Blame and shame – an unhealthy game

‘I’m sure it all started when I fell off that bus,’ said a friend who’d been diagnosed with a serious cancer of the digestive tract.

This was a long time ago. More than twenty five years since.

The friend, a middle-aged smoker, spent all day sitting in her flat, upstairs from mine, with her de-clawed cat. Watching television and eating unhealthy food.

She took no exercise except walking to catch the bus into town. And even then, the bus stop was right outside our front door.

You can see where this might go, can’t you?

Fast forward more than a decade and I’m sitting in a family home in Texas when the phone rings. When pa-in-law returns it’s with bad news. A relative – not one of the immediate family but still, only a couple of degrees removed – has cancer.

Being the empathetic person I am (and I’m not claiming that as a praiseworthy virtue, it’s just how I am, I can’t help it), I am instantly sympathetic, sad on her behalf and ready to console.

Imagine my discomfort when there was no, ‘Poor Evangeline’ (I made up the name) but instead an instant recitation of the many reasons why she had brought this on herself.

Pa-in-law was not, I should stress, a monster – and he was far from alone in this attitude. It is an all too common phenomenon.

We don’t want to think we’ll get X, Y or Z illness so we reach for reasons someone else has drawn the short straw.

Crisp, hot, hand cut chips with salt and vinegar - all in recyclable boxes

She ate too much – or just the wrong things. She was too thin – anorexia, that’s vanity for you. She smoked, drank alcohol, didn’t exercise enough. She was too stressed out, worked too hard, didn’t work at all. Spent too long watching daytime TV.

Something is always to blame.

I think this is one of the worst aspects of our western ‘civilisation’ today.

Nothing is an accident.

Nothing is beyond our control.

Nothing is down to the random throw of the dice, to sheer bad luck.

For many, many years (as the poor chap married to this serial hypochondriac will testify) I would say, ‘If I get a serious illness don’t tell your mum and dad.’

I knew all the things they could pull out of the blame bag. I’d got there first, had a list ready-made.

Yes, they’d also come up with the latest medical news, ideas for treatment, possibly even money to help – but I couldn’t stand the thought of my dearly beloved having to face, ‘Well, after all, she did…’.

It crops up too, this kind of attitude, in the media.

There’s a brash woman, fit as a flea at well over 60, who writes a column for a daily newspaper. People who drink alcohol or smoke or are obese or indulge in dangerous pursuits, she says, should have to pay our wonderful, free-at-the-point-of-delivery National Health Service for their medical treatment. Because they’re to blame.

Take that to its logical conclusion, please.

What would we do about, say, having babies?

Effective contraception is widely available. Having a baby, therefore, is arguably a choice.

So, being somewhat rational and allowing for straightforward reproduction, if you had more than two, you’d have to pay for all your medical treatment.

And if you were proved to be partial to bacon and fried egg sandwiches, you’d have to pay for treatment for any heart problems you might develop.

One of the side effects (trust me, there’s research) of these attitudes is defensiveness and evasion among those who have symptoms. Because it becomes yet another competition, with winners and losers.

I’m healthier than you. I’m stronger, fitter, better than you.

Or (jauntily) I’m older than you but I don’t need a hip replacement (that was a 70 year-old in-law on this side of the pond, just to be even-handed – and he’s not a monster either.)

When someone is sick, injured or suffering from depression, the last thing they need is to be blamed – they’re probably torturing themselves enough as it is.

And, let’s face it, bad diets and so on aside, sometimes people are just plain lucky with their health – but sometimes people aren’t.


Start my blame list here

I parade down the road on my crutches, angry that I have a problem, but in the next breath, I’m ashamed that I dare think of it as unfair. My life so far has been remarkably pain and disability free. My bones will mend, are already mending.

As I struggle to use a contraption for putting my socks on – there’s no way someone with weak arms could do it – and as I grow increasingly impatient with the fact I can’t drive for another two weeks and 3 days – I think of the lonely and the neglected.

Blame may make you (or me) feel good – in a ‘phew, I’m all right’ kind of way – but it makes someone else feel like a failure.

People with cancer, people with arthritis, people with HIV Aids or manic depression are not failures.

Apportioning blame is not just superfluous, it’s cruel.

And, no matter whether they’ve done something that contributed to their problems, shame won’t help.

Pain, misery and curtailing of ability is bad enough.

So, why not just be nice?

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The ruder world. Some random thoughts on spring, joy and harsh reality

Come, luscious spring, come with thy mossy roots,
Thy weed-strown banks, young grass, and tender shoots
Of woods newly-plashed, sweet smells of opening blooms,
Sweet sunny mornings, and right glorious dooms
Of happiness, to seek and harbour in,
Far from the ruder world’s inglorious din.

From ‘The Robin’s Nest’

by John Clare* [1793-1864]

Friday morning. The moon slides between us and our sun, an eclipse eclipsed by clouds. And our world turns cold.

As the mis-timed dusk takes hold the birds fly hither and thither – not up, not down, but side to side, as if looking for an emergency exit. It’s odd.

Saturday dawns beautiful and bright, as if the moon’s wiped clean an unseen, misted window on the sun. The perfect day for our outing. A drive across town to a special place.

Churchtown Botanic Gardens aren’t what you might expect from the name – yes, some of the trees are labelled, but it’s more like an old-fashioned park, the kind I grew up with as a child.

Taking the scenic route, along the coast, I’m treated to a sight I’ve never seen before. The sea is in. Right in.

As a child, a trip to Southport was always a mixed pleasure. The seaside, yes. But the sea? My little legs never once carried me all the way to the sea, it was so far out.

But the moon, it seems, has filled our local bucket, as well as wiping our solar windows.

My chauffeur drops me by the Gardens’ gate and goes to park. I ply my way on crutches, gingerly, looking out for omens.

P1010528‘Museum’ the first sign proclaims. But it’s closed, its treasures all dispersed.

