Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Winners and Losers

Because of algorithms (I suppose) all kinds of intriguing advertisements for things that interest me waft across my newsfeed on Facebook.

Today, this.

I try to keep someone always on duty atop my inner watchtower, and that perpetual watchful eye reported misery trailing in the wake of that advertisement. So I stopped and enquired within. Why?

It was that bit at the top making me feel cast down: "You . . . can learn from the world's best . . ."

Now, of course, that is an exciting opportunity. Margaret Attwood is a celebrated writer indeed, and celebrities are typically difficult to get close to.

The outfit posting news of the workshop is called "Masterclass".

In a sense, they had posted an advertisement saying: 

And, to be fair, I suppose anyone willing to shell out their cash to go on a writing workshop with Margaret Attwood must have the humility to accept that in any case.

But, what is celebrity anyway? I think of JK Rowling's spectacular success arising from her Harry Potter series. Of those books, I enjoyed Volume 1, Volume 2 a little less, Volume 3 even less, and I got bored and wandered off halfway through Volume 4. There were so many holes in the world view it proposed, and so much of the contract between writer and reader was broken. 

By contrast, Susan Cooper's series The Dark Is Rising is, in my opinion, stunning. She is well-known as a writer, of course, and some of her work has been adapted for TV — but she's twice the writer JK Rowling is and half as celebrated.

I have the same reservation with competition programmes. I love The Great British Bake-Off, and Strictly Come Dancing, except for my sadness that the whole purpose of a competition is to create losers. Yes, a competition creates one winner, but to every winner there are as many losers as there were other people in the competition. And that, by definition, in my opinion, makes the competition a failure. 

Because nobody wants to be a loser. And some of those who lose, do so undeservedly. Sometimes those who win caught the judge's eye for more complex reasons than talent and ability — judges are only people after all. Like the violin teacher who was one of the judges in the music section of our Methodist District Festival one year. Our Rosie entered, playing her trombone. I think she may have been about thirteen. She didn't win, which was not of itself a problem to us (I mean, who cares?) but what I did object to was the violinist judge kindly explaining to her that the girl who won (a violinist) probably had the edge over her because a violin is a more inherently musical instrument than a trombone. Say what?

I was in a competition once, at the age of eight. It took place within another child's birthday party. We were asked to go in fancy dress. A neighbour's small child (perhaps five years old) had chicken pox, and as a consolation for missing the party, was given the opportunity to judge the fancy dress parade. We all filed past the front window of the afflicted child's house, and she was to pick the best costume. I went as Little Bo Peep. My get-up was okay, but nothing special. But, my mother had somewhat narcissistic tendencies, and to survive in life it was important to understand how to charm her. Learning this skill conferred certain advantages. I learned from an early age how to flatter people, and how to make them feel special. We all filed past the child's house, and as we did so I turned and waved to the little girl and smiled at her. I knew I'd win (and I did) — even though my costume wasn't the best.

Once, I was given the opportunity to be both entrant and judge. It happened in the course of my ordination training. All sorts of psychological game-playing happened there, and on one occasion the person who had come to run the seminar began (this was usual) with an "icebreaker". Our class was instructed to form ourselves into a line — with the most attractive at the top and the least attractive at the end. I mean, what were they even thinking of?

The ordinands began to move, in varying degrees of uncertainty, most congregating about two thirds of the way down the line. Only I and my friend Giles responded to this toxic nonsense with the same idea — we both rushed to the very top of the line and stood there together. I see myself as no great beauty (and his evaluation of himself was probably quietly realistic), but I was not going to be shamed by that kind of crap.

So, although Margaret Attwood leaves me standing when it comes to literary success, and she is both celebrated and revered, I still won't even consider attending her masterclass. I know — I might enjoy it, I might learn loads, it could be really interesting. 

It's just that there is this stubborn, irrational voice of hope inside me, insisting that "the world's best" is not a position already determined and taken.

It's not Margaret Attwood I have a problem with — it's the advert.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

Sometimes not always

 I can be a little slow.

I have always been a black-and-white, 100% kind of person. Take food, for instance. I am utterly useless at those kind of diets where you go easy on sugar, where you don't go mad with the bread, where you just eat a little of something. I'm always like, "Are we eating this or not?"

In my endeavours to do pretty much anything, I tend to see the results in terms of success or failure — I can do this, but I'm no good at that. If I don't succeed, I give up. If I can't go all the way with one of my ecological aspirations, I think half measures won't do.

In the last year or so when I've had health problems, I've given up doing more and more things until life has become distinctly limited — naturally this was accelerated and intensified by actual lockdown!

But I realised today (this is what I mean, I can be a little slow) that it's not necessary to categorise everything as Things I Can Do and Things I Can No Longer Do. There's another, much larger category of things I might be able to do, let's see how I feel today. 

Last night I was so tired and everything hurt so much that I went to bed early with the thought that I'd have to cancel plans for today — a visit I've been looking forward to. But then I thought, well, the day before yesterday I managed all the man-handling of badger-defeating stones at the garden centre, so maybe today will be like that day. 

I also decided to re-categorise how I feel as "have been unwell" instead of "growing old" — because after all, you see lots of old people nipping about like mountain goats achieving all kinds of things.

Perhaps this is one more aspect of living in the Now that I need to learn — seeing what today brings, and being present to its possibilities.

Friday, 24 September 2021


We have an engawa and we didn't even know it.

Japanese life and culture speaks to my soul, and I enjoy watching YouTube videos on that very subject, and recently I settled down to one all about traditional Japanese homes.

I discovered that they typically have what is called an 'engawa' — which is a small courtyard with moss or low-growing plants, a brazier to make a cup of tea or something outside, a cherry tree, and a spiritual statue.

And I thought — oh, my goodness — that's exactly what we have!

Our house, like most Victorian homes, is L-shaped, creating a little courtyard. There we have our water butts and our wood store — but also a buddha under a small flowering cherry tree, and a patch that used to be for growing vegetables but (after our plot beans blew down in the storm and our potatoes and tomatoes grew so huge and jungly that it was impossible to edge round the patch) then a year ago I planted it with lawn camomile and lawn mint and low-growing thyme and mossy plants. The plants established beautifully, and it looked so pretty. 

Here's the buddha from our engawa, in the spring, under his flowering cherry.

I wanted a Jizo statue like the one they have in the moss garden at the Sanzen-in temple in Kyoto.

Jizo, meaning "womb of the earth", or "earth bearer", represent Jizo Bosatsu, a Japanese guardian deity going right back to pre-Buddhist days — for the protection of children and travellers. They are always made of stone, the material that represents the Earth, and are often placed as memorials for children who have died or are stillborn. They are always in the form of a monk in simple robes, a bodhisattva whose vow is not to leave Earth for Nirvana until all the hells are empty. Rather like the archangel Rafael who travels with us, our companion on the journey and our divine protector.

