So . . . as many boxes as can be hidden away in a storage unit have been stuffed to the brim and tightly sealed. There has not been enough time to go through every single item in this house...

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"writing, not drowning" - 5 new articles

  1. Packing Case Central
  2. Well, er, look who's here . . .
  3. The great and the good
  4. 'Only remembered for what we have done'
  5. 'You may have the universe, if I may have Italy'

Packing Case Central

So . . . as many boxes as can be hidden away in a storage unit have been stuffed to the brim and tightly sealed. There has not been enough time to go through every single item in this house and say 'yes', 'no' or 'recycle' but a great deal has already gone, never to return, and, in due course, I will liberate one box at a time from the storage unit. And will then be ruthless; at least that is the plan.

    Meanwhile, the primary plan, to move to the smaller house that means so much to me, is moving on. Slowly but most definitely moving on. My offer to buy the house has been accepted and the house is off the market. The vendor has yet to find the house that they want to buy and my Dear Old House is about to go on the market. So, in terms of pressure, we are just about equally balanced.

    I was doing very, very well until about 10 days ago, after the visit of the first estate agent, who came highly recommended by a good friend who lives nearby and has moved as many times in the past couple of decades as I have in my entire life.  I had worked very hard indeed to get the house looking as I understand a house for sale must look these days - very streamlined and as if no-one actually lives here ie fit to appear on Location, Location, Location. It's quite hard to do that to a 300-year-old house that welcomes many guests, human and canine, and has always had resident dogs and cats, but I was determined to do my best. Said agent has been doing his job for over 40 years, still enjoys what he does, and was a fount of knowledge and valuable information - but was in no doubt that 'a great deal more needed to be done' on the decluttering front.

    And then, the second half of what turned out to be a double whammy, the valuation was rather less than I had hoped, and would not, after purchasing the smaller house, leave quite such a comfortable financial cushion for me to see out my days. (In case anyone thinks that all we baby boomers are having a life of Riley on our great big fat private pensions, I have news for you: if you were a self-employed baby boomer like me for much of your working life, putting absolutely every last penny you could afford into a pension, you may well have ended up with very little to show for it indeed. Or at least very little by the time the pension companies, pension advisers, and various sundry interested parties had all dipped their mitts into your hard-earned pension pot. I think there are regulations in place to stop this happening now; too late for my modest pension though. Lesson learned, at least for the next generation.)

    I went into a bit of a downward spiral; I was exhausted and disappointed and all the packing and lifting and whizzing backwards and forwards to the storage depot and checking on the builders and running up and down the stairs many, many times a day, meant that the sciatica had returned, with a vengeance. And, of course, I do love my home and my garden and the views, and leaving it, after 20 years, almost all of which have been very happy ones, will be a wrench. There were tears. By the time I got to my yoga class, I was a wreck. Please don't anyone say anything nice to me, I thought, or I will start to sob and won't be able to stop. I just about made it through to a very welcome yoga nidra at the end of the class, by which time I barely noticed and no longer cared about the tears flowing onto my yoga mat.

    But, 24 hours later, I bounced back and just Got On With The Stuff and even managed to get quite gung-ho about it, with the words of my Friend in Portugal ringing in my ears: 'There will be another garden, other views.' She is right. And, yesterday, after the very last box had been stored away, I was all prepared when agent number two arrived. He loved the house, said I had done a great job of 'preparing it to go on the market' and that the terrace, with its old wooden table and chairs and the bright pink parasol - all bathed in sunshine, with views of the surrounding countryside - reminded him of France . . . and then gave me an even lower valuation than agent number one. (But I have already forgiven him because half way through going round the house, he remarked, 'How wonderful to see so many books. I LOVE books.' And it was not said in irony, which would have been understandable because there are, in fact, far too many in almost every room, but was quite spontaneous - and genuine. At least, I think it was . . . after all, he didn't suggest that I put them all, or even some of them, in storage. And, anyway, who wants to look at empty bookshelves?)

