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.

Flame flickers in darkness


I’ve noted before that you need to be feeling confident and bold in order to blog.   Mostly this is how I do feel.   But this week, anxiety over Elisabeth and Rob (safe for the meantime in Shanghai) plus horror and sympathy for the Japanese over the terrible events which have overtaken them – not to mention dreadful things happening in many other parts of the world – have laid me low.

Then you no longer feel that the earth is a lovely place which we are privileged to inhabit;    that the guardian spirits of your world stand four-square where they should;  and that all will be well –  which is how I usually feel, more or less.    You think, if you had to choose a country upon which a dire misfortune would fall, it wouldn’t be Japan.   Actually I can’t think of any nation at all wicked enough that you would select, but at any rate, it wouldn’t be Japan.    I found the Japanese polite, kind and helpful, although I am not sure their obedience, respect for authority and unwillingness to lose face, though it means there is no mass panic, serves them well in the present circumstances.   Anyone who has been to Tokyo will share our astonishment at the empty streets of the city, since one of Tokyo’s defining characteristics is its ever present, but orderly, crowds.   So then you realise – you knew this, but you conveniently chose to overlook it – that there is a random quality to events.   Just as they don’t deserve their present difficulties, we neither deserve nor can guarantee our comparative good fortune.

We live our lives as though we would live forever, but this is a delusion.   We are but mortal, and we do not know what tomorrow will bring.    We actually live from breath to breath.     We ought to live each day as though it were our last, leaving nothing undone, all our debts paid in full, for who knows when we may find, like our brothers and sisters in Japan, that disaster and catastrophe have slipped amongst us and are wreaking havoc with our fragile happiness.

I look around me and I think that those very things that bring us most joy – our children, our grandchildren, and the affection of our friends – are where we are most vulnerable.    I feel sad too that anxiety about me must cloud the lives of those who love me.

At times like these I feel that my normal optimism and capacity to remain positive in difficult circumstances may not be a strength, but mere foolishness, like a match flame flickering over  a dark scene of devastation, fleeting, ephemeral, and finally, forlorn.



I was thinking of those people whom we occasionally meet, whose behaviour is breath-takingly awful, yet who seem to have an impenetrable armour of self belief and can justify all manner of sins in themselves – see only virtue in their most selfish actions – and lay the blame on others while letting themselves off scot-free.

You wonder, do these people actually believe their own lies?   What does it cost them in psychic energy to maintain such a delusion?     There must be some chamber in their inner house, where the dreadful truth shines out like diamonds glinting among the cobwebs and dirt, and at the entrance to which they have to maintain a 24 hour armed guard, lest they stumble upon this lethal knowledge by accident.   If they saw themselves as the worthless trash they are, would they just nod into the mirror – they always knew they were a knave – or would they recoil in horror from the repulsive individual who squinted back at them?   Although they cause great hurt to others and damage everything they touch, we can all walk away from them.   They, on the other hand, have to live with themselves forever.

Someone I know once showed me a letter from a former spouse, whose record of behaviour had been far from exemplary.   They had however taken up religion with considerable zeal, and from their pinnacle of newly found virtue, they graciously offered to pray for my friend’s salvation.    I am sorry to record that this generous offer was not at all well received.    ‘Does God answer the prayer of such as these?’ (employing a word I could not use here.)   I said it was never clear whether prayer was answered at all, and certainly rarely in the way the petitioner wished, but if you believed all prayers were heard, then the answer was Yes.   God was not partial and we were all sinners.   Engaging in a vigorous bout of hand washing as if to remove all traces of the contaminating letter, its ungrateful recipient snorted that some of us were more sinners than others.

As I reflected on these matters this week, I thought, while the sinning obviously does matter, some of us know we are sinners, while others believe they are gods, accountable to no-one but themselves.

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in Tunisia, having found no justice he could apply to in this world, and thereby laid his case before a Higher Authority, despots and tyrants on his continent probably did not immediately perceive their danger.   Yet some of them are already gone, their reputations destroyed, their evil actions exposed, whereas this previously unknown fruit seller will be a hero of many republics.   The tragedy is that he had to lose his life in the process.

There is a Roman proverb which goes:   Fiat justitia ruat caelum.    Let justice be done, though the heavens should fall.   Heavens appear to be falling all round about us.


P.S.   Elisabeth and Rob are safe and well in Tokyo, although having to climb 27 flights of stairs to their apartment.     Clearly though there are difficulties ahead for Japan and we are anxious about developments in a nuclear plant to the north of Tokyo.