Here is the one I put in our engawa.

Lovely, eh?

But, can you see little holes among the plants? Badgers did that, digging for worms. 

They came back. Night after night.

They trashed the plants. They dug holes everywhere.

I replanted everything, but they came back, every night, digging for beetles and worms.

They trashed it absolutely and completely, digging up the little stones and tossing the plants everywhere.

So we got more, bigger, stones. Today we (Alice and Hebe mainly) put them in. This is what it looks like now.

I think I'll wait and see what the morning brings before I put the Jizo statue back, because I don't want it to get broken.


Thursday, 23 September 2021

Crow call

 I have several shirts, and most of them don't need ironing because they're made of polyester-cotton. If I don't spin them too hard (or if I hand-wash them) and hang them carefully on the line, and fold them just as carefully when I bring them in at the end of the day, they can go straight back on the shelf ready to wear.

But my two favourite shirts are made one of cotton lawn and the other of fine linen. The cotton one is blue with a lovely pattern of massed flowers, reminiscent of William Morris's designs. The linen one is white and has pin tucks, narrow cotton lace and mother of pearl buttons.

Because they are all natural fibre, they do need ironing.

The consequence of that is I wear them quite infrequently, because they spend most of their time sitting on the top shelf of my bookcase, waiting for me to remember to iron them. I mean to, and then I put on one of my polyester-cotton shirts when I get dressed, and then because I am now dressed I forget all about them, and there they stay.

But today I determined I would get those shirts ironed, and I took them down to the kitchen, and first made myself a cup of coffee and sat drinking it outside in the sunshine on the decking by the studio door.

Then my attention was caught by next door's deadly creeper sneaking its horrid little hands through their fence. It is a beautiful plant, to be sure — a Passion flower — and the bees love it, but I don't. It stretches out until it covers the distance to one of our shrubs or trees and there it winds around and around whatever it can reach, binding itself tight to the branches, dragging them down, using them as a ladder to extend its horrendous ambitions to make a kingdom that will eventually swamp the whole earth. So every time I see one of its ghastly little fingers stretching through the fence, I break it off. It also throws its seed pods into our garden and tries to take over the world that way, and I keep vigilance over the area near the wall and pull them out when they sprout.

So I reached across from the deck, but the sneaky waving feeler was just out of my reach. I went down the steps and round to the wall where I could get at it, and this attracted my attention to the nettles growing back around the cherry tree. I tip out coffee grounds and washing up water down by that tree, so the nettles flourish there as well as the tree itself. So I went back indoors to borrow Hebe's gardening glove, and I pulled the nettles out.

While I was doing this, I heard a really strange bird call — like a quietish football rattle ending on a chuckling musical note. I've heard it before. Whatever is that bird, I thought, and straightened up to look. And there, on the chimney-top of the neighbours the other side, stood this year's teenage crow.

I realised what had happened. A few years back, when I first began to make friends with the crows, I bought a crow call — a thing you blow into in such a way that it mimics the call of a crow. You have to do it properly; if you don't, it just sounds like a party tooter.

But people use these things to lure crows with intent to shoot and kill them, so I was actually quite keen not to teach our crows to trust the sound of one of these devices used properly. I just used it badly, so it would sound like a party tooter but I could still call the crows. It was highly successful, and I came upon a whole posse of the crow family high in a Scots pine in the park, talking to each other about it and trying out the sound it makes.

All of them would stop in mid-flight to give us a shout out in a special party tooter voice if they saw us out and about walking the streets of our neighbourhood (which is also their neighbourhood).

That year's baby was a very chatty bird, and would often spend twenty minutes at a time conversing back and forth with me. He was an unusual bird with tatty feathers and a very long, thin, curving beak — somewhat clumsy but a very articulate bird who could say lots of different things. His parents had already taught me how to make a 'chuck' sound like a jackdaw to announce my presence and indicate that 'this is food', but that bird also taught me a word to say that lets all corvids know I'm a friend — a sort of tongue-rolling rattle. After he showed me to do that I stopped using the crow call because I could just make the sound with my tongue, and it's worked well for calling crows through the two years since he taught me to do it.

But this year's baby — also a very friendly and chatty bird — had evidently listened carefully to me doing this sound, and what he was saying from the chimney this morning was his best approximation of it.

The advantage of this system is that it allows him to announce his individual presence — 'I'm not just any crow, look, I know the password.'

So I called back to him, and went indoors to get him some more minced beef, even though Alice had already given them their breakfast.

He is still only at a learning stage — finds it hard to land in high wind, drops a lot of food everywhere, hasn't got the hang of stacking meat in his beak or storing it in his crop, is very scared to come down and get his food and stays so long in the tree gathering his courage that the seagulls get in first — so his parents have to help him out a lot still. I think they find him a bit of a nuisance — they detail him off to sit in the tall ash tree as the lookout bird, while they clear off to the park for some peace.

I went back indoors to iron my shirts, but if I tiptoed into the studio and stood by the freezer, I could see in the sunshine outside the shadow of crows sitting on the deck rail enjoying the meat I'd put out for them on the newel posts, which make handy bird tables.

Actually, those birds did very well today, because our cat Miguel also caught a rat this morning, and the crow family always sends someone by to pick up any rodent corpses we have to offer.

It's a happy relationship.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

A window. And breathe.

Everyone is online nowadays, but still there are people for whom it's a lifeline.

Back in 2006, emerging from a whirlpool of stress and trauma with one disaster after another, I married Tony, left my work and moved right away from my family, to settle near his work in a place where I knew exactly no one. As it turned out, the whole nightmare was only half through, because we had all manner of family ghastliness to live through, stretching on for years. 

I hadn't quite reached the place of autistic burnout I arrived at later, but I was in a semi-sleep-walking condition, and trying to figure out how to make life work with everything I was trying to process, all the sturm und drang still going down, and suddenly no job and no friends. Blimey. What a time that was. 

I enquired within, what on earth was I supposed to do now; and the answer came back very clearly, "Look at the blue." 

I had no idea what that meant, so I tried putting it into practice in every way I could think of — blue skies, blue flowers, blue clothes; wherever there was blue, I let my eyes rest on it to find its healing power.

Then I found my way to social media. At that time I hadn't heard of Facebook, but I did find my way to a place called Zaadz — "a community of inspired people dedicated to changing the world". There I was captivated by virtual reality; how you could have an online place you could wander in, just as you would in a town or village. 

