Thursday, 17 April 2014
Thursday, 10 April 2014
and the house in the sun
grime like permanent fog
on the soot-framed windowpanes,
dust, imprinted with cats' feet,
on the lid of the hi-fi,
dishes on the dresser
in a deepening plush of disuse,
books on the blackened shelves
bearing in the cusps of their pages
a stripe of mourning.
The sun is warm,
the dust motes and dust mice
The ivies are pushing green tongues
from their charcoal tentacles,
the fire is reduced to a
smoky lamp in a cave.
Soon it will be spring, sweet spring,
And I will take pleasure in spending
many hours and days out of doors,
away from the chores and bores
of these filthy things.
- Anne Stevenson
Wednesday, 9 April 2014
Recently, in one of my periodic bouts of clearing out evil clutter, I came across some old letters and papers. One is a poem - a favourite of my dad's - that my mom wrote out for me, and the other is a letter from my Auntie Ruth (dad's younger sister) which tells a story from their childhood.
Here they are, story first.
I remember the time when Alan was not too popular with our neighbours, Mr and Mrs Peterson. Mr Peterson had been a pilot in the first world war and was now married with two small children. Jeannie was a toddler and the boys' singing in the field outside her window kept her awake at night. Mr Peterson would chase them - Stanley Rogers said after the second world war that he had run faster from Mr Peterson than the Germans.
One afternoon I heard a racket at the front gate and when I went to investigate I saw Mrs Peterson very angry with Alan, trying to hit him with a stick. She had the stick raised high, and as she brought it down on his shoulder, it snapped. I can still see the picture.
Not long after that, reconciliation came. Alan was at the front gate again, and the bus was coming down the road. Jeannie was running from her mother, out of their gate - adjoining ours - and heading straight for the road. Mrs Peterson was screaming in terror. Alan simply put out his arm and caught the child. That picture too is still with me. The mother's gratitude had no end, and peace reigned between the two of them.
This is the poem. It's a well-known one.
What is this life if, full of care,No time to stand beneath the boughs,
We have no time to stand and stare?—
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
I am reminding myself of the truth of it this week as I'm taking a week's leave to 'catch up on jobs'. And this quotation as well, written by my brother Mike, for dad's 67th birthday.
Thursday, 27 February 2014
As I raised my hand to knock on the door of room 3.36 at the appointed time, it opened, and a woman emerged with a mobile phone to her ear. "I’m here to talk about – " I said. "Yeah," she nodded, possibly to me, possibly to her caller, and held the door open for me to go in.
The room was long and dim. About 30 people sat facing two large adjacent screens, both displaying the same MRI image. No-one paid any attention to me as I found a seat at the back.
I’d arrived in the middle of a discussion about deviations from protocol and adverse events, and I sat and took my bearings. The doctors occupied the front of the room, arranged haphazardly against the wall. They chatted amongst themselves, periodically leaving to take phone calls, but evidently paying attention as every so often one of them would pounce on a particular point. The atmosphere at the front was good humoured, informal, slightly impatient, business-like. It shifted towards the back where the nurses in uniform sat in serried rows and seemed disengaged. Not bored exactly, more – silenced.
After about 20 minutes the discussion wrapped up and a registrar was invited to present the results of an audit. He got his slide presentation up on the screens. "Good God James!" the most talkative of the doctors remarked, "18 slides! People need their lunch!" The audit was well received, however, and when it finished the doctors enjoyed a short argument about one of the finer statistical points.
Suddenly, seemingly in the middle of a sentence, the chatty doctor leapt up, looked over at me and said, "Are you ready?" – not unwelcoming, but with an implied assumption: "in here, we pay attention to business, we don’t pay attention to unnecessary social frills; you’re here to do a job – do it well."
I spoke. They did and didn’t pay attention. I finished speaking.
