Love Has Brought Me Around

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It’s a sad day and a low time of year.  When living and working in towns and cities, we don’t have much time or opportunity to study the skies. We forget how the seasons lift us up and pull us down.

Yet surprising things can help us through the lows.

For me a new love came into my life quite unasked and undeserved.

It was my granddoggie.  I never did anything to merit his adoration. I didn’t feed him, except on the odd mercy mission when his family were held up in traffic. I didn’t keep the roof over his head or take him for walks in wintry weather.

Yet he just loved me. When I came to the door he would rush from wherever he was comfortably snoozing and go into an ecstasy of tail wagging and welcome whimpers. When I finally sat down he would leap onto my knee. It was a source of huge entertainment and amazement to the family.

Of course I loved him in return.

He’s old now and he was never particularly clever, but he was long-suffering and forgiving. He put up with all the silly costumes the grandchildren made him wear, the endless idiotic tricks they taught him.

Even now in his more tetchy, less energetic old age, he welcomes every day in the world with cheerful anticipation.

Here he is, forever puzzled but patiently accepting of the strange things life throws at him, trying to lick up a frozen puddle in the park.

Yes, in unexpected ways, in life’s bad places, love has brought me around.

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Better Pens Than Mine

This week I’ve been listening to Dickens again in my audiobooks. I listen when I wake up at night and get bored. Usually they send me back to sleep, but this time a passage woke me up instead.

It was this extract from The Old Curiosity Shop

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” Grandfather, what was that you told me? That if they knew what we were going to do, they would say that you were mad and part us? Grandfather, these men mean to carry us before some gentleman and have us taken care of and sent back.”
“How, dear Nelly, how? They will shut me up in a stone room, dark and cold, and chain me up to the wall, Nell – flog me with whips and never let me see thee more.,”

Dickens was writing in 1840.

This week in England, Thomas, 20 years old, died. He had learning difficulties and had been in an Assessment and Treatment Unit (ATU) miles from home. He had been abused by carers in the past and, when admitted as an emergency to hospital this week, had unexplained carpet burns on his back. His family had been desperately trying to enable him to be cared for in his own community, not separated from the people he loved.

This week a report was also published giving details of the thousands of people with learning difficulties kept in ATUs. Many far away from home, cut off from their families. Many existing year after year, never going into the outside world. Many, it gradually comes to light, ineptly and cruelly treated.

The report’s authors were writing in 2014. 

When I googled The Old Curiosity Shop one commentator described it as a melodrama, too exaggerated for reality…

Being On The Receiving End – Think Before You Blog!

Another of life’s hard lessons- do they ever end?

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I have enjoyed myself so much remembering people and happenings in my past, but I am very wary of writing about memories in a way which might identify, or touch on the experiences, of the others involved. I’ll tell you why.

I was listening to Book of the Week on Radio 4 one morning as I pottered around and suddenly I began to recognise the scene that was being described. It was eerily like an event in my life.

It went on in more detail.

There was no doubt, it was my life!

I had to sit down.  It’s quite a shock to turn on the radio and hear a bit of your distant past being humourously retold for the entertainment of the respectable elderly doing their housework on a Tuesday morning.

One of my daughter’s childhood friends had gone on to become a sort of jobbing media personality and had made use of her memories as fodder for some of her writing. 

It was the most peculiar feeling.  It was the difference in perspective of the same event that shook me most.  I had experienced the incident as sad and distressing, but she had written it up as funny and laughable.  It was mocking the people involved.

For me it was one of those moments in life when the scales fall from your eyes.  When you realise you don’t matter to another person.  You are just an insignificant, but marginally amusing detail in the backdrop of their lives.

I did track her down at one point and tax her with it. 

“Oh it wasn’t you, it was someone else,” she replied, with more than a hint of irritation.

“What rubbish!” said my daughter, when I eventually told her. (I had been reluctant to mention it to her in case her feelings might be hurt). “Of course it was us! I knew the moment I read the book, but I didn’t like to say anything to you!”

