A darning mushroom!
A darning mushroom! (Photo credit: emmamccleary)

Once, my little granddaughter asked me what darning was. Does anyone remember darning socks? I can see my Ma now, sitting in front of an open coal fire, a wooden mushroom in her hand, a basket full of balls of wool in all colours and another, full of the offending foot covers. It was a labour of true love, that darning ritual, now long since abandoned. It took patience and skill. Did anyone appreciate it? No. It was just something that was carried out in millions of homes of a Friday night, or any other evening, because there was no EastEnders, no Wii and life was quiet, except for the comforting drone of the Home Service on the radio.

The actual exercise began with the search for the bodkin. What is that, I hear my younger readers ask? Well, it is an instrument of torture or redemption, depending on your age and place in the family. If you were a child, you could use the bodkin to poke your enemy. It was a dangerous weapon. If you were my Ma, you would thread it and darn with it – it is in fact, dear reader, a needle. But, and this is important, no ordinary needle. In the eyes of a watching child, me, it was a thin silver metal man with no arms and a hole for a head. It was a flash of quicksilver flowing in and out of each sock, closing the holes and making life comfortable for the wearer. It was the ultimate utilitarian invention.

The trouble was, it often got lost. Ma would open her sewing box, ready for the evenings’ hard labour, to find the little darner missing. She would utter cusses under her breath and the search would begin. All members of the household were pulled in; it was a serious business. Cushions were thrown onto the floor, the floor itself was hand-checked by a small child on all fours, the windowsills were scrutinised, the cupboards peered into. Eventually, the precious bodkin, without which no sock could be redeemed, was usually discovered at the bottom of the sewing box, under that fly’s leg, as my Ma would say, sighing with relief.

These small rituals of family life in my childhood have all but disappeared. Darning and Mrs. Dale’s Diary – the fifties radio version of EastEnders, but with upper middle class characters who all had large plums in their throats and worried about their elderly relatives, who were ingratiatingly polite to each other and never farted – all gone forever. The wholesome radio comedy shows – Workers Playtime and Take It From Here, full of double entendre and sad jokes about the mother-in-law – gone forever. Darning? Gone forever. Socks come with a throw away label these days.

Of course, all this is remembered through rose-tinted glasses. In reality, darning was a pain and the socks still slowly disintegrated because, in them days, we didn’t wash so much. You took one bath a week, preferable on a Saturday night and if you were the youngest, five other people might have bathed in the same water before you. It was not a pleasant experience.

I lived in a family of smokers. My mother was the exception. She hated cigarettes, but no matter how much she complained, my father and much older brother and sister, would puff away in every room. Going to the toilet after these three needed a torch, the tiny room was so fogged up. Packets of Capstan Full Strength or Du Maurier were always on the shopping list thrust into my hand on a Saturday morning, when it was my job to run down the London street to Buxtons, the grocer and hand over the scrap of paper to Mr. Buxton himself, a man whose name perfectly described his stature in a Dickensian manner – protruding oval stomach, puffed out pink cheeks above a full mouth hiding a solid set of false teeth. He was a man of wealth; he owned the only grocer’s shop in the area. You were obliged to go to his emporium for all your comestibles or go without. Tesco was as yet, unborn.

He would stare at my list for a moment and then, set-to. In large brown barrels standing in neat rows against the counter, were flour, sugar, tea and tapioca. Mr. Buxton would produce a small metal scoop and proceed to fill brown paper bags with a pound of each. Metric wasn’t even a twinkle in its father’s eye. These would be closed with a twist of his fingers that never failed to amaze me. Somehow, those bags would be sealed without cellotape, or glue, or anything other than the magic that escaped from Mr. Buxton’s fat little fingers. Those bags stayed that way until I carried them home to Ma when she would also use magic, opening them in a trice and pouring the contents into the jars and tins that sat on the dresser.

When the good grocer came to the cigarette order, the packets would be handed to me, a nine-year old, with no concern; a packet of Capstan, its bright cover picture – a tea clipper, her sails unfurled, the words Navy Cut emblazoned across the front, the promise of clean sea breezes and freedom for my father and brother; Du Maurier, with its salmon pink slim box showing a sophisticated woman, cigarette in hand, smoke rising like a tom-tom message to the nearest rich man, saying a woman who smoked this brand was a catch. I carried my precious cargo in the family shopping bag, dark brown canvas with handles that chaffed my palms, back to the house, the change from the five-pound note wrapped in the shopping list by Mr. Buxton, stuffed into my dress pocket. That was my chore done for the day.

These memories of childhood come into sharp relief as the years pass. The good and the bad times mingle into one hazy film playing in your head, the voice-over rewritten every time the pictures appear in your thoughts, every time you try to connect the past with the present, or try to describe to your children how it was. Of course, they are disinterested. They are making their own memories and that is how it should be. But small grandchildren will listen. I’ll always treasure the memory of three of our grandchildren listening to their grandfather describing his trip to England from his home in Chile, in a ship that took him, aged eight, and his parents through the Panama Canal; the look of complete absorption on their faces, the questions that tumbled out when he had finished.

