Florist in lockdown

Jane, Near Manchester, England

We are gearing up for the second busiest day of the year in the flower shop. (Mothering Sunday is the busiest). Valentine’s Day this year will be very different, as the shop is closed to the public, we are relying on customers to be organised and get their orders in early for delivery or collection then we can have some idea of how many flowers to order from our wholesalers. We usually have lots of last minute purchases made at the shop, so I will miss the interaction with actual customers, but am really looking forward to bunching lots of gorgeous flowers.

I worked a couple of days last week, and was initially slightly fearful of travelling on public transport again. But once I was out and about the thought was worse than the reality. There is hardly anyone on the trains, they are running fewer services now.

Despite the bitterly cold weather, my sister and I have agreed to meet once a day for a walk in the fresh air. It’s so much easier with two! I was in danger of becoming an overweight recluse! We walk most days around the local reservoir. The light changes all the time, along one side is a natural burial ground, with trees instead of headstones, and I noticed last week that the snowdrops and narcissus are making an appearance.

I really enjoyed watching ‘Musicals ~ The greatest Show’ at the weekend. So uplifting, made me realise how much I miss going to the theatre. It was strange not hearing applause at the end of each performance. Ramin Karimloo’s version of ‘Music of the Night’ was spellbinding. Phantom of the Opera should have been in Manchester last Summer. I saw the original production in the West End over twenty five years ago. That was before health and safety put a stop to the chandelier suddenly dropping over the auditorium.


Nothing  much else to report. I’m looking forward to being handed a menu, choosing something tasty, then having it brought to my table! 

Happy Valentine’s Day. Keep well everyone xxxxxxxxx



Vie de château

Marie-Christine, Blois, France

Second injection of Pfizer Biontech vaccine

Snow was forecast for Wednesday, the day of the appointment for my second injection, in Tours, an hour's drive away. The day before, at five in the afternoon, concerned that the road would be impossible if I waited, I decided to go and stay the night with a friend in Tours, to be sure to be in time the next morning, driving the distance under a thick shower of melting snow. Not easy, but all went well. I came back the following midday, along the Loire. It was beautiful, the river was as white and shiny as silver, just a few cormorants and swans, no gulls or terns to be seen swirling about. 

The nurse told me not to change my safety precautions before three weeks: FFP2 mask, minimised contacts, hand gel in abundance when I go shopping... and writing for Plague21 journal on Thursday to keep up my morale. 

Rob will not get his first injection before the end of March at the earliest, and the second in late April - here, when you get the first dose the second dose is reserved for you. The 65–75-year-olds can't be vaccinated with Astra-Zeneca. So he will have to wait for Pfizer or Moderna to be produced and distributed. 


About Soups

Thank you, Susan, for your soup recipe. We are going to try it soon, with a slight change - we will replace stick celery with a bit of celeriac root, much easier to find in France at this season.  

Covid time had been good for changing habits. With more time in the house and different rules and limited time for going out, our way of shopping and cooking are no longer the same. The main change has been the menu for supper which now consists of a bowl of homemade soup. A new batch and a different recipe every two days. 

This means in effect a return to the traditional French countryside supper which my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were used to (they all lived in farms or villages). And it goes back long before their time. Whatever the season the menu was the same: a bowl of soup, a piece of bread, a bit of cheese and sometimes a piece of fruit; a glass of water for women and children and a glass of wine for men. 

For the summer months the soup was "miget", a tradition from the Poitou - the center west of France -, simple and delicious if you spend the day outside working on the land: pieces of old dry bread at the bottom of the bowl, a bit of caster sugar, red wine cool from the cellar - for the children too!, and water straight from the well. 


One of our favorites is a special mixture in Moroccan style, to be added to any pulse soup. Once the chick peas, lentils or spilt peas, having been soaked, are ready to make the soup, you put a mixture at the bottom of the saucepan called "dersa". The proportions here are for 400 g of pulse. 

In a mortar bowl: 

1 teaspoon of red pepper/chili, whatever strength you like, 3 teaspoons of cumin, 1 teaspoon of pink pepper or any spice you like, 8 garlic cloves crushed. Pound it all together with the pestle (if you don't have mortar and pestle, you will find a way). 