Not long after that I discovered the online church of St Pixels, where I made several friendships that still abide to this day. At St Pixels I learned to blog, experienced participatory online worship, and found people of faith joining hands all around the world.

I remember in particular realising how many people were online because they were struggling. Kind, vivid, clever, funny, dear people — but there because they were kept indoors by ME, or housebound because they were caring for someone else, or living with chronic illness or depression or neuro-divergent conditions, or living through trauma from divorce or redundancy. The online world was full of those who were quietly struggling but consistently and bravely there for one another.

I learned that this was a place where people would come online at two in the morning because they couldn't sleep, to see if anyone else was up to keep them company; and sometimes I'd come across someone in London sitting and chatting with someone in Queensland.

At the same time, I began to attend Quaker meeting, and gradually made friends with Friends, and discovered the wonder of communal silence — how silence was like a lake or a sea, and we swam through it to emerge on the other side different because we had made the journey.

So, trudging through a stony and thorny landscape, lit with flashes of joy — not least, a new marriage — I made common cause with others who were struggling too; but I also began to unravel. And in truth I never found my way back again. It all went on too long and went down too deep.

And then last year I was ill, and somewhat heartbroken by yet another series of difficult events. Eventually I came to a place where physical pain was unrelenting and my soul just clenched into a spasm.

But, there is something I discovered years ago (I've had several goes round with significant depression, and had to learn how to manage it), which I still find to be true — there are windows; and you have to take a moment to breathe.

What I mean by windows, is that there are moments you can seize to lift you out of impossibility to possibility. When everything is dark, a chink of light opens up and you head there. You may be stuck, or exhausted, or in despair; but then there suddenly comes a moment when you are capable of making a phone call, or going outside; a day when you can dance, or you want to sing, or you find the courage to meet up with a friend. At times when you simply can't, have patience, wait and watch — and then when the chance comes and the window opens, fly through it; take the chance. Gradually you can strengthen your soul that way; you can optimise hope and faith and positivity.

And for taking a moment to breathe, I mean that when you are tired and knocked back, just sit down quietly for five minutes and give yourself space to re-group. At the present time, I have set myself the goal of at least walking round the block every day. This afternoon, I wanted to walk along to the grocery store to buy a cabbage and some onions, but I just couldn't summon the energy. So instead of forcing it, or giving up on it, I gave myself a moment to breathe. I sat down and read a story, which lifted my imagination, and at the end of it I was ready to go for a walk, so I went out for the cabbage and the onions, and I didn't walk too fast and it was okay.

I don't normally promote my writing on this blog, but I want you to know that you can use my books — particularly my fiction — to help in this kind of endeavour. Several of my books are written in short sections (perhaps especially this one and this one and this one and this one and this one), just bite-sized chunks so that if you are tired and stressed and cannot concentrate very well, or if you need somewhere to take refuge and something outside yourself to lean on, to help you gather yourself and try again, you might find it here. And they are written to lift you up, to give you hope, to help you get up and keep going. As the well-known Lavinia Byrne used the opportunity of a review, for The Church Times, to say of my Into the Heart of Advent

"There will, of course, be a readership among those seeking comfort rather than the challenge of too much reality. A Covid-19-free read: consoling, probably; relevant, not.

Oh. Rats. It was written before the pandemic, though published within it (hence being Covid-19-free). Well, if you can cope with my unreality and irrelevance, and if you are part of that large online readership desperately in need of comfort, perhaps you will find it. If your heart is broken, perhaps it may console you, and help you put one foot in front of another for one more day.

It's also the case that if you write a comment on my blog, it doesn't automatically publish, it comes through to my email first. So if you need to yelp for help, you can write to me in a comment giving me your email address, and we can talk privately by email. 

If you are struggling, if it is all too much, give yourself a moment to breathe, and then try again — gently. If it is all dark, and you are lost and frightened and can't see any way ahead, sit quietly with it and ask God for help, and wait for a window of possibility to appear; and when it does, don't hesitate, take the chance.

And if all this resonates for you — well, God bless you; may you be strengthened, may you be peaceful, may you be free. xx


Monday, 20 September 2021

Oh, for goodness sake

 I am an absolute shocker at spilling food. I see other women are, too. You have to have an eagle eye to examine in close detail the photos of secondhand tops for sale on eBay, because so many of them have little telltale stains on the front where someone's salad dressing has dripped.

Some eBay vendors are really quite brazen about this — they have the nerve to ask you £23 (or some such unreasonable sum) for a garment that only cost about £30 in the first place, belonged to an old lady, and now has a mini-waterfall of ex-lunch decorating the centre front. 

But last night I really did excel myself. In the evenings, in appropriate seclusion from the rest of the household, Tony watches TV programmes like Wheeler Dealers (where they do up wrecked cars and sell them on) and sport, and Dragon's Den (marketing burns as a Perpetual Light in the sanctum of his soul). Meanwhile, in the adjacent room, the female contingent of the household watches the property programmes — Homes Under The Hammer, A Place In The Sun, Escape To The Country (we would like that) — and programmes about forensic detective cases, animal rescue, border force work, and helicopter ambulances. 

Yesterday I made myself a plate of supper (pizza and salad) and sat down in my nook to watch a really interesting programme about the work of the emergency ambulance service in north-west England during the height of the pandemic. Oh, the pressure on those poor paramedics during those scary months! Part of the programme was filmed at the time of Storm Christopher, when the river Mersey flooded, so not only were the emergency services inundated with calls from panicky people who had tested positive for Covid, sent home to isolate, and now couldn't breathe or were going into cardiac arrest, but when the ambulance tried to reach them the roads were flooded. And then when they got them to Accident and Emergency, the hospitals were full and they just had to sit outside with the sick person in the ambulance while high-priority calls stacked up at the central switchboard. They were so patient and cheerful and brave. And a five-year-old child rang in, alone at home with her mother who had collapsed. And they were called out to a homeless man who had Covid, and none of his friends or relatives would let him come and stay with them, and none of the hostels, because everyone was too frightened of catching the virus. So he sat outside on the street in the freezing rain of the storm, with nowhere to go.

It was a riveting programme.

But right at the beginning of it, I sat down with my plate of supper, and the first thing I ate was a small beetroot (in apple vinegar; very nice). 

Now, I am not your organised woman who has a table and a knife and fork — mostly of what I eat is either with a spoon or my fingers, depending if it's Bits or Sludge. I'd cut my pizza into bits in the kitchen before I took my plate through, and the salad part consisted of a wedge of lettuce, a row of radishes and a row of beetroots. All of which is my idea of something you eat with your fingers. Radishes and beetroot are fiendishly hard to eat with a fork anyway, because the radishes will have none of it and refuse to be speared, and the beetroot shoots away (with remarkable  velocity) from the pressure of the fork.