Some flowers, mostly daffodils, nod hello in the nearer reaches of the park. People sit on benches. Chatting, waiting – or simply passing time.

A band strikes up – the oompah of the brass like a great big grin on the air.

Plodding my way round to the greenhouses, the peacocks in their (soon to be closed) aviary squawk their whiney, ‘waah, waaah.’

Plants for sale sit in ranks of spring-fresh colour, but there aren’t quite as many as usual. Inside the greenhouse, potted plants too tender for our still-wintry nights keep warm beneath the glass.P1010541  I spy two members of staff. Two of the three who may soon be the last, of many, to go.

P1010542Beyond the ‘Staff only’ gate stand rows of empty glasshouses. There, council staff once grew bedding plants – and not just for the Gardens’ own famed flowerbeds.


Victorian fernery in background

Back outside, steps that should lead to a stunning horticultural display instead open onto grass disfigured with gashes of bare brown earth. People sit, as usual, in the wooden benches around the edge, but their joy is gone.

The Victorian fernery – with its refurbished glass roof – looks blind and closed.

The ‘train’ that children could ride is gone.


No boats, now

The boats for hire on the water are gone.

The wild birds remain.

The trees remain.

Three members of staff remain. For now.P1010546

P1010545Fifty pence lets us into to the Chrysanthemum Society Show. The campaign to save the gardens has colonised one corner, I pay my dues and offer help with words.P1010547


Outside, the oompah’s been replaced with a chorus of men in black. Their rendition of Alexander’s Ragtime Band is fun, but a new little pain tells me it’s time to go.


On the way home we talk about our world and how it’s being diminished.

Is it better that flowers, three gardeners and a museum are lost than something else?

What use, after all are flowers?

The morning’s lead editorial in that renowned publication, The Times (of London), tells us we have not really noticed the cuts to local government spending.

We beg to differ.

Our local council’s funding has been curtailed quite harshly. According to one measure** it’s down by 7.8%. It’s a lot, but Liverpool (10.7%) and Manchester (10.5%) fare much worse – and the worst of all, poor, disadvantaged Knowsley, bottoms the table at -10.9%.

This in a world where Tewkesbury (of the famous Abbey) has a budget up 3.2%, Cambridge (of the famed university) is up 2.3% and Winchester (with its cathedral in genteel Hampshire) is up at 1%.

P1010578We live in the north of England, on the boundary between two communities, each of around 12,000 inhabitants. We’re just about equidistant between two buildings that, until a couple of years ago, were libraries. Both are now shut, the books all gone.

A couple of doors along from one of the libraries was a neighbourhood police station. Its doors are locked to local people.P1010580

Our borough now has two police stations officially open to the public. One in the north opens 7 days a week, one in the south six days a week.

There are many more – and arguably more serious – things, like the cuts to social services.

But I want to stay with flowers.

With gardens.

We don’t all have trees. Or gardens, or flowers, or boats to row or toy trains to ride.


The aviary

We don’t all have acres of crocuses to carpet the floor around our feet, or peacocks to nag us, or love birds to coo for us.

So many people use that park.

People invisibly wounded, whose eyes say it all.

People finding a rare patch of peace for lunch in a stressful day.

People teaching their children how birds sing and swans swim.

People falling in love.

Should we lose all this for budget cuts?

I suppose the answer would be yes, if I felt the cuts were either fair or necessary. But it’s not just my instinct that tells me we don’t need to cut our public spending as if we were Greece. Several respected economists tell us our economy was already recovering in 2010, that swingeing cuts set it back.

And common sense tells me that if interest rates are close to zero it makes no sense to go to extremes to pay off debt.

But I’m not a politician, nor an economist. Just a citizen.

I want police and teachers, clean streets and libraries.

I want lonely people who are stuck in their homes to get more than 15 rushed minutes of a  carer’s abysmally paid time each day.

I want flowers to bring joy to a miserable day.

I want a world that knows the value of everything and the price of ending up with nothing.


*John Clare died in a lumatic asylum. I saw a television programme about him when I was a teenager and could not believe such a tragic life could be the lot of the poet who wrote such delightful verses about the wonders of nature. My copy of his bird poems (a Folio Society edition) is illustrated by Thoas Bewick. Two masters in one volume. Sigh.

**Figures from Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, Lancashire and the golf coast, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

A Beatles kind of day

Nights are a bit of a trial at the moment. Sleep comes in shifts, my body grumbling every few hours, forcing me to grab my crutches, prod my way upstairs, then poke my crutch-supported way back down to the bedroom while it recovers.

Despite the recent surgery, it isn’t pain that’s keeping me awake, but discomfort.

Sleeping on my back is usually my last-gasp gauntlet flung at sleeplessness.

After I’ve gone through the alphabet finding book titles, authors, or films to match each letter.

After I’ve consciously relaxed every muscle I can identify, one by one.

After I’ve dredged from my memory some dimly remembered techniques – that could loosely be called mindfulness – to try and sedate my brain. (Given I gleaned them from a free introductory pamphlet, it’s no surprise that this one rarely works.)

Lately I’ve been waking far too early for a natural owl’s metabolism. But today’s was a somewhat later, rude awakening.

Yanked home from the Land of Nod, when day had already dawned, a curtain noisily pushed back on the world robbed me of my sleep.

While my open eyes adjusted to the light my mind struggled.

Did I miss a spectacular storm in the night? Surely not, I was up four times, I would have noticed a howling wind and lashing rain.

Were my eyes blurred, some unknown side effect of who knows which of the drugs I’ve been taking?P1010519

Coming together at last, my vision and mind began to recognise the truth. The veil hanging between me and the morning was not a film of wind-borne salt on the windows, it was fog.

Fog upon the hill. Feeling very still. Better not quote much more or the remaining Beatles might sue me for plagiarism. But there were no Blue Jays out and about – and this fog was not the sinister kind. No, it felt cosy, comforting, kind.