Memories of the past inform the future and where grandchildren are concerned, give them a compass for life, a reference point and an understanding of family history that is invaluable. Memories are the ashes out of which imagination can be fired and burn bright in their lives. Memories are full of romance and creativity, passion and compassion.


IMG_0503Writer’s block – we’ve all heard about it. It’s totally unacceptable to me, so I’ve softened the condition by calling it Writer’s Wall; that gives me a chance to consider graffiti at some point.

I’ve been back in the chilly UK for a month now. Perhaps it’s the weather that is closing down those little brain cells that spark off inspiration?  My brain does feel like a lump of mush, but that could be jet-lag, couldn’t it? No. I know and you know, if you are a traveller and reading this, that jet-lag ends eventually and there is no excuse for not hunkering down to work.

It’s not that I don’t want to. I love words; those wonderful squiggles on the page that MEAN something, even if only to me.  The trouble is, I keep looking for the sun. Coming home was hard sacrifice to make and I never had the disposition of a saint, I’m afraid. Sacrifice always seemed like a bit of a waste of time to me. It certainly does nothing for your self-esteem. I like the opulence of constant warmth. I love the jolly, ‘anything goes’ of the Australian character. I adored the food! I never once ate a kangaroo steak that wasn’t labelled kangaroo, and I don’t think they sold kangaroo as beef in any butcher I ever went to in Sydney. But then I was a tourist and maybe they save the cover-ups for their own?IMG_0376

The Thames or the Exe for that matter are great rivers, but they can’t hold a candle to the ins and outs of Sydney Harbour. I miss all that sparkling water. I have become a Pom who wants to return to Oz and there wasn’t a single thing there that I found to whine about. Of course, if I lived there, I guess there would be a million things that would come to light. But my memories are still good and as I stare out of the window at the sleet, I wish I was still there, in lovely Sydney with the sun on my face and the blue water at my feet. Bliss.

So it’s this yearning to be back there that is filling my head and stopping me from writing. My blog is something I used to do most days before I left. Now, it’s feeling like a chore! My next novel, only one-third completed, is yelling: ‘Finish me, finish me!’ Yet, here I am, mourning over lost sun, sea and joy, lots of it, every day!

Poor old England. The Sunday papers are full of woe. Have just read an article about the recent shenanigans of a cabinet minister and his estranged wife. These two come across as undignified and very sad and yet they both held highly paid and responsible jobs in this country and one was an MP. There is gloom, doom and cold all over the place. Perhaps when spring comes, I shall feel different and start to work again; regain some discipline? But for now, the dreams of sand and blue sea permeate all my thoughts.





Daphne Selfe: ‘Everyone can look lovely.’ Photograph: Nick Ballon

Does being a woman of a certain age in the UK mean you have to keep your mouth shut and play Bingo? Must you talk in platitudes, making sure that you know your place by never having an opinion that might assault the delicate senses of the population at large? Your focus must be on safe things, like the price of bread, the weather, knitting, your pet cat (or dog) and if you really want to be considered a Maverick, luxury cruises. Of course, in these times of economic skyfall, you are likely to be ostracised if you boast about your means and you need ‘means’ to go on those ships that wander about the oceans like open coffins, their excited passengers happy to risk salmonella and shipwreck in order to tell the neighbours that they saw the Mediterranean by moonlight and passed the shores of Greece, a place that looked perfectly okay, from a distance,  whatever the papers are saying about financial collapse and all that.

Being an older woman today, means that you are in danger of being seen as a ghost before you become one. In any queue at the beauty counter, your younger sisters will be addressed first, even if you have battled your way to the front. At any meeting, you will have to shout longer and louder than the blokes and even then, you will know that very few people will remember what you said. On the telephone, if you mention your age, the juvenile on the other end of the line will assure you that they have your best interests at heart while talking over you. If you ask them to slow down as you are a little deaf, their speech will become so slow that you nod off.

As you lose some of your hearing – inevitable once you are past 60, your voice will become louder, until you become completely deaf when, like your ghostly appearance in the eyes of the young, you will be expected to be as silent as the grave because understanding you means taking time to communicate with you, and time is something that no one seems to have anymore. Embarrassment at losing your hearing when all around you can hear a pin drop will make you shut up, permanently. After all, disability in this country has struggled for years to be accepted and old age is seen as a gross disability, especially by the government, who bleat on about THE COST OF CARE and give the impression that in twenty years time,  old people will be stacked up outside nursing homes – full to the brim inside – with their hands stretched out, taking the bread and benefits away from the young.

The word euthanasia is poised on the lips of many. Few will admit to this, but the way that old folk are patronised and devalued in society in 2012, assures me that if they could get away with it, euthanasia would be a good way of tackling the fiscal debt.

I quote from the House of Commons LibraryPopulation Ageing : Statistics – “There is great interest among Members of Parliament in regards to population ageing. Population ageing is seen as one of the greatest challenges facing contemporary society, because of its many social, economic and political implications. This Note focuses on future demographic trends in population ageing at national and regional level, and briefly examines the implications of these trends.”

