The president and the slave trader

This morning, Sunday morning, for the first time in my life, I sat in bed with my laptop and watched a 40 minute video. It was emotional watching.

There were tears. (I know, the tears thing – it’s becoming a habit. But, you know what? The world could do with more tears – and fewer guns.)

Anyway. This was no feature film, no soap opera, no documentary. This was President Obama talking. At a pace we’ve forgotten to respect. At a pace we need to rediscover. At a human pace.

Talking to the patient, bereaved community of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

The President wove his eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney around the words of Amazing Grace.

We do not earn grace, he said, time and again. We are given grace, by God.

This was an extraordinary eulogy in so many ways.

To a person used to the evasions of the British, the mere mention of God as if he – yes, he – does exist was exceptional.

But I soon forgot to notice it.

After all, I think I believe. I think.

At first President Obama looked as if he had been presented with a poisoned chalice, but one he accepted almost with relief.

His God did not let it pass away from him. It was a chalice of experience, not poison.

He spoke quietly, no rabble rousing, no tear jerking, no crashing crescendoes.

It was about Obama, but it was about all black Americans.

I felt a surge of almost joy that, at last, this black – yes, black – president had been able, with such tragic good cause, to speak of his own membership of an oppressed group of people.

I will not call it a race. We are all humans, no matter what our skin colour or gender or sexual orientation or disabilities.

It was a long eulogy, for those used to soundbites, to politicians with carefully rehearsed emotions and ambiguity of meanings.

As he spoke, members of his audience agreed, muttered, repeated what he said.

And then it happened.

He stopped.

Not for a moment, for dramatic effect, but because. His because.

There was as much silence as there can be in a big crowd of people. And then two words he had repeated many times came out differently .

He sang, two words.

Amazing Grace.

And that man can sing.

That man – that black man who is the President of the USA – can sing.

I felt as if a caged bird – oh yes, a caged bird – had sung.

Listening to him speak, then sing, it was as if a tap had been turned on, that was normally soldered shut. He was speaking as one of a crowd that felt something different from me, from white Americans, from white people the world over.

Free at last, to talk about it. Because of a tragedy. Yet another gun-enabled tragedy. And yes, he was able to talk about that, too.

The video of the President singing is here, 36 minutes in, but if you can find the time I recommend watching the whole thing. The experience becomes the more wonderful for it, trust me.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/watch-funeral-charleston-shooting-victim-clementa-pinckney/

Are you still there?

Are you wondering about the slave trader yet?

Well, a short while ago I wrote one of those ranty pieces I try to keep bottled up but that fizz and fuss till they have to burst out.

About refugees.

In it I mentioned British singer songwriter Rebecca Ferguson’s moving rendition of the Obama (forever, now) hymn in a church as I watched Sunday television, teary-eyed (again) in a post-operative, pain-killer haze.

What I failed to describe in my post was the introduction which tells us about the origins of the hymn.

Amazing Grace was written by a man called John Newton in 1764. He was then a curate of Olney parish church in Buckinghamshire, England.

During a colourful career at sea he had been deeply involved in the transport of slaves.

A terrible storm, in which his ship nearly sank, resulted in his conversion to Christianity and his eventual induction as a clergyman into the Church of England.

It was not until 1788, though, some 34 years after retiring from slaving, that he published, ‘Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade’, describing the dreadful conditions of the slave ships on which he had served.

It would, he wrote, “always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” He became an abolitionist and lived to see the passage of the British Slave Trade Act of 1807.

More than 200 years later, in the church where he served his parishioners, the lovely Rebecca Ferguson learns about this story:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02lf1s6

and here she is singing his hymn, Amazing Grace http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02lf1z4

And now I sign off on another Sunday with a bit more joy and hope in my heart. Because one day everyone, surely, will be free, at last. Everyone will be treated as equal. Everyone will be able to pursue his or her life in liberty – and endeavour to find happiness without being oppressed.

Whether we believe in the President’s God, or Pastor Clementa Pinckney’s God, or not, surely this is something we humans can achieve if we try hard enough.

The forgiveness that the relatives of those who died showed so readily to the young man accused of murdering their loved ones is a lesson to us all.

Yes, we can hope, And yes, we shall, one day, overcome the prejudice that is so slow to die.

A black president in a white world has sung. It is up to us all to listen – and learn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whether we believe in the President’s God, or Pastor Clementa Pinckney’s God, or not, surely this is something we humans can achieve if we try hard enough.
The forgiveness that the relatives of those who died showed so readily to the young man accused of murdering their loved ones is a lesson to us all.
Yes, we can hope, And yes, we shall, one day, all of us – overcome the prejudice that is so slow to die. A black president in a white world has, at last, spoken – sung – like a black man. It is up to us all to listen – and learn.

Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Baby, you’re out of time*

One minute I’m thinking, gosh, what a good and faithful reconstruction of the fashions and language and décor of 1963. The next, there’s a slip in the fabric of time.

A man speaks. A twenty-first century expression in a 1960s mouth.

My admiration deflates as quickly as an ice cream melting in hot sun. (I know, terrible mix, sorry.)

It’s an all too common phenomenon of dramas set in the recent past. And once the first anachronism jumps out at me I’m alert – annoyingly – to more nits for picking.

It’s one (just one) of the reasons I haven’t been able to watch ‘Mad Men’ and didn’t enjoy ‘The Hour’. The clothes were swish and the hairstyles pretty good (speaking of nits), but somehow, it all looked too clean, too new, too straight off the page of the latest glossy magazine.

I’m not old enough to have been part of the ‘Mad Men’ scene, nor that of ‘The Hour’, but even when I was a little girl we didn’t live in a new, clean-clothed, hair-washed bubble.

The original Sindy was a bit older than mine. She was launched in 1963 and like miine had very shiny, possibly unwashed (forever) hair.

The original Sindy was a bit older than mine. She was launched in 1963 and like mine had very shiny, possibly unwashed (forever) hair.

Most people washed their hair once a week. My father, who had a phobia about water, washed his very, very rarely. I don’t think he was the only one.

Barbers even now, I’m told, sometimes run the comb through their own hair before tackling that of the customer. In lieu of washing.

Hair had a slickness to it then – especially men’s hair – because it was oily. Because people didn’t wash it every day.

Powder shampoo promised much for the appearance-obsessed teen’s interim de-oiling.

Those of us who had scarcely any pocket money as teens used talcum powder instead. It made little difference, both did the job – and delivered fake dandruff.

Every house had talcum powder in those days. Tins of several different scents would nestle in the family bathroom cabinet. It was standard Christmas or birthday present fare, along with bath cubes and soap.

Very few British bathrooms had showers. We washed our hair in the bath or over the washbasin, had a plastic hose attachment for the taps, which often shot off as we rinsed in the primrose yellow, pink or avocado tub.

(I’m not saying we had three tubs, by the way. We had one and, actually, it was white. Sorry.)

But back to the small screen. (Ours is. Just nineteen inches.)

1963. What  do you reckon, did Ringo wash his hair every day?

1963 – what do you reckon – did Ringo wash his hair every day?

