The I’m No Longer Sure What to Call These Diaries, 21st June 2022

The summer solstice. The longest day of the year. After tonight autumn beckons. Still, we have a few more weeks of long light evenings to enjoy before the Christmas merchandise appears in the shops. Tonight we celebrated with Celia and Charlie in their garden. In fact they are probably still celebrating, with various neighbours and friends dropping by, enjoying a glass or several, plunge into the nibbles and relax in good company and chat. A friendly neighbourhood is a wonderful, wondrous thing. Like a good woman, or indeed a good man, it is above rubies.

I’d put a good cat above rubies too. MasterB is out in the garden. I left him rolling luxuriously on the paving stones. He has at last decided that my neighbour Simon is not the devil incarnate, but a perfectly nice human being, and has stopped shrinking to the floor or running away when they meet and instead approaches Simon with his tail held high. It’s good to see the boys bond. What MasterB has not understood is that Simon’s heart belongs to Hartley. I understand it’s the first time he has ever really got to know a cat, and it’s love. ❤️💕💖💕❤️. I was the same with Cat when he marched into my life. Taken by surprise, amazed, enchanted and fascinated, completely enthralled, smitten. Animals, when they choose to interact with you, to befriend you, have an extraordinary effect. They can unsettle you; tip you over, change the way you view the world. Four paws and a tail is all it takes.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 7th June 2022

It might be time to drop the coronavirus bit from the titles of these posts. Fewer people wearing masks, and that includes me, less fear of being with people indoors or on public transport. I hope it’s not all a false dawn.

Toady was one of those fairly dull days. I don’t mean the weather, it was sunny with blue skies, windows open, bare feet warm. I had tasks to complete, none particularly thrilling, and I was looking for some notes I know I made about a decade ago. I couldn’t find them. But after breakfast I had decided to have my first interaction with Too Good to Go, an app that aims to reduce food waste. I had a look at what was available in my area, and plumped for a vegan magic bag form an outlet on the Brixton Road I didn’t know. I paid my £3.59 online and wondered what I’d get.

The walk there in the early evening through Kennington Park before I reached the busy Brixton Road was an antidote to my day. It was dog walking time. I watched a young golden retriever enjoying a walk with her owner, bounding towards a canine friend for some racing and tumbling. Tails waving and ears cocked, they played on the grass. I had hoped I might see Tracey with her ageing Staff cross, but there was no sign of them.

Halfway down the Brixton Road, I felt a sharp pain in my right ankle. Strange. I hadn’t done anything. I walked on and the pain reoccurred. I stopped, flexed my foot a few times. That seemed to fix it. Good. At Pipoca people were enjoying coffees and eating snacks. I approached the counter, unsure of the protocol. I had Brough containers as instructed, but as I had no idea what I was going to get, I wasn’t sure if they were suitable. A friendly member of staff took me through the ropes and took my containers. I looked about me. What a nice place. The soup looked great, so I was really pleased when that turned out to be one of the things in my magic bag. That’ll do nicely for lunch tomorrow. I also got a wholemeal chocolate muffin which I ate for pudding, a pain au chocolat which I’ll have for breakfast, and little carton of milk alternative, a make I don’t know. All of it vegan. What an adventure!

Nice though the food is, the thrill was discovering Pipoca. Next to the café is a shop. a great shop. You can refill your bottles, buy food, ethical cleaning products, great soap. I found a soap bag. I only learned of them the other day, and the only place I saw them for sale was online where the postage and packing costs were more than double the price of the bag. I’ll definitely return, and I suspect Celia will be coming too.

Pipoca

On the way home I chose a different route. The sharp pain returned to my ankle. I loosened my shoelaces. Perhaps I had tied them too tightly. I limped for a bit, and suddenly the distance home seemed a very long way. More ankle flexing, more ankle rotation, more putting my foot gingerly to the ground. Gradually I was able to walk almost normally. I could still feel discomfort, but the sharp pain had eased. I enjoyed my walk home. I went by the end of the street where Celia and I met a woman called Michelle who gave us a bag of cherries in exchange for deadheading our roses. Her roses are blooming beautifully again. That was in 2020, during one of the lockdowns. Today I met a man with a beautiful Pomeranian who made friends with me through the fence. A pug being walked by a woman a little further along the path showed no desire to get to know me, and the woman didn’t smile or say hello. Oh well, not everyone is friendly, even when they have a dog.