This report goes on to say:   There are 10.3 million people aged 65 and over in the UK. This is an 80 per cent increase over six decades, from in 1951. Over the last 60 years there has been a substantial change in the age composition of older people. In 1951, those aged 65-74 represented 67 per cent, and those aged 85 and over made up just 4 per cent, of the 65 and over population. Today, the two age groups represent 51 per cent and 14 per cent respectively. 

Older women outnumber men. The improvement in mortality rates among older men has led to a narrowing of the gap. There were 70 men in the UK aged 65 and over for every 100 women of the same age group in 1951. The sex ratio has increased to 79 men per 100 women. The greater number of women than men is most pronounced among the very old, as women tend to live older than men. In 2010, there were 2.56 women over the age of 90 for every man of that age.

Older women are more likely than men to live alone, and the proportion increases with advancing age. Among women aged 75 and over who live in private households in Great Britain, 60 per cent live alone compared with 36 per cent of men at the same age.2 In 2001, 4.5 per cent of people aged 65 and over were resident in communal establishments in Great Britain. This proportion was greatest among people aged 90 and over at 20 per cent for men and 34 per cent for women.  

Women can expect to live longer than men, with life expectancy at birth in the UK being 78.1 years for men and 82.1 years for women in 2010.4 However, women are also more likely to live more years in poor health. In 2010, the expected years lived in poor health from age 65 onwards was 7.7 years for men and 8.7 years for women.5 Family members supply the majority of social care provided in the community. In 2001, over three-quarters (78 per cent) of all older people who reported suffering from mobility problems were helped by their spouse or other household members. As well as receiving informal care, older people are also major providers of care. In 2001, 1.2 million men and 1.6 million women aged 50 and over in England and Wales were providing unpaid care to family members, neighbours or relatives. This represents 16 per cent and 17 per cent of men and women aged 50 and over. Among 50- to 64-year-olds, a greater proportion of women than men provide unpaid care, and a higher proportion provide intensive care (50 or more hours a week).  Author – Tom Rutherford. Last Updated 10 February 2012.

Gosh, I feel better having read that.

Of late, I have noticed that some of the Sunday newspaper magazines are taking a huge risk and showing older models in fashion shoots. It’s slow progress, but these publications are ahead of the game, because us older women are still interested in wearing clothes, even if we are seen as a-sexual and only fit to appear in public in charity shop bargains. Obliged to keep working into our seventies, we are likely to have a lot more cash available than student debt-encumbered youth. Of course, most of us will be in unpaid work as carers or childminders for grandchildren, and we are expected to do this work without any complaint for we are jolly privileged that our kids and their kids are still talking to us! As for caring, well think how much money we are saving the government? Sacrifice and silence is a badge that many of us will wear well into our dotage. The rest will struggle on, competing with the young to get jobs or trying to make ends meet on pensions devaluing by the minute. Happy days.

Dylan Thomas had something to say about all this. I just wish he’d written a sequel, including the word ‘women.’


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas.




Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse. Charles Dic...
Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse. Charles Dickens is here shown as a boy of twelve years of age, working in a factory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the mother of four adult children, I’ve been pondering on their childhoods and my parenting skills. I have always worked. Why did I work? My reasons were were purely economic. How did I cope? Like working women today, I enlisted on the help of grandparents, neighbours and then nurseries and child-minders. It was predominantly my domain, this juggling. My husband did his best but he left for work each morning without, I suspect understanding how it made me feel. I didn’t mind. Our joint goal was to do the best for our kids and that meant meeting their financial as well as emotional needs. It was never easy for me because guilt was the predominant feeling whenever I left them, sometimes screaming and kicking, sometimes all smiles. But despite my guilt-ridden, sleepless nights, all four of them survived.

Now they are grown I ask myself did I do enough? Was I good enough? No, I don’t think I was. Trying to juggle so many parts of my life at once, probably made me Jack of all trades and master of none. Caring for small children is like tight rope walking over Niagara Falls. One slip and there is a disaster. You have to be on the ball 24/7 and it’s exhausting. Raising kids with the added stress of both parents needing to earn a living, it really is not surprising that the incidence of mental illness has been slowly escalating over the past 50 years.

I have always maintained that kids are kids until they turn 25. We  tried to reel out the financial and emotional lifeline that connected them to us, slowly. When they first left home, desperate for independence, if we didn’t hear from them for weeks, we didn’t chase them. We waited for them to come to us, but we had strategies for checking up on them, so that we were reassured that they were okay and managing their lives effectively. Was this the right thing to do? Not so sure now. Looking back, I think we should have kept them close for much longer. Today, parents moan about kids living at home far longer than they would like. They complain about the cost, the inconvenience, the lack of privacy. But having your kids around is what makes life worth living as you age.  There is no pain more acute (apart from childbirth) than a lonely old age when you have had kids and they want nothing to do with you. And this is happening so often these days.