Add 5 tablespoons of olive oil, mix well again. Level the mortar with water. 

Pour the "dersa" into the saucepan, then the soaked pulses, level with water, add a stock cube. 

Cook for 30 to 45 minutes. 

Have it as you like, as it comes from the saucepan, or, as we prefer it, partially liquidised. 

It's like sunny holidays in a soup bowl, and garlic is good for you. We are addicted. 


Otherwise, we use all possible winter vegetables: onions, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, celeriac, parsnips, watercress, pumpkin... Infinite ways to mix them, with all kind of condiments. And all kind of toppings according to what's is the fridge or the larder. 

After your soup, if you are still cold, there is a special trick from South West France. When you still have a little bit of soup at the bottom of the bowl, you pour wine straight from the bottle, as much as you need, and you drink it straight without a spoon. It's called "faire chabrot" - an Occitan word. Don't do it in a smart place or with a smart friend, unless they like to "s'encanailler" (loosen up). 


Bisque de homard 

It's a soup made with the carcasses of lobsters when you have eaten the flesh, with échalottes, tomato puree, cream and cognac. Absolutely exquisite broth. 

After British langoustines, I read that British lobsters are also rotting. So sad, horrible in fact, unbearable for seafood lovers. I have a fantasy that the British ambassador imports them into France in the diplomatic bag and takes them as a peace offering to his neighbor in the Palais de l'Elysée. 


A good soup is the best way to keep warm in February. In France food is an endless subject of conversation, that can be discussed and disagreed about amicably - to a certain extent. There are some foods which are definitely considered conservative and not for the bienpensant, pâté de tête de veau (calves'-head pâté, very gelatinous) for example, and perhaps the more recalcitrant varieties of andouillettes. But these are not allowed to anyone who has not been living in France for more than thirty years. Rob now qualifies.


Mary’s projects mostly

Mary Hildyard, Totnes, Devon

Last week I wrote about Simon’s vaccination appointment at St. Boniface House. This week it was my turn. When I received my letter inviting me to book, I chose Monday evening at Plymouth Argyll Football Stadium (24 miles). Soon after booking, however, I heard that the local clinic  were offering appointments at the surgery in town. I cancelled Plymouth Argyll and secured an appointment for 10.40 am on Sunday. So much nearer. So much easier.


We arrived at 10.30 and I joined a queue of about twenty people - all masked and  correctly spaced. Maybe it was wishful thinking but everyone seemed noticeably younger and livelier than the “75’s and over” at St. Boniface House the week before. Luckily it was dry and the queue moved quickly as there was nowhere to shelter. 


The whole process was amazingly efficient. I hardly had time to look at the crossword I had brought. Once allowed inside we each waited, appropriately spaced, until called to the reception window which was enclosed with Perspex. All the paperwork was prepared so I was handed my label, my card, my advice notes and moved on to the area which would normally house about thirteen doctors each behind his or her own door. This area now looked a bit like an avenue of street vendors. Just outside each door stood a masked doctor/ nurse each with a cart of syringes and vials ready to administer the vaccine. I was reminded of a narrow street of restaurants in Madeira - as you walk along, the proprietors stand at each door and try to entice you in. “We have lovely fresh fish tonight.” “We have Fado at 9 pm.”


I stopped at the very first door. My hands were full - my mittens, the crossword, my pen, the papers I had been given - I had to get both my coat and my overshirt off. A bit of a faff but as I got prepared so did Doctor F. Lots of quick questions. Was I well? Had I had Covid.? Had I recently received any other vaccine? Was I on blood thinners. Which arm did I prefer? Unfortunately several questions had to be repeated. I wonder if I am more deaf than I think? Or is it harder to hear if you cannot see the lips of the speaker move? Or is there something about having a mask on oneself that is disorientating, that makes one less able to hear? Something to do with sensory perception or lack of it? 