It is now over three months since we returned from visiting Elisabeth and Rob in Japan and I think I’m finally coming to the end of my reflections, which like those in a pool of water, ripple across my mind for a long time.

Japan is a culturally different, beautiful country of great contrasts, and anyone who has the opportunity to visit should seize it with both hands.

When we visited Japan in March 1997, we travelled in the company of John’s eldest daughter of his first marriage, Kerri.    As we walked round a garden in Kyoto, we were ‘adopted’ by an old man, a former headmaster, now retired.    He still retained a somewhat didactic style, and turned to me and enquired: “And what do you think of the atmosphere in this garden?”    Er, what? I thought.    Does he mean, green?   Damp?    Then inspiration came.    “It is very tranquil.”    He listened carefully, then nodded in approval.   So, all the way round he asked us questions.    He also obtained for us, by vigorous discussion with officials which we could not follow, access to forbidden areas, special views, VIP sections and so on.    His English was very good, and he also talked with Kerri in Japanese.    Finally, when we took our leave of him, (John presenting him with his business card, two hands, small bow, and inviting him to visit us should he ever come to England) he turned to me and said, “One last question, madam.   What is the most impressive thing you have seen in Japan?”     But I had my answer ready.    “The most impressive thing I have seen in Japan is the beautiful Mount Fuji.”     His face lit up.    “Ah, Fuji-san.”     Then he gave me a small, valedictory nod.    “It is a good answer.”

Fuji, which rises out of a plain in an almost symmetrical cone is a most beautiful, mysterious mountain.    You can go out looking for it all day – it’s huge, and you know it’s right there in front of you – but it can remain utterly absent.    Then, disappointed, you walk away, but you drop your glove and turning round to retrieve it, there’s Fuji in all his majesty, in full and glorious view, as though he had been teasing you on his game of hide and seek but had suddenly relented.    Yet on a clear day, you can see Fuji from Tokyo.   Whenever you do see Fuji you feel blessed and privileged, and experience an uprising of the heart.

The lovely photographs of Japan in my blogs have all been courtesy of John, and above is his photograph of Fuji taken from the  shinkansen, and below by Rob  of a boat on a canal in Kurashiki.


It is always a pleasure to visit the land of the rising sun.



One of the interesting things about travelling elsewhere is what you learn about yourself.   I did not realise how much I loved Britain until I first went abroad.

What amused me on our recent trip to Japan was how, although I regard myself as an original and independent thinker, holding to no particular body of opinion, it appears I am in fact just the product of my background the same as everyone else.

Because my father had, as I used to tease him (and not absolutely without malice either), his own hot line to God and an urgent desire to persuade others to his opinion, which I found irksome, I myself have been careful not to express my personal philosophy to others and to leave everyone alone to form their own religious view (or not, as they please.)     I found it surprising that at least one of my children had an antagonistic attitude to religion of any description, considering that no religious issues of any kind had ever been presented during their growing up.    I think the actual objection was ‘other people telling you what to think’, a view with which I had the utmost sympathy.

I would regard myself as being, in the widest possible sense, within the great body of the Christian – well even here I hesitate to say ‘church’ – Christian ethic, though I accept no creed or instructions from anyone and make no visible external demonstration of my inner belief.    I suppose one could be put in the category of Do It Yourself religion that the present Papal incumbent so disapproves of, though a greater authority than he is did say, My father’s house has many mansions.     To those persons of such poor judgement as not to recognise the inadvisability of summoning an irritable householder to his own door to ask fatuous questions at inconvenient times, eg what do you think God’s plans for world peace might be, I resist the temptation to reply:  Actually He was talking to me about this only last week; and deliver a 30 minute oration along the lines of ‘God’s idea is this’…     I politely say that I’m comfortable with my religious philosophy and don’t wish to discuss it, and wish them good-day.

If visiting a Stone Circle, I hail the gods of long ago; and I never undertake so much as a river crossing without making a (mental) genuflection before the altar of the god Neptune.    My father had a beautiful well, 9 rings deep, and every summer before we left to return to the South, I would say to him, Let us visit the Temple of Neptune then, and we would ritually walk with the little children and the two cats trailing behind us down the hill to the place of the well.     We would pass through the meadow, waist high with summer Scottish flowers, and larks would sing above the other moorland fields.      My father would solemnly unlock the well shed, and then remove the well covering.    I would kneel at the edge and stare down into the still depth of the crystal clear water which miraculously seemed to remain full to near the brim however dry it was or how much we used it.   My father, who, in the kind light of retrospection, sometimes did know when to be silent, shared my reverence for the bountiful planet which gives us life;  what does it matter to what name you offer your expression of gratitude?