Our kids and our grandkids are the MOST important people in our lives.  Even when there are times when we can see they didn’t give a toss about us, we are hooked – we love them, no matter what they do or say. From that first cry to the present day, when our eldest son is almost middle-aged, we want to know what they are doing, how they are coping, what they like or don’t like, when can we next see them? They make our life. When they act as if we don’t exist, we feel it. It hurts.

We  put a huge amount of energy into working out the best way to keep the lines of communication open. We want to remain engaged with them and you can only to that if you are connecting. But what if a family row means they refuse to contact you? It takes time, commitment and emotional intelligence to heal such rifts in families. You have to take the rejection, because they will reject you. They will go away and come back and go away again and it will hurt.

Now that two of our children have become parents, we worry much more about them more than we used to. Life had changed so radically in the past twenty years. There is so much out there to taint the lives of children. In the past, particularly our Victorian past, children were sent up chimneys.  Dickens illustrated very clearly how children were used and abused in the UK just a hundred or so years ago. Although we may not live in Victorian England, the social problems kids face in some homes have a Dickensian ring to them.

Apart from our own parenting failings, what makes children anxious and troubled today? The Good Childhood Inquiry was commissioned by the Children’s Society.  The report said that the lives of British children have become “more difficult than in the past.”  It also says “more young people are anxious and troubled”. A panel made up of 11 experts including eight university professors, says its conclusions in the report are evidence based. They point to ‘excessive individualism’ as the cause of many of the problems children face. This must be replaced by a value system where satisfaction comes from helping others rather than from chasing personal success. They say that attitudes must change and new policies must be put in place to expedite the damage already done. They recommend the following:

• Abolishing SATs tests and league tables in English schools

• A ban on all advertising aimed at the under 12s and no TV commercials for alcohol or unhealthy food before the 9pm watershed

• Stopping building on any open space where children play

• A high-quality youth centre for every 5,000 young people

It puts forward the notion that ‘Children with separate, single or step parents are 50% more likely to fail at school, have low esteem, be unpopular with other children and have behavioural difficulties, anxiety or depression.’ There is also the implication that working mothers have contributed to the damage done to children. ‘Most women now work and their new economic independence contributes to levels of family break-up which are higher in the UK than in any other Western European country.’

What do they mean? Today, as it was when I was raising my four kids, families need two incomes just to survive. The implication that we all work simply to get the luxuries is ludicrous. The cost of electricity, gas, mortgages, insurance, clothes, food goes up, almost daily. Raising kids is hugely expensive. To imply that women are working simply to achieve economic independence from men and that this contributes to family breakdown is unacceptable to me. However, this apart, I do believe that some of the recommendations put forward by the panel are valid. Here are a few more:

• A civil birth ceremony conducted by a registrar in which parents publicly accept the responsibilities of parenthood

• Free parenting classes available around the time of birth

• Free psychological and family support if relationships struggle

• Rules making it easier for parents to stay at home to rear their children

I think that this report wants to expose and confront the ‘me’ culture, however  the government has done little about it. The proposals are too radical and we are in the middle of a recession.

Downing Street states: ‘The report mirrors the ambitious plan for improving children’s lives and outcomes we set out in our Children’s Plan, which aims to give every child the best chance in life, and we are pleased that the review acknowledges the positive impact that the Children’s Plan is already having on children’s lives.’

Rowan WilliamsArchbishop of Canterbury commented that society has become ‘tone-deaf to the real needs of children… In a climate where the mixture of sentimentalism and panic makes discussion of children’s issues so difficult’.  I don’t want to sound cynical, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. There has to be more and better affordable child care in this country. The contribution that grandparents make must be valued and working conditions for mothers must be flexible. Sadly, many employers make few concessions for working mums and sometimes they can be quite hostile, all adding to the stress parents and particularly working mothers feel. It’s a question of priorities. Investing in our kids, both financially and emotionally is insurance for the future, because our kids are the future.

Family in tall grass
Family in tall grass (Photo credit: Jackal of all trades)

All we can do as parents is try to understand what loving our children really means. Doesn’t it  mean listening to them, being there when they need you, giving them space when they don’t, respecting them, hugging them, kissing them, laughing with them, taking your responsibility for creating happy memories VERY seriously, eating home cooked meals with them, putting magic and wonder into their early childhood years, engaging with them in art, music and all sorts of culture, keeping them in touch with their extended families and most of all, loving and enjoying them? Isn’t raising kids a national responsibility? We are all culpable if children suffer.

All this takes TIME. Most parents struggle to find five spare minutes in the rush to earn enough just to survive.  Today, ordinary families are struggling. In the past few years we have seen bankers suck up obscene profits, while many children in this country live in deprivation and poverty. That is disgraceful. We seem to have got our priorities all wrong.


The Age UK logo
The Age UK logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Looking after vulnerable older people is a serious responsibility. Abuse of older people comes in many forms.

This is what Age UK say about the issue:

If you know an older person who is being abused or who may be at risk of abuse, then you might find our information useful. Whether you know the individual involved through your role as a professional, carer, relative or friend, we all have an important part to play in safeguarding them from abuse.