In period dramas set in the fifties and sixties the clothes – even if authentic – all look as if they’ve come straight out of a (posh) shop. Blemish free, crease free, perfect in every way. Never worn. Or darned, or mended.

At my school in the late sixties/early seventies we were obliged to wear grey stockings. We all carried a needle and thread, because ladders were an everyday occurrence. Between lessons we’d dash into the loo and apply soap to stop them spreading further.

Come break time we’d sew them up, huddling on the cloakroom benches under our grey gabardine macs, sitting on top of the cubby holes of outdoor black shoes. Yes, we had outdoor shoes – and indoor shoes.

That was also the time when we’d fix any straps that had broken – petticoat straps, with safety pins. Does a teenage girl of 2015 know what a petticoat is? Does she have small safety pins for holding broken straps together? I doubt it.

But to go back to slips (ha ha – petticoats, get it?) in time.

We watched ‘The Theory of Everything’ the other night.

I was prepared not to enjoy it – it seemed a bit – I don’t know – odd, to me. Focused on two people who are still alive. One very famous, one a classic fame-by-association wife. Who wrote the book on which it was based. Well, good on her.

But as I say, I approached it in a dubious frame of mind.

As it notched up the minutes I was pretty impressed – yes the clothes were especially clean for scientific male students of any era, but the fashions were pretty good. The females looked right for the class being portrayed. I began to settle in. And then it happened.

We were in a pub. Beer was being drunk. Dimpled glass mugs were in evidence where now there would only be smooth handle-less glasses. But then.

‘Can I get two more of those?’

Aaargh!

We turned to look at each other, the spell broken.

‘No, don’t you worry, that’s my job, I’ll get them for you.’

That’s how my in-house Professor reacts when he hears that.

[And, digressing a bit, his reaction to, ‘I’m good,’ is, ‘I was asking after your health, not your moral welfare.’ Snigger. *Sucks teeth*.]

It doesn’t matter for most people – certainly not for the generation brought up to say ‘I’m good,’ and ‘Can I get,’ but it bugs me, I’ll be honest. Along with excessive and anachronistic use of the ‘f’ word.

Eventually, though, equanimity restored, the film worked its sentimental magic and tears were shed before bedtime.

But I still found it odd. Those people, still alive.

Not my book, but by a rather more successful novelist. This appeared in 1963

I can’t even promote my own book. Shriek! No! Don’t look at me!

How can they cope with themselves up there on big screens the world over? With people oohing and ahhing over them, dissecting the ifs and buts and whys of their lives.

I just don’t get it.

Get it?

Baby. I’m out of time.


*[Rolling Stones song, No 1 hit for Chris Farlowe in 1966, when I was at school in grey stockings.]

Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Amazing Grace – the flip side

I’d been back from hospital just twenty-four hours when a programme on television reduced me to tears.

I suspect if it had been longer since my sawbones’s attentions I would still have been touched. But probably not enough to end up puffy faced and red eyed.

It was Sunday, the day after I came home. I was tired. Drained. I couldn’t face reading and needed some diversion.

A programme of readings and hymns was not what I had in mind. But when I saw that a guest was the singer songwriter Rebecca Ferguson, runner-up in the X Factor in 2010, Liverpudlian, mum – oh, and daughter of two Jamaican immigrants – I stopped to watch.

The presenter was also black and as I watched the two beautiful black women treating the church they were in with palpable reverence, I felt humbled as well as moved.

But it took Rebecca singing ‘Amazing Grace’ for the tears to roll.

I felt so proud of our great country, for the first time in ages. Proud that these two young, lovely people were here, on our television screens, treating us all with the respect and tolerance that I suspect at least one of them had not known as she grew up.

Because Rebecca grew up in some difficult places in a poor city.

As she grew into motherhood she put herself through training to become a legal secretary for the children’s sake. She was ready to give up her ambitions for them too.

But fame came to the rescue – and deservedly so.

Listening to her that Sunday I remembered a record – a vinyl single – my mother bought, decades ago. She used to rummage through the 45s on sale after Christmas in our local department store and bought some great ones – as well as some dogs.

One of her purchases was ‘Amazing Grace’ sung by Judy Collins. On the flip side of that single is a haunting song, written by Bob Dylan, called  ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’.

The immigrant, as I keep hearing in my head,

‘whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass’

That memory’s been festering in my brain for weeks now.

But I’ve been avoiding touching it, yet another sore spot in my conscience, a tender place where the recent government stance on refugees has started to hurt.

Then, last week, I was chatting with a friend and I felt a big, ‘Ouch’.  He’d hit me right on that sore spot.

Picture from UNHCR website

Picture from UNHCR website

Here in Europe (of which we in Britain are geographically a part, whether some people like it or not) the name ‘Mediterranean’ has recently ceased to conjure up images of sun-drenched beaches lapped by gentle waves. Instead we’re seeing men, women and children dead, drowned or pulled from the sea barely alive.

People in white overalls and face masks saving lives only to dump them on the shore to await a desperately uncertain fate.

Our British government has sent the Navy to help rescue some of the wretched people who risk their lives trying to reach the ‘sanctuary’ of civilised Europe when their boats sink or are abandoned by their traffickers.

More and more people are washing up – literally – on the shores of Greece and Italy. Nowhere to go, nothing to live on.

Despite pleas for a Europe-wide solution to the housing of the wretched homeless, Britain has said a resounding, shameful no.

I thought, when I was talking about this with my (Catholic) friend, that I was speaking to someone of like mind. But as I watched his purposely impassive face it dawned on me. He agreed with the government on this one.

I asked him, outright, if it was true.

Yes. His view was that the cause needed fixing and, by implication, that if we kept on helping people by saving lives and giving those who have nothing a chance to make a life in a better place, it would only exacerbate the problem.

I agreed with him. Because I agree the cause needs fixing.

Syrian refugees. UNHCR picture

Syrian refugees. UNHCR picture

But while we in the rich countries (we’re in the world’s top 10) take our time, failing to help sort out the problems of places like Syria, Eritrea and Democratic Republic of Congo, do we really expect those who are terrified, harassed, in fear of their lives, to sit and wait for a diplomatic solution?

To submit to another rape, or another horrific beating, while we decide how best to work towards an end of the strife?

Refugee in abandoned brick factory in Serbia waits for his smuggler to get him to Europe. UNHCR picture

Refugee in abandoned brick factory in Serbia waits for his smuggler to get him to Europe. UNHCR picture

Most of the people who make it to Europe, who survive the ordeal by water, the ordeal by ostracism, the ordeal by discrimination, have struggled, worked hard and somehow accumulated enough money to pay shameful exploitative boat owners to get them across the water.

Yet some Europeans – some Brits – think they want to come and live off benefits.

If only the scandal-mongering press would read some of the facts.

Most people don’t even know they could get benefits.

They simply want to live in safety, to learn, to work, to be healthy.

I am ashamed of my country for denying a home to some of the most desperate people in the world. And I wonder, really, why this is.

There is room.

Yes, there is a shortage of social housing – and the government is planning to sell off cheap what little there is.