P1010522I lay, for a little while longer, on my back. A cup of tea, I knew, was sitting on my bedside table, a biscuit in the saucer.

It could wait.

Relishing the feeling I slid back the years – because, after all, what was out there?

No day. No world.

No noise. No time.

Just now, just here, just me.

A cup of tea and a memory.

I could see the fabric of my new winter coat. The mohair that would have itched my neck if it weren’t for the soft, furry collar. My strapover shoes, brown as polished mahogany, worn for the first time with ivory knee-length socks. An Alice band holding back my hair.

It was cold in our car. It was an icy world, and foggy. The windscreen carefully defrosted by hand, we drove down the hill at the end of our avenue and joined the main road. Stopped. Defrosted the windscreen. Drove on. Stopped …

In the end the freezing fog won. We all turned home, my mother, my father, my sister and I. It would have been the last time I saw my cousin Anne until my mother’s funeral, thirty years later.

Sindy 001Beautiful and black-haired, she was the reason my Sindy doll was raven-haired not blonde. And it was her wedding day. Over the hills and far away.

But, for us, it was not to be.

The memory seeped away. Discomfort, like the freezing fog, had won. I manoeuvred my way up in bed and leant on a stack of pillows while I sipped my tea.

Not a needle of the pines, not a twig among the budding branches stirred. I felt as if a feather quilt had been wrapped around my little bit of the world – and the rest thrown away.

No need to bother about outside, it wasn’t there.

A plump wood pigeon docked on the garden fence. The only thing moving as it dipped its way through yet another attempt at a courtship with some potential mate beyond my field of vision.

As if we need any more of the things.

The transporter planes of the bird world, their lumbering, clumsy bodies lurch around on short legs and splayed toes. Squashing green shoots as they amble around picking up seeds and nuts dropped below the feeders carefully designed to elude their pecking.

A change came over the light – and the fog closed in. It could have been menacing, I suppose, but it wasn’t. It just felt as if the blanket of seclusion had been wrapped a little more tightly around us – and I could see no reason to move.P1010520Why face a day that doesn’t exist?


My long-suffering carer had to catch a train – and I had to shower before he went, to be on the safe side.

A bowl of porridge with golden syrup later I was settled in my chair with the newspaper – and the easy crossword. Engrossed in the clues, two still left partially filled, to my exasperation, I looked up towards the window and smiled to see the colourful posy of flowers in our old green vase. Sent by a friend from the other side of the country to cheer me. Which they did – and do.

Since Sunday three lots of flowers have arrived. Tulips and pale, scented narcissi. Stately roses in red and white and pink. Spring-fresh forsythia with jaunty vivid gerbera. All set off by evergreen foliage.

A new, colourful plant from our neighbours says ‘welcome’ in the hall.

How lucky am I? It feels like there are hugs everywhere I go, pretty, happy hugs.

But back to my morning’s armchair.

There, I lifted up mine eyes to the heavens.


Here comes the sun, sang the Beatles, in my head. And as they sang, I thought – it’s all right.

The world was back. And it was beautiful.

Posted in In Britain now - and then, Lancashire and the golf coast | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Taking morphine with Martin Amis

It’s been a rough couple of weeks. And why, I ask myself, did I knowingly introduce Martin Amis into the nightmare?

I can only blame it on the drugs.

Martin Amis, in case he hasn’t crossed international boundaries of name recognition, is a novelist. He would hate me for this status locator (but that’s fine): he’s the son of an earlier, famous British novelist, Kingsley Amis.

Amis Senior had some memorable titles in his stable, including Lucky Jim. It took me a long time – about two thirds of my life so far – to get around to reading that and I can’t say it was time well spent. For me.

Amis Junior is one of those authors that certain people criticise a lot. Partly because he’s been successful. Partly because he sounds like an irritating person (and spent a lot on his teeth – so un-British). Partly because he’s a conspicuous member of the ‘male-critics-review-male-writers-aren’t-we-all-wonderful’ club.

Sorry. Blame the drugs. No, blame me. Thanks.

Anyway, I’ve always known I would hate his work without reading a word.

But that’s not a fair stance to take, is it? And even if I’m well aware that life’s not fair, there’s no reason I should collude in the injustice.

A couple of years back a friend argued that I should read at least one and then I could venture an informed opinion. And he (yes, he) suggested that if I only read one it should be Money.

This friend, who’s German and bald, plays music with a fellow bald German. The same evening he issued his challenge re Amis, he asked for ideas on a name to get the duo noticed.

The friend has a sense of humour, chirpily takes responsibility for a stray bomb that dropped nearby during World War II.

Wine was drunk and chicken eaten. It was all jolly convivial.

Two Bald Krauts,’ I said.

My flash of brilliance didn’t even elicit a response.

I tried to say, ‘do you want to be noticed, or not?’ but he just wasn’t hearing.


Money has been on my Kindle for well over a year and I haven’t even looked at it.
My Kindle is the place I keep books I don’t really want to read.

A few days ago, the only reading matter I had to hand after finishing an effortlessly wonderful Anne Tyler novel in paperback, was on my Kindle.

That narrowed it down. Was it going to be Thomas Aquinas? Dark Night of the Soul? A dictionary or two? An ancient copy of a daily newspaper?

Glum, resigned, downcast – and, recovering from the work of a skilled sawbones, learning to navigate with crutches in brief sessions out of bed – I started it.

Glum, I persevered.

Glum became despondent. Irritated.

OK. The writing’s pretty good, I’ll grant you.

I just don’t like what it says. And the way it says it. And how it goes on.

I soon got the hang of the story and where it was going. Understood the protagonist. Was immersed in the life of an exaggerated caricature of a man, which said nothing new to me, just exasperated me.

I’d had enough. But the wretched e-device told me I’d barely notched up 30%.

I plodded on, interrupted by cups of tea, insertion of intravenous drips, pulse readings and bloodlettings. I became impatient. Flipped through e-page after e-page. Inducing nausea. I presume it was the flipping – could have been the book.