The information in this factsheet is aimed at raising your awareness and understanding of the issues of abuse and it also covers approaches to safeguarding older people.

Any form of abuse is unacceptable, no matter what justification or reason may be given for it, and it is very important that we are aware of this and know that help is available.

The information in this factsheet is correct for the period April 2010 – March 2011. However, rules and guidance sometimes change during the year.

This factsheet describes the situation in England. There may be differences in the legislation, guidance and procedures in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Readers in these nations should contact their respective national Age UK offices for information specific to where they live – see section 12 for details.


  • Recent developments
  • What is elder abuse and safeguarding?
  • Different types of abuse
  • Financial abuse
  • Neglect
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Psychological/emotional abuse
  • Institutional abuse
  • Discriminatory abuse
  • Guidance and legislation
  • Review of the No Secrets guidance
  • Mental capacity, deprivation of liberty and human rights
  • The Transforming Adult Social Care agenda
  • Who might abuse an older person?
  • Why might someone abuse?
  • Where might abuse occur?
  • How statutory services can help
  • What can someone who is experiencing abuse do to stop it?
  • Making the first step
  • If someone is in a care home
  • Living in supported/sheltered accommodation
  • Different types of support
  • If you witness or suspect abuse
  • The duties of professionals
  • Reporting abuse and “whistle-blowing”
  • The new Vetting and Barring Scheme
  • Useful organisations
  • Further information from Age UK

Factsheet 78  April 2010 – AM064 19 of 37  DOWNLOAD THE FACT SHEET FROM AGE UK.


This quote from the Age UK website interested me:

Narcissistic abusers

These are motivated by personal gain, the ‘what’s in it for me?’ mindset, not

the desire to help others. These people tend to neglect or financially exploit

other people.

An example of this could be a neighbour who suddenly takes an interest in an

older person’s welfare. The older person is finding it difficult to manage

household tasks and shopping, and has accumulated a few debts. The older

person’s house is worth around £150,000. The neighbour develops a

relationship with the older person. He offers to do his or her shopping, helps

with the garden and does a few maintenance tasks. A few months later he

offers to buy the house for £70,000 and says that the older person can live in

it rent free for the rest of their life. He puts pressure on them and convinces

them that they cannot manage without his help.


This story should warn us that even those who appear to have the welfare of older people at heart, may not.

It also applies to sheltered housing, where a developer has managed to get planning permission only because he has promised to build houses for the over 50’s. He and his colleagues may appear caring and concerned but his real motives may be very different.

Misrepresentation is a very real threat. Glossy brochures can convince older people that facilities for them will be provided if they buy into such a scheme, only to find that the developer will procrastinate for years and fail to honour contracts and provide what was stated in the sales literature.

If this happens, residents on such developments have legal redress. They should get legal advice immediately. There may be a case for breach of contract and misrepresentation that if proved could mean that the courts will award damages and compensation to the buyer. They might even have a case for Rescission. This means that the original contract is dissolved, the buyer can hand back his house, get his money back and get damages and compensation. The law is complicated, but misrepresentation and breach of contract are serious misdemeanors.

Elder abuse, in all its forms is happening on a daily basis in the UK. Organisations such as Age UK can help.

In my opinion, the qualifications needed by anyone with the title Warden whose job it is to look after the welfare of senior citizens, needs to be carefully monitored and investigated before they are employed.  As one grows older, trust becomes very important. You need to be able to trust the people who wear these labels: Warden or Professional Carer. You need to know that they have the right motives to do the job.


A scene showing conflict in the family when the epidemic starts.

Staring out of the window today at the rain drenched Devon countryside, I took a break from writing my second novel and thought about some of the projects I produced for the county. One particular project came to mind as I opened the window and heard a cow lowing at a nearby farm. In February 2002, my theatre company Turning Point received a commission from the Community Council of Devon to write a new play about the aftermath of the Foot and Mouth tragedy in Devon.

As part of my research, I  interviewed many people living and working on farms in the South West. The project was funded by The Lloyds TSB Charitable TrustOne Man’s Meat told the story of the Kingdom family who had been farming the same 118 acre farm for two hundred years. Diversification, following the loss of their animals to foot and mouth, leads to the farmer’s wife setting up a variety of small businesses, including bed and breakfast and showing tourists around the nearby town.

One Man’s Meat was a black comedy. It was presented on on 16 October 2002 at the Annual General Meeting of The Community Council of Devon.

Lyn Ferrand leads the debate.

The company of eight professional actors performed the play at Bradford and Cookbury Village Hall in North Devon to an audience that included farmers, people who live or work in the Devon countryside and young people from a local college. A discussion followed the performance.

It was obvious that the play struck a chord with the audience and the Community Council was delighted by the response. The discussion was animated, with farmers telling their own stories and enthusiastically debating the issues raised by the play.

A visitor comes to the farm and is caught up in the tragedy.