So I commenced my supper by picked up a small pickled beetroot with my fingers. And I dropped it. And it rolled all the way down the front of my shirt. 

Still, as Hebe remarked at the time, I couldn't have chosen a better shirt to drop beetroot on. This was the shirt when I took it off to wash.

Can you see the beetroot stains? No? I could have sold that to you on eBay, couldn't I (apart from you probably think the shirt is hideous, which it is in a way, but I like it). The beetroot — lefthand side in the pic — made the rather pinker abstract patches. The more muddy purple similar patch, to the right beside that blueish flower, is just part of the shirt. Or that's what they said on eBay. Perhaps it has been owned by a whole succession of beetroot eaters. Like those people Van Gogh knew who ate potatoes.

I see they used forks — well, most of them did anyway.

The shirt having its particular coloration, I didn't rush to wash out the stains even though it was beetroot. I felt a certain level of destiny would probably apply in any case, because you know what beetroot is like to wash out of anything. Or blackberry. I waited until the ambulance programme had finished — and until I had eaten my choc ice (mint Magnum as it happens), because I am a star at losing shards of dropped chocolate into my clothing as well. But, of good news, when I did change my shirt and washed the beetrooty one, having sprayed it first with the Oxy-whatsit stuff, all the stains came out, no problem. Which goes to show that cheapo polyester-cotton may be part of the procession of shame when it comes to environmental responsibility (just as pizza and choc ice have their own special place in every nutritional gallery of shame) but there's a reason old ladies are resigned to choosing it for their clothing.

Beetroot. Wear it with pride.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Off-grid and frugality hacks

We were called to live in interesting times of steeply increased measures of connectivity and uncertainty. This places possibility and opportunity into our hands to an astonishing degree, but also means we never know what tomorrow will bring. The Wheel of Fortune is spinning like a roulette wheel.

In these circumstances simplicity is our friend — as it is in any life circumstances, but profoundly welcome and useful in these.

I have found that simplicity makes whatever resources come my way go further — so simplicity inherently furthers the Gospel imperative of loving our neighbour; the less we need, the easier it is to share.

Another aspect of life foundational to loving our neighbour is Earth-friendly practice. Intensive consumerism generates toxicity; naturally the rich don't want to live next door to the poisonous waste they generate, so they dump it in places where "nobody" lives. "Nobody", in this context, means the poor. Consumerism is political not least because you can be reliably sure it has a social justice component: it disadvantages the poor. The more Earth-friendly our practice, the more we will have taken care of the opportunity of those who have less than we do in the first place — at the very least we will leave them forests and clean water and wild plants, and you can live on that if required to do so.

Some people looking for a frugal and Earth-friendly life have chose tiny-house-dwelling. That massively appeals to me, but I am married to a spouse who wouldn't like it, and in addition I am not over-keen on spiders, rats or damp, and with tiny house dwelling I bet you get plenty of all three. So I have opted instead for sharing — which makes money go further, cuts down on consumption, and is cheerful and friendly as well. Plus anyone who has banisters needs no tumble-drier even when it's raining.

It means (as a tiny house would) my space is limited, and strategic thinking is required.

Here are some of my solutions.

Because UK water treatment companies dump raw sewage into the sea, and Brexit has made this worse because European companies were our sewage treatment partners, and our government has recently given the nod to this noxious dumping practice, I am interested in taking personal responsibility for off-grid sewage processing.

I live in a tiny room (7' x 9') but I have space for an ensuite bathroom.

If, like me, you have a small income, then (also like me) probably you are from time to time the happy recipient of gifts and windfalls — so, low income with occasional boosts. I have used my occasional boosts to buy a Travel Berkey filter for my room and an Outdoor Revolution Nature Calls separator toilet.  I love that the toilet doesn't smell, and the Berkey gives me water on tap. Human excrement is laden with bacteria of course, so (unlike urine) you can't just tip it in the compost heap. It has to be neutralised with bokashi bran or treated with suitable Earth-friendly bacteria-and-enzyme stuff. Once treated, it can be safely composted without risk of spreading disease.

So that's an off-grid hack which is not cheap in the start-up (the Berkey filter and Outdoor Revolution loo are not expensive for what they are but do cost a lot of money), but going forward it is frugal, because the water companies charge per unit, so over time your living costs come down. It's the thing of taking advantage of the occasional money boost to safeguard your ongoing frugality options.

This is my clothes washing system.

This is for making tea in my room — bio gel chafing fuel is made from vegetable waste and has non-toxic fumes.

Another good hack — and I love this — is dried food.

Because I live in a shared house there isn't much space for my food. Here's my larder.

The dried food makes it go way further

It's also great for cooking-for-one, as it doesn't go off quickly like fresh food, and you just put as much as you need into the pot.

My next plan is to take my washing up off-grid. Sun comes strongly through our east-facing kitchen window next to where my food is stored, so I can stand water on the windowsill in the sun, to be warm for washing dishes. I'll use filtered rainwater from our water butts (we have 750ltrs worth of storage for rainwater from our roof, and have a large-size Berkey filter for it in our bathroom). As we pay for tap water but not for rain, even though we had to buy the water butts it will be another instance of using the occasional boost to safeguard ongoing frugality.

I'd rather have a water dispenser with a tap, for convenience and because it would look neater, but they are all either square (or round; either way wider than our window shelf) or have the tap on the short end not the long side (for stability I suppose), so they won't work for the space I have.

Another crucial asset in figuring out a simple and Earth-friendly way forward is slowness. You need time and space to consider all this kind of thing, and gradually sort out what will and won't work for you — it depends on such matters as how well you are, if you are sharing or live alone, if you have children or other dependants to care for, if you have a garden or not, what financial resources are available to you; stuff like that. It's a very individual path; you can learn from other people (I love Jon Jandai's channel on YouTube, and all the videos from people who live in tiny houses or in RVs), but in the end you shape your nest and craft your path according to your own body and soul.

What each tune we hum should have in common, if it is to honour God and further the reach of Christ, is that the whole choir of our singing should work for social justice and the wellbeing of creation. It should be Earth-friendly and part of loving our neighbour.

Monday, 13 September 2021


 Generally speaking, your comments come through to my email for moderation, so I can publish them (unless you ask me not to or you are a travel agent or porn model or something) and respond.

And I always do respond to your comments, just so you know you aren't talking to an empty void, and that this is a place and I am a person and here we are together.

This morning I cross-posted with someone, so my response related to the person who commented before her, but that wasn't obvious because it was all on the same topic.

