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,...

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"writing, not drowning" - 5 new articles

  1. The great and the good
  2. 'Only remembered for what we have done'
  3. 'You may have the universe, if I may have Italy'
  4. Who by fire?
  5. On pesky viruses and perfect companions

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.



'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.



'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.


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. 


*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 . . .



Who by fire?


In 1994, I met someone who was to become - and who remains - one of my closest friends. We had embarked the previous year, but at different colleges, on a demanding and challenging journey of learning - studying homeopathy - and, at the end of the first year, she joined our college. We discovered that we lived near each other, she at the time in Kensington, I in Notting Hill, and, given the enormity of what we had to understand and learn, we decided to get together twice a week for study sessions. We did this for three years . . .

We were very disciplined but rewarded ourselves at the end of each session with the telling of stories: our stories, the stories of our lives. And, despite having grown up in very different circumstances, in different parts of the world, we soon discovered degrees of synchronicity and resonance in those stories and in the way that we had responded to our life experiences. Those study sessions became the crucible in which our friendship was formed. In the ensuing years, we have become ever closer; we have travelled together - journeys of deep significance for each of us - and we have continued to tell our stories, which are now inter-woven.

Hers is extraordinary and it made a great impact on me when I first heard it. But, although I am familiar with that story, to see it written down, as it now is - or as it is beginning to be - the impact is, if anything, even greater. For my friend has now started a blog and is recounting her story, many decades after it began, although the word 'blog' seems hardly to do it justice because it is that rare combination: perfectly crafted words and images. Visual poetry, on a screen.

You will find it at still point, world turning - coming through fire, and I would recommend that you start at the beginning and read on . . .

So, this post is a tribute to my brave, bright, deep-thinking, deep-feeling, and stalwart friend; the photograph is of a place of spiritual and emotional pilgrimage for both of us: the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi.


On pesky viruses and perfect companions

Hmm; no sooner do I take to the blog again than I am knocked almost hors de combat by a virus that has been unpleasantly similar to the one that arrived last September and took nine months to shift. And I don't mean a computer virus. This time, however, I have taken homeopathic action sooner rather than later and, three weeks on, I think the virus has got the message.

So where were we? A month ago - the last time I posted - I was about to fly to Madeira, courtesy of the Grown-Up Children, which I did. It was a delightful, happy week, with the sort of temperatures I love (35 degrees Celsius or thereabouts), and much swimming, a huge amount of reading, and generally relaxing in the sunshine. It was just what we all needed.


We did a memorably unenjoyable all-day mountain trek; unenjoyable owing to the weather (it was the one bad day, rain and mist, so no views) and a rather strange guide, who made us listen (more than once) to his birdcall impersonations in the pouring rain, and who told off-colour jokes. We knew the experience would eventually turn into a family joke, as these things tend to, but at the time . . . 


When I left Funchal, I was still warm and glowing from the sun; I arrived at Bristol Airport in the middle of the night, to be greeted by howling winds and torrential rain. Oh, British weather, what would we do without you to take the shine off things?

As a result, I have been doing only the essentials, that is, walking the dogs twice a a day and trying to remember to keep up my intake of fluid. It was while I was sitting around doing not very much that I found myself missing my dear old cat, Mr C. I didn't write about it at the time but he died of heart failure in March of last year and I still miss him, not least because this has been almost the first time in my life that I have not had a cat or three as part of the family. I thought how comforting  it would have been, when I was at my most under the weather, to have had Mr C sitting on my lap, purring away. He was the most affectionate of cats.


I was very taken with the resident hotel cat in Madeira - a tabby, like Mr C. He (or she) was very popular with the guests on the sun terrace, overlooking the sea where the Walnuts (a term coined by the Son-in-Law) could be found stretched out on loungers every day. (I was with the Walnuts; the Grown-Up Children preferred the more exotic palm tree shaded Garden Pool area.) Hotel Cat was very savvy and absolutely knew how to work a sun terrace. Every evening, one of his (or her) band of devoted admirers would appear with a dainty dish of sardines. Hotel Cat would scoff the lot, lick his paws, then execute a rather fine curl of the tail and stroll off.


At least there were two very special dogs waiting for me when I got back to England; I never under-estimate their importance in my life. As all my viral symptoms have been better in the fresh air and even better by the coast, we have done plenty of walking and, for a few days, when the sun shone last week, we even managed long walks by the seashore.


These days, only one of my dogs, Miss P, does long walks. The Edinburgh Boy is now the Venerable Old Edinburgh Gent and he is 13 today. He is taking it easy, as befits a very elderly Labrador, but there have been a few extra treats. He spends many, many hours asleep and  I often see him doing that doggy dreaming thing, his paws moving as if he is running, accompanied by a series of quiet, breathy 'woofs'. Perhaps he is remembering what life was like when he was in his prime and he too could run along a shoreline and race in and out of the waves. He is the very dearest of dear old boys and I love him more than words can say.



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