But when impoverished, borderline bankrupt Greece can find the poor immigrants a home, when Italy extends a welcoming, tolerant hand, when German Christians do their bit, why are we turning a cold British shoulder?

This week is refugee week and below, if you choose to read them, are some facts.

If anyone reading this has any influence with the powers that be –  if you are that person – perhaps you could pass them on.

The fact is these desperate migrants mostly don’t want to come here, to Britain – they want to go to Germany. But at least we’d be better than a watery grave. And you never know, like the Ugandan Asians of the 1970s, a few unwanted immigrants might just end up employing 30,000 people.

Yes, I’m sad to say, the money argument has far more chance of working than the moral one.


The 1951 Refugee Convention guarantees everybody the right to apply for asylum. It has saved millions of lives.

No country has ever withdrawn from it.

The UK is home to less than 1% of the world’s refugees out of more than 50 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.

About 86% of the world’s refugees are living in developing countries often in camps.

In 2011, worldwide, 17,700 children applied for asylum having arrived in the country of refuge alone, with no parent or guardian. 1,277 of these applications were made in the UK. Many of them come from Afghanistan, which was described by UNICEF in 2010 as “the world’s most dangerous place to be a child”.

About 1,200 medically qualified refugees are recorded on the British Medical Association’s database

Immigrants, including refugees, pay more into the public purse compared to their UK born counterparts.

An estimated 30,000 jobs have been created in Leicester by Ugandan Asian refugees since 1972.

Asylum seekers do not come to the UK to claim benefits. In fact, most know nothing about welfare benefits before they arrive and had no expectation that they would receive financial support.

Almost all asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are forced to rely on state support – this can be as little as £5 a day to live on.

Asylum seekers do not jump the queue for council housing and they cannot choose where they live. The accommodation allocated to them is not paid for by the local council. It is nearly always ‘hard to let’ properties, where other people do not want to live.

There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Convention and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim.

It is recognised in the 1951 Convention that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means in order to escape and claim asylum in another country – there is no legal way to travel to the UK for the specific purpose of seeking asylum. There is nothing in international law to say that refugees must claim asylum in the first country they reach.

The top ten refugee producing countries all have poor human rights records or ongoing conflict. Asylum seekers are fleeing from these conflicts and abuses, looking for safety.

Many refugees and asylum seekers hope to return home at some point in the future, if the situation in their country has improved.

For sources of these statements see this web page on the UK Refugee Council’s site.

The UK Refugee Council was founded in 1951 in response to the UN Convention for Refugees, which was created after World War II to ensure refugees were able to find safety in other countries. Since then, the Refugee Council, a charity, has provided practical and emotional support to refugees from across the world to help them rebuild their lives and play a full part in society.

Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Alternative. Routes, lifestyles & mammoths. Plus, a fine Dusky Maiden

‘Recalculating route,’ she says.

I’ve only heard that voice a handful of times but I’m beginning to bristle every time she speaks.

It’s the inbuilt navigation system in our car.

She’s been more vocal than usual just lately because we’ve had a few days away. Visiting friends.

It was an ambitious five days. Lots of driving. Lots of catching up to fit into respectable time slots. Three nights on hard b&b beds. Why do people insist hard mattresses are good?

Anyway.

Day one was the worst. We had to abandon the south-west-bound motorway early. What should have been a three or four hour journey took six. But the slow-roaded Welsh borders were pretty.

The first hard-b&b-bed-night didn’t help our mood as we set out for Devon next day.

P1020001By mid-afternoon prissy Miss Satnav would’ve been thrown out of the car if she weren’t built-in. But thanks to written instructions from our host – and a map book bought at a petrol station – we reached our beautiful, isolated destination.

Next day, well fed on food, wine and art (our hostess is an artist), much conversation and a little dog-walking to our credit, we set off back to Bristol without ‘her’ help.

In Bristol the sun shone and the company of old friends was convivial, but after two more hard-b&b-bed-nights it was time to strike out for home.

It took about forty five minutes of the manic motorway before we resorted to lesser roads and ‘her’. Sleep was sneaking up. The hard beds had taken their toll.

We stopped for a wake-up cuppa – and the world stood still. That’s how it felt. The pace of life had shifted underneath our wheels.

An odd man in the car park yelled, ‘Are you all right?’ the moment we opened the car doors.

Round of tum, middle of age, he carried a large brown envelope as Don Quixote carried his lance.

‘Park here,’ he commanded, in vain. Then he chose another spot – and another.

He was plainly obsessive – and not a little strange. Which prepared us, somewhat, for the café we chose.

Outside, the blackboard boasted a hand-drawn picture of a dog. Dogs and their owners, it said, were welcome.

I hesitated.

I’m not a doggy person, not often around dogs. But I was wearing a shirt that had been tugged by a happy dog, jeans licked by her, pawed by her. A nice dog.

And it did look quirky, the café.

We stepped in.

Quirky was an understatement.

‘No mobile phones, please,’ a handwritten sign requested. Polite, but firm. You could tell by the writing.

P1020007The place mats were reproductions of paintings on the walls. Not exclusively pictures of brightly coloured caravans, but that was the overriding theme.

Many with feature-cats. (Was everyone in this town obsessive?)

The inner blackboard listed the usual drinks, but also that quaint old hot beverage – Milky Nescafé.

Neither of us has sipped so much as a drop of coffee for many, many years. Yet we both opted for the milky instant version. (I know. Some people dispute whether Nescafé is coffee.)P1020006

A slice of ginger cake came warm, with two forks.

Revived, an amble down the road took us to a cornucopian wholefood shop. We bought bread, grains, teas, condiments. Cheap olive-oil soap.

It was hard leaving. Everywhere I turned was an, ‘ooh, look,’ enticement.

But leave we did. Despite a notice telling us that if we stayed till June 21st, we could join in solstice dancing, round a tree.

Back in the street, in the warmth of a fine mid-morning, everyone was walking slowly.

Not a single person gazed upon a smartphone.  One or two wheelchairs, a mobility scooter, prams, wheeled baskets, dogs on leads. But no mobile phones.

As if the café were ruling the world for the day.

It seemed we were in a county of witches, warlocks and deep, old magic. This we discovered further along our route, when we turned right (contrary to ‘her’ instructions) to find a mammoth.

P1020011

Not the real thing. Suspicious look it’s giving me, don’t you think?

A cast of the massive mastodon was the high point of a rather good exhibition devoted to hill forts and landscapes, castles and history, mystery and superstition

Yes, Shropshire had begun to beguile us with its magic.

En route again, an hour or more later, eyes drooping once more, my chauffeur saw a sign for a garden centre with café – and turned left.

‘She’ was busy recalculating route when I switched her off. Oh, that felt good!

But it began to look as if we’d made an error of the human kind.

The road wound deeper and deeper into the enchanting Shropshire countryside. Was a mischievous spirit leading us astray? Would we end up spell-bound, deep within a dark, dank cave?

No.

It was serendipity.

For we found ourselves in a paradise of roses.

P1020012

The building originated in the 12th Century

Row upon row. Climbers and shrubs. Standards and ramblers. Red, yellow, white, pink, purple and orange. Nine hundred varieties.

