Poetry, Pain Thresholds, and Imaginary Bridges

Top of January’s High Spots is tonight’e event at the Royal Festival Hall when the shortlisted poets for the TS Eliot Prize will each read from their work for eight minutes. It was Celia who introduced me to this pleasure several years ago when she had a spare ticket. I think it may have been the first time I saw Simon Armitage perform live. Bliss.
Tonight there are about eight of us going and sitting together, meeting two more whose seats are waaaay behind ours, and almost certainly seeing Kate and Jane who like us are serial recidivists. I have only just realised that Nick Laird is one of the shortlisted poets. Delight. I saw him read at the Heaney Homeplace in February 2017, that magical weekend when Cousin’s friend Ann and I enjoyed three successive nights of poetry. Laird grew up around Cookstown, so not far from Bellaghy. Ann has since died from cancer which makes that weekend infinitely precious. There was a good local crowd, and I enjoyed a chat with him afterwards, learning that for a time he had lived near where my home is in South London. He was savage about Boris Johnson and the regeneration of the Elephant and Castle, so no wonder I warmed to him. I’ll have a quick gargle so I can whoop at the end of his set. Continue reading

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Octavia is my Lab Rat

As someone who loves, and I mean loves, fairy lights the sheer range available in the pound shop in December was severe temptation. I was almost salivating. I had to get myself out and away before considerable damage was done to my pocket.
Now, in the cool light of January,my decorations down, cards undisplayed, but fairy lights still twinkling as they do here all winter, I found myself thinking of those lights again. I returned to the shop, imagining I might, in a more restrained, less Christmassy frame of mind, be able to choose wisely from the selection.
All gone.
We have moved onto St Valentine’s Day. So I could have bought heart shaped candles, various tacky objects in shades of red. No fairy lights. Perhaps it’s a blessing. But I am thinking that if they have the same wonderful array next year, all the friends to whom I give presents will get at least one string of lights for Christmas.
Meanwhile, Octavia made a fleeting return to the capital and we ate together on Sunday evening. She is my lab rat, or guinea pig if you prefer, when I am trialling new dishes on visitors. Unusually we ate at mine. This was because I was making soup and didn’t fancy carrying it around to her house. The chances of spillage which would have been messy, were too high. My experimental dish was a Freekeh salad. Now I have had Freekeh in a local restaurant but not been able to buy it. Apparently it sells out very quickly. So Lyn very kindly got some for me in Auckland, and then Celia managed to bag a packet which was part of my Christmas gift from her.
So now I am Freekeh rich, but with Brexit looming, I don’t think I’m going to be rich in much else. I am particularly worried about fresh veg as I eat a great deal of it. I might get by on home grown tomatoes in the summer, but there’s no chance of that in April.
Maybe by some miracle the MPs will put a stop to the madness and we can reboot. Brexit’s wounds are going to take a long, long time to heal, whether we leave or stay. The bitterness, the hatred, the anger the referendum threw up will leave scars.
I have just watched Brexit: the Uncivil War, a drama about the campaigns starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It left me thoughtful, and more than a tad depressed. I had seen part of it being filmed in 2018 and been told by one of the crew it was to air the night we left the EU. In that case, I hope I never see it, I replied. But we are still in the EU, and it has aired. Watching it on catch up I didn’t get the full complement of ads in the breaks (it was a Channel 4 production for anyone looking to find it) but I did get that it had been sponsored by Lexus, so presumably that was the type of buying power the anticipated audience was expected to have. Not I. Among the more ridiculous accusations levelled at remainers is the one that we are the metropolitan elite. Some of the poorest parts of London voted solidly to remain. My own neighbourhood among them. Apparently, and especially as I read the Guardian, I am also a member of the chattering classes, which perhaps I am, though not alas with any influence. The term was coined by Auberon Waugh whose politics were more than a bit extreme.
We are seeing the unedifying spectacle of MPs, journalists and others being racially abused; women having misogynistic comments hurled at them by a group of vociferous pro Leave protesters who gather outside the Palace of Westminster. How anyone hearing them could embrace a future where their views dominate is a mystery.
I don’t agree with Owen Jones about much, but when he says the right wing press and the language of hate and prejudice that adorn its front pages has much to answer for, he’s right. He didn’t mention the lies the Mail and the Express serve up on an almost daily basis. According to them, climate crisis is a lie, we are overrun with malign foreigners, the NHS is being bled dry by health tourists. All these stories have been shown to be false, but still they keep peddling them. It worries me that the newspaper proprietors push this trash, it worries me even more that people buy these newspapers and want to believe them. That is self-deception on a frightening scale.
But I can only take a little of Brexit at a time. It looks horribly like I shall be living in an ex EU country very soon. Any problems will be blamed on the EU which has become some sort of whipping boy for the right and far right. Any success, any minor survival, will be hailed as victory. And as I don’t want to see my country go down the pan, I and my fellow remainers will be doing our darnedest to make something positive out of this disaster, and not relying as the leavers seem to do on fairies at the bottom of the garden.
So expect recipes, pictures of MasterB, poetry, anything that distracts and keeps me sane while this lemming like race to destruction continues. Meanwhile, beneath the surface my legs will be paddling like billyoh.