    Thank goodness, therefore, that I happened to read Corrie Corfield's recent blogpost about selling up and leaving a much loved home. For those of you unfamiliar with BBC Radio 4, Corrie is one of its best newscasters. She also writes an occasional but always excellent blog. This post says it all and it helped to remind me why I am doing this and how much I am looking forward to life in the smaller house - or another smaller house if things don't quite work out (because we all need a Plan B or even a Plan C or D).

    I also needed a reminder of another reason for wanting, needing to move: more time to write - and, ergo, more time to think - as I had almost forgotten how very much I loved writing . . . and all the thinking and reflecting that accompanies the creative process. (Chronic pain for months on end isn't the best stimulus for creativity; well, not for me.) This interview with one of the writers I admire most, Marilynne Robinson, which appeared in Friday's Guardian, was more than timely.

    All this has been going on against a backdrop of the best English summer for years; the thrilling performance of the best English soccer team for years - accompanied by a series of hilarious online exchanges with my Dear Old School Friend (one of the funniest people I know and who has only just embraced social media); a long overdue reunion with a very dear friend - and another, equally special, reunion with a close friend to come - and the prospect of going to the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A before the month is out. Unforgettable, all of it, and every moment to be relished. So, if this does turn out to be the last summer at the Dear Old House, it will have been the very best of summers, unlikely to be surpassed - and the provider of enough good memories to see me through whatever lies ahead.

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Well, er, look who's here . . .

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The faithful Miss P

Where was I? Oh, yes, it was two years ago. How time flies . . . apologies for having apparently abandoned the dear old ageing blog; it wasn't intentional but stuff happens, doesn't it? Thank you to the kind readers who got in touch to ask what was happening; apologies if I failed to respond and I hope that this long overdue post will go some way to explaining what has been going on here in the Back of Beyond.

    And, indeed, a lot can happen in two years: good, bad, and somewhere in between, personal and political. But I'll keep off the politics and politicians, at least for a while. Too depressing. (Although I should award five stars to Hugh Grant for his depiction of Jeremy Thorpe in A Very British Scandal; extraordinarily accurate, as those who knew him will attest. I have my own particular recollections of the chain of events and shared many long conversations, at the time, with journalist chums who were covering the trial. But probably best not to go into details; you never know who's checking up on these things.)

    So, back to the stuff. Let's get the baddish bits over with; from pneumonia in May 2016, everything rather went downhill, health and energy wise. There were two rounds of eye surgery, then some rather scary bouts of sciatica, which left me with a numb left foot and leg. This in turn affected my balance, I took a mighty fall, and fractured my left ankle (the lateral malleolus for the medically minded) and then right-sided sciatica, which led to chronic pain for months on end. What a wreck. I am, however - and a long last - on the mend. Conventional medicine had nothing to offer me (the sciatica wasn't disc-related), apart from painkillers which were actually anti-depressants. Thanks but no thanks. In the end it was a combination of exercise, yoga and Pilates, plus acupuncture and homeopathy, that helped me to turn a corner.

    I didn't think anyone would be interested in reading about the tedious and frustrating chain of events and I didn't have the energy or the motivation to write, so I stopped.

    At the same time, I was watching my Loved Ones grappling with the tortuous journey towards adoption. A wonderful outcome, after a very, very long wait but, quite possibly, one of the most hideous and painful processes anyone can voluntarily put themselves through. It is not like this for everyone, thankfully, but the Loved Ones definitely drew the short straw in terms of the agency they went through and the professionals - bar one or two - assigned to them and to the Small Person (who had been let down at every stage of their very short life by people who should have been acting in the Small Person's best interests). But - and it really is a huge but - the Small Person is now a very much-loved member of our family; bright, blossoming, growing in confidence daily, happy, and outgoing, and a kind and compassionate young soul - truly a testament to the power of steadfast love, understanding and care. The Small Person and I have been building our very own special relationship and it is a joy. For safeguarding reasons there will be no cute grandchild pics on the blog, no names, nor anything that might identify the Small Person. Suffice it to say that the SP is safe, is loved more than words can say, and has a very bright future ahead.