One of the aims of the Community Council of Devon was to get farmers together and encourage them to talk about the issues. At the time, the Foot and Mouth epidemic was a huge disaster. It took years to recover from it and some would say that many people never recovered. Standing by my open window today, I remembered the awful stench of animals being burned, the fear, as each day dawned, that the disease would invade yet another farm, the animosity and conflict over compensation, the exhausted vets, the sense that the horror would never end. The country side looks so peaceful today. It smells of wet grass. The wheat in the field is wet but golden. As soon a there is some sun, I think it will be harvested. The farm animals look and sound happy.

I hope that we never experience such a terrible disaster again. But viruses are canny. They lie low and pop up when you least expect them. They are part of life and no doubt, some other disease will attack at some point. But not to be too pessimistic, scientific research moves fast and who knows when the next vaccination will emerge to protect livestock? I really hope it is in my life time. That would be good news. I never want to witness out farmers go through what they did in 2002 in the beautiful county of Devon.

Discussing the issues

This video makes me happy! Life goes on…



City Council Interviews
City Council Interviews (Photo credit: Michael @ NW Lens)

Last year, we were throwing up our hands in horror at the alleged misdemeanors of Edinburgh City CouncilBBC Scotland  found evidence of things seriously amiss in building work overseen by the council. It seemed that work done under the statutory notice system – a system that allows the council to commission builders to repair private homes, needed a review. The BBC  said there were claims of bribes offered by contractors, poor quality work, work that is not necessary and over charging.  Edinburgh City Council didn’t comment because a police enquiry was underway.

What is so extraordinary about all this, is that over the past year 15 council officials had already been suspended. The council called this a ‘precautionary move’ and called in the auditors to investigate. So they knew that all was not as it should be, but they appear to have prevaricated until the nasty stuff hit the fan. Why? Is there a culture of cover up in our public organisations?

In that debacle, it looked as if residents had been over-charged for unnecessary repairs that were of poor quality, leaving the buildings in a worse state than before works began. It also appeared that the council were using companies that were not on their list of framework contractors. One company was allocated work worth almost £2m over two years. This particular firm went into administration and has kept its lips tightly sealed.

The allocation of work to certain contractors who may have been ‘lining their own pockets’ has caused some council officials ask some serious questions, thank goodness. I have always wondered if certain councils are in the pocket of some developers. There has always been a interesting relationships between some contractors and some council officials. The boundaries may have been blurred? We all know that if you are a councillor and a contractor offers to pay for your holiday, something is not right; particularly if that contractor is then given the contract. But like the scandal about MP‘s expenses in England, these things seem to go on under everyone’s noses for months, years perhaps and are ignored until some brave soul blows the whistle. Why is this?

We are a tolerant people. I believe we want to see the best in our neighbours and in our leaders, but I also know that we are becoming increasingly cynical about  the disingenuous way some of our leaders speak about such matters; the way they tend to keep their eyes closed and their heads in the sand. Is it some sort of misguided loyalty? This attitude seems to be cascading down to communities. It’s going on but I can’t see it? It’s happening but not on my patch? It’s someone else’s problem?

Basildon Council spent £18m – yes that’s eighteen million pound; the price of a small island – to evict a group of families living in caravans at Dale Farm in Essex.  Planning laws must not be flouted; they are there to protect us all, but to spend this amount of money on evicting a small group of people from their homes, makes Basildon Council look less than efficient to the rest of the world. The ethnic origin of these families has been sited as a possible reason for the evictions; that these people are discriminated against because of their culture. True, there are some nasty, bigoted people out there and some of them may work for the council or live near Dale farm, but the real scandal is that this council could not come up with any other way to deal with this issue that cost less that £18 million.

Edinburgh council and others are calling for a review on what has been happening on their patch. Maybe it is time that there is a general review on how council membersconduct themselves and their business on our behalf? You can read descriptions of fraud, mismanagement and general bad practice on the Internet, concerning any number of local and district councils in the UK. This is worrying. Councils hold a great deal of power and with that comes responsibility to us, the community charge payers and voters. Councils really must get their act together. We rely on them.


I couldn’t face Christmas shopping this morning, so instead I walked. And walked and walked and walked. There is something about the rhythm of the step that clears the head and makes the brain function better.

The walk was a close  encounter with herons, geese and a dozen or so other wild beauties with wings, but I wasn’t quick enough to snap them all.

Heron on the look out.

The weather also gave me something to think about. When I started the walk, it was cloudy, then sunny and bitterly cold. After walking the first mile, the hail came down. Half way through the second mile, the rain started, but by the time I reached my destination, five miles down the path beside the canal, the sun was out again and the temperature was up.

The locks on the canal are always mesmerizing. It’s the sound that gets me. And then the perpetual motion of the water.

First Lock

It draws you in and hypnotises you, even if your nose is getting frost bite.  After a good ten minutes in a water induced coma, it was onwards to cross the bridge. Sadly, there were no billy goats and no trolls beneath. So on I walked, passing a solitary bench, its seat full of memories of bottoms past, perched peacefully while eating sandwiches or drinking pop. Ah, those lazy hazy days of summer…

Now I need the loo. The path stretches into the distance. Where is the wonderful cafe I’ve been told about? A place of sanctuary, with excellent coffee, large slices of chocolate cake and loos? I trudge onward. I am the only human left on the planet. The hail stones start to fall. Will I be found frozen stiff by the next lock? When I reach Lock 2, the rushing water has the desired effect. I cannot see or hear anything anymore!