As Google Blogger has a special unique mind all its very own, it took me a minute to manage to sign in and reach the comments in the correct format to re-jig my response so it was obvious who I was addressing.

In so doing, I stumbled upon an entire tranche of unpublished comments. Oh dear.

I have a couple of things to say about that. Firstly, thank you so much for writing to me — I do so appreciate it, and love to read your thoughts and see things from your perspective. Secondly, now I'm going to go through and publish those comments, but as they then vanish from view I'll need to track them down one by one in order to respond to them. I might miss some (but I'll try not to).

So, my apologies if your comment went unpublished, or if now it is published but meets with an eery silence. That'll be why.

Love to you, peace to your day, may you be happy, may you be free. xx

Sunday, 12 September 2021

All at sea

A debate is raging in the UK about our responses to refugees crossing the Channel from France.

Our government, already not known for humanity or compassion, has begun to propose that boats carrying people seeking refuge should be turned back in the Channel. Our Prime Minister says (I'm not clear how he knows) that 57% of British people would favour such a course of action.

Yesterday, my Facebook newsfeed alerted me to a new comment from my friend Celia on a post about this topic, on the page of the political commentator Guido Fawkes. I had a look at the thread in question where, disappointingly, I discovered Celia to be something of a lone voice expressing dissent to any such response. Most of the people who had taken the trouble to comment showed no kindness, no empathy, and no understanding. They spoke of the refugees being on "a gravy train", and imagined them to be people coming to our shores in search of having everything provided for them rather than providing for themselves in their countries of origin. I know, I know — breathtakingly under-informed, but what can you do? If someone has watched his father murdered, his mother raped and beaten until she died, his sister gang-raped, and then has fled from the violence awaiting him, is that being "on a gravy train"? Have they seen the photographs of prisoners who have been beaten with clubs and electric cords, and kicked half to death? Don't they realise what these people are fleeing from?

So I considered what our Prime Minister and the 57% — ably represented on Guido Fawkes's page, and presumably the same individuals who voted for Brexit — might have in mind.

I wonder if you have ever watched the programmes on television about  the RNLI — our national lifeboat service, a charity staffed by volunteers, not a government organisation. It might be reasonable to assume an island nation would have a government that felt moved to station a rescue service around its coast; but, no, it is a charity.

I find these television programmes gripping. The brave and cheerful volunteers go out in all weathers, on towering and terrifying seas, to help people stranded or in difficulties. Sometimes the situations have arisen in the lives of fishermen or experienced sailors, whose craft have run into trouble of one kind or another. Sometimes holiday makers haven't understood about rip currents or places where the tides come in very rapidly and you can be cut off. Sometimes a person falls from a trail along the cliffs. Quite often people in very informal vessels — inflatables for playing at the edge of the sea — are taken out by the tide and can't get back; this easily happens to children and teenagers. And sometimes thrill-seekers try their luck at surfing in wild tides and stormy weather, when going out to sea is one thing but getting back to shore quite another. 

The RNLI goes out to help them all. They are usually alerted to the presence of people in distress by members of the public, and launch the lifeboat to go in search of those needing to be rescued. Often visibility is poor — it may be stormy and raining, and dusk may be falling. It may be dark.

How do the 57% propose the RNLI volunteers are to discern which inflatable craft contains refugees to be "turned back", and which are the 57%'s sons and nephews and grandchildren out for a lark that went wrong? What, is it a matter of skin colour? Oh? Simply racist, then? Or are they hoping the RNLI volunteers will conduct an interview, maybe with a form to fill in, in a storm amid crashing breakers on the open sea?

Our methods of processing and selection for asylum seekers in this country is already harrowing and triggering for those who come here hoping to find safe haven. If the 57% care to inform themselves, they will find no evidence of anyone having an easy time. This is no gravy train.

But to put on the RNLI volunteers a burden of turning back from their mission of rescue, of abandoning men, women, children and babies to death (who might turn out to have been British holiday-makers after all, because how can you tell), is a spectacular blend of cruelty and stupidity that quite takes my breath away.

What my friend Celia said on Guido Fawkes's page was that, if it's true 57% of British people are in favour of such a course of action, then she's ashamed to be British. 

And I'm with Celia.


Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Dried food

 What do you think about dried food?

Since we had Brexit and Covid as a double whammy in the UK, the news has been full of doom-mongering stories about food supply disruption, and not without foundation. We now have a shortage of lorry drivers and a shortage of fruit pickers. There is still plenty of food in the grocery stores, but it's true that supplies have become more sporadic, and staples — milk, fish, that sort of thing — often run out leaving an empty space for a while until new supplies come through. More of an inconvenience than a disaster.

It's made me think about store-cupboard food. In our garden we grow mostly fruit and herbs, and we eat wild food (and drink wild water) as well. I do firmly believe in the power of fresh food — an apple or a greengage picked straight from the tree, dandelion leaves and nasturtium flowers plucked straight from the garden for a lunchtime salad, mint leaves picked and made immediately into a cup of tea; that sort of thing. That's Ayurvedic food.

Surely, though, food that has been picked a while ago, travelled here and there in lorries, stored in plastic bags in the supermarket, then kept in my fridge for several days, is going to lose some nutrients. Dried food is probably just as good, possibly better.

Dried food also addresses some of the challenges of cooking for one. Sometimes Tony and I cook for each other, but what we want to eat (and the times we want to eat it) varies and differs, so most often we each cook our own. I practice a kind of slovenly variety of intermittent fasting, with a shorter eating window than Tony, so my supper time has come and gone long before he's ready to eat, anyway.

The thing about cooking for one is that it easily becomes any of a) expensive, b) wasteful, and c) boring — because you either have to keep eating the same thing until you've finished the pack/item, or eat more than you really wanted so it doesn't go off; and you have to buy more than you wanted in the first place.

Dried food seems to me to offer a way out of this dilemma.

As a (very) young woman I enjoyed cooking, but lost all delight in it by firstly cooking for monks in Devon whose idea of ingredients included huge blocks of rubbery processed cheese, loaves of sliced white bread and carrier bags of chicken livers; then secondly cooking for five children who were always hungry and never liked anything but sausages, baked beans, cheese, bread and processed food. One wearies of hearing how onions have the same texture as slugs, she doesn't like it with gravy, or she'll throw up if you make her eat this fish.

So food prep for me, in my 60s, cooking for one, endlessly combatting through nutrition the onset of all the usual health problems, is more a science than an art.

I have bought bags of dried rice, dried vegetables (various) and herbs, dried mushroom powder, bone broth concentrate, bouillon mix — and I just mix in some handfuls or a pinch or two from the different bags with spring water and cook it for a while in one pot, and bingo! There's lunch!