P1020022Humming with insect life. Wafting with fragrance. Blessed by a scorching sun, offsetting the gentle breeze.

A secret garden. Well, except for the other people.

A former monastic pond

A former monastic pond

As chance would have it, we were in search of a rambling rose.

‘We mustn’t buy much,’ I said, in vain. ‘We don’t have room in the car.’

Half an hour later we’d fallen for a pert-flowered rambler with bright red stems. A subtle Rosa glauca with delicate pink blooms.

And a sensuous Dusky Maiden.

Dusky Maiden undressing

Dusky Maiden undressing

‘You can’t leave without me,’ her message oozed from every dark bloom.

I surveyed the three beauties.

‘Recalculating room in car,’ I thought, with that inner warm feeling that simple pleasure brings.

Poor little Miss Satnav.

No wonder she sounds so flat. She has no roses in her life. No sunshine, no scents, no gentle breezes.

Just a box, in car. And always travelling, to other people’s destinations.

P1020052

Dusky Maiden planted in front of a pear tree

P1020050

Our chic rambling rose, Francois Juranville

 

Shy Rosa Glauca not quite at home yet

Shy Rosa Rubrifolia Glauca, not quite at home yet

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, In Britain now - and then | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

White car woman and Smooth FM

Sunshine. Blue skies. June.

You wouldn’t think there was much to surprise a person in that combination, would you? In the northern hemisphere, anyway.

But.

Here, in northern England, the leaves are still hesitating.

‘Shall we risk it? Unfurl into that cold, windy world,’ they might be thinking, if they could think.

peony

Peonies

anemone

Anemone

Yes, the May blossom’s finally out on the hawthorns, but bare twigs and branches remain, obstinate, amid the fresh green foliage of many deciduous trees.

One week’s seen a major change, though.

The carmine peonies have started to shed their lush petals.The royal purple anemones are starting to fade.

Valerian and alliums, chives and thyme and forget-me-nots bloom red and purple, pink and blue.

granny's bonnets

Granny’s bonnets (aquilegia)

The aquilegias nod their many-coloured Granny’s bonnets at every zephyr’s breath.

‘Lovely day,’ I greeted Brian, this morning, as he arrived.

‘Sound timing,’ he agreed.

Brian’s a carpenter. Today he’s set his trestles up outside for sawing our new, wooden doors.

Now, though, he’s drilling and hammering indoors – and I’m resorting to blogging. It’s hard to settle to more demanding brain-work when there’s noise and company around.

Earlier, before the world was fully alert (well, before I was) I went on an expedition. Brian reminded me we needed bolts for two of our doors. Silver, to go with the handles.

Cheerful, with a mission in mind, I set out in Issy, our white car, leaving Brian’s white van where normally she would be.

Granny’s bonnets, chives, thyme

 

 

 

 

Despite a spectacular mackerel sky and the blazing sun, despite the burgeoning hawthorn hedgerows, despite a general bounciness of demeanour, I was off on a most un-romantic errand.

‘Screwfix’ was my destination.

I have a love-hate-not-quite-sure relationship with Screwfix.

Often, when I get there, a young man is greeting people with a smile and a chat and a joke. Sometimes when he’s not it can be a bit challenging.

There’s that, ‘what’re you doing here? You’re not a tradesperson, this is our territory,’ kind of glare that some people give me. Brian tells me it’s the same for him at some of the timber merchants.

Each specialist organisation, I guess, welcomes its members – official or unofficial – more than it does mere passers-by.

granny's bonnets

More granny’s bonnets

Though an elderly man at Royal Birkdale Golf Club bade me ‘Good morning’ last week when I went in to deliver some misdirected post. So it’s plainly not always, and not universally, applicable.

Anyway.

There’s a major roundabout between here and Screwfix that always worries me – you have to speed onto it at the merest hint of a gap in the traffic.

A bit like French skipping at school – dashing into the two twirling ropes and jumping, not just with speed, but precision.

I made it through the roundabout. Made it through the correct right turn at the correct set of traffic lights – and then, as always, took the wrong turn and ended up in a cul de sac.

A several-point-turn and a right turn across heavy traffic later, I drove past Chubby’s lunch van, already dispensing steaming cuppas and bacon butties, into Screwfix’s parking bays.

Parked badly.

Re-parked.

Took the catalogue of the back seat, picked up the £5 voucher I’d received in the post – and discovered I’d left my purse at home.

I didn’t pay much attention to anything on the way back, except the speed limits. But at least now I know it’s 3.8 miles from Screwfix home. And 3.8 miles back again.

A pleasant-enough – and patient – young woman fetched a silver lock from the store to show me – after I finally found the right catalogue number. I bought two. With my £5 voucher it was only £6.98.

This time, as I opened the car door and sat behind the wheel, I noticed the world.

I contemplated stopping for a cuppa and butty. But I’d already had breakfast – and anyway, I had a feeling I might get the ‘who do you think you are’ treatment at Chubby’s.

I made it through the roundabout once more and noticed the hawthorn hedges by the hospital. The bushes were so clustered with Mayblossom that they looked as if they’d been dipped in a thick vanilla milkshake.

alliums

Alliums (allia?)

My heart was beginning to sing.

I switched the radio over to Smooth FM – the daytime choice of many a tradesperson and white van man.

Brian, though, listens to Radio 4 in the morning. We had a discussion about trickle-down economics yesterday, which is how I found out.

I’ve never listened to Smooth FM.

As I tuned in I found myself turning seventeen again, moping in my bedroom. Then eighteen, driving mum’s car to the moors on a sunshiny, holiday-day.

The summer breeze up there blowing through the jasmine in my mind.

But as I slid through the traffic lights at the final turn for home, I was another year older. In tears. A letter from my ex-boyfriend in hand.

ferns geraniums aquilegia

Fern, geraniums and a bit of Granny’s bonnet

I’d dumped him. He was heartbroken.

He’d written that every time he heard, ‘Hey, if you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world,’ he thought of me.

Thyme flowering early

I can still see the ink spreading as a fat tear landed on it.

Even the flattery didn’t cheer me. It plainly wasn’t true. He had a veil of love before his eyes. But it was the first time I’d hurt someone badly – and it upset me, too.

Back in 2015 I arrived home.

Switched off the radio.

Looked up at the slightly more cloudy sky and then at our happy home – and sloughed off the memory.

Two new silver bolts. Ten new wooden doors.

Birch trees nearly fully clothed now, birds carrying twigs and pulling off sweet-scented young herbs for their nests.

Sunshine. Blue skies. June.

And a summer breeze, blowing jasmine memories through my mind.

Lady’s mantle and stray forget-me-nots

 

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, Lancashire and the golf coast | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

My mum and Aunty Maureen. By way of being a paean to a very special supermarket

Every now and again I travel twelve miles to a supermarket. A long way to go, given there are two perfectly acceptable ones within two miles. And both morally acceptable places for me to shop – for reasons that range from running their own farms to operating on co-operative principles.

But this one’s by way of being a treat.

No, really, a treat.