You will perceive therefore that I regard myself as enlightened and tolerant (though I held it against a woman who once called me ‘pantheistic’; and in the case of another ‘christian’ who said to me once that ‘for a pagan’ I was well educated in religious matters, I doubt if I ever exchanged more than the minimum of polite greetings with him thereafter.)

So I am completely surprised by my hostility to non-European religions.     Buddhism.     Although I find the beauty and simplicity of a Zen garden attractive, and the faces of some monks have an innocent joy, I do not find it an appealing philosophy.   Fat man sits under a tree and gets enlightenment.    And in his writings, ‘It is very difficult for a woman to walk the path  to enlightenment’.    I think, could this be because she might have too much to do, not being able to sit under a tree all day?

And a Shinto shrine…   beautiful, of course, and generally wonderfully set in the landscape.   But I find this religion difficult to understand at all.    It’s as if we had made Memorials to former kings and worshipped them as gods.    Henry VIII as a god.   Well, I’m sure he would have approved.


So it would appear that European gods I can accommodate.   Confronted by non European religions, that Scottish Presbyterian I didn’t know I was rises up in righteous disapproval.   Heathen gods and superstitious nonsense, I find myself think, and then wonder, did I say that?   I am ashamed of my reactions and would disown them if I could, but it seems an unfortunate truth that though I may masquerade as a moderate modern woman, in fact there lurks in my secret heart a creature of covert Scottish prejudice.   

Daughter of John Knox?   I fear I am, monstrous regiment of women though he said we were…




I sometimes wonder just who’s in charge here – is it the brain, or the body?

Mostly of course you feel it’s the brain.   The thinking capacity (in my case anyway) takes charge in times of crisis and talks to the body in low, clear tones, as if to a child or animal.   For example when some distressing event happens and the system is about to collapse, the brain will flood the senses with the order, Hold tight.   We can’t lose it here.   Hang on until I get us to a safe place.

Of course frequently the brain gets too big for the body (I’d have said boots, but the vision of the brain stomping about in its boots put me off my train of thought.)   When we were recently in Japan we were looking at a fruit, a little bigger, more squashy, and more orange than a tomato.

Elisabeth said to me, ‘Do you know what that is?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ I replied.

 Brain said to me, ‘It’s a persimmon.’   

‘What?’ I said.

‘A persimmon.’ said the brain firmly.

‘How do you know that?’ I asked irritably.    ‘I don’t know that.   I’ve never seen it before.    And whose brain are you anyway?’

‘It’s a persimmon,’ said the  brain, with dignity.

When we get back home, we look it up.   Yes, there it is in a picture.    Yes, it is a persimmon.   Brain remains smugly silent.

But sometimes the body dictates the pace.  I once lay on my sofa for two whole days, doing nothing at all except watching crap TV, even although there was nothing wrong with me.   I just felt like lying on my sofa.   Then I got up and went on what turned out to be a  most difficult weekend of which I had no prior (conscious) knowledge.   Does the body have its own awareness of which the brain knows nothing, and vice versa?

I woke the other morning in a state of total instant alertness.  Brain said, What’s happening?   Body said, Be quiet.   I’m listening.   Brain obliged.   Body listened to various minor noises.   Then body announces: Danger over.   Nothing’s out there.   Go back to sleep.

Brain thinks (but doesn’t complain to body), if only it were that easy!

Memo to self:   Brain, listen to body.   Body, do what brain tells you.   

Am I the brain or the body?   Both, I suppose.

PS   Brain, who can be the most irritating know-all, has pointed out to me that I must have seen a persimmon before now, because though it was true to admit I had no recollection of this, I know exactly what one tastes like and what is more, I do not like it.



I have outlined previously some of the difficulties encountered during a visit to Japan but where ‘service’ comes into anything,  Japan is vastly superior to anywhere else I’ve been.    Tips are not expected and should you offer one, generally refused.

We had requested wheel chair assistance on arrival at Narita (because it was in the middle of the night, body time) and this was offered with great care and courtesy so I felt like a piece of valuable china.    (A very good service was also offered at Heathrow.)

Elisabeth and Rob’s flat was a wonderful affair on the 27th floor of a modern tower.   After our outings but before their return from work, we would rest in their sitting room and watch the light change over the city, noting the daily alternation of the glorious Autumn colours.   As darkness fell, the lights would come on one by one.   Tokyo is a lovely city with many parks.   The building had white gloved doormen who would rush to help you with your luggage, or open the doors for you, and a receptionist who would receive messages and parcels.   


