One Lifetime, So Much Change!

Living through interesting times

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When I was little I thought everyone had been born in 1945. It was such an important year. The war ended. I thought everyone had to have a war in their lives too, but perhaps I was right there.

One of my earliest memories is of waiting with my mother in queues for rationed groceries.  It was cold and boring, so perhaps that is why it stuck in my mind.

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Startng out then meant beginning life in an era which echoed older times. Milk was still delivered by horse and cart.  Houses were heated by coal fires. People made their own clothes. There were meat safes and pantries not fridges. Washday was a whole day’s work.

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As a result children learnt all sorts of practical skills. Making old newspaper into neat rolls for setting the fire, shelling peas, turning skeins of wool into balls, running messages to the local shops. They were expected to be useful or keep out of the way. Few people had cars, so quiet streets meant even young children had independence to wander near and far.

So I’ve seen huge changes in how people live and work. I can (though only if pushed nowadays) do lots of things: sew, knit, darn, cook and bake from scratch, gut fish, skin a rabbit, light fires and keep them alight, bath, feed and change a baby. A good number of these I had learnt even before I reached secondary school. 

Also growing up in the shadow of a recent war meant you always had an awareness that awful things happen.  All the uplifting propaganda that cosily surrounded you couldn’t wipe out that knowledge. We played out our own battlefield games on overgrown bomb sites.

It’s been fascinating to experience how attitudes change.

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When I went to my grannie’s house on holiday, we children used to love market day when all the sheep were driven down through streets from the hills around the town. We had a favourite vantage point on Killing Hoose Brae, the steep street that led down to the huge market at the bottom. We would perch on the wall next to the abbatoir beside a railway incline. There we could watch the trains that needed two steam engines to get up the bank, one at the front and one at the back to push. And all the while the sheep would be driven back up from market to the killing hoose. It was a great morning’s excitement.

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There weren’t many vegetarians then.

Life’s Lesson 3. The Cat from Hell

Lesson 2/3  Never buy a kitten in a hurry

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In a moment of weakness I was persuaded to have our first cat.There had been a notice in the local vets saying  “Good home wanted for mature cat”. My daughter saw it and started campaigning.  I was in bed suffering from some malady and I gave in.

He was the most beautifully marked tabby and he chatted. If you spoke to him, he would miaow back. He was a bold cat, who devoted much of his time to defending his territory.  Whenever he sniffed invasion by another neighbourhood cat, he would pursue the offender to exact revenge. I once had to cough up for the victim’s resulting vet bill.

When he died suddenly, our distress was such that we decided we needed a kitten immediately to fill the cat-shaped gap in our life. That’s how I learnt that it’s a very bad idea to look for instant replacements

The rescue organisations said it was not “kitten season”!  I never knew kittens arrived in seasons, but I was not going to be defeated.  I phoned round all the pet shops in the area until I tracked down a solitary kitten, then I did exactly what they always warn you against. I bought a kitten from a scruffy back-street source, and never saw its mother.

He started off as a cute, cuddly little thing.  But as he grew he began to show worrying traits.  For a start, he growled.  Trying to remove any scrap of food from him was a perilous exercise.  He would growl fiercely and, if you persisted, he would go for you, claws and teeth bared.

It was a bit like living with a smallish jaguar.

To attract attention he would yowl at amazing volume.  There was no  cat flap, so to get in or out he made a huge row.  He didn’t believe in waiting patiently. To make sure we heard him if we were in bed, he discovered how to climb up onto the garage roof and perch himself on the corner below our window. In order to stop him disturbing the entire neighbourhood we would have to sprint downstairs to let him in.

We took to feeding him last thing at night, to keep him quiet and content till morning.  Once, when we were at the pub down the road, a bit later than usual and past his dinnertime, he turned up scratching at the door till somebody opened it for him.

“There’s a cat outside!  Does it belong to anyone?”

There he sat on the pavement, waving his tail with displeasure, to the general amusement of all, till we hurriedly finished our drinks.

He loved cars.  He would sneak in behind you, given half a chance.  The times I drove away to look in the rearview mirror and see him sitting on the shelf in the back window. Whenever our neighbour used to work on his car, our cat would be out there like a shot, sitting on the wing watching his every move.  Nobody dared to touch him.

His other favourite entertainment was to sit on our gatepost, pretending he was a nice cat, and when a kindly cat lover stopped to admire him, he would allow them a couple of strokes before slashing out at them with his claws.

“I’m going to have you put down!” I would threaten him, whenever he committed some new atrocity, but he would just retreat upstairs to the bedroom of his protectress. There he would stretch out languorously on her bed, while she leapt to defence.

“He’s my cat!  You can’t touch him!  He’s my pet!”  He would lie there, sucking up to her and purring.

His eventual downfall was his love of dodging cars, to the great alarm of their drivers.  As he got older he got slower and he mistimed his final, fatal dash.

And would you believe it?  I missed him!

But this time, when I went to the Cats’ Protection League, I requested a mature, affectionate companion animal – one who preferred a comfortable indoor lifestyle.

On Being A Bad Person

Lesson 2/2. Making the best of a bad job

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From when I was very young I knew I was a bad person.  Not seriously wicked, but definitely willing to resort to low cunning.