Mention the name of this shop to most of my friends and if they don’t live near one they’ll probably sigh. If they do, you’re likely to see a smug smile and maybe a mock-blasé remark about golden beetroot or the excellent local ham on the cooked meat counter.

A husband of a friend even suggested they might move house to be near a new branch of this shop.

Hesketh Bank Booths

Hesketh Bank Booths

The chain’s of moderate length, restricted to four counties in the north of England : Cumbria, Cheshire, Lancashire and – horrors for some who take pride in its Lancashire pedigree – Yorkshire.

Some might even argue whether Cheshire is really north.

But set that aside.

When my family moved from Lancashire, across the Pennines to (gulp) Yorkshire, the Ripon branch of Booths was still a twinkle in Mr Booth’s eye. But in Lancashire, a new one was being built near where my Aunty Maureen lived. (That’s the northern style of aunty, a family friend, not a relative.)

Aunty Maureen, a physiotherapist, was always there, somewhere, in my life. She became less familiar when we moved, no longer picked me up from school with tasty orange sweets that were actually chewable vitamin C tablets.

But we often went to stay with her when her own parents were away. They had a smart house opposite a park in a genteel part of suburban Blackpool.

Blackpool is in the distance - you can see the famous tower on the left - a replica of the Eiffel tower

Blackpool is in the distance – you can just make out the famous replica of the Eiffel tower on the left

Blackpool was always a popular seaside resort, filling up with workers during the annual week or two when the mills shut down – until the advent of cheap package holidays. Now it has a reputation for being down at heel – and yet it’s still an exciting place. But not exactly sought after.

Aunty M’s dad had made a lot of money from the workers, by running a shop in Blackpool.

A subdued old man with white hair by the time I met him, he was worn down, I suspect, by sharing his house in his old age with his daughter (she left her husband) and two grandchildren.

I was amazed when he told 15 year-old me that he’d been a yellow-cab driver in New York. My not-cousins looked bored when I told them how exciting I thought that was. They’d heard it many times before.

Anyway.

Aunty M remained one of the few people we kept in touch with after the big trans-Pennine removal.

But my mum and aunty Maureen had a bit of a love-hate relationship.

The love bit tended to revolve around late nights with a whisky bottle after my father had gone to bed. And shared holidays that my father was too anxious to take – to Italy and Austria and other places reached by plane.

The hate bit? Apart from the morning headaches?

Well, maybe hate’s a bit of an exaggeration but …

This is the kind of thing.

Aunty Maureen would taunt my mother on the phone.

‘I went to Booth’s in Poulton this afternoon. They have a beautiful Lancashire cheese in at the moment.’

She didn’t need to say anything else in order to render my mum snippy by the time she came off the phone.

Aunty M not only still lived in the only county worth living in, Lancashire, but had moved to a rather sought-after town, Poulton-le-Fylde, near the rather-more-genteel-than-Blackpool seaside resort of Lytham St Anne’s.

IMG_3509

Sign behind the loo door …

Booths meant pedigree. Still does. It’s a family firm and it feels like it.

The branch we travel to is small. But it’s right in the heartland of the farmers who supply the shops.IMG_3516

 

 

 

 

On our way we’ll drive past farmers who grow tomatoes, salads, carrots, potatoes.

IMG_3513Their pictures hang in the shop.

A shop built with environmentally sound features like re-using rainwater from the roof.

It’s quiet.

The lights are mellow.

Everyone’s willing to help. No one’s in too much of a hurry.

The café is limited, but it’s a well-used meeting place for local people. The notice board has posters for brass band concerts and Christian coffee mornings and flower shows.

And every time we drive towards Hesketh Bank and ‘our’ Booths, I can see Blackpool and Lytham St Anne’s across the estuary.

And I feel sad.

Just before we moved up north my Aunty M died.

And there’s a place on my wish-list of places to go that I still haven’t been: her local branch of Booths. As their website says: “Close to the medieval heart of this historic market town, opposite the parish church of St Chads”. And it says there’s a special type of chocolate now in.

My mum would be so jealous.

But if they have supermarkets in heaven you know what brand they’d be, don’t you ;-)

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, In Britain now - and then, Lancashire and the golf coast, Simple Food for Simple Folk (like me) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A phantom ship and a barbed wire fence

Eighteen years old. Standing at the window of my room in college. Staring out towards a low brick wall supporting a fence topped with barbed wire. Beyond it, the healthy green of a sports field.

Above the barbed wire, the intense summer-blue of the sky. The sun out of sight, way up high, shining fit to bust.

There’s a narrow path between the building and the fence. One of the disadvantages of a ground floor room.

After midnight, if your light’s on, you’re liable to hear a knock on the window. A friend with a man who’s scaled the locked gates is begging you to open the window and let him climb in. Then they’ll scurry from your room as quickly as they can. After checking the corridor for spies.

But it’s far from midnight and the day is full of promise.

I’m listening to a record I borrowed from a friend, on a record player borrowed from the girl next door.

Beneath my bare feet the grey floor is smooth and hard but not cold. The door to the little cupboard hiding my washbasin is ajar. An orange chair sits by the bookshelves. A single bed stretches along the wall that I share with the kitchen.

That was long ago and far away, but there’s something that always transports me back there – always.

It’s Sibelius’ fifth symphony.

I’d never heard a Sibelius symphony before I met Janet, a friend I see to this day. I was so impressed when she said, ‘listen to the tympani’ that I did. Again and again.

So many friends with so much knowledge to share – as well as records. And dresses. And books. We shared almost everything.

Or did I just borrow?

Possibly.

Anyway. For years I’ve listened to that symphony. I have two different recordings – one my own copy of that same record I borrowed.

Every time I hear it I’m whisked straight back to that room. To that sunny day, that barbed wire fence. To the dreams and hopes of eighteen year-old me.

As the music reaches a crescendo I’m standing on the deck of an imaginary sailing ship, cresting billowing waves. Salt spray flying. Wind in my hair. A thick rope grasped in my hand, keeping me safe.

Imagination – isn’t it wonderful?

P1010930But last night I sat in a concert hall, hearing the symphony as if for the first time.
And something amazing happened. Something I have never experienced before.

At the point where I would usually be swept away by my phantom of a sailing ship, I lost my sense of time and place.

I was no longer anywhere.

I was swirling inside the music, conscious only of the movement and the sound. As if I was inside a ball of joyfulness – but also peace. Seeing nothing.

I can’t find adequate words to describe it. But it was – magical.

The conductor wore an unusual black jacket that, when he bent, as he often did, dipping and diving with the rise and fall of the orchestration, made him look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Not one of your cool calm and collected types, he threw himself into it, body and – I suspect – soul.

Now and again he clasped the rail around the back of his podium to steady himself, as if he was about to collapse, or teeter off the edge.

The interval came too soon and I wondered if we should leave – how could the rest live up to what had gone before?

But we stayed, for more Sibelius. For his sixth and seventh symphonies. I didn’t know these – but at times the strings took off like the musical equivalent of a murmuration of starlings, or a vast flutter of butterflies. Soft wings were everywhere – well, mostly inside my head.