There was a reflective pause, and one of the quieter doctors – if he’d had a beard he would have stroked it – said, "but why are you randomising? What about the poor buggers who don’t get the intervention? Everyone obviously needs it. In fact, why are you doing this research at all? Why do you need to research something when its value is so self-evidently obvious?" Fortunately, this is a familiar question, perhaps not in this form, nor in this context, but I wasn’t short of answers. "Well, when I go and tell the NHS commissioners that they have to fund vocational rehabilitation services for cancer patients, and they say, 'where’s your evidence that it works?' can I take you along with me to tell them that it is self-evidently obvious?" He shook his head sadly at the thought that such a thing should be necessary. "But more seriously," I continued, "we don’t actually know whether it works. Patients might like the attention, but it’s expensive attention, and does it actually improve return to work rates in a way that’s cost-effective?" He looked thoughtful.
His energetic colleague broke in. "I think it’s fantastic. Rehabilitation is the cornerstone of what we do here. I’d like to support your study but it’s the nurses who have the casting vote. They’ll be the ones who have to do the work screening and referring patients." He looked over to the rear of the room. A nurse with her dark hair tucked up in a crisp bun put her hand up. "I have a problem with the study," she announced. "We do this already. We talk to patients about work. So at best it’s not adding anything to patient care, and at worst, it’s depriving them of something because they won’t get any help if they’re in the wrong group." While my brain was processing the logic, one of the other nurses spoke up. "In my last job we could send patients to OTs for vocational rehabilitation. And I have to say if I’m honest, I don’t think we do what they do. We don’t address function in the same way. We don’t teach patients strategies for managing their daily activities. I’d like to be involved in this." The nurse with the bun was far from reassured. "But our patients are over-researched already…" "But what about patients who can’t communicate…" "But how will we get patients’ details to you in a confidential way…" "But…" "But…"
But by this time the doctors had lost interest and were finishing off business amongst themselves. A burly, bearded Australian nurse stood up. "I think what would be best is for you to come to one of our Wednesday morning CNS meetings so that we can see how we can make this work." "Yes," said the energetic doctor, "Excellent plan. I will leave it in your good hands."
I gathered my bag and my bike helmet and got ready to leave. The nurse with the bun came over. "You know, I think I have the perfect patient for you. I’m going to be seeing him on Friday. Do you have one of your information sheets that I can give to him?"
Tuesday, 14 January 2014
So I cleaned and sorted and filed and tidied.
Patches is under the misapprehension that this space had been created for his comfort and convenience.
Saturday, 4 January 2014
April: Although it is a schedule that I should perhaps take to heart, given that my workdays generally felt like this:
May: Last child's last ever day of school. Between the two of them, that was the end of 16 years of school busses, name-label sewing, undone homework, endlessly vanishing PE kit, illnesses that are miraculously cured by 9:30am, terrible guitar playing, broken bones and sliced-open eyes. I do not miss any of it.
June: Tony and I went to Prague for a long weekend. This weekend, in fact. We stayed at the Hotel Matylda (the small boat in the picture), which we had to evacuate on our last night because of the floods.
July: We spent three days sitting in a field with hairy people in hemp shirts and peculiar hats and listening to music at the Cambridge Folk Festival.
August: Charlotte turned 18, and we made our annual trip to the Druidstone.
September: I went Vejle, Denmark to do some teaching with two lovely colleagues.
October: Having managed to dispatch both children to university, we decided it was time for a few adventures. To this end, we invested in NewLouie - not nearly as beautiful as OldLouie, but reliable. And comfortable. Reassuringly middle-aged, in fact.
November: And where did our first adventure take us? To see the children, of course!
Friday, 11 November 2011
Why the change? Well, I haven't updated this blog for some time now. I've tried to work out why this is, but no one thing stands out. It's a combination of being a bit bored with the format, and that the 'feel' of it is ... just ... not quite right. I started it in 2007 when Nick was 13, and Charlotte was 12, and neither of them minded me posting pictures like this...
...and stories like this and this.
And now they're all grown up with their own lives and their own blogs and I need something new and shiny to explore. I like writing stuff on the internet - but I'm not succinct enough for twitter, and facebook's ability to archive stuff is crap. And while nobody else might want to see my gems from years and years ago, if I've posted it, it probably means I like it, and I might like to find it again.
So a while back I started a tumblr. I haven't done much with it yet, but I've stalked a few other people's tumblrs, and I think I'm getting the hang of how it works. I can blog on it, and post pictures, and gifs, and the archiving's great. It also feels like more of a social network than blogger does - although at the moment I only follow two others: Will Wade because he takes nice photographs of bears, and bookshelfporn because, well, bookshelves ... what's not to love?