Closer to home I admired Kenon’s garden. He has turned a limited space at the front of the house into a delight.

Kenon’s patch

The Coronavirus Diaries, 5th June 2022

I got home late on Friday night. The train was delayed because of a trespasser on the line. At first we were told there were trespassers, and I imagined it was some kids who’d got onto or near the track. Later we learned it was a man with mental health issues. He had a razor, so it sounds as though he was threatening to kill himself. It took a while for the emergency services to do whatever they had to do, talking and listening I imagine, before he was taken away in an ambulance. I hope he is receiving the help and support he needs now. Our health service, run down by a cynical government who would like to see it in private hands, is on its knees. Make it fail, then open the door to the highest bidder and say goodbye to arguably this country’s greatest ever achievement.

I was very tired, and though I slept well, yesterday I felt jet lagged. Still, I got the washing done, stocked up on groceries and caught up with Celia. Today I feel more like myself. I have my barometer back. It’s shiny and beautiful, but it doesn’t work. Gareth, the man repairing it, could not find anyone who could supply the needed mercury. In fact neither of us could find anyone who is licensed to have mercury. There’s a list apparently of people who are so licensed, but finding this list is a something both Gareth and I failed at. If you know, please do tell.

Gareth left with the station clock from the sitting room which needs cleaning and some minor attention. It will be good to hear its sombre tick again. I have dead headed the roses, repotted the basil, collected up the stray bits of litter that were scattered about the garden, washed out the cutlery drawer (a much overdue chore), done some accounts, and prepped supper. So a day of small, necessary tasks.

The last view I had before leaving Ray’s house was of cow so close to the haha that separates field from garden she looked like she was in the garden.

Cow by the haha.

It felt a suitably bucolic image to end my stay. In the afternoon, Ray had chosen to remain at the house while Octavia and I went to Burton Agnes Hall. The hall is beautiful, but it is the art collection it houses which is jaw dropping. Marcus Wickham-Boynton, a younger son, inherited the estate last century. He restored the house and hung its walls with an astonishingly varied, superb array of paintings: Corot, Utrillo, Lely, Kneller and many many more. There are also modern sculptures, including one of Marcus, tapestries, including one by Kaffe Fassett, and the gardens are as lovely as the house. Here’s a glimpse.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 2nd June 2022, Testing

The app I have long used to resize photos before uploading to this page is now defunct. I am trying a new one. It seems rather clunky in comparison, but I am hoping it will work.

So my test post is of photos around and of Ray’s home. Or maybe that should be the house martins’ home. They have quite a few nests in the eaves.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 1st June 2020, the Bridlington Connection

A chance encounter with a memorial tablet while we waited for Ray’s coiffeuse to complete her magic led us to learn about a more than local hero. Ray is Octavia’s 99 year-old mother, and I am visiting her at her house in Bridlington for the first time. Octavia met me at the station yesterday. I have seen so many pictures of Ray in her kitchen, or sitting outside enjoying the sunshine and the view across the fields, that some parts of the house feel very familiar. Not so others.

Her five children, all adult, left home decades ago. It’s a big house, and a big garden. The garden was always Ray’s love, and it shows. It is gorgeous. Allegra, Octavia’s sister, has undertaken the herculean task of restoring it to glory. A restorative project in every sense. She is doing an excellent job.