We went with Elisabeth to Comptoir des Cotonniers (  where she had been thinking of purchasing a coat and suit for her working wardrobe.   Service here was excellent.    They settled me down in a comfortable chair.   The saleslady listened carefully to what Elisabeth had to say, and then directed her junior assistants to bring a selection of clothes, all the correct size and meeting Elisabeth’s brief.    At some point they realised that John was lurking outside, not wishing to enter a ladies’ clothes shop, and presumably recognised that if he were comfortable, we could spend more time in the shop.   “We have a seat for your father,” they said to her.   We answered he wouldn’t come in, but two of the young pretty girls were despatched and in that tactful but persuasive way of Japanese ladies would brook no refusal.    He was made comfortable in a corner.      Meanwhile Elisabeth was trying out outfits, with their accessories, my scarf, her own garments…     While she was dressing, the saleslady would talk to me.    I said my daughter was getting married.   “Oh,” she replied.   “In England?”    When I said, Yes, she asked, ‘Will it be like a wedding in  a film?’     Wedding in a film, I thought.   Does she mean, like in The Godfather?   Four Weddings and a Funeral?    Pride and Prejudice?    Anyway, Elisabeth decided to buy a camel coat and a black trouser suit.    The junior girls busily took away the rejected clothes, and the next in seniority to our saleslady wrapped the clothes up beautifully.   Elisabeth was asked for her card, and permission was sought to advise her when new collections came in and I am quite sure when she makes her appointment and goes there, they will have a selection that does suit her and is appropriate hanging up in the correct size waiting for her to try them on.    She was given a lovely mirror in a white leather case  ‘and one for your mother’.     Then they all accompanied us to the door, and bowed us out.     It’s a seductive experience, let me tell you.

You could argue that Elisabeth spent a fair sum there, and that this level of service would be forthcoming in many places, but our greatest service experience was not costly.   The lens of John’s glasses fell out into his hand but was fortunately not damaged.   However, a small screw was missing.   Rob and he attempted to fix them with a screw from a redundant pair of Rob’s glasses but only succeeded in disabling two pairs.    The receptionist downstairs produced an address for an optician open mid morning on  Sunday just around the corner, so we went there with me holding John firmly by the hand (no jokes about the lame and the blind please!)     We all went into the shop and John presented the problem.    We were all gathered in and all four of us relieved of our glasses.   We were seated.   We were served green  tea.   My glasses were returned to me, cleaned as they had never been cleaned before, and with the nose supports replaced.    Equal attention  had been  paid to everyone’s, and the  two pairs of damaged glasses were as new.   We gave our thanks and John asked for the bill.   No charge.   Four of them had worked for perhaps quarter of an hour.     We were horrified.    There was nothing for it but to smile and leave.    Elisabeth suggested we might take them a small gift which they  could all share – but it had to be wrapped.   Next day we purchased a box of French macaroons (a luxury there I assure you!) and duly returned to present it – mindful of Elisabeth’s instructions, John presented the gift with his two hands and the nod of the head that is the nearest Scots are going to approach to a bow.  He just offered it to the lady who came to meet him, but was quickly redirected to the master of the establishment.    They seemed pleased and enquired after our ‘son and daughter’ and ‘children’ – they spoke good English, so they do not seem to make a distinction for relatives by marriage, and I had noticed that the Empress was referred to as being ‘with her mother’, when the accompanying  lady was in fact the Dowager Empress and therefore her mother in law.

You encounter this level of service everywhere.   On the legendary bullet train, the beautiful Shinkansen, there are four staff (at least) – the driver, the guard/ticket inspector, and one or two people serving snacks who bow to the carriage on leaving and entering, and to each customer in each transaction.   John put one young girl thoroughly off by selecting an item himself from her trolley before the bowing was finished.   At the front of the train is a section with a moving map where young passengers can sit before a wheel and ‘drive the train’ and an attendant scours the train winkling out young future train drivers and their mothers.    (Some fathers looked on quite wistfully…)    And on one journey in Tokyo, using the ‘Oyster’ cards our children had given us, I could not walk through the barrier as mine needed topping up.    I was tired and getting a bit stressed.   A guard came and asked us to follow him to his little cubbyhole where he took John’s card as well and disappeared within.    When he came out he presented the cards to John (two hands presenting the card, with bow.)    “They get you home now.”    John thanked him and asked what we owed him.   He waved us on.      “Courtesy of Japanese Railway.”    

One shudders to think what the Japanese make of our levels of service.   Somehow I can’t see British Railways being so courteous.   I don’t think they give a toss whether you ever get home or not.