    Of course, I could not discuss or write about any aspect of the adoption process, although I would very much like to have done, so shocking were the professional failures, inaccuracies, and general obfuscation at almost every stage. My job was to be Mama Rock throughout, so not being able to share what was happening was, at times, very hard. I often had to be my own shoulder to lean on and shed my tears in private. Actually, that is not quite true - the faithful sprollie has been here throughout and my closest friends have been everything that truly good friends always are. They are simply there for us; no explanations required.

    So, there we are and here we go. I am now in my seventies and a house move is imminent, so another big change. With luck and a fair wind, I hope to be here for a good while yet and if the house move goes to plan, I will be very fortunate in living somewhere that I have fallen in love with, just as I fell in love with my very old house and its hillside location and uplifting views twenty years ago. I had almost decided to be a sensible 70-something and move to the edge of a large village or a small town, with - you know - amenities, all within walking distance. But when the right house and garden (smaller, more manageable, Victorian and solidly built) suddenly popped up out of the blue, I realised that the tranquility of a rural setting is very, very important to me. We took the Small Person, who loves my current house very much indeed, to see the new house, garden and views, and what would be their very own new bedroom when they come to stay, and it was all given the five-star SP Seal of Approval. So that's all right then.

    Let the great decluttering begin. (One of the closest friends mentioned above popped round yesterday with a stack of packing boxes and tape to get me started. You see what I mean about friends?)

 

     

The great and the good

So, just a few months away from blogging but the events of the recent weeks make me feel as if it has been a lifetime. Not laziness on my part, the reasons have been many and various; one potentially wonderful, which I hope to write about soon; at least two of great sadness (collective sadness - the murder of Jo Cox MP - and personal - the death of my beloved Dear Old Edinburgh Gent); a nasty and lingering bout of bacterial broncho-pneumonia, from which I have not fully recovered, although I am nearly there, and the shock and sadness of watching my country as it unravels, left to the mercy of a shifty bunch of politicians who clearly haven't a clue where we go to from here. 

The Dear Old Edinburgh Gent, my beloved Labrador, deserves a post to himself and I will write that in due course but his death came just a few days after my excellent GP told me that I was 'very ill indeed' and must rest. I took the medicine (conventional and then homeopathic), I stopped doing everything that I love - yoga, Pilates, singing (impossible when one has no puff) - and restricted myself to walking the dogs (my two and one guest) twice a day, and doing special breathing exercises. A few days later, there were just two dogs to walk . . . but at least the sun shone for most of the time, and I could sit out in my garden, watch everything spring into abundant life, and listen to the birds singing, all of which softened the blow a little.

The thoughtful Dear Daughter sent me not flowers but the box set of Spiral. 'When you're ill and can't concentrate, there's nothing better than a box set.' She was right; between dog walks, I stretched out on the sofa and lapped up every moment of all five series of Spiral (I managed to get hold of a very reasonably priced series 5 on eBay, to add to the box set of series 1-4.) I loved the characters (Laure, Gillou, Sami, TinTin . . .), the storylines, the themes; I learned a great deal about the French legal system (fascinating); I brushed up my French, and played 'spot the Parisian location'. Total immersion in a box set was, indeed, highly therapeutic and lasted longer than flowers would have, much as I love flowers. Spiral got me through the worst of those weeks, Spiral and my dear Miss P, my faithful Border collie-springer spaniel cross, who spent an inordinate number of hours alongside me on the sofa, with her head across my lap. I should also give an honourable mention to Little Miss P, the Shih Tzu, who was our house guest for a month, and who helped to take the edge off our sadness. The news that there is to be a series 6 of Spiral was a bonus.

And then the madness of the R-word . . . I watched the daily news output with increasing alarm. The Vote Leave brigade were all over the media and not in a good way. The front pages of the worst tabloids railed against immigrants; an over-excited and sweating Farage was everywhere; the rhetoric never went beyond 'taking back control', and Gove and Johnson played fast and loose with the country's future - and, as it turned out, with the truth (over the past 25 years or so in Johnson's case) - without ever once stopping to think that they might actually need a plan. Just in case their wishes came true.