And then.

I reached the bit where* the protagonist meets Martin Amis!
*[I don’t care if this spoils it for you – the whole thing spoilt a very long and already trying day for me]

OK. I get it. Chinese-rings-trick kinda writing.

Featuring famous novelist M Amis.

As written by famous novelist M Amis.

Oh, for heavens’ sake.

And yes, it all pans out how I thought it would when I’d endured less than 30%.

It made me so miserable.

And I wasted how much time on this?

OK. So I should just accept it. It was a rubbish experience. Time to move on, yes?

Thing is, I wasn’t very well. And by the time I’d finished it I felt sick at heart and in body.

As if I’d been swimming in warm, greasy dishwater sloshing with soggy food scraps.

It’s taken a while to sluice the muck out of my head.

And so yesterday I picked up an extremely slim volume of poetry to help clean it out.
Poet Wendy Cope is an alumna of my old college. She writes poems that some people – the kind of people who sneer at anything common folks understand (the kind of people who like Martin Amis novels) – find too funny, touching, human. Accessible.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of hi-falutin’poetry, when the time is right, but wouldn’t you be intrigued by a book of poems entitled Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis?

I was. And when I read a few of the short verses in the collection, it felt like I’d brushed my brain with fresh minty brainpaste. Swilled it round with the brainwash of normality. Rid myself of the lingering odour of a blocked drain outside a cheap restaurant.

Did I say I didn’t like the book? Perhaps you guessed?

What a relief. Now I can tell people I don’t like Martin Amis. Even when I’m off my head on morphine.

Posted in Reading, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

No comment.

Something happened this week that makes blogging seem totally trivial. Bad news from a friend. I won’t share it, there’s enough bad news in the world without me foisting my small part of it on you.

But I’m feeling rather strange. Uncomfortable, even.

Despite a sadness that’s settled into my heart, my blog – this site – has been lurking just past the corner of my eye. Floating in the ether, saying, ‘feed me’. And feed it I must.

Or must I?


And why today, of all days?

The answer’s hard for me to fathom.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading about the effects of social media, online sharing and mobile phone usage on attention spans and behaviour. Stuff everyone seems to be particularly antsy about at the moment. Including me.

I even read a whole book: ‘The End of Absence. Reclaiming what we’ve lost in a world of constant connection.’ (Author, Michael Harris.)

Blogging is (ostensibly) about connecting – and over the last two years eight months, the process of blogging and following others has made me reassess what it means to know someone. To relate to other human beings.

Does it matter that it’s intangible? After all, when I was young we had penfriends – it just took longer to send and receive the messages.

But I do feel, somehow, it’s different. And it’s been perplexing me.

I’ve been asking myself, why do bloggers blog – and why do readers read?

Do ‘real’ relationships develop (I think they do, see my post about Tess Ross) – and what are they, those relationships?

Are they mostly between bloggers and non-blogging readers – like newspapers and commuters, say? Or are they mostly between member of the  ‘community’ of bloggers, souls reaching out, in some individual way, to others?

I suspect that many readers – whether bloggers themselves or not – read out of simple curiosity, learning about new places, people, cultures and so on. I do.

Some have an especially serious reason for following a blog about a shared illness, or other challenge they are facing.

And then there are the ones who know the blogger in real life.

I don’t know if I’m a rarity, but I feel a tad uncomfortable following people I know in the flesh. And some people I know in ‘real’ life are the ‘followers’ who puzzle me the most.

The ones who follow, but don’t ‘follow’.

Who read but never ‘comment’.

Who don’t ever click the ‘like’ button.

People who tell me, ‘I do read your blogs, you know. I enjoy seeing what you’re up to, even if I don’t comment.’

Are they just inquisitive, plain and simple, but afraid of that great, identity-stealing, bogey-person in the ether?

Afraid of committing to a view in the full glare of – me? Other readers?

Afraid of the thought police?

The latter I’d understand. I’ve been visiting some ‘interesting’ websites lately by way of research – in fact, maybe you’d better stop reading right now if you’re paranoid.
(Thought police, if you’re reading, I’m only trying to write fiction.)

A young academic of my acquaintance has an interesting take on this type of behaviour, this anonymous blog ogling. [Bloggling?]

So much is free online, he posits, that some people feel no need to square the circle.
The content’s there for them to enjoy or not, they feel no need to pay in any way. And that dispensation from making any kind of ‘payment’ includes any acknowledgement they have read it, liked it or – just for the sake of argument – disagreed with it.

I’m glad they do read it, don’t misunderstand me – it’s reassuring that friends I don’t see very often (you know who you are) keep up with my antics – and phobias – and rants – this way. Don’t stop!

But that absence of payment is also interesting if you come at it from my perspective.

I was a journalist of sorts, on and off. Paid for writing things that people then read, in order to be better informed, or (I can’t really lump telecommunications in with snooping round glamorous houses) just amused.

Over the last couple of months there have been several occasions when I’ve written one of my thought or rant pieces only to find a ‘real’ writer saying much the same thing in a national newspaper a week or two later.

I mentioned one such to the new Brit in the house, gratified that my argument had been published by a real hack in a national newspaper.

‘See,’ I chirped, ‘that’s just what I was saying last week. So I am doing something useful.’ (Even I can see the flaw in that statement.)

Anyway, the point is, we’ve had many discussions about the usefulness or otherwise of my blogging. Other than some things being better out than in, as far as my psyche’s concerned, I mean, which is patently useful.

‘But,’ he says, ‘you don’t get paid for it.’

I restrain my innate instinct for the confessional, which wants me to say, ‘No – and on top of that, I pay for my site so that it has a proper address and doesn’t have ads. So, in effect, I’m paying people to read what I write.’

Is it worth it? Is it useful? Why do I do it?

No comment.

A recent frost, for no particular reason

A recent frost, for no particular reason

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No roses. But, ‘I’m ok and everything is going smoothly’

I just looked in the mirror.  A mistake.