Anyway, despite that delay I was in and out in minutes and had no side effects that day, nor the next, though by Monday evening  I had a dull aching arm. It was just at this time that I was watching the local news and heard that queues at Plymouth Argyll Stadium that day - the day the bitter weather arrived , the day of my original appointment - had been hours long, because of accidental overbooking. As someone said in the news report, “Not such a great trade off - a lot of seventy year olds standing in the freezing cold to avoid Covid may simply catch pneumonia.”


Rural Norfolk

Chris Gates, Norfolk UK

The first part of the week - until Prof JvTam ends discussion on Tuesday - was marked by a fixation in the Press that the Oxford vaccine has been shown, in a limited trial, to be ineffectual protecting youngsters in South Africa, where they’ve bred their very own variation of Croomervirus. This causes unease. Up steps JvT at a Downing Street Briefing, in response to a question about it: “Look,” he says “if you’re offered a vaccination, take it. Don’t worry about variants. It’s good for what we’ve got here, now.” End of. 

Later the WHO endorses not only its effectiveness, it confirms best practise is to get the second jab in between weeks 8 and 12 to reassure those (me included) that thought missing the original 4 week deadline ‘not ideal’.


Grant Shapps(Min of Transport) says, unequivocally, “no travel til everyone is vaccinated”. Taken at face value (how else?) that means no holidays...

Matt Hancock says he’s booked to go to Cornwall. Does that mean everyone will have been vaccinated by the summer? Behind the scenes a ‘clarification’ is cooked: Hancock now says that of course you can book holidays but you must be prepared to forgo them if the travel ban is still in place. He hopes to go to Cornwall.


Wednesday morning I go off for a wander (sadly, Sheila unable to come on account of her knees) in bright sunshine after 3 days of snowy housebound misery (yeah, yeah, I know - an inch or two of snow is nuffink anywhere outside Southern UK) and have the joy of seeing a thousand or more geese fly over (I counted) plus I had a couple of Woodcock flutter out from virtually under my feet. 

We have some residential Woodcock here and then loads fly in from Scandinavia on moonlit nights December onwards if there’s a wind to assist. Apparently there was a big influx ahead of the recent storm Darcy. 

Our residents face a summertime challenge we were unaware of until recently: with the appearance of nesting pairs of Peregrines on tall structures - we have a pair high up on Norwich Cathedral - body parts of Woodcock are to be found scattered around below among the usual bits of pigeon. Turns out that Woodcock, flying at night as they do, have been safe until now and may well have been flitting around the City for ever, high up, unseen. Newly arrived Peregrines have super vision and have taken to night hunting - encouraged by City lights. Hence Woodcock feature in their diet. No-one has explained to the Woodcock that Norwich City Centre is a No-Fly Zone.

The Henge looks good in the snow and sunshine, in fact everything looks good - it’s just paralysing if everything you want to do is outside. 

My route home takes me down a straight 2 or 3 hundred yards of path with no trip hazards - ideal for a slightly peculiar walking attitude I like but prefer to employ in private. I think it helps both a sore back and my rotator cuffed shoulders simultaneously: chest out, shoulders back, step out smartly swinging the arms like a slightly camp Guardsman. Like I say, best done when no-one else in sight.


I shuffle round the garden putting frost defences over a treefern and the Echiums - after a bright day it’s forecast to drop to minus7 tonight and they might get through it ok with a bit of help. 

More or less sealing its fate to fail, I decide that if an Echium survives of the four I have, I’ll move it in a month or so to a more exposed ie sunny position by extending one of the long flower beds. Another job for the expanding list, but I remember fondly the ‘free range’ giant Echiums at the western end of Slapton Ley, and I long for one here. The position I rashly chose to plant the seedlings is in slight shade. 


That little excursion takes me round to late coffee/early lunchtime and I decide to celebrate with a recommendation (or is it a recipe) from Nigella Lawson’s latest book “Cook.Eat.Repeat.” She mentions how the Danes have a word for butter spread so thick and at the right temperature you leave toothmarks when you take a bite. Desperately trying to rid myself of an image of her in slow motion taking a dreamy heavy bite from a slab of white bread thickly buttered, I prepare the next best thing. I give you: “Nigella’s Crumpet”. The word is ‘tandsmør’, by the way.