I buy dried seaweed in sheets, and use it to make little parcels — sort of rice-less sushi. I cut into fingers an avocado, some cucumber, part of a pepper and some smoked salmon, and roll up a piece of each inside a little sheet of seaweed. Finger food. I love it.

Meanwhile breakfast is some oats from the huge multipack box of same, mixed with oat milk (also from a big multipack box of cartons). I sprinkle a little coconut sugar on it — it's less sweet than regular sugar, and has fibre in it, and actually has a flavour.

Then supper can be fruit and nut butter (good fat there too), or maybe an egg and salad. Or I can soak some prunes or apricots and have them with coconut yogurt. 

It carries on being delicious and is always easy. It's a buffer against the vagaries of food supply issues, and doesn't take up shared space in the fridge and freezer because I can store it in boxes under my bed.

It's economical, and gives the farmer more leeway with produce — less is wasted all along the journey from the field to my stomach — the shelf life is long and the packaging is minimal.

You need some fats as well of course — I like olive oil. Occasional pancakes, or some fried (fresh) onions and seasonal zucchini or tomato or fresh mushrooms are a delicious addition.

It seems like a good solution to me — but what do you think?

Monday, 6 September 2021

How to run a whelk stall

 If you are not from the UK, you may not be familiar with the expression, "Couldn't even run a whelk stall," but I am sure you will instantly understand the humorous contempt it intends.

In Hastings where I live, there's a café I like very much. The family who runs it is pleasant and friendly, as are the people they employ, the vegetarian food they serve is wholesome and delicious, the building is light and airy and attractive, and the seating is comfortable. I especially like the tables by the big windows, which often stand open to let in the sea breeze; just outside on the little balcony there are plants growing in pots. The café is upstairs, and downstairs there is a gift shop selling a variety of well-chosen good quality odds and ends — ornaments and toys, bags and scarves, china and jewellery, gift cards, toiletries; you know the sort of thing.

On the day we went to the lunchtime concert, we first went and ate actual lunch at this café. Afterwards, still having a little time to absorb before the concert was due to start, we browsed in the gift shop. The café had not been as well-populated as it used to be before the pandemic, and I am conscious that just now our small businesses need all the custom they can get, to pull through these uncertain and challenging times. So I looked round for something to purchase, as much to support the shop as because I needed anything. I found some nice cards for friends with forthcoming life events, and a couple of packets of pretty paper napkins. I'm looking for a bag, and they had a display with some on, but it was not possible to get near it because the proprietor of the shop — the father of the family who runs it — was deep in conversation with an elderly lady customer right in front of the shelves with the bags. I waited a while and then gave up, contenting myself instead with waiting patiently at the check-out counter for them to finish setting the world to rights.

Their conversation was on the topic of UK politics, and followed a track with which I am more familiar than I ever wished to be. It went like this: 

  • The country is in a mess
  • Poor old Boris (our Prime Minister)
  • What a time to become Prime Minister
  • He's done his best, hasn't he, all things considered?
  • He's made some mistakes, but imagine how awful it would be if we'd had Jeremy Corbyn
  • Oh yes, Corbyn would have been dreadful
  • Think how much worse a mess we'd have been in if we'd had Jeremy Corbyn.
  • Jeremy Corbyn couldn't run a country.
This legend has achieved a popularity I find very disappointing.

My own vote is primarily given to a politician whom I perceive as being a person of integrity. A good person. I am not wedded to the politics of any particular party, though some I find more attractive than others. Mine has been a socialist vote, but I'd vote for a good and wise and honest Conservative over a corrupt and self-serving Labour candidate, any day.

In the UK at the moment, we are struggling with the aftermath of Brexit and the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. Boris Johnson, our Prime Minister, has played a key role in both. 

This we know for certain: he has lied, and lied and lied. The Brexit campaign, led by Boris Johnson, was largely won on the basis of his intentional and knowing lies. Brexit has been very damaging for the British economy as well as for diplomatic relations with our European neighbours, and has made Britain the laughing stock of Europe. We have lost the good opinion of those who once were our allies, our team-mates. How could anybody see that as a good thing?

We also know, as a matter of certainty not conjecture, that the pandemic has offered an occasion for billions of pounds of public money to be deliberately misused, paid out in back-handers (of eye-watering magnitude) to dodgy firms run by the friends and families of Conservative politicians, and channelled into funds specifically designated to promote Conservative party politics. 

In the meantime, of course, the Conservative programme to dismantle our National Health Service has been quietly progressed, the poor and struggling have been increasingly abandoned, and our treatment of refugees has been more than shabby (until public opinion on the matter nudged our government into a little upsurge of good nature in respect of those who helped us and worked for us in Afghanistan). But that is just business as usual for the Conservative party, so let's set that aside.

Whatever views one might hold about public health and movement of refugees and support of the poor, I hold firmly to the view that in national politics integrity really matters. And whether or not one's politics lean to the left or the right, our present government has been demonstrably and repeatedly shown to be a) routinely, profoundly dishonest and b) corrupt.

Then there's Jeremy Corbyn. Never was a man so unreasonably scapegoated. He is used in public discourse as a bogeyman. "Yeah, but think how much worse things would be if Jeremy Corbyn had been Prime Minister," is the irrational formula produced at every end and turn.

Corbyn is left-wing, yes, but not terrifyingly so. He is intelligent, moderate, informed — and he is a man who listens to others. I personally do not think he would have been a wonderful Prime Minister; he is more of a prophet than a king, if you see what I mean — I think his critique may be of greater weight than his ability to govern. But of this I, and everyone else, can be entirely certain: he is a man of absolute integrity. He is honest. He is trustworthy. You could rely on him to work tirelessly for the common good.

What puzzles me is why a large body of popular opinion would hold in contempt a man of real integrity, vilifying and scapegoating him, holding up for public scorn the way he would conduct himself in an office he was never given the chance to hold, while lining up in support of a man we know for sure, without a shadow of doubt, is a serial liar who steals public money on a colossal scale. Something has gone very, very wrong with our judgement. 

It's like those who shouted for the release of Barabbas shuddering over how awful it could have been if they'd let that Jesus go.

But beside all of that, nobody runs a country on their own, do they? Jeremy Corbyn would have had John MacDonnell, an equally honest and intelligent, principled man, as his chancellor, and a whole cabinet to work with him and advise him. The steady work of legal people in the Good Law Project has uncovered corruption in one after another of the cabinet currently in government. It is rotten to the core.