So: bye for now. And feel free to pop over. And say hello.
Saturday, 16 July 2011
- Nick's driving test is on Monday. I hope he passes because this will make him happy. On the other hand, I am deeply worried about him passing because this will mean that the car that was mine and is now technically his becomes properly his and I might live to regret my "Oh, I don't need a car, I can cycle and use public transport" assertions.
- I am looking forward to going to see the last Harry Potter at the earliest opportunity. I might cry.
- Someone won £160 million on the lottery this week. This prompted the inevitable 'What would we do if...' discussion with Tony. The only thing we can agree on is that we wouldn't give any of it to the children on the grounds that it would be Bad For Them.
- If it is not still peeing with rain next weekend, we are going to go up Snowdon (Crib Goch) and Tryfan. Anybody want to join us?
- I bought some proper grown-up clothes for almost the first time in my life for an interview last week that lasted all of two seconds. I need an occasion to wear them again. With some frivolous shoes and a hat, they'd be ideal for a wedding. Anyone planning on getting married any time soon?
Tuesday, 14 June 2011
The reason I should be banned from all kitchens for the rest of my life.
6:03pm: Get a text from my mother with instructions on how to make dinner as she’s going to be late getting home from work.
6:45pm: Turn the oven on and then go back to revision for the ten minutes it takes to heat up.
6:46pm: Oooh! Tumblr!
7:07pm: SHIT! I’m meant to be cooking.
7:08pm: ‘Get potato wedges out of the freezer & put wedges on one baking tray, chicken kievs on the other.’ Where are the baking trays…? Oh yeah, I forgot to take them out of the oven when I turned it on.
7:09pm: Locates oven gloves and removes boiling baking trays. Places chicken and potatoes on trays. …I wonder what frozen potato wedges taste like…?
7:10pm: Drinks copious amounts of orange juice because frozen potato wedges are not good. Puts trays in the oven and sets timer for 20 minutes.
7:23pm: ‘When the chicken has seven minutes to go, pour boiling water into the silver pot and put a mug and a half of peas in.’ *Only just started boiling the kettle.*
7:26pm: I finally get water boiling on the stove and a bag of peas out. I get a coffee mug out of the cupboard somewhat dubiously (is that really how you measure out a mug?). Pour peas into mug, spilling half of them onto the floor for the dog to eat.
7:29pm: Peas are cooking.
7:30pm: Rest of the food stops cooking.
7:32pm: Rest of the food sits cold on the counter tops and gets colder as the peas cooked.
7:35pm: Peas stop cooking and I realise that I haven’t put anything into serving bowls/set the table yet.
7:37pm: Food is very cold, but the table looks pretty.
7:38pm: Goes to call brother etc. from around the house.
7:39pm: Comes back to find the cat eating the potato wedges.
7:40pm: The household assembles and stares at my attempt at food. The chicken is cold, there aren’t enough peas and most of the potatoes have been nibbled by the cat.
Monday, 25 April 2011
Tidying, packing, saying goodbyes, feeling a bit heartsore.
And having thought long and hard about why our children grew up in the UK rather than here, and why we're not out shopping for the 'renovators' dream' in a 'newly-trendy suburb' that a half a million pounds would buy us in Cape Town, the answer that presents itself is disappointingly prosaic: the more one accumulates, the harder it gets to make a move.
I like living in England. I have a nice job, good colleagues, lovely friends. Things work. The media are thoughtful and articulate. Corruption is dealt with. It's safe. A little dull perhaps, but safe. On the other hand, I would probably also like living in Cape Town. It's achingly beautiful. One can find ways to make a useful contribution to some of the social problems that exist. Nick and Charlotte would have the opportunity to get to know their aunts and uncles and cousins. There are some really marvellous mountains right on the doorstep.
Moving away from twenty years' worth of accumulated experiences, habits, relationships, reputations and posessions would be difficult. Emotionally, I might have a strong connection with Cape Town, but I have put down some deep roots in England, which would require a more significant incentive than currently exists to dig up.