I was at home when the first indication of what had happened to Jo Cox filtered through. Later that afternoon, I watched the news conference at which her murder was confirmed. We know that terrible things happen to very, very good people, every day, everywhere in the world, but this senseless act, whatever the motivation for it, was beyond cruel. For a few days, at the very height of pre-EU referendum fever, the country came together to mourn the life of a young woman who had already achieved so much but who had very much more to give, not just to the nation but to those who loved her, above all, her two young children. The words spoken by her husband and her sister left no-one in any doubt just what they - and we - had lost and what we could all do in Jo's memory. If only we could have bottled that feeling and drawn on it over the past few days.

I don't mind nailing my colours to the mast; I'm a Europhile, through and through. In 1959, when I was 11, my brother, who was old enough to have served in the armed forces towards the end of, and in the aftermath of, WWII, took me travelling across Europe: to Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. He shared his enthusiasm for other people, places, cultures, and food - and for working together for peace and prosperity. (He's almost 89 now and all this remains dear to his heart.) It was the best possible informal liberal education an impressionable British pre-teenager could have had. I went on to a more formalised version at a convent grammar school, founded in the 1800s by a French nun. We sang French songs and carols, and studied not only French but Italian, Spanish and German, not to mention Latin (for the judgin', as E L Wisty said), and Greek. Learning to speak other languages, and to be interested and at ease in other countries, felt like the most normal thing in the world. It still does. How lucky we were.

Years later, my professional life would involve me in working with colleagues from across the European Union, sharing information and advice, and in supporting legal cases that would be heard, in time, by the European Court of Justice. Cases that have made a difference to the lives of millions of women, not just here in the UK but across the EU. I am proud of that work and of what we achieved. 

During those years, I sometimes thought of my forebears and how amazed they would have been at all this because I am descended, in part, from economic migrants who came to this country almost 200 years ago, from Ireland and France. They came to escape destitution, to work and to provide for their families, something their descendants, including me, have been doing ever since and, in so doing, contributing to the wealth of the nation that took them in. Paying our dues and happy to do so.

So, if people ask me what I am - in terms of citizenship - I say European and British. Even better, as a friend of mine says, 'I am a citizen of the world.' The multi-lingual Dear Daughter, who benefited from the educational opportunities offered by our membership of the EU, thinks this way too.

That is not to say that I do not recognise the shortcomings of the EU. Of course I do. But I also believe in the old Fabian principle of orchestrating change from within, rather than standing on the sidelines and shouting slogans, chucking metaphorical Boris bricks, or, in that 21st century way, ranting at screens to nobody listening. 

A week after Jo Cox's murder, and 100 years after the events in Ireland that inspired W B Yeats's poem, we woke to a country 'changed, changed utterly', but not to the birth of 'a terrible beauty'. It was something quite other, quite alien, and I did not recognise it. We are only just beginning to understand the full import of what a slender majority of those who voted (a minority, in fact, of those actually registered to vote) have wrought. This wretched and ill thought-through referendum has divided families and friends; many of those who are eligible to do so are now applying to become citizens of other EU countries to protect their jobs, their careers, their futures. This includes at least one much-loved member of my own family, for whom I am helping to assemble the necessary paperwork. Surreal doesn't even begin to describe it.

We are going to need a great deal more than plasters to cover the wounds or fairy dust sprinkled over everything to make things even remotely better again. Perhaps we should start collecting old fiddles and send them to Messrs Gove, Johnson and Farage, the Gang of Three, who drove us into this mess. They can stand on the coastline - our only border, the control of which they are so keen to 'take back'  - and, like Nero, play, while everyone else burns. Or drowns.

I have read any number of media articles and comments and followed a good deal of social media, as the whole sorry saga has unfolded, and one of the phrases I keep seeing is along the lines of, 'I want to be proud of my country again; I want us to be Great Britain again.' I've thought about this and confess that I'm not sure what it actually means, other than a desire to turn back the clock to a semi-mythical past, a sort of Basil Fawlty view of how the country should be but never really was. Instead of worrying about becoming Great Britain (which, of course, constitutionally and legally, we already are and continue to be, for the time being at least), perhaps we should aim to become Good Britain. That would be a start.