It is easy to get led astray by your own desire to be witty and clever, especially if that’s what makes you a living. Even a humble blogger can get carried away with the pleasure of gaining a few extra hits.

But it doesn’t feel nice to be on the receiving end, to be valued only as the raw material for somebody else’s vanity.

Still, I’ve had that lesson, so perhaps I’m safe to continue!

Starry, Starry Night and the Magic

Advent 8 On the power of story

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I was brought up in the cold, grey north where winters were dark and grim. The culture was pretty grim too, in those days. Bars were for the men and they shut at ten o’clock. Respectable children were not allowed to play out on a Sunday.

My friend told me that when she started school, it was arranged she would walk back to her grannie’s for her tea, before going home. On her second day her grannie asked her how her day had gone.

“I didn’t enjoy it very much,” she ventured timidly

“Enjoy!” said her grannie sternly. “You’re not put on this earth to enjoy! We’re here to suffer and be judged!”

That about summed it up really.

So it wasn’t until I was well into my teens that I encountered the magic of light and joy in a well enacted story.

One Christmas Eve a gang of us teenagers went along on to what was known in Scotland as the Watchnight Service. We weren’t particularly religious. It must have been because one of us was the minister’s son and was under orders to go.

I had never been to anything remotely symbolic in a church before. No gilded statues or lavishly decorated altars for the United Free Church of Scotland where I had gone to Sunday school!

But, at the Watchnight Service in this strange cold church, there was silent darkness until, at midnight, the candles were lit as the words of the King James bible were read out and the old story of new life coming into the world was retold.

It was magic!

The symbolism of the midwinter feast was lived out before us. The darkest time of the year just past and the earth turning again towards the sun with the promise of renewal, survival and spring.

Even nowadays, however much killjoys try to wean us away from magic and the power of stories, we still rebelliously trail strings of pinprick lights over our hedges and around our homes. In the midst of the shopping spendfest we still fall under the spell of flickering candles and starry skies.

Somewhere underneath all the cynical commercialism still lurks the ancient desire to celebrate new life and to welcome the rebirth of light into a dark world.

And discover, in the face of all the grimness of existence, a spark of hope.

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In The Bleak Midwinter

Advent 6  On coal fires and chilblains

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The constant background to my childhood memories of 1950s winters is the cold and waking up to windows covered in frost!

I never lived in a centrally heated house till I was well into my late twenties. I relied on open coal fires or, later on in student days, to a hissing radiant gas fire for my main source of warmth.

One of the first skills you learnt as a small child in the 1950s was how to roll up old newspapers into tight little balls to set the fire each morning. Certainly by the time I was five I knew how to build a fire from newspaper, thin sticks of wood for kindling, then gradually adding small coals to form a neat pyramid in the grate. Once the fire had caught, you could begin to add bigger lumps with a pair of tongs.

I seem to remember you got a badge at Brownies for firelighting. It was a necessary basic skill.

And the only places in the house that were ever warm was the kitchen when the oven was on and whichever room had a fire. All those cosy pictures of families gathered around the hearth were not because they all loved each other’s company so much. It was because everywhere else in the house was freezing.

However, when I was a teenager I actually got a birthday present of my own electric fire for my bedroom. (I think this was intended to enable me to study in the evenings)  It was a futuristic design, like a sort of yellow and red toadstool. It smelt of warm paint and burning dust.

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How I loved my heater! I would dash out from under the covers in the morning and turn it on before diving into bed again, till my room started to get warm. The sheer joy of getting dressed in front of a personal, private source of heat!

By the time I got to secondary school, the new buildings there were centrally heated and, if you got to the classroom first, you could get a desk next to a radiator and toast your feet. The bliss of it!

Then you got chilblains, of course.

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What the Dickens?

Advent 4  On shopping

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I don’t sleep so much now I’m old, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t have to go to work! 

Also, since I discovered audio books, I can just plug myself into my earphones and listen. I like value for money (the influence of that thrifty childhood again) so I go for long reads – hence Dickens.