I’ve not been up long – given it’s lunchtime. I slept really late. Later than at any time in the last 35 years or so, I reckon. And now I look as if I didn’t sleep a wink.

But, even at half past nine, this sloth was reluctant to face the day.

I grudgingly switched on the kettle, then padded down the hall to my study and fired-up the desktop.

The kettle boiled. I made tea. Took a biscuit from the tin, for dunking – well, why not?

Picked up the two newspapers I didn’t hear delivered before eight. Realised, too late, I should have cancelled one.

Sitting in bed – come on, it is the weekend – I began to read ‘my’ paper, but felt a kind of nagging worry, squatting behind my eyes like an evil sprite.

Then I remembered.

I sprang – sort of – out of bed and hurried back to the desktop.

You see, the reason I slept so late was – I was awake late. Not because I was partying, nor reading a gripping novel, nor watching an enthralling film – but because it’s been three days without an email from Archaeo-Man.

He’s off doing a pilot study.

It began well. He arrived to find his bedsit had a working shower, electricity and wi-fi.

Two days, two nights, several emails – and even a blog post* – later, I settled into communication complacency.

Oh, great nations of Africa! Let me never be complacent.

He’s in Ghana.

We were there for a week, two years ago, around this time. I loved what (little) I saw. Which is what enabled my imagination to run not quite riot, but certainly peaceful protest, with possibilities for the silence.

No wi-fi was the obvious reason. But others lurked.

A car crash (the traffic’s horrendous – and there was a casual, emailed remark about driving on the wrong side of the road).

Arrest (it’s happened before).

Sudden illness … and so on.

This morning there was a two-line email.

‘I’m ok and everything is going smoothly.’

Mains power’s been off three days. No wi-fi.  But he’s fine. And, in line two, remembered it was St Valentine’s Day. Which is more than I did.

We used to buy each other pink roses when we lived in London. Delicate, just-after-dawn pink, not peachy.

These days, if things are getting me down, a box might arrive, sent by first class post from the Scilly Isles. In it, 50 fragrant winter narcissi, or scented summer pinks – gillyflowers, to use my favourite of their names. Their perfume’s just plain blissful.

But I digress.

I had to laugh at myself, once today’s email had arrived.

Worrying? After three days? Ha!

In 1993 we took a trip to Zambia. Archaeo-Man found a site worth excavating. Went back  later (without me). For three months. Camping.

No phone, no email.

Airmail letters, written as if under a microscope to maximise use of the limited space, would arrive after two – even three – weeks. Delicately crumpled, the blue paper would be dappled with charcoal smudges. Looking like it’d been trodden on, or carried in a soft sack for a long, dusty distance. Which it probably had.

The stamps told stories. The dust told a story. The creases told a story. And the letters told several.

After a while, Archaeo-Man learned there were two telephone numbers in nearby Mumbwa (shudder, one place in Zambia I really don’t like). He found he could use the one that worked, in the Post Office, to receive calls. Sent me the number, asked me to ring each Saturday morning, nine o’clock their time, eight o’clock mine.

Sometimes it worked. A hurried conversation would ensue, subject to irritating echoes and time delays. The satellite had a bossy recorded voice to tell us when it didn’t want to connect us – but terminated our calls in an arbitrary, silent way, as if to say, that’s enough, I’m bored.

Sometimes the Post Master would have a really good Friday night and I’d sit there, at eight o’clock, ringing, ringing, ringing … to no reply. The Post Office was shut till the hangover abated.

I’d be left with a long, long Saturday – and a long, long wait till the next one.

In Mumbwa, Archaeo-Man would head back to his ramshackle camp, termite-ravaged sacks of soil samples and regular visits from Harry the policeman. And the jackal.

I’m not sure the erratic availability of that phone helped. But once the possibility was there, we couldn’t ignore it.

And now?

I’m lucky. Being by a landline all day I’m not addicted to a mobile. I see polite people suffering withdrawal jitters when they put away their phones for half an hour. There, but for the grace of working at home, go I.

One day we may have permanent connections implanted in our brains. And then who will daydream? Or become bored and find something interesting to do, or read, or think about?

Whose brains will be free to create, invent, imagine?

The expectation of communication is its own problem. We can, ergo, we expect. And do.

But I still remember that cranky satellite. And I imagine what would happen to the world if a solar flare put out our phones and emails and …

You can have too much imagination.

Some Amaryllis I grew this winter - just to cheer up the post this St Valentine's Day

Some Amaryllis I grew this winter – just to cheer up the post this St Valentine’s Day

*If you’d like to find out more about what Archaeo-Man’s up to here’s his blog site:

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Mad? Lucky? Or just plain stupid, with a death-wish?

A memory surfaces, now and then, which makes my brain freeze.

It’s the late 1990s. We’re staying with a farmer outside Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. He’s very hospitable, bought us new, blue mats to step onto when we get out of bed. But they’re lethal, slipping out from under our feet, so we avoid them, keep to the cold, polished concrete floor.

At night the corner of the tin roof above our room flaps in the wind and bangs, keeping me awake. But I don’t mind. Because that’s my escape route.

I’d be awake even without the clanging roof. Because we’re locked in at night. Not locked in like you are at night – you know, front door locked, back door locked, downstairs windows shut.

For one thing there’s only downstairs, no upstairs.

For another thing we don’t need to shut the windows – wouldn’t if it weren’t for the mosquitoes – because there are thick iron bars on them all.

At night our host pulls shut and locks a heavy metal door, like a huge safe door, blocking the corridor and confining us all in two rooms leading off it. He, his wife, son and daughter have one bedroom, we the other.

There’s no way out.

No chance of climbing out of the barred window.

So my escape route – in the event that fire breaks out and we can’t open the door – is the flapping roof. You think fire’s unlikely? Well, given the erratic electricity, given the candles – it’s possible. And not just because of an accident. A burning rag, a home-made petrol bomb … I know, I have too much imagination.