Heaven is near!My bladder is screaming for relief. Then, just as I begin to sprint, panting and wondering if I should disrobe there and then and attempt to pee into the canal, (there is a rubber ring on a wooden stand near the waters edge, but if I fall in, no one is there to throw it to me!)  The oasis appears! O joy… And there is a fire! And the loos are spotless! And the coffee is amazing!

I sink into a leather sofa and enjoy. The walk back, all five miles of it, is forgotten for the moment…  After a large latte and a huge slice of fruit cakechoc cake is off today – I talk to the waitress and she tells me of her plans to leave England for warmer climes. I tell her about my wonderous walk along the water, leaving out the bit about needing the loo, of course.  She is unconvinced. She is eighteen and sees only the wet, cold, dank countryside outside. She chatters on about Australia and New Zealand while I listen and wonder if she has a point. The hail is coming down in bucketfulls. I can hear it hitting the windows with a spiteful intensity. It’s after me. It’s bitter out there and I’m not eighteen. I must be mad. But then, suddenly the hail cloud passes over and the sky is blue again. A wintry sun appears and send gold beams across the water…  I put on my coat and say goodbye to the young adventurer. I have five miles to walk back to my car. I must brave the rain, sleet, hail and a freezing wind that has just decided to send me almost cart-wheeling past several puzzled ducks.

Best foot forward. My step on the homeward journey is slower because I am weighed down by cake and coffee and it gives me time to think about all the beauty around me. My bladder holds out and I reach the car with a sense of satisfaction. Whatever the English weather throws at you, there will always be a cafe on the horizon and, if you are lucky you may see a heron. 

The shining…
Sheer magic!
Forever rambling on...
The Lonely Bench.
Trolls out to lunch?


Meeting nieuwe leden
Image by Voka - Kamer van Koophandel Limburg via Flickr

Meetings! The Brits love ’em. Give a committee a table and some papers and they will push them around forever. Tea and coffee must be provided of course, and in the most serious of meetings, there is usually herbal infusions to soothe and prevent bloody murder.

Meetings are a microcosm of our class system and no matter how many times some hapless politician bleats on about the wonders of our egalitarian democracy, we all know it exists. If you step out of the class line in a meeting, ten to one, someone will flounce out and an excruciating silence will follow until that most exulted of people, the Chair, grabs the reins and you are all guided back to hypocrisy.  No mention is made of the ‘incident’ until the coffee break. Then you will hear phrases like: ‘What the f*** was his/her problem?’ and ‘He/she always has too much to say for his/herself!’

Meetings in rural communities have a unique orchestration. In a city or corporate environment, time and the agenda rules. In a village meeting, agendas are there to doodle on, while someone drones on and on, never quite getting to the point. Village meetings are guaranteed to mess with your head. First of all, it is imperative that everyone appears to like everyone else. Even if you hate the person sitting next to you with a passion, you must never let anyone know. Smiles are mandatory, as are conciliatory phrases such as: ‘Really? How interesting…’  Of course, there is always the bad apple in the bunch who says exactly what they think without any editing and what mayhem that can cause.

That sort of chaos usually occurs when the main body of the committee are over sixty. Old age ain’t no place for sissies and words-will-not-be- minced.  There is a sense that these people have little time left for niceties and will thoroughly enjoy any combat. After all, there are always one or two who have: ‘ been through the blitz, you know!’ Anyone stupid enough to mount a challenge will pay for it. 

Intellectuals at meetings are always a lot of value. They know and you don’t. Strings of letters after your name give a cache that is hard to beat. Being a member of the aristocracy is another show-stopper. But having letters after and a title before your name, gives you shot-guns, while everyone else is equipped with pea-shooters. The only people who can win here, are very pretty, young women. It doesn’t seem to matter if their heads are full of recycled rubbish or nuclear fuel, the mere fact that they are at a meeting at all, changes the dynamic if the intellectuals are there: ‘It’s so nice to have some young blood attending, don’t you think? Welcome, welcome… Now, what are your views on the new by-pass, the dog-poo bin, the church warden, the fete…?’ Of course, in villages, brave young things are too busy driving to the nearest city to get a life than hang around in drafty village halls to help with decision-making.

Of course, apart from the class thing, there is also the competition game. There will always be someone who says very little but has the ‘look’. That look speaks a thousand words. You can tell the ‘look’ has the ‘knowledge’ that everyone else wants but will not get. Silence, lowered eyes, simpering and fawning are all strategies used when someone knows more than everybody else. They may know that the parish council has already passed the planning for a new chicken farm next to their neighbour, but they’re not saying. They keep the game going. It’s thrilling. It gives them a real buzz, without imbibing any substance that might do harm, except perhaps the invisible barbs that others on the committee will fire at their heart when the they find out.