View from the top of the hill

Linzy Lyne, Pateley Bridge

On Saturday I received my first Covid vaccine, hooray! I was far too early for my appointment at the Great Yorkshire Show Ground vaccination centre, a long drive round the show ground to the far side, where an abundance of efficient and helpful volunteers directed me to stay in my car until 10 minutes before my appointment time. It was very strange to watch the never-ending parade of 70 to 74 year olds moving slowly through the doors, in one side and out the other, like extras in an old science fiction movie. Surely I'm not in the same age range as them?


When the time came I joined the lines of socially distanced pensioners and was efficiently guided through the check-in procedure to Melanie, my appointed vaccination nurse. On the way I was given a fact sheet about the Astra Zenica vaccine and felt fully informed, as much as you can be when being given a somewhat experimental medicine. The care was kind and exemplary, exactly as you would expect from our brilliant and efficient NHS. The day afterwards, the news emerged that the Astra Zenica may not be as efficacious against the South African variant as was previously hoped. Ah well. Richard now has his appointment scheduled for next Wednesday but I don't suppose we'll throw a party.


I have spent the rest of the week working on listing more books to replace the stock sold in my January sale. I often lament my lack of a 'bricks and mortar' book shop, where books can stand sideways in orderly rows, surrounded by their soul mates, as in the Dewey system I learned by heart in my short career as a library assistant. However, as an online bookseller, I store my books in boxes covered in newspaper to avert the dreaded dust, and the volumes are ordered merely by shape and size. So a work on Stalin's dreadful regime can sit happily above The Book of the Psalms and under a biography of Bertrand Russell, merely because they occupy the same physical size. What a strange way of ordering the universe this is! I am just happy to fill the boxes in a tidy fashion. 


However, there is a connection between these books, because they have come to me from the same collection, a doctor who explored all avenues of human history and knowledge, who devoured titles on Tibet, Churchill, medicine, philosophy, gardening and the science of agroforestry, which was a new word to me. This is a collection of thoughts and beliefs and scientific enquiries by a living, intelligent, mind. I am yet again awed and inspired by a collection of “mere books”, whose inherent knowledge will be shared and shared again as the books change hands through time. 


We were snowed in again briefly this week but by Wednesday I was able to get out to post some parcels and thankfully the Sainsbury's driver valiantly made it up the hill with supplies. On Thursday I saw two teenage girls sitting on the snow-covered bank near the river, enjoying a picnic, hardy souls.


We have been staying up late to watch the impeachment trial from Washington. What a thoroughly moving and intelligent case was presented by the prosecution, compared to the disorganised case put by Trump's defence lawyers regarding the constitutionality of the trial. They fell at the first hurdle but alas we fear they will be carried over the last by the cowardly Republican senators. No-one expects seventeen of them to be brave enough to go against Trump, what a shameful display they have given, some sitting in the gallery with their feet up, barely attending, not to mention a dozen empty seats on the Republican side. I hope their voters are watching closely and have the sense to drum them out of office. Today it has emerged that some senators have even met with the defence lawyers to discuss strategy. They are supposed to be impartial for goodness sake! If only they brought in a secret ballot it would be all over for Trump and the world could breathe a global sigh of relief.


I have just heard this morning that Melbourne has gone into a firebreak lockdown to try and contain an outbreak of the “UK” variant. Spectators due to watch the tennis will have their money refunded but the tennis will continue. I can't say I'm surprised but it's very sad for Melbourne when they had done so very well to contain the virus recently. You have to wonder when we will ever be able to allow sporting or entertainment events to bring thousands of spectators together.


I've finished reading Defoe's “A Journal of the Plague Year”. He ended it with joy and happiness as the “distemper” faded away and people came out into the streets to celebrate. Unfortunately, this was part of the fiction of his work and it probably wasn't until the Great Fire of London purged the city that the plague was fully eradicated. He notes that afterwards people abandoned some of the public spirited actions of the dreadful months of affliction and went back to their old ways of wickedness. Let's hope that's not the case this time. Stay safe everyone.