Soup Season

What is it about the end of the year and the start January which suggests soup? It’s not just me; my neighbour Jolita has also got the soup bug. At a guess, it goes back to childhood and Mother making meals from festive leftovers. To be fair, I don’t remember any soup, but I do remember a nut bread she made based on a recipe in a copy of Family Circle someone had passed to us. Is Family Circle still going? We weren’t a magazine taking family, though the Radio Times was taken weekly, and I was a big fan of the Dandy before I reached double figures, then it was Jackie and Fab208 as often as I could get them, with very occasional forages into Rave before I graduated to Honey. Nowadays it’s the Guardian and magazines from various organisations I belong to or charities I support. Favour, the magazine for supporters Hearing dogs of the Deaf doesn’t feature many soup recipes. But then neither did the Dandy.

That said, for me soup generally begins with what I have in the fridge rather than a recipe. And this week I had some celeriac that needed using, lots of tomatoes, and some nice white bread that was past its best. So Monday’s soup was a version of ribollita which worked surprisingly well. Motivated, I moved onto tomato soup, with a pound of tomatoes and some other veg I already had. I found a recipe which became the base for my soup, but to my surprise it didn’t include garlic. Surely some mistake? Easily rectified though, and thus emboldened I added half a tsp of ginger purée instead of the tomato purée I did not have. I love chilli, so after a slight hesitation I added a few flakes. Continue reading

Regarding a Newly Sociable Cat

Thinking about it, MasterB has had a fairly sociable autumn, and in the middle of December I recall remarking to Michèle that his social life eclipsed mine. He spent November living with Birgit, and both Reinhild and Celia visited. In the middle of December, Bridget, who stayed here in 2016 while I was in Australia, called round for a calendar. I knew she was coming and we had agreed to meet downstairs. I left the door to my flat open. While we chatted we heard miaow miaow miaow from upstairs, and then came himself, barrelling down, tail hoisted like a flag, to greet Bridget. I have absolutely no doubt that he heard her voice and was determined that if she wasn’t coming up to see him, he was coming down to see her. She returned a few nights later with Janet, his other auntie while I was in Oz. We had drinks, nibbles and chips. MasterB had a lovely time.
Now I am the first to admit that MasterB is not the sharpest knife in the drawer; invitations to join MENSA have been notably absent, and though willing, he struggles with games demanding much (any) intellectual ability. However, he does know he he likes and loves, and he remembers those people with whom he has bonded very well. I’d love to see his reaction if the student couple who rescued him turned up. So with B&J he was sooo happy. He rolled on the carpet, he sat in the middle of the floor, he remembered the games that Bridget played with him and played them all over again. Animals, non-human animals that is, don’t lie: MasterB loves B&J. Official. Continue reading

Quite the Party Animal

New Year’s Eve, and all is quiet chez Isobel and Cat. The party goers are either in a different neighbourhood, or haven’t got started yet. I’m not sorry to miss them. It’s been a few years now since I have seen the New Year in. Friends have given up inviting me to join them watching fireworks. I used to like small supper parties that ended shortly after we drained the obligatory glasses of champagne as Big Ben tolled the end of the old year. But even that palled. Maybe one of these years I shall be seized with a longing to be in the midst of a crowd of revellers singing Auld Langs Syne, but not tonight. It’s questionable whether I shall still be awake at midnight, let alone revelling. No, I’m perfectly happy sitting here with the boy, writing a post, and with the promise of the new Kate Atkinson novel to read later.