The other day I was having a conversation about how changing technology affects the verbal expressions we use. I observed I hadn’t pulled a chain in decades. For years now I have flushed the loo. Within hours of arriving at the house I had pulled a chain. In the back kitchen are not one but two meat safes. There are people alive today in their late middle age who have never heard of, let alone seen, a meat safe, never mind two. This is a house where technology of the past is preserved and used alongside the technology of today.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 5th May 2022, Photos from the Weekend

Unfortunately I had accidentally switched my new pocket camera into video mode. I thought I had fixed that, but evidently I hadn’t so most of my photos from the first evening and Saturday are extremely short films. So we start with Sunday, my birthday as it goes, and our BnB, then our walk around Church Island and the bluebells with Cecilia. I don’t know if there’s an annual vote for most hospitable landlady, but my vote would be for her.

Then onto Belfast and the new bnb, where my favourite item was the coffee table made from a painted pallet set on casters.

Having not airbnbed before, I am unfamiliar with the styling guidance. We were surprised at the proliferation of fake flowers. Also signs with inspirational messages. Is this a thing? Cool table though. I want one.

The Titanic Quarter is photogenic, the wonderful exhibition is housed in a wonderful building. I use the word wonderful deliberately. A building and an exhibition which evoke wonder. So many of our words are overused and undervalued, it’s hard to find one that doesn’t sound stale or everyday. I think Belfast City Council was both brave and far sighted to approve the plans for this building. It could have been safe (no bad taste joke intended); it could have been demure; it could have been a host of things it isn’t. What it is is bold, beautiful, and defiantly representational. That prow. That iceberg. The magnificent ship meeting its match. Like a tragic hero. To my shame I should have to look up the architects. Surely we should all know who they are?

I am giving this a bigger space because it says so much. In the distance we can see the building I have just raved about. Belfast Marina is to the left. Celia is on the right walking past the saddest exhibit: that long sculpture, looking like a fish someone has caught, represents the Titanic going down prow first. That perpendicular position tells you all you need about the horror. There’s another picture of the sculpture in the next gallery. You’ll see it was quite dull and overcast when we went into the exhibition.

When we came out, it was a different story. The day had morphed into a bright, warm, sunny afternoon. We wandered. We looked. We sat. We contemplated.

The walk to the centre took us by Big Fish. I am fond of Big Fish as you’ll see. I also love the 1950s Unite Building close by.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 4th May 2022, a Birthday Weekend

Celia wanted to post her brother’s birthday card. No sign of a post box, but there was a postman in a stationary van. Celia waved to him and walked over as he started move. Is it just the one thing you want to post? he asked. Yes, she said. He reached out a hand. I’ll take it, he said.

In my head I could hear my mother’s voice. They’d only do that in Ireland, she was saying, probably correctly, proudly pointing out yet again how the country of her birth was far superior to anywhere else.

We were in Belfast. The centre, not the suburbs, a stone’s throw from City Hall. It was the end of the weekend we spent in Northern Ireland celebrating both our birthdays. Working backwards, yesterday we had been in the centre, meeting Fiona for coffee at the Linen Hall Library, a favourite venue of mine, then staying chatting for so long we decided to have lunch there and forgo our other plans. We had already had coffee at the Two Sisters coffee shop off the Cregagh Road. I also had a vegan brownie there and Celia had resisted a bag she would have liked to buy. If you are near this coffee shop I recommend you pop in. It’s lovely. The coffee is lovely, the goods on display available to buy are lovely, the staff are even lovelier. It’s spotlessly clean, welcoming and probably saved our lives on Monday when we first visited it bleary eyed after a bad night’s sleep in a cold Airbnb with inadequate bedding. We compared notes in the morning, discovering we had each struggled to get warm. each been convinced in the small hours we had Covid. There were no extra blankets, no hot water bottles. The heating system resisted our efforts to spring into action despite our following the instructions to the letter. Via email I requested help, blankets and hot water bottles. Someone would come to sort the heating later I was told. Twice more I requested blankets and hot water bottles, requests which bore some fruit as we found blankets on our return.