Thinking about Advent and preparing for Christmas, I quickly arrived at the topic of shopping. At this point I googled for pictures of the grocers’ shops I remembered from the 50s. Then I noticed that these were pretty thin on the ground, although pictures of older shops from the 19th & early 20th centuries were common. But, guess what? They looked much the same!

Had Charles Dickens walked into the grocers on the corner of the road where I lived at five years old, he would have felt quite at home. The dark wood fittings; the large block of butter from which a lump of the requested weight was scooped with a flat wooden spoon; the ornate cast iron till.

Most of my friends and I ran errands from an early age. Far fewer people had cars, so side roads were often empty. We children were accustomed to considering the streets our territory. All of us were thrown out of the house to play. Housework, washing and cooking were much more onerous then. Children underfoot were an unwanted hindrance.

I was scared of the grocers. It was gloomy and confusing. You had to ask for items, which meant you had to memorise exactly what you had been sent to fetch.  I doubted my competence and the grocer in his Dickensian apron wasn’t very helpful in prompting, though he must have known what my mother usually bought. She went there all the time. We didn’t have a fridge, so had to buy perishable items day by day.

My experience might not have been quite the equivalent of Scrooge sending a boy for the biggest goose on Christmas morning, but it wasn’t that far off.

Yet I’m glad I grew up in a time when children were generally expected to be self-reliant and to be useful, whether in going for messages, or in removing themselves from under busy adults’ feet.

In braving the grocers, I learnt to face up to uncomfortable situations and to put aside my own individual qualms in the interests of the general good. 

Even, if in this case, it only amounted to ensuring there was sufficient butter to put on the bread for tea!

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The Perils of the Shivery Bite

Advent 2 On the unintended consequences of freedom to roam

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I told a lie yesterday when I said I had only a single childhood memory of Christmas. I woke up thinking of another one.

It must have been well into December and in North East Scotland that meant it was dark and cold by the end of the school day. Nevertheless on Tuesday afternoons after school I went to swimming classes. In Aberdeen in the 1950s every school child began swimming classes as soon as they started in the Infants.

For some reason (I think it was the prevention of child drownings plus the enthusiasm of some counsellor to produce an Olympic champion) Aberdeen had set up a free swimming programme for all children and built an Olympic standard pool. It had the deepest deep end in the country and proper diving platforms. The city was very proud of this.
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I just thought all swimming pools were like that and swimming was what all children did.

Nobodies’ parents (that I knew anyway) ever took them or collected them from these classes. Mothers were far too busy cooking tea and fathers were at work. We just walked to the baths from school and then daundered home afterwards.

But first, and always after swimming, we had our “shivery bite”.

There was a chip shop conveniently opposite the baths so we always stopped for a 3d poke of chips before we made our way home. This could take quite a time, hanging around relishing the steamy aroma of the fryer, sharp with the tang of the vinegar.

This particular evening I ate all my chips before starting for home. I walked on my own, because by this time we had moved house and I was no longer on the tram route. I had to cut through the back roads to our new flat.

It wasn’t a brightly lit route lined with cheerful houses. I went down a steep narrowish wynd at the side of the baths, then along an ill lit lane of storage depots towards the rear of the main shopping street. Even I thought it was a bit spooky, but it was usually deserted and you had good sight lines if anybody should appear, so it would have been no problem taking to your heels. I often dawdled, hard as this may seem to believe.

This particular evening I was just getting towards the end of the lane when I saw a figure advancing from the distance.  I was horrified to realise it was my mother!  I was immediately struck with dread. I must be in trouble if she had come looking for me! What forgotten crime had come to light that I had committed?

It never occurred to me that she might be worried!

Nor was she!  She was furious!

As a great surprise treat she had bought tickets for the pantomime, and now it was so late we would never make it. We hadn’t got a car and public transport or Shank’s pony would never get us there in time.

I was marched home in disgrace, doubly guilty for dawdling and wasting precious money.

I was just coming up to nine years old!

I never did make it to a pantomime, but, on the plus side, I could dive and life save by the time I was ten!

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