But it’s one of the sad things about urban Zambia – though it’s probably less of a problem than in some other African countries I’ve visited – that crime is a fact of daily life. Burglary, in particular.

A poacher's home made firearm

A poacher’s home made firearm

Criminals are often desperate. Home-made firearms are not uncommon, nor are axes and knives.

Anyone who has anything in the big city – like a home with a television – builds a fence, a wall, a gate. Tops them with broken glass, or razor wire. Hires a night watchman. Keeps dogs.

But these things can be circumvented – and sometimes the tool is a human being. A trusted servant, for example, who, for some reason, turns on the employer.

We’re well outside the city, but there have been attacks in the area around us. A terrible murder on a nearby farm. The victims were close to our host. Could not have been closer. One was a parent. And it was Christmas.

The atmosphere’s tense at night. The woman of the house and her daughter, we suspect, don’t often stay here now. The little girl was there, at Christmas, when the bodies were found.

One day our farmer offers to take us to see some rock art, newly discovered by a schoolgirl.

Rock art from Kasama Northern Zambia

Rock art from Kasama Northern Zambia

Not what we went to see, but this is typical geometric rock art at Mutinondo Wilderness, near Mpika, Northern Zambia

Not what we went to see, but this is typical geometric rock art at Mutinondo Wilderness, near Mpika, Northern Zambia

It’s a long drive so we stay overnight at his nephew’s house.

Our bedroom walls are covered with the flattest spiders I’ve ever seen, like starfish. I pretend they’re wallpaper. They don’t seem to move a lot.

We pick up our teenaged guide and park by a reservoir used by middle class Zambians and ex-pats for water sports. Have a soft drink at the anglers’ club house, use the loo. Then start the climb into the hills, seeking a small rock shelter.

It’s warm, becoming warmer by the minute. Winter in Zambia’s tolerably hot by day and here, on the high plateau, cold at night.

The slopes are dotted with boulders and rocks and stones. Leaves rusty from age and desiccation. Blackened twigs and – everywhere – the dust, the orange dust.

I’m not a great climber. And our guide’s a sporty teenage girl. It’s hard to keep up.

It becomes clear I’d have to do some serious climbing to reach the rock shelter, so I opt to stay behind. Wait to hear if it’s worth it.

I stand on a boulder. It’s dark, grey and pretty large. Basking, inanimate, in the sun.

I can hear the others – it’s not far, just an awkward climb – chattering.

About one of my steps away from me is a hole in the basking rock.

I don’t want to, but I can’t stop myself. I look into that hole.

The black mamba’s a sinister-looking snake. If you wanted a model for the serpent in the Garden of Eden I’d look no further. Not black, that would be too obvious, but grey. A sleek, grey, lethal shadow.

I can see its eyes, its coffin-shaped head.

And do I run? No. I do nothing. I stand, on a rock, in the sun, staring at a black mamba.

When I first came to Zambia I read a book about snakes. I thought confronting my fears, learning about them, would help. It didn’t.

The black mamba’s bite can kill in fifteen minutes. It will attack if you’re between it and its goal – its hole in a rock, for example. It rears up and lunges. Bites. Kills.

I suppose my reasoning is that it’s already home, in its hole. It won’t attack.

So I keep on standing. And staring.

The others return. Archaeo-man pulls me away and we run downhill, fast as we can.

In the 4×4 on our way back, we’re driving past a small village when I see a strange figure with bright red hair. No one else sees it. I describe what I thought was a woman. It was a shaman.

And I remember thinking as we drove on, through a patch of burning grassland, with scorching flames crackling and roaring either side of us, that I’d be glad to get back to the farm.

You don’t always know when you’ve got it good, do you?

[Please note: this was some time ago – Zambia is now more prosperous and I trust and hope it has resulted in less of the type of crime that was around then. Don’t let this (or my crime fiction set there) put you off if you plan to visit, it’s a wonderful place!]

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Patriotic thoughts, while on a level crossing

The train’s clattering out of the station with a bit of a wheeze. She may run on electricity – but she whines a lot.

I’ve just been told, by a new British citizen, that this is the oldest electric railway in the country. I don’t know if it’s true, but in deference to his newly British status I’ll trust him.

The level crossing gates lift with that, ‘Ohhhh-kaaay, here we go’ noise and, with a handful of other around-at-midday people, I toddle across the tracks.

I feel as if I’m in a painting, brought to life. A scene from the late 1950s or maybe the ‘60s. Surrounded by shoppers out walking, trussed up in winter coats and wearing gloves and hats. There’s even a basket or two.

It’s odd, this harmonious blending of time and place. Is it because I’ve just been to a ceremony in a bit of old – but definitely not twee – England? Is it because for once I’m conscious of my luck, my pleasure, in being here?


There are more glamorous places than Bootle, a community ripped to pieces in World War II, but it has a cracking Town Hall. And that’s the location my in-house American, now also British, has chosen for his ceremony.

Bootle Town Hall was built in the 1860s, when English towns were first allowed to be ‘incorporated,’ to become corporations and raise money by collecting local rates or borrowing. It’s quite a fine building, imposing, solid – sure of itself. The industrial north is studded with such edifices, monuments in stone to their civic pride and industrial prowess.

She shows her age, inside, the old place. Each decade has left its mark, except perhaps the last. But she’s a character. The wrinkles tell of joy and sorrow and pain and pleasure – politics and community. Botox she does not need. She’s a survivor and she shows it.

For Bootle and neighbouring Liverpool their livelihood was the sea, the docks a vital lifeline for the nation. And, therefore, prime German targets when the war came.

But, that the Town Hall survived the bombing of World War II is not just down to luck or character. Its proud, ‘look-at-me’ sandstone walls had to be obscured by painting them with pitch, because German aircraft were using it as a landmark for their bombing raids.

And what raids.

P1010455A clock hangs on the wall, forever stopped at 11.34, the hour the bomb hit the infants’ school in May 1941.