As the orchestra prepared for the seventh symphony the stage crew came on and took away the harp – and then, the conductor’s music stand. He conducted the last piece from memory.

It’s possible the concert was made all the more exhilarating for me by the fact that I had walked to our local station, caught the train and walked up the hill to the concert hall. Not a crutch of mine in sight.

But I don’t think so.

Yes, it was a special evening.

A classic Liverpool pavement - gum, not art

A classic Liverpool pavement – gum, not art

Yes, Liverpool was abuzz – and even the middle aged woman, out of her mind, whom we swerved to avoid, couldn’t detract from its magnetism. Its energy.

Yes, the beggars and the rough sleepers were in evidence, too much evidence – but it was, at least, a warm night for desperation.

And we had plenty of change to dispense.

The bombed out church - a war memorial beloved of the city and much used

The bombed out church – a war memorial beloved of the city and much used

The other end of the bombed out church

The other end of the bombed out church

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, the bombed out church looked even more evocative of the spirit of survival than ever – and the two cathedrals soared.

The Metropolitan (Catholic) cathedral at one end of Hope Street

The Metropolitan (Catholic) cathedral at one end of Hope Street

The Anglican cathedral at the other end of Hope street but seen from a classic old cobbled city centre street

The Anglican cathedral at the other end of Hope Street but seen from a classic old cobbled city centre street

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But.

Life-affirming though the city was, it was the music that kept me awake all night.

Today I’m tired. But happy.

I recommend Sibelius’ fifth. If you don’t like it the first time try it again – and again. There will come a point at which you get it. And you’ll be hooked. Forever.

No need for a barbed wire fence – but a blue sky and a sunny day? An openness to hope and a willingness to dream?

Perhaps.

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, Liverpool | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

There and back. A post-industrial journey, with cake

I used to love seeing labels that said ‘Empire Made’ – engraved on an old pair of scissors or a battered decorative tin.

Such a feeling of immensity in that one word, ‘empire’. But I was a little girl then and didn’t know what empire meant. It sounded like the stuff of fairy tales – the kind with happy endings.

Those days are long gone. Yes, a few tiny patches of empire-territories-pink remain on the world map – and there’s still the Commonwealth. But the sun has long since set on the British Empire.

And I think that’s a jolly good thing. Empires bring subjugation and unfairness. A Commonwealth, now – that sounds like an ideal world. The whole world should be one. But it isn’t.

Anyway, let’s not go there, I’m avoiding idealism for a few days.

The Ribble estuary and Blackpool in the distance on the marsh flats by the sea

The Ribble estuary and Blackpool in the distance on the marsh flats by the sea

By way of distraction I’ve been getting out and about. Breathing fresh air. Walking without conscious effort. Carrying a single crutch in case I go too far and begin limping, yes, but wandering the beach or the park or a stretch of fragrant salt marsh as if I’m all mended. And I am, almost.

I never was a joyful walker. It’s a bit like a car as far as I’m concerned, walking. Fine to take you from A to B but not to be mistaken for a fulfilling pastime in its own right.

I know, how un-British.

But I love this wonderful country.

P1010893Our natural world may seem tame contrasted with the striking wildlife of Africa, the frozen north and its glaciers, the great coral reefs, but in learning to know its subtlety is great satisfaction. And in its subtlety is beauty.

It’s not just nature, though. History’s left its mark all around us. Obvious things – romantic ruins on lonely hilltops, urban monuments to civic pride, solid old manor houses, grandiose stately homes.

But then there’s our industrial heritage.

Last weekend we woke up to a miserable day, the second after our general election. The new British citizen was, if anything, feeling more dejected than I was – having cast his first vote to no avail. But his misery-busting solution was brilliant.

P1010892

Part of the refurbished mill on the river bank

A trip to a mill.

Cake, as usual, came into it too, but the mill and its surroundings were the lure.

I find the places – and remains of places – where things were and are made fascinating. I enjoy seeing component parts becoming things, hearing the clattering machine making a woollen blanket – though I don’t have to hear it all day, or breathe in the airborne fibres, or risk life and limb with unguarded machinery.

But the mill we were heading to no long clatters and fluffs. There’s still a little weaving done, using some of the old machinery, by craft weavers, but not on the scale of the Welsh woollen mills I’ve written about before.

This mill’s in Yorkshire, on the western edge, nearing the lakes and peaks of Cumbria.
Here Yorkshire’s scenery treads a middle course between bleak and twee. Hills, not vast open moors. Not bleak, but not exactly cosy.

Cosy scenery isn’t really my thing. I love a bit of bleakness. But sometimes bleakness can be – well, too bleak. And on Saturday we weren’t in the mood for bleak.

The mill itself feels far from cosy, but nor is it entirely bleak. Partly restored, partly awaiting some TLC, it sits on the edge of a vigorous river, as most old mills did, for direct power or steam.P1010888

Stone built, it housed the new and dangerous technology that steadily drew the rural cottage weavers from their homes. That deprived them of their commanding positions as master craftsmen and made them wage slaves.

Not everyone succumbed to mechanisation straight away, there was still demand for the work of traditional weavers, but time and poverty wore most of them down in the end.

The textiles produced by northern British mill-workers – men, women and children – were shipped all over the empire from Liverpool. But imperial success was their downfall. The new textile factories of the Indian subcontinent soon undercut the Yorkshire and Lancashire weavers.

The mills and smoking chimneys of northern England were often identified with the territory, as if it grew that way. Some ill-informed folk still think it’s a land of mills and smoke. But today few red-brick, soot-blackened smoke stacks remain. Those that do stand proud, all the more noticeable for being rare. And rarity brings them value.

They’re heritage assets, not necessary evils.

This rural mill is stone built, not red-brick. It’s survived, first, through benign neglect and now by attracting craftspeople and visitors. Walkers and motor-tourists, roving around the dales in search of landscape, cake and heritage.

The café serves some damn fine cake. There is art, pottery, textiles. And there’s a Greek silversmith who works in the upstairs gallery. He lived in India and has a passion for stones.

That’s how I came away the richer for some fine silver jewellery.

Spoilt rotten, I know.

But I like to think we’ve helped, just a little, to keep the old mill working. Enabling craftspeople to make a living.

Turning one small wave back from the tide of industrial slavery to the freedom – albeit precarious – of self-employment. To valuing personal skill, creativity and uniqueness, in the face of cheap, mass-manufactured ‘perfection’.

Most of all, though, I like the flash of sterling silver, the bright purple stone with a core of rough crystal, flashing on my hand like some gaudy tropical butterfly.P1010929

What a great day out.

Beautiful landscapes.

Cake.

And a hand-made silver ring, with a stone of imperial purple, from a commonwealth of crafters in our post-industrial world.

P1010887

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, In Britain now - and then | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The yellow of austerity – and a purple fuzzy cushion (with a button in the middle)

Have you noticed anything about the grass verges and hedgerows?

It might depend on where in the UK you are – and whether your council has seen swingeing cuts under the government’s austerity programme or not – but there’s something different this year.