When I started school, I used to travel on a tram, by myself. (These were more trusting times, when little children frequently went to school on their own).  For this I was given my tram fare.  I worked out that it was possible to walk home, cutting through various back street short cuts, thus saving enough money to buy a weekly copy of The Beano, a corrupting publication my parents had vetoed.

I even selected a back street newsagent on the route, one that my mother would never visit, so that my deception would go undiscovered.

Later on I made good use of an undated doctor’s note to be excused games.  This enabled me to escape the sports field for two winters and avoid being frozen to the bone by the merciless wind straight off the North Sea.

Thus I recognised early in life that I would never make it as a good person.  I could never emulate my contemporaries who worked diligently and consistently to achieve their success. I needed guile and good luck to get there.

I couldn’t understand people who wept because they didn’t make an A grade.  I was just grateful to scrape by!

But over time I discovered that being a bad person has its rewards.  It makes you less ready to judge others. I might have plenty of opinions and be only too willing to air them, but I could never be secure enough to feel superior about the weaknesses of others.

Being a less than perfect person also gives you a healthy appreciation of luck, good and bad. Over the years this can help avoid fruitless heart-searching. You did what you could at the time, but you were dealt a bad hand.  Sometimes luck goes against you.

This doesn’t stop you feeling sorry or guilty when you mess up, but it does make it easier to accept that sometimes things just go wrong.

And when they do, you make the best of a bad job.

Lesson 107 The Disappeared

Lesson 107 on Being seen and heard

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One night, quite out of the blue, my daughter, by this time grown up, had a seizure when she was out. Her friends, who were much more sensible and competent than I would have been, got help and managed to contact me, but they didn’t know what hospital they were being taken to. They said they would let me know as soon as they could. It was before mobile phones.

As I lay awake, waiting and frightened, I had a sudden memory of the mothers of The Disappeared – the many, many women of South America whose adult children had been seized in the past by the political regime. The mothers whose lives had been spent never knowing where their children were or what had happened to them. Every year they gathered with photos of their sons and daughters to stand in silent testimony to show the world that these children had existed and been loved and mattered. They mattered.

In fighting for Justice for LB we are witnesses, but persistently noisy ones, to another kind of disappearance.

Because Connor and Nico were meant to disappear. An implacable authority, with plenty of resources to cover its tracks, tried to bury them too, but in mounds of spin and jargon and callous disincentives to their families to keep them alive and seen.

We fight for them, because they mattered.

We fight a system that increasingly seeks to disappear its most vulnerable members. The elderly, as well as the dudes and dudettes, are locked away, without respectful care and human consideration, denied treatments they need to keep them healthy, ultimate condemned to die.

However much this is dressed up in glowing vision statements and shiny aims and empty “consultations” and mutual back slappings for meeting “targets”, that is what is happening.

Yesterday I blogged about living in two cultures, but in only one do I feel valued. In the other I feel increasingly invisible, without worth and disregarded as an older person.

In the first one evening, I caught the last local bus home. It leaves quite early around 10.30 and its terminus is Magaluf. It was a bendy bus full of noisy teenagers, as you would expect, off for a good night out. But as we made our way apprehensively up the boisterous,crowded aisle, two lads immediately gestured to us to come and take their seats. They spoke to us cheerily, treating us simply as fellow human beings, not as old nuisances who should have been penned up in their homes out of sight and mind.

Today we think of Connor and Nico, of their lives, their families and their all too preventable deaths. But they stand for all the others with names known only to those who loved and cared for them.

All the others, young and old, our present system seeks to disappear.

Lesson 106 Corruption

Lesson 106 on Learning from contrast

Living between two cultures is odd. Things that are taken for granted in one are unacceptable in the other.

I was thinking about this today, as I was stuck in an hour long queue at Gatwick passport control. I had come from an airport where the border police just looked at the holiday making families with little children and the old age pensioners fussing over where they had put their travel documents, and waved them through. 

I was thinking about LB too, as we reach the 107th day.

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In my second culture, corruption amongst politicians and government officials is accepted as a matter of course.  One local mayor, having been found guilty of a huge fraud involving public money, was freed on bail pending an appeal.  He retained his passport. The local paper reported without a hint of irony that that the judge considered this no risk, because “he was a person of integrity!”

As an innocent brought up in Dixon of Dock Green Britain, it is an eye-opener to experience a society that shrugs its collective shoulders and recognises that bad things happen because people who should be honest and committed to the service of others, are corrupt.

It hit me again that what is so hugely hurtful in the struggle for Justice for LB is the bland corporate pretence that their hands are clean, that everything is fine and dandy, that anyone who protests or thinks otherwise must be misguided, stupid or unhinged.

It is this Alice in Wonderland situation which is so appalling and cruel.

The fury that has pulled so many different people into LB’s campaign, springs from the conviction that what happened was just so glaringly wrong. That a system that tries to pass it off as merely “unfortunate” is deeply corrupt.

We can’t countenance the sham of a flawed organisation protecting its interests by picking on the victims of its negligence.

In the heart-felt words of all my fondly remembered pupils

“It isn’t fair!”