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'Only remembered for what we have done'

So, that was January 2016. It will not be missed, unlike the people whose passing it marked. A strange, dark time, during which we seemed to reel from one unbelievable headline to another. There is nothing unbelievable about death; it is inevitable for each of us - but still we reeled. So many cultural icons felled within so few days. I avoided writing; there were words enough in print and in cyberspace and others, I kept thinking, had already found the right words.

My eldest nephew, now in his mid-fifties, had been a fan of David Bowie from the age of 14; he posted his thoughts on Facebook and his words were as eloquent and as moving as those of any of the professional commentators paid to write a eulogy for the broadsheets and elsewhere. But having lost his younger brother, a sister, and his mother within thirteen months of each other in recent years, my nephew is already acquainted with grief. He has the words. Then there were Bowie's own words, in Archive on 4, David Bowie: Verbatim, with the man himself, laughing, joking, and reminiscing about the Marquee, the Ricky Tick in Hounslow, the Craw Daddy in Richmond, Eel Pie Island, all the places that many of us of a certain age had flocked to in the 1960s  . . . for the music. He had been there too.

On the day that Alan Rickman's death was announced, I called a close friend who had once known him well and who had introduced me to him 40 years ago. (I wrote about that meeting here.) And we talked about the strange, difficult emotional hinterland we must occupy when someone to whom we have once been very close dies. (In that coincidental way, Woman's Hour touched on that very subject later in the week.)

And so the announcements continued until yesterday, the last day of the month when we heard, first about Sir Terry Wogan, then Frank Finlay . . . and suddenly it was 1966 again. I was 18, six months pregnant, and sitting in my Dear Old School Friend's father's mini-van; she driving round and round Parliament Square, trying to find the right traffic lane for Westminster Bridge. The Dear Old School Friend had just passed her driving test and we were on our way to the Old Vic, to see what was to become one of the definitive 20th century stagings of Othello: Laurence Olivier in the title role, Maggie Smith as Desdemona - and Frank Finlay as Iago. We arrived with minutes to spare, she hauled me up seemingly endless flights of stone steps to the gods, and we watched the entire performance sitting on hard wooden benches. (I did wonder whether my memory was playing tricks. had there really been wooden benches at the Old Vic in the 1960s? I checked; there had been, indeed, wooden benches in the 1960s.) I also found this page on Frank Finlay's website and could not agree more with Sir Anthony Sher's words about the exceptional acting that we saw that day. How very lucky we were. I told the Dear Daughter yesterday that, at the time, I had hoped that the experience would have some sort of in utero impact on my unborn baby. It must have worked: she has always loved Shakespeare . . .

By mid-morning, yesterday, I found I could listen to no more words on BBC Radio 4. (It might have been listening to Bill Gates's off-putting voice on Desert Island Discs that did it.) I switched to Radio 3 and the day became brighter at once (it was Folk Connections weekend on Radio 3).  I was adding pieces of music to my BBC Playlister, almost without stopping, until this song, which - in every sense - stopped me in my tracks: Only Remembered, words by John Tams. If you have seen War Horse, the song will be familiar and you can see John Tams performing it with the War Horse cast here. However, the version broadcast was this one, by Coope Boyes and Simpson, which I found on the No Glory website and which is where I discovered that Alan Rickman had been an early signatory to the No Glory letter. Alan Rickman and many others whose work - and words - I admire. Everything is connected. Everything and everyone. And we can remember. We do.

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'You may have the universe, if I may have Italy'

Who am I to disagree with Giuseppe Verdi? I am, in fact, in total agreement and have been for, oh, more than half a century. And every year, usually in spring, I long to be there. These days, however, I don't manage to visit as often as I would like so have to settle for spending some time with my nose in a book, or books, about Italy. This year, the Italy-yearning surfaced in late September and certain books in the waiting-to-be-read pile beckoned . . .