Three-quarters of Bootle’s housing was bombed in one week. The war saw 1886 civilians dead and injured, more deaths, proportionately, than any other township in the UK.

All because Bootle’s docks were critical to winning World War II, in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Worn, tattered flags now hang below the ceiling in the council chamber, presented by ships’ captains docked in Bootle between U-Boat stalking missions.

P1010481The most celebrated is the ‘General Chase’, flown for only the third time in British naval history by one Captain ‘Johnny’ Walker, hounding down German subs in the Bay of Biscay. The first occasion was by Nelson in the Battle of the Nile, the second, by Sturdee in the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914.

Walker died not long before the war ended. Worn out, according to the friendly, affable Lord Mayor of Sefton, with whom we’re chatting.

A charming man with a trim white beard, the Mayor has already handed over the new Brits’ certificates and gifts – silver-plated picture frames. He’s posed for photos with Chinese, Thai, New Zealand and American folks who made the grade, became British today.

It was moving, you know. Mine weren’t the only eyes that were moist.

They played God Save the Queen and for once, instead of that inner grumble, ‘why do we have such a boring national anthem?’, I felt a surge of pride, in the nation and the people who’ve paid so much in monetary and possibly – who knows? – other terms, to join us. To become British.

The Mayor’s being chivvied to attend to his next engagement, but first he stops to ask us if we recognise the symbol at the centre of his mayoral chain. I don’t. We don’t.

After ten years living in Sefton Council territory, seeing the symbol on letterheads and signs, we’re clueless.

To be fair, Sefton was only created in 1974, hacked out of old Lancashire. So no-one really loves it, is loyal to it. It has little or no real meaning.

But it has a symbol. A design based on a water mill. Sefton Council

And the French for ‘water mill’ is the origin of the local Molyneux family’s name. The Molyneux family that came over with William the Conqueror in 1066.

Now isn’t that an irony?

On the day my husband becomes a proper immigrant, a citizen, along with people of three other nationalities, we learn our local council’s visual identity is based on the name of a foreign invader. An invader who became the power in the land.

It’s a nice reminder, as the next election picks up steam, as our political parties bite the prejudice bullet and talk about immigration. We Brits are a very mongrel lot. But we’re all humans.

Many languages, many religions. Many colours, shapes and sizes.

Just one race, though, not many.

And we all originate from … Africa.


(This account of Walker’s wartime career left me breathless with admiration for his courage, energy and determination. )

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, In Britain now - and then, Lancashire and the golf coast, Liverpool | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

A fraud journeys over water, encounters a naked man and brings home some reindeer

It’s been a bit husk-memoir-lite, lately, this blog, so I thought I’d retrieve a little episode from the 1980s from my mental archives. One I’ve been puzzling over recently, for no particular reason.

Here goes …

I’m working for an American company that publishes technical magazines. ‘European editorial office’, my card says (inaccurately), Boston being unwilling to fund anything more exact after their last experience of employing me. And, yes, the fraud, that’s me.

You see, as a journalist – I use the term loosely – I’m not too bad at researching, quite good at editing, but my knowledge of telecommunications – the main sector I cover – is what you might call basic.

Yet people keep sending me on trips to interesting places.

The only condition seems to be that I visit a factory or an exhibition or an army base (I also cover ‘defense’) or something. In return I stay in top hotels, eat fab meals and travel in little planes and chauffeur driven cars. Well, that’s on the good trips.

Knowing nothing – or not much – might be a serious handicap, you’d think, but actually it’s not. Kind colleagues often help me out. They know I work on a monthly, across the Atlantic. That my work flies out in bundles every Wednesday – and it’ll be ages before my report’s in print, if ever.

In other words, I’m no competition. And we all go out drinking together, anyway.


Odd things sometimes happen. And on this trip, they do.

We stayed last night in a hotel in Stockholm, but today we’re on an overnight ferry, to Finland. To a place called Turku.

Now, you may read that word, Turku, any way you like, but for me it’s forever a sound. It comes in the sentence, ‘Welcome to the Turku Telephone Company,’ spoken in a hoarse, gruff voice. Barely more than a whisper, but deep and loud.

Each word bounces along like a rubber ball.

The man speaking has a tremendous white moustache. And a twinkle in his eye.

He explains why his voice is so gruff. It’s permanent and – I may be making this up – something to do with World War II and the shortage of medicines.

Mr Gruff tells us lots about telecommunications in Finland. Details I soon forget – like everything technical thing about this trip. Even the scoop that my friend from Electronics Weekly picks up while we’re having after-dinner drinks with a Top Boffin.

Never mind. By the time my deadline comes around her report will be out, I can read it.

Picture of Turku Castle by Markus Koljonen (Dilaudid)

Turku Castle Picture: Markus Koljonen

The roofs of Turku have a quaint charm and there’s much to see and buy in the indoormarket – but soon we’re leaving it behind, heading for a castle.

There we drink lingonberry champagne and snack on smoked reindeer canapés. And say farewell to Turku.

At the airport, later that day, I invest in a bottle of Finnish vodka and a pack of smoked reindeer to take home.

But what about the naked man, you ask?

Strictly speaking he’s already happened. A couple of nights back, in Stockholm. I kept him to last to entice you to read on.

So, to Stockholm …

I’m in a rather smart hotel, in my room, at night. A knock comes on the door.

Outside stands a naked man.

‘I’m on the press trip,’ he says, probably seeing how blank my face is (I’m trying hard to keep it that way), ‘I locked myself out of my room.’

He has a heavily accented voice, seems a bit agitated.

‘Please can you ring reception, ask someone to open my door?’

Of course I say yes. Offer him a cushion to cover his – embarrassment. He gives me his room number and I shut the door on him, leaving him out in the hall.

I can’t say anything quite like this has happened to me before.

Next morning we’re waiting for a coach and I’m chatting to Della and Bob, a couple of British journalists. A man wearing glasses taps me on the shoulder.

