles and other strident noises delivered at extraordinary volume.   It completely drowns out all other birdsong. The nightingale, I thought, is the Maria Callas of bird song. One is glad that nightingales live amongst us, but after about ten minutes uninterrupted shrieking, you’d secretly prefer just to turn it off.

I’m not really a fan of opera. It’s too emotional. It slips past your rational, logical persona and attacks your undefended emotional response. I once attended a performance of Rigoletto which was memorable for two reasons. The opening scene took place in a brothel, and the ladies of the chorus (or so I supposed) were dressed in rather jaw-dropping outfits where the bosom of the dress was made of see-through net, giving the appearance that the singers were topless. I whispered to Carolyn that I was surprised that the ladies of the chorus had agreed to dress like that. Carolyn snorted. “These aren’t ladies of the chorus,” she replied. “They are just floozies hired in for the tits.” The second unexpected reaction was my own, when Rigoletto sings his doomed song of love for his daughter, and how he hopes to keep her safe and hidden, and suddenly from nowhere I was overtaken by an entirely surprising and unwelcome storm of weeping for the pity of it and how impossible his wish was; and how his possessiveness was likely to destroy his daughter’s love. As I said, opera is too subversive for me.

And I was never a Callas fan. It seemed to me she strained too hard; she couldn’t just stand in her place and let the music flow through her; she was always striving to be the loudest.

And yet one evening, having delivered my children (and others) to Horsham for orchestra rehearsal, I was driving back alone through the hammer ponds, enjoying the fragrant summer evening, not really listening to an opera programme on the radio when suddenly Maria Callas was singing. I do not even remember what the aria was, but she was utterly magnificent. I drew my car into the side of the road and listened in rapt attention, shouted Brava! with the audience at the end, applauded and wept a little. Finally I could understand what people saw in Maria Callas. She was a diva, and whereas when she did not manage to cover herself with the mantle of the goddess the result was tawdry, when everything came together she became the goddess, if only briefly, and you felt yourself to be standing on holy ground. And all this in a lay-by as the sun went down somewhere between Horsham and Haywards Heath!

The gorilla when he makes his cry that resonates throughout the forest, and the nightingale when he drags us to wakefulness at 5.30 am are delivering the same urgent message.   Let us enjoy being alive!   Life!

 

SPRING IN STRATFORD

SPRING MET US IN…

Spring met us this year in Stratford on Avon.

We had been in Scotland where the weather for March was quite benign, being either sunny, windy and cold, or grey, overcast and milder. There were a few daffodils out, and in people’s gardens some snowdrops, hellebores and primroses, but it was still The Frozen North.

We drove back, stopping for lunch at Westmorland and for the night at Warwick. That was all fine, but of course a motorway and a service station do not offer much contemplation of Nature Live, although from our window in Warwick we could see a small area of grass planted with very young trees, each one containing a single crow’s next.

We declined the doubtful privilege of breakfast in our hotel and headed off, quite early, for a proper English breakfast in Stratford on Avon. It was really quite foggy, so we followed Sat Nav cautiously through the English countryside. We were due at Stow in the Wold for lunch with John’s sister and brother-in-law, so we were in no rush. We arrived safely, and eventually we found a restaurant with what we wanted, and settled down to a leisurely plate of sausage, bacon, eggs, etc.

When we emerged the mist was gone and the attractive town was bathed in sunshine. The hordes of marauding tourists had not yet descended in full force, so we got to observe the town under favourable conditions: very few people and bathed in sunshine. It has wide streets and many well preserved ancient buildings. The hawthorn in the hedges was a delicate green, with scatterings of tiny white blossom which I think is the blackthorn (or sloe.) Gardens were full of snowdrop, narcissus, hellebores, crocus. There was even one magnificent magnolia, almost fully out (probably the early pink Campbelli…) We walked along the river, where I remembered how I had walked on the other bank with three of my girlfriends not so many years ago. They were teasing me because I was wearing my ‘cockerel’ knitted jacket which boasted the head of a cockerel on its back. As I recall I defended my choice, for there was no way I was going to admit that I had purchased the garment without noticing the offending decoration. The memory was pleasant but overlain with sadness because of the four of us, only two still survive. I turned away from that reflection to admire the river and its banks lined with weeping willow, whose pale green fronds stirred lightly in the wind, like a lady’s long hair. An armada of swans (at least a hundred) had gathered together near the bridges and were gliding up and down waiting for tourists to arrive with bread.

I thought, We have survived the winter!

UNDESIRABLES?

UNDESIRABLES?

I haven’t written on politics in recent months because events have had an unbelievable element (you could just about guarantee that whatever was most unlikely would come to pass.) It is difficult to poke fun at something that would be hilarious if only it weren’t so serious. One cannot really castigate the Americans for being so stupid as to elect Trump, when we have ended up with Brexit (which was not, I believe, our intention.)