From a very small Island

Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight

Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú? No it's not Klingon, but Irish, and means "How are you?" for the very few here who didn't instantly understand! The reason for using it is that I started to study on Tuesday using the wonderful FutureLearn and what so far seems a great course run from Dublin City University (DCU). I love languages and have done since beginning Latin under the tutelage of Duncan Campbell at St. Chris. Anyway, I thought I should try something a little obscure, and having dismissed Suomi (Finnish), which I never even began to master despite working there at times, I decided the language of most of my ancestors would perhaps put me more in touch with their background culture. I'll see how it goes, but am having fun anyway and it seems a good means of keeping busy during lock down. Best beloved is my inspiration in these things. She never stops studying, and is working at creative writing at the moment. I thought that might be where I would head, but instead its towards a new (very old) language.

Of course, in the same way as everywhere else around these islands large and small, the weather has been bitterly cold - a blocking high over Scandinavia making sure it stays that way awhile. Snow has fallen, but lightly, and at least the squirrels seem to have enjoyed it. Photo shows one apparently playing in my gutter. Walking has been delightful, but wrapping up is certainly the order of the day. The pier experience has been bitter, but worthwhile nevertheless.


Music is still figuring highly in my life. The Zoom open mic on Monday was really special this past week. One of the participants, a delightful woman from NYC called Virginia, sang a great  song to a Jewish rhythm and melody - partly in Yiddish - called the 'Nothing Song'. I loved it and couldn't stop laughing at the chorus, which goes, "Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing..." ad infinitum it seems. It just struck me as so appropriate for times of lock down. Perhaps we all need a 'Nothing Song"!


Best beloved and I have both had the jab now and we are comparing notes, because she had Oxford and I had Pfizer. Neither of us had much reaction - just enough perhaps to know our immune systems work. We are pleased about that. Our experience of getting jabbed was contrasting. Mine - now nearly a fortnight ago - was ultra slick, polite and well oiled. Best beloved's, last Saturday, was of a chaotic centre. For a start, she was booked into the first appointment of the day and found herself queuing behind about seventeen other people. Staff and volunteers seemed flustered and not terribly polite either. Generally not too good!


Slán go fóill - goodbye for now! (Please note: I promise I won't bore you with Irish phrases for evermore!)


View from a Town Formerly Known As Crazy

Chris Dell, Washington, D.C.

We've all of us been fraying at the edges a little, and the evidence of our withdrawal symptoms has been getting harder to hide. No sooner do we cast aside the shades of slumber, than we compulsively reach for our smart phones, grab our first cup of covfefe, and settle in for a deeply satisfying session of frenzied doom scrolling. And, then... nothing. Only the empty hours stretching out before us.


No outrageous tweets, insults, or whoppers. No name calling. No Clorox, Lysol or UV lights on flexible probes. No parade of characters who would enliven any remake of the bar scene from "Star Wars."  Why, not even Dr. Atlas.  It's all gotten just, just so damn NORMAL. The President Formerly Known As He Who Should Not Be Named is quietly settling in to the routines of governing, refusing to be baited by the Republicans' siren songs of  "forgiveness," "healing," and "let's just move on (nothing to see here, folks)."  The focus on tackling problems has been relentless, and let's admit it, boring. Already we're up to 30+ million vaccinations. A huge economic relief package is quickly making its way through the very Congress where the Formerly Dear Majority Leader could formerly be counted on to make sure that nothing ever got done. We're reaching out to friends and Allies; scorning enchanting dictators and dazzling, knife wielding Saudi royals by the passel; rejoining the family of nations. Hell, we're even reuniting real families, releasing their children from cages along the border. In just three short weeks much of our national reserve of Crazy, years in the making, has largely been squandered. And, worst of all? We're discovering that being locked up in close COVID quarantine with our loved ones may actually compel us to talk to each other, rather than merely yell at our TV screens in paroxysms of stress-releasing, mouth foam-inducing joyous outrage. 