In the same way, the proprietor of the café and gift shop doesn't normally run it on his own. His son and daughter work upstairs in the café, and downstairs in the gift shop a lady usually checks out purchases; but on this occasion she wasn't there.

When the proprietor of the shop finally tore himself away from his discussion with his friend about how awful things would be if we'd had Corbyn (yawn), he came to check out my purchases (which would have been doubled in value if he hadn't been personally blocking access to the thing I wanted to buy). But, since he usually has a woman to do this for him, he didn't know how to operate the electronic checkout, and was unable to give me a receipt.

And I asked myself why I would accept the view on the eligibility of Corbyn to run the country, of a man who votes for a liar, obstructs the sale of goods in his own shop and can't even work his own till.

I don't think I'll be going back there in an almighty big hurry. There's a very nice café in the shop next door and I can get a perfectly good bag (same make, same styles) secondhand on eBay. I only wanted to help him out, but he made it impossible; and this seems to be the general trend of our politics — we have got too lost in our own opinions to simply choose what is straightforwardly good. The very farmers and fishermen who have been ruined by Brexit voted for it, primarily because of the lying yarn spun by Boris Johnson. And what do they conclude? "Think how much worse things would be if we'd had Jeremy Corbyn." 

Saturday, 4 September 2021

The concert

Today I went to a lunchtime concert in the centre of Hastings, the last one rounding off a summer series that runs through June, July and August. Usually these 40-minute concerts are performances by a soloist or duo or small group, but today was a special, with the Sussex Concert Orchestra — a body of experienced and talented musicians.

It was a grand concert, a real treat — Bach, Handel, Purcell, Telemann; a gorgeous programme, brilliantly played —but, oh, my goodness, did it make me feel old!

I was at university with the conductor, Ken Roberts, and watching his conducting style took me right back to the music department at York University where I met my first husband, the father of my children. Both he and Ken learned conducting from Graham Treacher, a master of the art and a joy to see in action. Though Ken has evolved his own style, I could trace all the way back to York in the carefree 1970s, and Graham's finesse and precision, as I watched him today.

Ken was the soloist at the piano in one of the Bach concertos, and his wife of many years turned the pages for him. But I remember Ken's first wife, who iced the cake for my wedding to my first husband — the cake my grandmother made for us, and she died in the spring of 1984. Ken and his first wife Ruth drove down from York to Hertfordshire (about a three-hour journey), Ruth carrying the wedding cake carefully on her knee all the way. It was iced in pale blue with little sugar-work butterflies, and she took such pains to make sure nothing got broken and it all arrived intact. One butterfly was damaged on the way, and she rushed into the kitchen of my parents' home to mend it, so it would all be entirely beautiful. That memory came back to me so vividly today.

And then, watching the musicians coming one by one into the church where the concert took place — there was the gifted oboist, whose children were born when mine were born, and was part of the NCT branch we began in Hastings back in the day when Sheila Kitzinger and Ina May Gaskin and Frederick Leboyer and Michel Odent were revolutionising the way women gave birth in the Western world. At the same time, the same women who were in that group got together to share a whole food delivery from Infinity Foods in Brighton. On a regular basis the goods would come in to Sheila Rosewell's garage, and we'd all meet up to divi them out; and over the months and years, from that initiative was born a whole food co-operative which became a now long-established whole food shop in Hastings centre opposite the church where the concert took place today.

And I watched as the audience and musicians filtered in to the church, smiling and pleased to be there after so many months interrupted by pandemic regulations — and so many of the people there I have known since first I came to Hastings when I was twenty-one, and this summer I turned sixty-four. I have been to church with them, or watched them play in concerts, or they have taught my children to play musical instruments. 

When I first came to live here in Hastings, Ken Roberts (who conducted today) was the only person who lived here I already knew. He invited us to dinner, and I had my baby with me, a month or so old. She cried all through the evening. Today, at the concert, she sat beside me, now in her 40s and an accomplished brass musician and harpist herself.

I had such a sense of time passing, and all of us growing old. Like Ezra Pound said: "Life slips by like a field mouse, not shaking the grass."

I could feel that upwelling of grief; not for any regret, only for times gone and memories fading. Moments and relationships that were beautiful, and live only in my memory now.

Increasingly, I meet people in the street and either they clearly don't recognise me or for a moment I don't remember them — because we have grown old — and then there's that surprise and delight of recognition: "Oh! Hello!" Yes. My friend — it's you.

This last few weeks a friend of mine has been ill, and I have carried her in my heart but did not go to see her, because I stay well myself only by living quietly and not attempting too much. And today my husband's daughter has her 40th birthday with a glorious weekend of celebrations, and I have sat that dance out because I no longer have the stamina for parties.

Of course, I knew I would grow old. People talk about it in terms of wrinkles and sagging boobs — but that's the perspective of an onlooker only. There is so much more to it, a tangle of sadness and gratitude; a dear intensity of living, and the strangeness of watching it gradually drain out into the sand, as one by one they slip away into the world of light, leaving only the radiance of a smile and the echo of Gregorian chant, of laughter, of a penny whistle and a harpsichord, a sitar, a church organ, songs sung a cappella as the evening comes down.

However many years are left to me, and whatever they may hold, I have lived such a blessed and beautiful and joyous life; so full of gifts and treasure and surprises.

Thursday, 2 September 2021

I alone

 It's been a while since I had much connection with Poor Clares, so they may have changed their practice, but it certainly used to be the case that they avoided referring to anything in their houses as "mine", calling everything "ours" — "our habit", "our clogs", "our breviary", "our bed". 

It's a small thing, maybe, but part of the foundational practice of simplicity, a bell of mindfulness recalling the sisters to faithfulness in the way of Francis, the little poor man of Assisi, and Clare.

I have a visceral aversion to competitions, because their primary harvest is, it seems to me, a crop of losers — there's only one winner. I prefer the African concept of Ubuntu, where everybody advances and arrives together. That feels more constructive to my mind.

Because I have, not many but a few times in my life, had to do with narcissists and seen firsthand what destructive havoc they can wreak, I have become especially wary of the concept of "I alone".

If you have any narcissists in your family then I'm sure you'll be all too familiar with the pattern.

It starts with a charm offensive, as the narcissist woos an individual, giving them lots of affirmation and attention — compliments, invitations, gifts — that make the target feel special; crucially, more special than anyone else. They are the confidante, the best friend, the favoured one. If you are alert to it, you can't help noticing the facial expressions and body language are oddly exaggerated; there's an artificiality to the relationships of a narcissist. But (almost) all of us have a yearning tucked away somewhere to be the champion, the hero, the darling, the winner — to be special — and this works in the narcissist's favour because it dulls our sensibility to the trap.