I was out working today and tonight made a mean bowl of fresh tomato soup, then settled down to catch up with episode one of Les Misérables as adapted by Andrew Davies, the man who put Darcy into a pond and turned Colin Firth into an unlikely sex symbol. Tonight I got a view of Dominic West’s buttocks. Others will have enjoyed that view last night, but I was watching on catch up. I’d read a review in the Guardian online over breakfast. You can read it too if you like, just click here for the link.

The opening shot featured no buttocks at all, but instead Adeel Akthar cheerfully robbing the dead bodies on the battlefield the day after Waterloo.I felt a vicarious thrill of fame, Akthar’s parents-in-law are in our book group. One of the bodies wasn’t dead, he introduced himself as Colonel Pontmercy before once more losing consciousness, and although I have never read Les Mis, seen the film or the musical, I’m willing to bet a fairly hefty sum that the two will meet up again.
Continue reading

Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife

Night fell a couple of hours ago. The shops are closing. Celia and Charlie have left for Brighton. Octavia is in Yorkshire. In the block of flats where I live, only a handful of residents are at home, and in the section where my flat is, only my lovely neighbours opposite and I are here for Christmas. We’ve decorated our shared landing and exchanged gifts.
Inside, I have candles and fairy lights, tinsel that has so far survived MasterB’s interest, clean sheets, and parcels piled up on the table. Nanci Griffith’s voice fills the air from an old cassette tape.
I am feeling Christmassy, but not Christmassy enough to play CDS of carols. Anyway, I have managed to miswire the CD player of the stereo and sorting it out is beyond me right now. Continue reading

Family Friendly

What lovely responses to my last post. Thank-you to all who left comments and those who emailed me. I don’t want to give the impression I don’t get on with any of my family, that would be quite wrong. Early 2019 is pencilled in as Cousins Time; not my Irish cousins who get mentioned a fair bit as I usually stay with Cousin several times each year. This time it’s my English cousins. One is my cousin Russell who I’ve mentioned several times on this blog. He is the only first cousin younger than me on my father’s side of the family. Much to Mother’s annoyance, I used to spend my pocket money on Matchbox cars for him. His parents were much better off than mine, and I think it irritated Mother that her hard earned cash was being syphoned of to a family who had a much healthier bank account.
It didn’t stop me though.
When my cousin and Russell’s half-sister Jeannette died suddenly in 2017 we realised we couldn’t take our cousins for granted, so Russell and I, already regularly in touch, became closer. When he contacted me to say he is the current artist in residence at the Watts Gallery I nearly burst with cousinly pride and excitement.
Russell is my first cousin.
The other cousins I hope to be meeting up with are also first cousins, but one removed; ie they are my father’s cousins, younger than him by some years, now old in their own right. Jeannette (another Jeannette) lives not far away from me, but we seldom manage to coincide. Her parents, my Great Uncle Percy and Great Aunt Helen decamped to Wales and Jeannette has inherited their property which has become a favourite bolt hole. I’m not sure how much she goes there now, but if she’s anything like Percy, she’ll think nothing of the drive. He drove down to London for his 90th birthday party and stood chatting to everyone throughout. Helen, his wife, was Swiss. They were both musicians and Helen was not brought up with domestic skills. At that birthday party she told me how she had not known how to prepare a meal, but good smells issued from her neighbour’s house, so she went round and asked her to show her how to cook.
Jeannette and I had a chat a few weeks ago and we plan to meet to exchange family stories and look at photos next month. It’ll be great to see her. As both sides of my family tend to be talkative the conversation should be lively . Continue reading

Christmas is Coming

Crumbs. We’re already a third of the way through December. Funny to think that tomorrow it’ll be two weeks since I left New Zealand for home. In some ways it seems like a lifetime ago; in others I still feel in my head that I am there. A sort of bicultural existence. I think it’s called processing. Most days I find myself thinking about Lyn and Malcolm, about Nadia. Nadia and I exchanged a few WhatsApps about a book I gave her; Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. Nadia and I became friends when we attended the same mosaics class, but there is more than mosaics to our friendship. Nadia writes. One of these days I am going to be crowing about her novel, which will be published after she has edited it for the millionth time. OK I exaggerate, but the draft I read years ago was pretty polished in my opinion, and I am getting impatient too see it in Waterstome’s. We share an interest in literature. Good books inform our lives, improve our lives. There was a moment on the train into Wellington when I was telling her about the book group I belong to. Nadia has resisted book groups. Like me, she has felt they are not necessarily A Good Thing. I explained how our book group works, and told her it is particularly good when M, a respected novelist, attends.She is extremely knowledgeable, never patronising, and keeps us on task. Nadia’s eyes widened. It turned out that M is one of her favourite writers. If only she still lived in London she could join us. On the other hand, I shouldn’t have seen Wellington with her and through, to some extent, her eyes.