Frankly, it's chilling to watch half the nation come unglued (the other half, now experiencing their own delighted horror at the prospect of the impending imposition of a Radical Socialist Democrat hellscape across these once fruited plains and amber fields of grain, have arguably been unglued for some time already). As if to punish us for our faithless transgressions, Formerly Dear Leader sits and sulks in silent exile, His once glorious twitter feed a smoldering ruin.


Fortunately, we are a kind and generous people, and sensing our distress, the Democrats of the House of Representatives have offered relief. True, it's merely methadone for a heroin addict, but the relief is palpable and we'll grab anything that gets us a little taste of Crazy. Thus it is that the Democrat impeachment managers have marshaled four years of "Crazy, The Greatest Hits," in glorious technicolor to remind us of all we've lost: the neo-Nazis of Charlottesville with their tiki-torches; the QAnon shaman and his designer horns and fur; and, always and above all Rudy G. Yes, for one brief and shining week, we are once again living Crazy to the max. Best of all, the Republican Senators are outdoing themselves in their own performative Crazy. Sure, Formerly Dear Leader put our 250-year old experiment with democracy at risk. Of course, unleashing a mob intent on killing us was poor form. But, we must move on (there's nothing to see here, folks). Or, in the immortal words of Senator Mike Lee (R) "everyone deserves a mulligan." If that's not dispositive for you, Formerly Dear Leader's lawyers (whose legal experience seems to have ended when they dropped out of law school and who look as if they dressed for the part at a Salvation Army rummage sale) argue that acting on your constitutional duty to try an impeached Formerly Dear Leader would be unconstitutional. We didn't let you try him while our Dear Leader was not yet Formerly, and now that he is Formerly it's too late. Fooled you, you Radical Socialist Democrat! We have been entranced watching these fanciful pirouettes of illogic, hypocrisy, and craven fear of The Base (Formerly Known as The Faithful), lulled into a sense that all is right in the world as we nod off in a junky's happy swoon, our craving for Crazy at least temporarily satisfied. 


Of course, in a performance so grounded in Crazy, acquittal is almost certainly a foregone conclusion (any other outcome would be insane). And then what? Are we to be deprived of Crazy forever, alone and strung out? Fear not, Gentle Reader, the Republican Party is nothing if not dedicated and they have re-committed to Crazy like nobody's bidniss. Already they are trooping off to Mar-a-Largo to declare undying fealty to Crazy. And in case that's not enough, dastardly prosecutors far and wide are doing their part by filing charges against our Formerly Dear Leader, guaranteed to keep Him in the headlines for years to come. In a sign of hope and to remind us of all we've lost (well, except for those pesky 450,000 lives), the theme song of His comeback campaign has been agreed, and it is already wafting though the airwaves and our heads:  Still Crazy After All These Years. It's going straight up to #1.


Home Thoughts

Hilary Q, North Norfolk

Gained great pleasure watching Mum venture out into the snow... not least because of the snazzy way she turned up her trousers... revealing striped socks! Such beautiful vistas and astonishing light transforming everything inside and out.  


Having transferred Mum’s medical records to Norfolk she is now scheduled for her jab on Monday. I was astonished when I too received a call inviting me to go on the same day. I was shocked as I did not think I was old enough... but apparently I am. My toyboy husband who is a year younger than I am has to wait for the next tranche!


The China Virus inventory was put on hold as I received a second commission from a posh showroom in London’s Pimlico Road for more lavender bags to be handstitched using their own beautiful materials. I have one more crock of lavender to go and must then wait for this year’s harvest.  

The arrival of a beautiful book about oriental brush pots dominated my reading last weekend and led me back to Edmund de Waal’s ‘The White Road’ which I have really enjoyed. I am looking forward to his new book coming out in April. That’s something to put in my otherwise empty diary!



Thin air

John Mole, St Albans



A blank cheque

signed at first light


for endorsement

by an inner child.


A playing card

with the game yet undecided


but still shuffled from its pack

to be laid face down.


A crystal blanket

covering the bed


where dreams of blossom

warm themselves.


A fresh page

torn from winter’s notebook


and waiting for this poem

to begin.