‘Thank you for last night,’ says the man, sotto voce.

For a moment I’m puzzled, then recognition dawns.

‘Oh, sorry, ’I say, in my normal everyday voice, ‘ I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on.’  Then, being a polite person, I add, ‘You’re welcome.’

He scurries off. Della and Bob look at me. I explain to a burst of semi-muffled sniggering.

I know it’s hard to believe – especially me saying that – but, honestly, it’s true.

Anyway – here we are, now, in 2015 and I’m talking about this event. To my husband.

‘You know,’ I say, ‘I’ve always wondered why he got locked out of his room. And how he knew … You don’t think …?’

Husband shakes head. Looks like he’s thinking, oh dear, oh dear.

‘Of course I do.’

Those were the days.


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I am not a number. Je suis humaine.

If you recognise the first part of the title as coming from ‘The Prisoner’, award yourself a silver star! But, be warned, that’s as cheerful as the mood of this post gets.

Today I was planning to write something superficial about massacres and kidnappings. Forgive me if that sounds shocking. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care, or that they don’t matter, it’s just that I’m not knowledgeable enough to delve deeply into the subject.

The idea started brewing a couple of months ago when we went to a concert. There I heard a song about a massacre.

In that massacre, I read later, eleven people – nine men, two women – were killed and four hundred wounded.

It took place in Manchester, in northern England, in 1819 and later became known as Peterloo*.

There’s a plaque commemorating the event on the wall of what was, until 1997, the ‘Free Trade Hall’. Built on St Peter’s Field, the site of the massacre, it’s now a Radisson hotel.

The plaque tells us fifteen people were killed and 600 injured, but we’ll never know the exact figures. Given the context and our distance from it, that’s hardly surprising.

Then, a week ago I saw a report of a massacre in Nigeria. It was in the Guardian newspaper. A smallish item compared with the pages devoted to the Paris killings. But at least it was there – a rarity, at that point.

‘As many as’ 2000 people were feared dead, according to Amnesty, the report said.

Yesterday, six days later, images from Amnesty were shared on Facebook and reproduced in other media showing clusters of homes burnt to the ground.

I don’t have the resources of a news organisation, nor the confidence to explore the complex underpinnings of Nigerian politics and the havoc being wreaked by Boko Haram terrorists. But there are things we know.

In Nigeria an election campaign is underway.

The authorities in Nigeria do not agree with Amnesty’s estimates of how many have died.

And on this they have form.

Step back in time a few months.

Remember the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria?

Do you remember how many there were?

The Nigerian authorities’ figures have varied wildly. It was initially claimed that 85 girls were abducted, then that 129 had been kidnapped but 100 had escaped. Finally, it was admitted that possibly 276 had been taken. Since then some plucky girls have escaped.

How could the authorities slice a hundred or more human beings – girls – off the figures, for appearances’ sake?

How did anyone have the gall to quibble about numbers when they should have been doing their damnedest to get them back?

Do you know why so many girls were at that school, overnight, at that particular time?

They were there so they could take their exams in safety. They had come from all over the area that is worst affected by Boko Haram. They wanted to make a better life for themselves through education.

Boko Haram apparently means ‘Western Education is forbidden’.

According to Africa Factcheck, it’s probable 219 young women and girls remain captives.

I suspect there’s little hope, now, they will be freed in any condition fit to carry on their former lives. To take their certificates of secondary education.

Amnesty also claims that the Nigerian authorities had at least four hours’ warning that the kidnappings were imminent. Who knows the truth? I don’t.

The girls have not been entirely forgotten.

Every now and again I go onto Twitter, jaded, to see if the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls is still running. But Twitter can only raise virtual storms, it can’t change the weather. Yes, Michelle Obama famously Tweeted the slogan – but ‘our’ girls are still not back – and the world moves on.

Meanwhile, in the northern hemisphere, we have, for the last few days, been bombarded with news of twelve murders in and around the Charlie Hebdo offices and four at a Jewish supermarket in Paris.

We’ve seen videos. Heard eye witnesses recount their experiences.

We’ve followed the trail of the terrible tragedy with countless reporters, shipped-in, post-haste, like ghouls at an unholy feast.

In Britain, we’ve watched and listened as BBC newsreaders and radio presenters popped up on the streets of Paris – introducing the BBC’s own correspondents, who were already there. ‘Me too, I want to play,’ it felt like they were saying.

But at least – conspiracy theories aside – thanks to them we know how many people were killed, how many murderers there were – and how many extra copies of Charlie Hebdo were published after the event.

We know world leaders linked arms, actors wore pencils on the red carpet.

And everyone learned to say Je suis.

Please, don’t think I am belittling this terrible tragedy.

I do understand why it has been given so much attention in the western, northern media.

It was horrific.

It’s close to home.

It concerns freedom of expression and religious tolerance.

It’s reportedly the work of terrorists. (Though here I side with the commentator who suggested that these men be called murderers – in one simple word detaching them from Muslims everywhere, whether they sympathise with the killers or – more important – whether they do not.)

We proles can’t take too much death or too many refugees – literally in the latter instance in Britain’s case. So I also understand that some big things, like Syria, will always slip from the news.

But,  ‘as many as’ 2000 people driven from their homes and killed?

Probably 219 girls held captive by Boko Haram?

In the wake of Peterloo a new newspaper was founded. A newspaper that told the truths other media – controlled by the frightened authorities and upper classes hundreds of miles away in London – would not.

That newspaper was the Manchester Guardian.

The Manchester Guardian is now just the Guardian – and has its feet firmly cemented in London.

But at least it can still muster the humanity to cover the massacre of 2000 (or so, who’s counting?) far away at a time when we also mourn the sixteen, close at hand.




*More about Peterloo:

The plaque:

The words of the Oldham Tinkers’ song, Peterloo, give you a simple locally expressed snapshot of what it was all about, here’s a link to their website and the lyrics and a You Tube of a performance:


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