Not the best start to our only full day in Belfast. Still, we managed a good walk through a bluebell clad Cregagh Glen to the rath at the top, then back on the Cregagh Road we enjoyed a tomato and chilli soup at the café attached to the Museum of Orange History, and where my cousin Kathryn collected us for a drive round south and east Belfast which included visiting a property she intends to renovate. She suggested we spend the evening in the buzzy cathedral quarter. All we could think of was bed and an early night, both duly achieved. Thank goodness we both slept well.

We’d arrived in Belfast by bus from Castledawson at lunchtime on Sunday. Our very lovely B&B landlady having left us at the stop after also coming for a walk with us around Church Island in Bellaghy, a walk we had hoped to do on Saturday but it had rained most of the day, and was raining particularly hard at the time we thought we might walk. We caught another bus out to our airbnb, dropped our bags and headed straight out again to the Titanic Quarter and exhibition. I think it was only when we came outside again that Celia believed my assurances that I was more than happy to go the exhibition again. Since I visited it a few years ago I’ve wanted to return. Celia is now where I was then. I am now ready for visit number three. The exhibition does everything only the best exhibitions achieve. It informs, awes, makes you think, has an emotional impact.

It had been overcast when we went into the exhibition so to emerge to bright sunshine was an added bonus. Fortunately I checked my phone as we sat looking at the water. Petra had sent a message saying she could after all join us for dinner. However, she thought we were still in Bellaghy, and was intending to travel down to Co Derry. I called her to say we were in Belfast and Home was the restaurant, not a reference to our Airbnb. Disaster averted. Home is a great place. My friend Jo, who we were also meeting there, introduced me to it last summer. The food is excellent and the service friendly and professional. Celia was impressed by the level of customer service she was experiencing. We had a great evening. Lots of chat, lots of laughter. The craic, as they say, was good.

Jo and I have known each other most of our lives. By one of those freak coincidences she was buying vegetables in the supermarket near the airport at the same time we were shopping for provisions after Cecilia (our landlady) had picked us up on Friday. That woman looks like Jo, I thought. Then, that woman is Jo! She had been at a flower show in Antrim, and had left her car at a park and ride by the supermarket.

Friday the weather was amazing. Blue skies, warm sunshine. A contrast with the grey skies and low temperatures we had left behind in London. Saturday not so much. It started with drizzle and became rain. But we spent most of the day at the Heaney Homeplace, first at the exhibition and enjoying the new digital archive in the renovated library, having a snack lunch in the café so we weren’t exactly inconvenienced.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 26th April 2022, Birthday Surprise

Celia’s birthday today and the countdown to our trip to Bellaghy and Belfast via the glamour that is Luton Airport begins. Celia is out tonight with her husband and daughter but we met up this afternoon. Not perhaps the most obvious birthday celebratory gig, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.

I have two small stools with seagrass woven seats. They were gifts from my godparents to my sister and myself back when the world and we were young. I presume my sister didn’t want hers and so it was left with my parents who handed it, along with the one that was mine, to me when I moved to this flat. The years have left their mark. The seagrass is broken in parts, the legs are looking scruffy. I thought I should like to get them repaired and spruced up, maybe to pass to the great nieces. The first price I was quoted was exorbitant, but the second was more reasonable.

A deal was agreed, and today it was time to hand over the first of the stools to John at his allotment which just happens to be at a site both Celia and I have peered at through the wire fence. We walked the short route in April sunshine and began a half hour of magic.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 25th March 2022

I am not going to talk about the war, or at least not much. Tonight’s news has awoken a flicker of hope that Ukraine may have withstood its powerful neighbour. Withstood may be too strong a word when you see the scenes of devastation in cities which were, just four short weeks ago, full of people going about their daily lives, returning to their homes each evening, cities which are now just so much rubble.

Rebuilding is going to be a mammoth task, not just the physical rebuilding of all those ruined buildings, but the rebuilding of hopes, of normality, of belief in the ordinary humdrumness of life. But compared to Afghanistan, compared to Syria, or Yemen, Ukraine may have a chance at normality sooner rather than later. Girls in Afghanistan refused the right to education were filmed weeping on a day they hoped to return to school. Their ambitions, their future, our future with them playing an active part in it has been placed on hold.

Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe has at last been freed, is back with her husband and daughter and is no longer wearing a tag. She spoke at a press conference a few days after she got back. Composed, gracious, assured, articulate, she was apparently insufficiently grateful for some, insufficiently grateful that it had taken six years to get her release, insufficiently grateful to a foreign secretary, now prime minister, who had not bothered to read about her case properly and asserted she was teaching journalism when she wasn’t.

Given a choice between that prime minister and Nazanin I know who’d I’d vote for.

Octavia is on the mend, slowly. Reinhild and Mark have tested positive. I had a PCR as part of the ONS survey. I tested negative. I hope it stays that way.

MasterB has decided he wants to be an outdoor cat. Each evening he meows piteously until I accompany him down to the front door. Then he takes flight. The nervous, unsure ginger who peers out into the street and decides discretion is the better part of valour has been replaced by a boy who, if there is no other cat about, and on occasion even if there is, is revelling in the smells and possibilities of the garden. Getting him in again is a problem. He’s outside now. I’m giving him until I have finished this post before I go in search of him. I really hope he’ll come in readily, and that i don have to catch him. It is wonderful to see him enjoying himself so much, and I don’t want to curtail or discourage that.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 13th March 2022, Time Out

Not so long ago, the pandemic I knew most about was the one in which my grandfather’s first wife died in 1918. Similarly, world war was something my parents spoke of as a lived experience. I learned about both in school history lessons. I didn’t really expect to live either. But we have been living with the pandemic for two years now, and global war is a definite possibility.

I feel I need to watch the news, despite the feelings of helplessness and grief it engenders. It’s something about bearing witness to the horrors being unleashed on the Ukrainian population. Emotionally, it’s draining. I have sent money, signed petitions, tweeted and retweeted. Yesterday, I took the day off from war. A luxury those in Ukraine do not have.

Celia and I set out for Coulsdon, and a walk we had found that was described as a surprising gem to find in the outskirts of London. It’s a peaceful, undulating, country route across flower strewn downland (in season), woods and fields and as a bonus, a church decorated with the earliest known English wall painting. What’s more all travel was within Zone 6. Neither of us knew Coulsdon. It would be a stretch to say we do now, as apart from the café (great) in the Memorial gardens and the toilets (vile) close by, we didn’t see much of it. We headed up hill to Farthing Down and Happy Valley, past some very attractive houses. About 400 yards into our walk we were lost. Not completely lost, but the instructions we were following did not match the terrain. We worked it out, but it was a good start in a way, as we increasingly found that the landmarks, fingerposts, numbered gates which were to guide us no longer existed. Compasses came into play.

Happy Valley is gorgeous. It is part of the Green Belt that surrounds London, a boon for those who live by it, and a barrier to further urban development. A barrier some want removed. A bit like the way climate crisis deniers and those who have long supported fracking say that with the current fuel crisis we should resume coal mining, drilling for oil and fracking. Heaven help us, for most of our politicians won’t.

Being out of the city was wonderful. The greenery, the dogs, the silence. We ambled, enjoying it all. Well, most of it. Not the mud. There was quite a lot of mud. Away from the Down some landowners make sure public access is restricted to a narrow strip between wire fences. We squelched, we slithered. The mud sucked at our boots and made our leg muscles tired. Thank goodness for the catkins, the twin lambs, for the primroses, and the buds. It was all very Robert Browning, though a month early.

Mud

We emerged from mud and woodland to a space, an enclave of neat houses and a quiet road. Children played on their bikes. Some of the houses had been done up with massive fences to stop anyone being able to see over them, security cameras and lights. Russian oligarchs perhaps. Certainly not neighbours where you’d go to ask if they had a screwdriver you could borrow.

We stopped for lunch at a dog friendly, walker friendly pub where they let us eat our packed lunches outside, and then we headed into the warm interior to finish our glasses of cider. The wind was cold, and the sections of the walk where we were in woodland provided us with welcome shelter.

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