The first, a novel set mainly in Rome and which had garnered enthusiastic reviews, was somewhat disappointing, with characters whose dialogue I never found wholly convincing. I won't name it, not least because I do appreciate the effort that goes into writing a novel and then actually having it published, although you may be able to work out the title from the 'Read 2015' list on the right.  

So I moved swiftly on to Elena Ferrante, for whom I had been saving myself - and I was holding my breath. There had been so much publicity and speculation about the reclusive author and so much praise heaped upon her novels that I could hardly bear the thought of a second disappointment. My relief, as soon as I started to read My Brilliant Friend was palpable. I loved it and have ordered the second, third and fourth of the Neapolitan novels from my local library; Ferrante, I feel sure, will carry me through an English winter.

I did have one or two qualms about the occasional Americanism in Ann Goldstein's translation but, having read this interview with her on Lizzy's Literary Life blog, I now appreciate the challenges she faced in translating Ferrante.

My Brilliant Friend is a wonderful evocation of adolescence - and adolescent friendships - in post-war Naples. Some of its themes are particular to the time and the place; others are universal and I can understand, completely, how Ferrante's work has suddenly captured the imagination of so many readers beyond Italy. 

Although I try to avoid too much self-referential thinking when reading, the setting for some of the most significant moments in the narrative - the shoeshop owned by Lila's father - took me straight back to a particular time in my own post-war adolescence. It was 1961, I was 14, staying in Liguria in northern Italy, and made friends with a girl of my age called Marisa. Her family owned a shoeshop in a narrow street in the centre of the town and I had visited the shop with my mother to buy some sandals. Marisa served us and we embarked on a  fractured conversation, she in her limited English and I my limited Italian. But the spark of friendship was there and I was soon spending every spare moment that I could with Marisa, initially at the shop, and then with some of her friends and family, including Alfredo, who worked at a nearby hotel and, a cousin, Giacomo, who was a student at the University of Turin. We went to an open-air cinema and although I can't remember what film we saw - and my Italian certainly wasn't up to the task of following the dialogue - it was all very heady romantic stuff for a impressionable young teenager from the west London suburbs . . . and it left an indelible mark.

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I had grown up listening to fragments of Italian; my father had been a prisoner of war in Italy during WWII. He and his sergeant had escaped after bribing a guard, then lived a hand-to-mouth existence in the mountains, moving from safe house to safe house, sheltered by partisans for four months - until they sought shelter in a house that turned out not to be safe. (They ended up in another prisoner-of-war camp, this time in Germany.) It's amazing how proficient one can become in a foreign language when it is a matter of life or death.  

So, I was already familiar with a cluster of familiar words and phrases, although 'we're exhausted'; 'is there somewhere we can sleep?'; 'we are very, very hungry'; 'can you spare something to eat?', and 'we have nothing' were not going to get me very far on the Italian Riviera in 1961 . . .*

I learned more with Marisa and, at 16, I had the opportunity to study Italian O-level and A-level at school. If it is possible to fall in love with a language, I did; I'd already enjoyed studying French and Spanish but Italian was something else. It became a passion. Something similar happened to my daughter a couple of decades later when she spent a summer as an au pair in Florence and took Italian language classes; she went on to read Italian at university.

I try not to let my Italian turn to rust and, despite Ann Goldstein's mention of the challenges of Ferrante's language and sentence construction, I'd like, some day, to attempt to read Elena Ferrante in the original. 

Reading about Lila and her family and the calzature made me wonder what had happened to Marisa; we stayed in touch for a while, via postcards but, by the time my Italian was up to letter-writing standard, we had lost contact. However. . . it seems that the family still has a shoeshop in the same town but it is larger, grander and in a more fashionable location. A very smart sign hangs above the entrance to the shop. 

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*Although I was aware of the bare bones of my father's escape from the prisoner of war camp, I knew few of the details, and I certainly did not appreciate how gruelling those four months hiding out in the mountains would have been. Not until, that is, I read Iris Origo's War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944 a few years ago. I realised that I had had no idea but, by then, it was too late to ask the questions . . .

 

     

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