One very powerful position is Minute Taker. If you are roped into this, rejoice. Taking minutes may seem terrifying at first, but fear not. You can write down anything you like. As long as you flatter people by mentioning them by name, throw in a spattering of dates and times, refer to ‘The Chair’ often and thank several people randomly throughout, you will be a success. No one questions the minute taker.

Meetings make our world go round. They give you something to do on a Wednesday night when EastEnders isn’t on the telly. They let you go home and moan to yourself or your partner that: ‘No one gives a b***** toss!’  Meetings keep you busy. They keep you nosy. They make life infinitely more interesting than it would be if The Squire made all the decisions. They wouldn’t happen if we became a fascist state. Love them!

And finally, the stocks may still be standing on the village green, but these days, you need a committee meeting to decide who’s head goes inside…





During the late afternoon and early evening of...
Image via Wikipedia

Six o’clock in the morning and a thunder storm is about to unload on my small patch of the earth. No use staying in bed. I’m up and at the window, watching the clouds get ready for war. Thunder storms in May in rural England? Rare in my childhood. Now, strange weather is becoming common place; even the TV weather lady looks perplexed as she tells me each morning what I am in for.

Is it false memory syndrome or were the summer months once always sunny? Did thunder storms only happen in August when the flying ants appeared and was May once a sweet, gentle month, with soft rain and a bursting of green everywhere?

There is an anger in the weather these days. It’s as if nature is thoroughly fed up with the damage we are inflicting on her. Fanciful thinking, maybe? But nowadays, I do see nature as a ‘thinking’ force and not just a reactive one.

When I am in my garden, planting vegetables or waiting for flowers to bloom, if I give myself time to listen, there is a conversation going on out there and it’s a noisy one. Bees and insects are communicating in a robust symphony, birds are talking non stop, even the shrubs and bushes murmur as the wind touches them and who is to say that they don’t understand the language of a twitch of a leaf as they brush against each other in the breeze?

On the grass, although I cannot see them, millions of small crawling and flying and hopping insects go about their daily business in complete oblivion to my existence and me to them. It’s only when I suspend time and purposefully sit and watch the grass for some time, do I acknowledge that this other universe exists. Makes for some interesting remarks from my neighbours…

This strange feeling of connectedness with a secret and unseen force only happens when I allow it to. Most of the time, I am detached and busy with the logistics of living. I have to make a real effort to open my senses to the mysteries of nature. But when I do, the rewards are great. Watching the lightning begin is far more exciting than the start of any new movie. Waiting for the first thunder clap is spine tingling.  The birds know what is coming. They go silent before a storm. Everything goes still, waiting for the cataclysm to begin. Everything out there is holding its breath.

In the UK we have started experiencing wild weather. This island was always a temperate zone. No more. Floods, forest fires, arctic winters; all have hit us in the past few years. The power and beauty that is unleashed is awe-inspiring and dangerous. Our lives have to change. We have to adapt, survive and thrive in the face of these weather events. Our once calm environment is no more. Depending on how you view this, life will become very challenging or very exciting – or a mixture of both.

Noticing the seasons and really seeing them are two different things. Living in a city means we are often cut off from the cycle of weather through the year as the seasons come and go. Tall buildings and city streets obscure the flow and give us a sanitised version of nature at work. But now, cities are becoming over-run with foxes and rats. Cyclones visit urban streets and blow roofs away. Floods drown whole centres of commerce and we are forced to accept the sight of a rowing boat on a high street rescuing people from flooded homes on a regular basis. No longer is nature in the raw confined to that green stuff out there called ‘the countryside’ and those of us who live in the countryside, are now forced to be acutely aware of what nature is up to.

Last November the snow hit my neck of the woods. For weeks, walking to the shops took mind-numbing courage because broken limbs were a distinct possibility. The garden closed down; the countryside closed down. Everything turned icy white and stayed like that for weeks. But there was noise. It came from the birds who discovered feeding stations in every garden along my street. Breakfast was late for them as they waited for the light to reluctantly appear following the long freezing winter night. Then they flew into my garden in flocks – every size and shape and variety that hadn’t skipped these shores for warmer climes. The food we put out for them saved their lives. Now, in May the gardens and woods are full of baby birds and animals. The foxes and badgers visit and look for food, encouraged by the scraps we put out for them when the snows were here. Even otters have returned to the near-by river.

Despite today’s unusual thunder storm, the animal, bird and insect stalwarts are still going about their business, just like me. Only now, every day I make time to wait, listen and see as much of their lives as I can. Spring has bought such a variety of birds to my garden this year. Last week, a lesser spotted woodpecker strutted up and down the plane tree in next door’s garden, stopping at the top to tap away for a few minutes before flying off in pursuit of flying insects. Yesterday morning I counted six sparrows, two robins,  three great tits, 4 wood-pigeons, 1 large crow and three starlings. There is also a residents black bird in one of my trees that sings an opera every morning. Watching the courtship and nest building going on outside is something I wouldn’t want to miss. It’s a magic show that is free every day and night.

The thunder has started. I have a cup of coffee and a seat by the window. I’m waiting for the show to start.