Sunday, 24 April 2011
The Post House
Tony and I first visited to Greyton as students, when we stayed in its little campsite and did a bit of walking in the surrounding mountains. I remember looking at The Post House back then and thinking it looked like a much better option than a mosquitoey tent, but probably well beyond my budget.
The town hasn’t changed much in the past 30 years - a few more shops, and a bit of an arty air to it - but it remains sleepy and rather charmingly unsophisticated. The Post House is pretty, the staff are friendly ("Drambuie?" - bartender peers at shelves above bar -
and other interesting individuals'
Wednesday, 20 April 2011
There are six floral kingdoms in the world. The Western Cape is one. It is the smallest and, with over 9000 species of plants (6200 of which are endemic), it is also the richest in terms of its size. One of the loveliest places to enjoy the fynbos is Kirstenbosch, a botanical garden on the slopes of Table Mountain. It’s sheltered, and a favourite spot for picnics, so when our plan to have breakfast at Eagle’s Nest on Saturday morning was foiled by a howling south-easter (a wind of sufficient notoriety to have its own wikipedia entry), we regrouped at Kirstenbosch. My brother Mike and nephew Greg joined us, as did Andrew and Heather Davies (friends from university days) with their two children, Caitlyn and Cameron.
After we’d spent several hours polishing off the better part of a substantial spread (including spinach and feta croissants which appear to be a local speciality; I’m not sure the French would approve), we headed down to Muizenberg beach where Heather had very kindly organised a surfing lesson for Charlotte. Muizenberg is over on the east side of the peninsula, at the western end of the very long stretch of sand which curves all the way round False Bay. It catches the full force of the wind, so Tony parked the car facing on to the beach where we could watch Charlotte’s progress without being sand-blasted.
Muizenberg has always had a somewhat seedy, dilapidated feel to it. It’s a popular surfing beach and while there are plenty of trendy surfer dudes to be found in the beachfront surf shops and cafes, the wind and the sea spray covers everything with a slightly sticky, salty residue, and the holiday flats and apartment blocks overlooking the beach seem tired and run-down.
In front of us, a group of seven or eight smartly dressed, earnestly friendly young people were making their way along the promenade, handing out Watchtower magazines and homilies to the beggars and down-and-outs that were hanging about. Having time to kill, I cleared up the car, folded towels and picnic blankets, and threw the bag of rubbish we had accumulated from breakfast into a nearby bin. Within minutes, one of the down-and-outs had opened the bin and was investigating its contents. I felt awkward and uncomfortable – at the same time both relieved that I hadn’t thrown out wasted food, and apologetic that there would be nothing for him to find. However, his ideas about what constituted useful pickings were rather different to mine: I watched as he carefully retrieved each of the dozen or so discarded yoghurt pots and licked them completely clean. His need of the breakfast left-overs was clearly greater than ours, and I went to the boot to see what food there was. Three small boys immediately materialised, and I distributed the few remaining croissants and some half-empty cartons of fruit juice. It felt desperately inadequate.
There is, of course, a painful difference between telling one’s children to eat their greens because there are starving children in Africa, and having those same hungry children in their raggedy clothes and holey shoes appearing at one’s elbow. ‘Where are the soup kitchens?’ one thinks. ‘Why doesn’t somebody do something?’ Well, because the problem is huge. And complex. With roots that go back through the decades of Apartheid, and further through centuries of dispute about how this country’s land and resources should be shared. At an individual level, I can tip the car guards, pay the cleaning lady somewhat more than the R24.00 (£2.20) an hour she asks for, make sure that food, clothes and other surplus-to-requirement household items reach those who need them. This might assuage some of my white middle-class liberal guilt, but it does nothing whatsoever that’s meaningful at any sort of population level. The contrast that confronts me between my happiness and well-being – the delights of the mountains, Kirstenbosch, family picnics, surfing lessons – and the difficulties that are faced by so many of the people that I encounter here on a daily basis, is deeply discomforting.