I am still percolating my New Zealand holiday. Odd things come to mind to be examined and considered from a distance in time and place. Nadia introduced me to a police drama series that one of her friends writes for. It’s called Brokenshaw. It’s dry, well written, funny, but not comical. I loved it. It turns out it’s on here too, on the Drama Channel, a channel I have never watched. So I settled down to enjoy an episode, only to find it was one I had seen in Wellington. It doesn’t seem I can watch others on catch up. Darn. Lyn and Malcolm like a programme called The Chase. It turns out that it’s a British programme, broadcast here on daytime tv. Since coming home I have seen several trailers for it. Funny I had never heard of it before visiting NZ. Continue reading

Of Jet Lag, Disappointing Theatre and Amazing Poetry and Science

I thought I was over the jet lag. I’ve been back at work since Saturday, and MasterB’s insistence on breakfast at seven in the morning has helped get at least that part of my routine re-established pretty quickly. I had one evening when I went to bed shortly before six. It was that or nod off on the sofa. The dark evenings haven’t helped me stay awake. By eight it feels like midnight. I tried having a second cup of coffee one day, but that was disastrous; I was jittery and jumpy, and speaking so fast my tongue felt seriously tired. However, day by day I was gradually staying awake longer and later.

But this week I had tickets to two events in the evening. The first, on Wednesday, was to a play at the National Theatre, the second to a poetry and science event at the Shaw Theatre. Both were with Celia and we have had the tickets for some weeks.

I love the National Theatre. It is quite simply one of the best theatres in the world in terms of the three auditoria it comprises, in terms of its creative vision and commitment, in terms of its productions. actually, it is probably the best theatre in the world. This is the home of War Horse, and the puppeteers who work their magic in that production say there is no other theatre in the world where this play would have been staged; the work that went on for months behind the scenes to make it possible would not have been contemplated anywhere else. You get spoiled in london. It is the the theatre capital of the world.

So you’ll understand I had high expectations of the evening. The play was by David Hare, a writer I respect. On the way there Celia told me the reviews had been mixed. We were surprised to see many of the seats were empty. My experience of the NT is almost uniquely of full houses and anticipatory audiences. The lights dimmed. The opening scene was great, snappy, clever, promising. bUt after that it was slow. A lot of polemic and not a lot to watch. My eyes began to close. I was still listening, but the voices were sounding more and more distant.

I made myself open my eyes. I’m a fidget at the theatre. some people stay in the same position throughout a play. I don’t. I move about in my seat, cross and uncross my legs and arms, reach for my water bottle, lean forward, lean back. This time a lot of my fidgeting was to keep awake. I thought I was doing quite well, but then my head dropped and woke me up. I didn’t last beyond the interval. I wasn’t sure if it was me or the play. Celia stayed. She texted me when it was over: thumbs down. Oh well, put that one down to experience. Continue reading

Hold the old photos, we went to Devonport today

Spring weather today, sunshine and warmth, alternating with heavy showers. We took a bus into town and headed for the harbour to catch the ferry to Devonport. It had been on my to see list, but I thought the weather was going to rule it out. Although we travelled there by water, it is attached to the mainland,
Before I came to New Zealand, people told me it was like Tasmania, but until today I hadn’t felt that was true.
But there was something about Devonport that did remind me of Tasmania. I couldn’t tell you what though.
The ferry ride lasts just twelve minutes, so you just have time to enjoy the view before you disembark. A gentle walk along by the sea was a nice introduction. With the sun out, the sea was restored to a blue-turquoise. Dogs were swimming, people too.

Swimming retriever

A walk by the sea, with driftwood

There were benches to sit on to admire the view.

Bench with a view

There were also reminders that things had not always been so tranquil.

Execution site

Continue reading