The next stage in this dreary process is separation from allies; whoever falls for a narcissist's overtures quickly finds themselves out of step with others, cut off from their support group of family and friends, encouraged to take up a position of antagonism against them — either by explicit design of the narcissist or by a drip-drip-drip discreditation and contempt. The target drifts out to sea; and may be startled to look back and see themselves cut off from the people they used to belong to.

And then the game is over. The target is tossed aside like a used tissue, in favour of someone else. The one who felt proud that "I alone can cope with this person everyone else finds so difficult", "I alone have the skills and gifts and graces for this situation", "I alone am wanted and chosen", is simply reduced to "I alone". They are often specifically and explicitly rejected, spurned and humiliated, turned away. 

If they don't rumble the game at this point, they remain vulnerable to the moment the narcissist has discarded someone else in the pool of candidates, and returns to them again, starts the wooing all over, often with a veiled rebuke — "It would be better for everyone if you and I stay in contact"; "What would your father think of you for leaving me?" And so on.

Maintaining the good of the community, working for the inclusion of everybody, is also a way of protecting your own wellbeing. Be very, very wary of anyone who entices you towards the persona of "I alone"; it isn't good for you; it'll trip you up in the end.

There's a brilliant "I alone" moment in the first book of Kings, the story of Elijah in flight from the wrath of Queen Jezebel.

Exhausted, Elijah takes refuge in a cave, and when God seeks him out, asking, "What are you doing here, Elijah?", he says that of all the prophets of God, "I alone am left."

God doesn't polarise the situation by trying to argue with a stressed and overwhelmed man, but rather comes to him intimately and quietly as a still small voice, bringing the comfort of presence, and then of new direction — in the course of which God happens to mention that it's not "I alone", there are seven thousand others with the same spiritual orientation (so, cheer up).

And from there, Elijah finds his way to Elisha, a faithful companion, true spirit and steadfast friend; he is no longer alone.

If ever you find yourself annexed off from your friends by a narcissist, remember that question, "What are you doing here, Elijah?", and listen for the still small voice, and find the strength to leave that place and go to look for Elisha.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Song lyrics

 Did you ever have a problem with song lyrics when you were a child? Or now, even? I mean, you knew what you were hearing couldn't be right but that was what it sounded like to you.

The first time I can remember this happening to me was with the Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas.

You may recall that the king in question was looking out of the window, and called his page to come and stand beside him to identify a peasant he'd spotted gathering sticks for his fire. The part of the song that unfolds that section in the story goes like this:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fuel
Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou knowst it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?
Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes fountain.
Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I shall see him dine
When we bear them thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude winds wild lament
And the bitter weather

I was a fairly young child when first I heard this carol, not very used to church but very familiar with the brothers Grimm and their fairy tales. I knew all about the witch in Sleeping Beauty who demanded a peasant's firstborn or his life, because he crept into her garden at night and took her lettuce. I had learned at school about the hardships of life caused by all the deer in England belonging to the king, and poaching rabbits being a felony, and how people weren't even allowed to take sticks from the hedgerow. I had Roger Lancelyn Green's book, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and knew the loathly lady story about Sir Gawain, so well told in later years by Steeleye Span in their folk song on the album Below the Salt (lyrics here). And I was acquainted with the phrase "Good King Henry". So I misunderstood the intentions of Good King Wenceslas.

I thought he was requiring his page to get a the fire stoked up ready to cook supper, and that it was the peasant he was planning to eat for tea. The entire adult world was incomprehensible to me, and I accepted without question that a hymn in church should approve the inevitability of cannibalising someone who'd had the temerity to steal sticks from the hedge. It was not unusual, after all, for people to be roasted for failing to acquiesce with the church. Why not this?

But this morning another song I misunderstood as a child came drifting back into my mind. You might remember if you've read here a long time that my father travelled the world and used to bring home vinyl discs of songs popular in the countries he visited — so, many of the songs we had at home to play on our gramophone (that he made from a kit and a bathroom stool and an old blue Aertex shirt) were in foreign languages. One of them was Françoise Hardy singing Tous les garçons et les filles, which came out in 1962 when I was five. The lyrics are here. I loved it, and I used to try and sing along to it even though I didn't know any French.

In particular I was taken by the bony gassoons she was singing about. I knew the poems of Edward Lear, and that seemed reasonable. Now I am grown up and have the internet, I can look it up and see it says "comme les garçons", but it surely didn't sound like that to me when I was five. 

As I got older – perhaps about eleven or twelve — and began to learn French at school, I still listened to and loved that song, and started to try and discern what it was saying. I got completely the wrong end of the stick.

I understood that she was making the initial point about all the girls and boys of her age walking hand in hand, in love with each other, but then I misunderstood the next part. Where she says, "ils s'en vont amoureux, sans peur de lendemain", I thought she was saying, "ils s'en vont — amoureux sont perdu lendemain". That might be rubbish French (I have no idea), but I understood her to mean that these lovers were all very happy now, but (unlike her) they had lost their tomorrow; ie they were all stitched up in a relationship and had lost the freedom she retained.

The song goes on to say, "Oui, mais moi, je vais seule . . ." (and essentially here there is a line break in which she draws breath) ". . . par les rues, l'âme en peine." Which obviously means, "Yeah, but me, I walk the streets alone, my soul in pain."

However, I'd misconstrued it to be, "Oui, mais moi, je vais seule — pas les rues, la montagne." ("Yeah, but I walk alone, eschewing the streets in favour of the mountain") The next line, "car personne ne m'aime" (because no one loves me) I thought was saying "car personne m'ennuie" (because no one annoys me).

So I thought the song was making the case for remaining single — saying that all the other boys and girls spent their time mooning around the urban streets holding hands and gazing into each other's eyes, trading the freedom of all their tomorrows for the fleeting pleasure of romance now; whereas she shunned the town in favour of wandering the mountain tracks where nobody could annoy her.

And I carried on thinking that was the basis of the song until this very day.

The reason I started thinking about it and looked it up is that on Wednesday mornings Tony goes out to a café with his French conversation group, and extends an ongoing invitation to me to join them if I wish. It's so kind of him, and I do love French, but the prospect also seemed more than a little stressful, and set me thinking of how I can speak French, yes, but not very well and I often misunderstand it (and translating what I want to say into French is more than a little approximate).

So it got me thinking about that song and the bony gassoons, and I thought I'd write about it for you, so I looked it up, and the lyrics in full — discovering, to my complete astonishment, that all the time Françoise Hardy had been miserable and wishing she had a boyfriend too.

Obviously I had already worked out that King Wenceslas only wanted to help the peasant.