I noticed it first when we were out in the Lancashire countryside – the hedgerows were full of dandelions. Then I realised that even in town, the grass verges on most of our main roads are brightly blooming yellow.IMG_3501

Our council services have been cut back. It’s not just closing libraries and police stations or the sacking of park staff, but also, it seems, regular grass mowing.

I never thought I’d be pleased to see council cuts – but this one I relish. Spring has sprung yellow all over – and it’s almost enough to cheer me up about the world.

Almost.

I’ve been umming and ah-ing about this post. Everyone’s tired of political posturing as the election campaign here reaches its climax. The last thing anyone needs is a blog post from me on the subject.

Which is why, instead of ranting on about how much I care about who forms the next government, I’m going to tell you why a treasured purple cushion is a bit of a touchstone for me.

Scroll back the years.

I’m newly arrived at university. A knock comes on my door. Outside stand two nice people asking me to join the Conservative Association. I say yes and pay my dues.

I doubt it cost me very much – in those days I was living on an allowance that my dad misread as being ten pounds a month. It should have been ten pounds a week. There was much rejoicing at the Oxford branch of Laura Ashley when he realised his error.

Anyway, I joined the Conservative Association.

Why?

I don’t know.

My father was a Conservative – as headmaster of a boy’s grammar school he was vehemently against comprehensivisation – though I don’t know if that was his only reason. My mother, meanwhile, was Liberal by inclination – like her mandolin-playing, wholesale fruiterer father.

We lived on the edge of a big city. The green belt began behind us, with views over fields stretching as far as the eye could see.

Our road was middle class and the man next door was the managing director of a small steel importing business – and a member of the local Conservative and Unionist club. (He also had a leather-seated Rover 2000, much coveted by my mother.)

About twenty minutes’ walk down the main road was our parish church. The parish was largely made up of a big council estate, where several of my schoolfriends lived.

Our priest was a lovely, erudite Irishman whose accent I frequently found impenetrable – but one phrase he used so frequently there was no mistaking it.

‘Dear brethren.’

That was us. We were his brethren, all of us.

Father Hickey wore a beret in cold weather and drank whisky. He fried up daffodil bulbs by mistake when his housekeeper was away and was sick.

He was a frequent visitor to our house, as a member of the board of governors of my dad’s school and as parish priest.

During one election campaign he addressed the congregation from the pulpit and said it was their duty – because of the education policy – to vote Conservative.

I was too young at the time to make much of that – but now I wonder – did his largely poor, working class parishioners do his bidding?

At university I had no real political sense. Politics only impinged on me when Oxford Union elections were due and parties were given – then everyone wanted to be my friend.

One of the real friends I made there was a Labour activist. After university he joined a nationalised industry – the National Coal Board.

By the time of his early death he had been a banker, retired – filthy rich – in his thirties and gone over to what he once would have thought of as the dark side. The Conservatives.

I was still largely unaligned. I’d gone from being an accidental journalist, specialising in telecommunications, to a PR person.

Because of my telecoms background I ended up working for a de-nationalised (as we used to say) part of British Leyland. Not the cars bit. Old BL had a unique communications network and a nascent email system that relied on acoustic couplers (old fashioned phone handsets that fitted into modems on typewriter-style equipment on the desktop). And paper. No screens.

The recently privatised British Telecom plc – formerly part of the Post Office – was my next client.

By now I’d begun to think more seriously about politics and when the Social Democratic Party was formed it got my vote.

Then we moved out of London. I went from working as a consultant in telecoms and finance (a large bank was one of my clients) first to an insurance company, then to freelancing with glossy mags and a national newspaper.

We became very poor – but happy – on my erratic earnings.

Before going freelance, I’d been offered – and turned down – a major job in the pre-privatisation water industry. Poverty drove me to ask my contacts for freelance work – but instead they gave me the job. And what a job it was.

I enjoyed water and sewage – it’s down-to-earth, essential in the truest sense. But we were the most loathed businesses in the country.

Fat-cat bosses who once were local council employees were now running a vital service – and making loadsamoney.

Labour politicians poured vitriol on us.

Friends of the Earth ran a memorable campaign featuring taps running with poison. Ironic, that a campaigning environmental group was responsible for a boom in bottled water. All those plastic bottles.

I worked like stink with my in-house team and a bevy of outside agencies supporting us.

For the first time, I found myself working with men who got their hands dirty. I mean really dirty. Sewage treatment workers deserve medals.

Water and sewage workers know they do a vital job and tend to behave accordingly, with incredible commitment. I met some fantastic people and was delighted to find families working in our big, jolly, family industry – sons, fathers, mothers, brothers – and so on.

What great ambassadors for our company.

Then came my Damascene conversion.

We were forbidden to use any family stories in our endeavour to be seen as less loathsome.

The reason?

The ‘City’ – the money men – wouldn’t like it.

We were big businesses now and supposed to be rationalising.

Cutting costs.

‘Letting people go.’

Enhancing shareholder value.

I’ve always been a bit naïve. It took me quite a while to realise I was doing an impossible – for me – job.

My official duty (when I became a director) was to pursue shareholder value above all else.

We told ourselves the usual corporate fairy tales.

If we treated our staff and customers well, provided a good efficient service, blah blah, that would enhance shareholder value.

Except the usual corporate weasel words don’t work with a monopoly.

Bring in all the regulators you like – they don’t take the place of two shops selling different products, one cheaper, but poorer quality.

It was the most stressful job I’ve ever had. A twenty-four hours a day job for many of us, manual workers and office workers alike – and every single employee was at risk of being despised on admitting he or she worked for a water company.

We managed, like water dripping on stone, to change attitudes. Became the least unpopular of the corporate lepers.

But it was wearing.

I handed in my notice.

Waiting for my terms to be agreed, a stream of key directors began popping in to see me, asking me to stay.

How nice, I thought. They want me. They like me. They …

… needed me.

We were making a takeover bid.

A year later, when it failed, my voluntary redundancy terms were generous and I left with immense relief.

By then I’d seen how nasty politics could be, if not all politicians.

Our region was largely Conservative and I got on well with many of our Members of Parliament, MPs whose views were opposite to mine. But the underlying ethos, I now realised, was what mattered.

I had chances to get involved during those years – I met a group of key Labour strategists for dinner in the House of Commons one night, for example – but I had no idea how to react.

I always seem to work out how to use an opportunity after it’s gone.

Now, far too many years later, I’ve joined a political party. It’s not ideal, but has at its roots a belief that unfairness and inequality are things to fight, that capitalism – unfettered – is not the answer to all our human needs.

British politics, I know, can be confusing. One of my sisters-in-law once asked if Margaret Thatcher – the Conservative Iron Lady – was a communist. To an American that’s usually about as close to a devil on earth as you can be. So I understand her mistake.

And I understand those who feel that socialism is too close to communism for comfort.

But I’ve always felt quite comfortable with it because – wait for this – I’d be happy for everyone to have purple fuzzy cushions with a button in the middle.

You see, when I was little, I asked my father to tell me what a communist was.

I’d asked for and received a purple fuzzy cushion – with a button in the middle – for my birthday. It had pride of place on my bed. I wan’t one for lots of soft toys. And the luminous rosary was under my pillow.