We voted blindfolded for Brexit with no real understanding of what it would mean. Although I do hold it against the politicians for not unearthing more facts rather than just attempting to frighten us into voting as they desired, I think as the complexities of the matter unfolds that it would have been impossible to predict accurately what was likely to happen. We still don’t really understand what the outcome will be and our politicians have no idea either. Matters are too complex and inter-related and unpredictable. It’s rather like a meeting of the Mafia with too many Families present.

I watched Nigel Farage interviewed by Piers Morgan. In spite of his dismal reputation, I think Morgan is one of the finest interviewers operating today. I always find him almost more interesting to watch than the interviewee. He has enough empathy and charm to lead the person into dangerous areas of their hinterland before they realise where they are headed (in spite of their wary experience and skill in being interviewed); he actually listens to what they say and will pause to explore anything interesting that turns up; but for all he participates in the conversation, when you watch him you can see that throughout he also retains an editorial detachment.

Although I have never voted for Ukip, I can understand why people did. Farage, who is I think genuine in that he sincerely believes what he says and is not particularly motivated by personal gain, is an interesting character. I have never heard him say anything which I personally found offensive. I do not think wishing for us to have control of immigration, is in any way racist; nor is a desire for Britain to remain recognisably British in culture and language, welcoming in-comers but expecting them to speak English and to recognise that while their history enriches our own, ours is the dominant culture, and we wish it to remain so. If they so disapprove of our culture, why have they come here? They should go somewhere else that is more to their liking.

No doubt there are undesirables within Ukip, but they also lurk in every other political party.

And talking of undesirables, did I hear Tony Blair being so bold as to talk to us – actually offering advice – on Brexit? Does he not realise that we have left him unchallenged for answers to the charges against him only because we are ashamed he was our prime minister and we have not got the stomach to endure the humiliation of going through all that again? Advice for Tony Blair. Don’t talk to us. Don’t comment on our affairs. Don’t come here. Don’t presume to give us advice. We don’t want your advice. We took it before and look where it got us. What you should do is lie very low, forever, in case our anger overcomes our shame, and we come after you.

OBJECTS ON A WINDOW SILL

OBJECTS ON A WINDOW SILL

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.

 

 

THE VERY HAIRS OF YOUR HEAD ARE ALL NUMBERED

THE VERY HAIRS OF YOUR HEAD ARE ALL NUMBERED…

(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.

 

 

 

UNSUNG HEROES

It isn’t every day you get to go out and be a hero. Assuming you wish to be one, there are many days where nothing even moderately exciting takes place at all; and on these days you have to shovel coal; peel potatoes; look after children; fix cars. Even jobs as exalted as the Queen’s must have their less than enjoyable element: being charming to tedious social climbers, for example.

But occasionally in one’s life, you sense that there are changes underway. All of a sudden the wind is from the East and the moon is full (or whatever circumstances you have chosen to herald magical events.) These are times of extraordinary activity in your life. People around you die or are born; lovers arrive or depart; in a few short weeks the circumstances of your life can change absolutely and in ways that ae totally unexpected.

At these critical times, hopefully a hunting horn sounds in the recesses of your memory to remind you that you have reached a place of judgement. Though one’s every action must be accounted for, and every words stands forever, some times seem to be especially significant. and throughout them you must behave as though your life depends on it, for on your conduct now will depend the future well being of yourself and your companions in life, though no-one but you will ever know this.

So for the duration of this period, you must do your very best; be the finest YOU there is. You must be a lady or gentleman of the highest order. You must be particularly well behaved towards your enemies and those who dislike you. Your manners must be faultless. And whatever is asked of you (that the seeker is entitled to request) you must surrender immediately and graciously and with no count of the cost. On the other hand if someone asks of you that to which they are not entitled you must firmly and promptly, but courteously refuse, regardless of the consequences of doing so. You must be kind to everyone. You must have no regard in your actions for profit or fame. Your behaviour must be as near perfect as you can get it. (And don’t make the mistake of believing that it IS perfect either, or you’ll become a pompous and insufferable bore, and not pass this test either.)

No-one will notice what a prince you’ve been. You will get no plaudits or credits. You’ll just realise one day that the ship that represented this whole experience has sailed, leaving you, exhausted and depleted on an unfamiliar shore, and that it slipped out in the darkness with no regrets, and no thank you or good-bye.

What was that all about, you’ll ask yourself? Why did I make such a huge effort? But – you passed the test. The right questions came up. You are an unsung hero, and they are secretive people. (What other kind of hero is there, apart from unsung? You are no hero if you boast about your heroism.) These times will come again, but in the meantime you have to return to ordinary life. Does everyone pass through such times? I expect so, but who knows? You’re not talking, are you?

As ever when you struggle to say something, you find Shakespeare has already said it far better.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…’

Bon voyage, unsung heroes whoever you are. May your journey through 2017 bring you whatever your heart most desires, and I hope that turns out to be all you thought it would.   I think heroes are going to be sorely needed.