Sunday, 17 April 2011
I have a vivid memory of one of these walks, which we must have done when I was about 10 years old. I remember a gentle path alongside a river with an ever-more-splendid rock pool around every subsequent bend, ending at a quite spectacular, deep pool with a 10 foot waterfall and boulders you could dive off into the water. Just the place to take Nick and Charlotte, I thought. The only problem was that I couldn't remember where it was. I described it to Mike, who said, "Sounds like Happy Valley - the Witte River in Bainskloof, although I'm not sure about the waterfall. But there are lots of very good rock pools." A bit of googling persuaded me that this was very likely to be the river I remembered, and even if if wasn't, it looked like a lovely day's walking - easy path along a jeep track, good swimming pools, and not too long - 10km to Junction Pool and back.
Having armed ourselves with the necessary permit and the map supplied by CapeNature we drove up to Eerste Tol at the top of Bainskloof pass, and set off.
The first hour and a half was great - good path, and we seemed to be making good time. When we stopped to check the map, it looked like we were about three quarters of the way already, making it likely that we would reach Junction Pool in well under the three hours suggested by the route guide.
And sure enough, after two hours, we reached the branching valley where we would find "one of the most popular swimming spots in the Boland."
"This can't be right," I said, frowning at the knee-deep, not-much-more-than-a puddle in front of us. We studied the map some more. "Look," I said, "I don't think we are where we think we are. We've only been walking for two hours. We can't have made it so quickly. I think we need to be further on, up there," and pointed to two clearly visible valleys intersecting some way up ahead. "Junction Pool," I promised the family, "is worth the extra walk."
After another hour or so, the path - which had been steadily deteriorating - vanished altogether, and we found ourselves bundu-bashing over grassy tussocks and through scratchy burned out proteas and thorny fynbos. Levels of frustration and disappointment were rising and senses of humour were failing. Eventually, Charlotte stopped and gave me a look that said, "I. Will. Not. Walk. Another. Step." Tony went on ahead a short way to do a recce, and came back with the news that he had reached a sign post declaring "Private. Mountain Club of South Africa members only after this point." The Junction Pool I thought I'd remembered didn't seem to be on this stretch of the Witte River.
We bashed our way through more scrubby bush down to the river, and boulder-hopped for a kilometer or so back downstream before coming upon this very tolerable little spot for lunch and a swim.
Feeling cooler, fed, watered and slightly more cheerful, we continued down the river. There were a few more deep, swimmable pools - very close to the spot that I'd persuaded everybody was not the end of the trail.
The whole hike eventually took us 9 hours - probably somewhere close to double the distance we'd intended. I think the pool that I remembered is this one - also in Bainskloof, but some distance further on. Oh well, next time we're out here on holiday. And this one's only a 1.5km walk. Promise.
Thursday, 14 April 2011
... visiting the Aquarium (which I'd done - and enjoyed - on a previous trip to Cape Town. Not entirely sure why I thought it was worth visiting again - I mean, nice enough, but expensive and a bit tired-looking),
And I've come to the conclusion that it's the wrong question. 'Why we left' is relatively straightforward... we'd been together for about two years, and we wanted a bit of an adventure before beginning to accumulate proper jobs, mortages and, at some point, children. It was easy to find a job in Britian, work for a couple of years, and save up enough money to travel. At the end of our two years, I resigned my job, as did Tony. Tony's boss put a bit of a spanner in the works at that point by persuading Tony not to resign, but rather take a year's leave of absence. The guarantee of work to come back to was appealing, and Tony acepted. So, in the short term at least, this brought us back to England. The more interesting, and much harder to answer question is, 'Why did we never return?'
Tuesday, 12 April 2011
(1) Table Mountain. We set off before sunrise, going up India Venster. Despite the dire warnings on the sign (below), it’s an interesting and not too challenging route if you know the way. There was much complaining from various quarters about starting to walk while it was still pitch dark, but given the heat later in the day, we were all quite pleased to be arriving at the top before 11am.(2) Boulders Beach. I used to come on holiday here as a child - long before the penguins arrived. Now the beach is split into two - one half is a penguin colony, the other is for swimming. Penguins are known to wander over to the swimming beach, and this one found Charlotte most interesting.
(3) Llandudno for sundowners. Since it is on the way home from Boulders (via Chapman's Peak) we stopped off at Llandudno to watch the surfers and the sunset. Nick and Matthew swam. Passing surfer (on his way out of the water): 'Aren't you guys cold?' Nick and Matthew (wetsuitless): 'No, we're British.'