I’m sure he gave a decent explanation. May have mentioned Stalin and the purges – though I don’t remember it. What stuck with me was, ‘if you can have a purple fuzzy cushion everyone has to have one’. Well, that’s how my little mind interpreted it.

And it shows you how important and misleading an analogy can be.

So, come the revolution, it’ll be purple fuzzy cushions all round, in my ideal world.

That, or perhaps more important, an end to a government that penalises the poorest for having one spare bedroom, whose fabulously wealthy chancellor claims child benefit from the supposedly impoverished state and gives tax breaks to the richest.

I think Father Hickey would have been with me on this one.

Brethren, vote for others, not for your own selfish interests.

What’s that? The economy?

Oh, don’t get me started. We’re a rich country folks, the deficit in GDP terms is not historically high – and Labour was overseeing a period of growth before the Conservatives stopped it in its tracks.

But never mind all that – we’ll cope.

As long as someone is caring for the weak.

And that surely shouldn’t be a Government that’s seen food banks spread like weeds in our rich, comfortable country.

I’ll take a risk, thanks.

And sorry for talking about politics after all.

And for going on so long.

I’m off out for some fresh air and life-affirming dandelion spotting now.

(The purple cushion, since you ask, is long, long gone.)IMG_3499

Posted in In Britain now - and then, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Five foot two, eyes of blue, yellow bags – and a grand tea, too

‘Diddly diddly diddly doo’ – hard to imagine, if you’re not there, but that’s the audience participation bit – along with ‘ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!’ – to the song, Delilah.

It’s a strange song, Delilah. Creepy and jaunty – how can that be?

Anyway.

P1010830The song made famous by Tom Jones is being rendered here by the Wigan Ukulele Club.

It’s a sunny Sunday in Southport. We’ve parked pearly white Issy (our new car) in a field. And there’s steam up ahead.

The bowl's fora little black dog - it seems the bigger the engine the smaller the dog

The bowl’s for a little black dog – it seems the bigger the engine the smaller the dog

Yes, it’s that yellow-bags-of-steam-coal time of year.

There’s a wintry nip in the air despite the sunshine – but I’ve come prepared. Thermals, duffel coat and scarf.

All around, men from the Rotary club are doing their utmost, ensuring the day goes well, with a toot and a hoot and a hiss and a chug.

P1010795

So British – always time for tea

But despite the happy crowds and gleaming paintwork, the steam and tiny dogs, the men in dark blue overalls and the women brewing tea, there’s a touch of melancholy in the air.

The man who was a driving force behind the annual event, a big local farmer, has died of leukaemia since last year’s event.

P1010764

This 4th generation family farming enterprise (now Huntapac) was founded in 1942 by one William Hunter and still operates with fleets of red lorries today.

A row of gleaming red vehicles bearing his name forms a fitting memorial. And his family’s honouring his name by keeping the tea rooms running – named ‘Aunt Nellie’s’ after his auntie Helen – inside the marquee.

All across one side of the tent, starting beside the customers queueing for tables, sit the ukulele strummers.

P1010835

The most excellent Wigan Ukulele Club

We walk past them to table 24, guided by a smart man with a bow tie.

The place is thronged with people of all ages. Waitresses in black clothes and frilly white aprons dodge from table to table with china pots of tea and jugs of milk.

It has the feel of a rather casual, very jolly, wedding reception – if you could imagine such a thing in this age of take-out-a -mortgage weddings.

But the tables aren’t those round things that ten people who barely know each other can sit around, failing to become better acquainted. They’re ordinary tables, laid with paper cloths topped with plastic lace.

The man with the microphone encourages young and old alike (how do we all learn these songs?) to singalong. Choruses ranging from the Kinks’ ‘dedicated follower of fashion’ to, ‘has anybody seen my girl’ (‘five foot two, eyes of blue’, it’s not me, that’s for sure).

Neon kazoos butt in now and then, sounding vaguely rude, like a raspberry blown by a ten year old.

Pink faces, fresh from the outside and warming up nicely, boast happy smiles – when they’re not eating. A baby at the front table, held up as if to glimpse the queen riding by, is loving it. Though it doesn’t seem to know the words – well, it’s not reached the speaking stage yet.

P1010832 P1010833Since all the proceeds go to charity and all the food’s donated, we use it as an excuse to opt for the full tea and (crikey, times have changed) a glass of prosecco with our china cups of Rosie Lea.

Sandwiches and vegetable crisps, scones with jam and cream, Victoria sponge and fruit cake – it’s all too much. We leave a little and waddle our way past the band, with regret.P1010841

But outside the big wheel is calling her siren call.

Last year I was a big wheel virgin, this time I’m prepared for the ‘ooh’ as we topple over the turning point. And this year there’s a brand new view – we’re facing the other direction. P1010807

P1010820

Austin’s Little Gems as explained on the sign

P1010813

All the way from the USA, 1949

P1010818

 

P1010814Wind-burnt and exhilarated, back on terra firma, it’s time for people watching.

P1010763 P1010767

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bright yellow vehicle catches our eyes. Two men chat in broad northern accents about the engine. The owner lifts the bonnet. Within seconds a crowd has gathered, men hovering around the yellow engine, like fruit flies round a decaying banana.

P1010848

Water pump as ordered by the Royal Navy in 1944

There’s a chugging sound coming from something part wood, part brass, as it pumps water. One of several ordered in 1944 for the Royal Navy its job was to pump fresh water from tanks in ships to feed the boilers. The owner opens up the firebox for my picture – I’m embarrassed I can only point and click, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

Which is such a typical reaction.

It’s an odd event – one I both love and find confusing.

So many men – supported by many women and not a few small dogs – bring along their bit of engineering pride and joy, no matter how small or superficially uninspiring, and, in the chill of early spring – just sit.

P1010849

People stop to chat, sometimes. The big beauties, though, are what really draw the crowds – and the attention. A bit like life. But, also like life, what’s overlooked is often as interesting as the showy stuff.

As we wander round I feel the usual tug: I wish.

I wish I had a hobby this enthralling. Wish I were one of a crowd that met at steam fairs, entranced by steam and brass. By shiny paintwork and crank shafts, by moving parts needing constant love and attention.

Well, I think I wish.

Next year, there’s no guarantee the show will return. Not because of the sad demise of Mr Hunter, but because the caravan park’s expanding.

P1010851

A steam powered milk float – the cylinder on board looks very like the pump the Navy ordered in 1944 to me … well, it’s wood and brass!

It wouldn’t be just the loss of the spectacle, but the potential loss of tens of thousands of pounds for charity. And of a chance for men in boiler suits or tweeds, hats or flat caps, vintage Rolls Royces or milk floats, to get together.

For crowds of people to give the lie to the impression that the whole world is glued to mobile phones.

I didn’t see one head-bent-over-a-smartphone, totally-distracted social-media-addict.

A good enough reason for hoping the steam fair continues.

That, and the view from the big wheel.

P1010808

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, In Britain now - and then, Lancashire and the golf coast | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments