From rural New York

Sandy Connors, USA

We’ve had some glorious days of beautiful sunshine ~ warm enough to go out without a sweater and work in the garden and then days when the furnace has to be turned back up to take the damp out, like this morning of chilly rain keeping me inside even though I’m rather itching to get out to spread manure and mulch on the beds I’ve managed to rake out and weed. It’s such a joy to see the old familiar plants poking up out of the soil and the grass in the front of the house is covered in little blue flowers that have spread all over since I planted them almost 25 years ago dotted with varieties of bright yellow daffodils. I love coming home to see the colorful display when I drive in.


Most of my friends have gotten their vaccines, and today my 51 year old son will be getting his first of the Pfizer, a little nervously, but so was I when I got mine. Everywhere one goes people are still wearing their masks and I suspect that will remain for quite a while still. I’m looking forward to having friends over and visiting them in their gardens or inside our homes. Just the realization that we will be able to visit with one another has made everyone feel more light-hearted and happy. I can’t wait to drive up to a favorite nursery in southern Vermont, perhaps stopping for lunch somewhere to meet one of my old friends I haven’t seen in well over a year. And in a month’s time I hope to drive to the coast of northern Massachusetts for a few days with another friend and her husband with some delightful outings, lovely fresh fish from their local fish monger, planned.

Meanwhile, work on my book occupies my thoughts and time ~ a few extra engravings, deciding on papers for the binding which Christopher Shaw (yes, YOUR Christopher Shaw of British tv fame, as an English friend asked me recently) will be doing, are pleasant and even exciting to contemplate. Collaborating with people whose work you admire is such a pleasure. And despite the many times I thought I wouldn’t be doing another project, it really has been such a boost to be back at it again.


Both Charley and Plum have been to the groomers to have their winter coats brushed out, lovely baths and pedicures ~ and both are back rolling in the garden doing what they like best and I suppose if I could get down to roll about in the fresh spring grass I’d be down there along with them both.



From Twickenham

David Horovitch, Twickenham

This week, in spite of the continuing cold snap, I've felt like Mole running along the side of the hedge 'remarking jeeringly "Onion-sauce! Onion-sauce!."' I hadn't realised how confined I'd felt until the prison door swung open just a touch. Lunch out with some friends in the garden of The Crown on Monday, all four of us actors and all of us for once in work. On Wednesday a haircut followed by a visit to John Lewis in Kingston to order some new blinds for my bedroom, something I've wanted to do since I moved into this flat two years ago. All indescribably exciting. Looking forward to another al fresco lunch in Dulwich Village with Francis on Saturday to celebrate his birthday and another on the terrace of the lovely White Swan which seems to float on the river in Twickenham on Sunday. 


This thing is by no means over though; I'm haunted by an excellent BBC documentary about the last year all over the world - in Brazil, near genocide as the virus decimates a tribe based 170 miles from the nearest hospital, for whom Bolsonaro, the Great Denier, fails to make any medical provision: the boy shot by police in Kenya who then make out he's died of covid, the eternal struggle with poverty in Bogota compounded a hundredfold by this disease, the black activist, homeschooling her six kids in The Bronx and watching in disbelief as Madonna, on television, sits in her bath saying that coronavirus is a great leveller, the same for everybody. 'She always was a bit cuckoo., that Madonna. NO, girl.'


A few weeks ago India seemed, against all the odds, to have come off relatively unscathed but in the last few days their numbers are going through the roof. 


And you don't have to look that far from home either. Barnsley, Bradford, Doncaster still not so good - Norwich, Bournemouth, Exeter lowest infection rates in the UK. It ain't a great leveller. The poor, the overcrowded, the dispossessed are as unprotected as ever.


So maybe it's just one 'Onion sauce!' for the time being.


Restrictions for many

Hilde Schöning, Buchholz, Germany

It is very cold but sunny and the flowers in the garden are terribly brave. Ole has to stay in the office this week without the positive side effects (the canteen is closed, very few colleagues are present and he has to make do with someone else's desk and computer). I sit at my desk all day and have to mark a lot, an activity which will last for many weeks to come. It is not always that inspiring but at least I sometimes see very good papers.


I read about the reopening of pubs in England and hope some of you enjoyed a meal in one of them (outdoors). Due to really low vaccination rates (around 17%) this seems to be far away over here. There are a few attempts of serving customers food outdoors in Schleswig-Holstein, which is the state with the lowest infection rates, though. On the whole the trend shows increasing numbers of infections and especially the intensive care units are raising alarm due to a lack of qualified nurses. In addition to this, about a third of all nursing staff in that field is considering a change of career in the near future. As a former nurse, I can understand their thoughts.


Walking in L.A.

Antoinette Samardzic, Los Angeles USA

Another cool, breezy but sunny day; perfect for a hike. My friend K. and I head out to Topanga Canyon by way of the Pacific Coast Highway, passing a flock of surfers bobbing on the waves. The trail winds up through meadows and oaks and I point out to K. that the slopes are usually covered in the bright yellow flowers of the rape plant but because of the light rainfall this winter there are far fewer, and even the wild oats appear to be stunted. It has now been declared officially that California is back in a drought; the expected spring rainfall did not appear. Our rain barrels will soon be empty and the prospect of a long, hot summer looms ahead.



Gratefully sheltering

James Oglethorpe, Virginia


The view from the mouth of my cave this morning was of fresh green covering the ancient sine waves of the hills. 


How often we flew frequent international trips, internal flights to Mombassa, Lukla, Edinburgh. The furthest external journey from the cave in the past year? A return trip to Washington D C to become citizens, 288 miles total.


The internal journeys have been a different story.

Some are, according to an article in today’s Washington Post, suffering from “cave syndrome.” Rather like Hilaire Belloc’s Jim we are reluctant to leave our caves: “Always keep a-hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse.” I’m not afraid of being eaten by a lion, been there in the Serengeti, but even if I were I am held by a warm and familiar reluctance to uproot. Fireside evenings, walks through the green alongside fresh streams, a view of the stars through the bedroom window, and always the seduction of the hills.


Our sons live ninety minutes drive away. We are all fully vaccinated, the potential for the world to appear more like an oyster than a clam slammed shut, is just over the horizon. But now in the house space I can travel where I please, in peace. I can write songs. I stop to look out of the window from my desk into the trees and up into the blue sky, a single white cloud tucked into a valley of fresh leaved branches.


I saw a picture yesterday of a woman who keeled over in the immigration queue at Heathrow having waited for seven hours to enter the country. I’ll give that a miss. I don’t need a passport to enter a world of emotional and physical self sufficiency. Hard to remember when I have been quite so content.


I am beyond fortunate to live where I do, in the way I do, for which I shall always be eternally grateful. For those not so lucky, I wish for the world to open up again as it surely will. Then there will be the joy and ease of company, theaters, concerts, or simply an opportunity to get out of the damn flat, away from three children under five.


These days of roses and silence will no doubt end. I do miss a certain degree of social interaction, sure. But I don’t need to step into a miraculous silver bird and fly six miles up, close to the speed of sound to visit fresh experiences: so compelling once, and will probably be so again. Just for now I am happy in this one place. A song written in the house that has truly and completely become home.


Thin air

John Mole, St Albans



This was the wind

that swept us clean


yet did no damage

to a fragile world,


that gathered up

our disappointments


pocketing them

as unconsidered trifles.


Now let light rain

become the summer’s gift


borne on a breeze

that comes and goes,


its gently falling

blessed redemption


promising sunlight

where it lands.


Vie de château

Marie-Christine, Blois, France


The year 2019 for us in Europe was really no better or worse than the year 2018. The years were much of a muchness. For most of us the problems remained the same, our personality with its faults and talents was unchanged, and so too our environment. That was before Covid. Now nothing is sure about next year except that things won't be the same. Already there is a lot of anxiety in the air. On Monday (this is my weekly day of work after retirement - I still do breast cancer screening and breast cancer follow-up) I noticed how the women I met were far more concerned about Covid-19 than cancer, and quite rightly so (in France: 100 000 Covid deaths in a year, 12 000 breast cancer deaths, 157 000 deaths from all cancers together). Once I stop work entirely, there will be no one to take my place in the clinic where I am employed nor in the local hospital. And there is a similar story to be told all over France. 


After. Comedy and tragedy 

I found a cheerfully amusing song on SoSoir, the "lifestyle" supplement of LeSoir de Bruxelles. For a French person, it's good to have a different perspective in the same language. In Belgium there is not so much "intellectualisation" as in France, and there is a very un-French self-mocking humour. L'humour belge is famous, but is considered by the snobbish French to be a bit stupid - let's say that generally the French don't have a great sense of humour about themselves. You can look up the song on https://sosoir.lesoir.be/en-2021-la-robe-est-sexy-et-ecologique

If you don't understand French, the lyric goes: "This evening we are going out and we are going to forget everything, tonight life will not be hell". In the eighties, I would have found this song pretty cheap. Today, after a year of Covid, I enjoy it. I qualified as a doctor in 1980, and wouldn't have been interested in that kind of music at all, except possibly at a beach disco in summer when a bit drunk. Today I unashamedly enjoy the song, even fully sober and first thing in the morning. It took me a year of lockdown, and 100 operas, Wagner, Rossini, Puccini... to like Bibi Flash (name of the singer), "Histoire d'1 soir" (name of the song) 1983 ! 

We really all need to relax a bit and find a lighter mood than usual. Bibi Flash helps!

I start to understand young people who don't mind at all about lockdown, Covid, vaccine, political speeches (these could be called sermons - they are so horribly improving. Not Bossuet's sermons hélas, just Président Macron, PM or Health Minister sermons). I even dream - just a dream - of wearing a dress like the one in the clip. The dress is sexy and recycled from used clothes to avoid landfill, that really is 2021. Maybe I should buy one for the day we will be able to go back to cafés and restaurants. Let's hope it will be in summer.

Because it was Easter week, I also watched and listened to J.S. Bach's St Mathew's Passion, on Arte replay, with the French conductor Raphael Pichon and the very beautiful - a young Zeus, profile from a Greek coin- and talented German singer Julian Prégardien (the Evangelist).

The contrast is a violent one: JS Bach versus Bibi Flash, two aspects of our lives. 

Driving through France in lockdown

We found a possible small flat to buy in Montpellier, where our daughter lives, a pied-à-terre at present for a monthly break, and permanently for our "old days" when it becomes necessary or desirable. Our daughter visited it for us and liked it, so we had to go and visit it ourselves. Driving to look for a new home is permitted, the 10km rule doesn't apply - Rob's brother told us that in the UK people who want to travel use this justification as a pretext. 

We drove south on Easter Sunday: six hundred km, mainly on motorway, no lorries, and very few cars. The first time I have known the road so empty. It was very pleasant. We drove rather slowly, enjoying the different landscapes which we have not seen for almost a year. Passing from spring in our low-lying land to winter in the mountains and then to almost Mediterranean summer once we arrived. Such an enjoyable succession of landscapes. The Puy de Sancy and Monts du Cantal are still snow-capped. 

No police to be seen. On Easter Sunday, journeys were "tolerated" according to our President's announcement.

We came back on Wednesday. All was just the same, a nice quiet drive, 600 km, few lorries and almost no cars. I guess that lockdown means that with shops closed there are far less goods in transit. There were supposed to be a lot of police checks on that day according to the news on the radio. We didn't see even the shadow of a police car or policeman all day, and this on the main route across central France. Another political promise with no consequences - we liked it that way for once. But we had all the requisite documents ready just in case.



From a very small Island

Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight

I’m trying to remember my main subject for last week’s journal entry, and finding it difficult. Truth to tell it’s relatively early on Friday morning and I haven’t been awake too long. Oh yes, it was about the ‘squirrel’ infestation of my house wasn’t it. Well, it turns out it wasn’t a squirrel at all. Last Friday morning, after I had sent my submission to Margaret, I heard animal noises again, quite loudly, in the wooden box structure I had described. Anyway, I thumped and banged on it with my hand and could hear that the animal had gone outside, and seemed to be running about in the gutter. The odd thing was, it couldn’t be as large as a squirrel, or even a rat, because in either case I would have been able to see it over the gutter sill, and I could see nothing. Whilst contemplating fetching a step ladder I was looking at the gutter and a very small head suddenly poked up and looked at me, that of a mouse! Obviously, it was a very loud mouse to have created the racket it did. Anyway, I think my banging and thumping has caused it to vacate its new home for good, because all is serene these days. I feel a bit of a fool over this minute rodent, but can only wish it well, probably until some predator grabs it!


Tuesday was the day of my second Pfizer jab. All was conducted really smoothly, and there have been virtually no side effects apart from a slight headache for a short time. Best beloved and I are now waiting for her appointment, which should be soon. Maybe then we can relax our vigilance a bit and become more relaxed over places and people. We are still contemplating the resumption of our walk, but want warmer weather first.


I now follow a rule that I only get news input once a day. For me that is good, and reduces anxiety over the state of our uncomfortable world. There is sadly plenty over which to be anxious.


Last week’s journal was a delight. Reading all your words is a happy event every Sunday, so thanks as always...



John Underwood, Norfolk

Identified by dental records


A couple of weeks ago we bought three small pocket diaries for 1914-1916, written in the trenches during the First World War by a soldier of the York and Lancaster regiment, S. A. Cooke. The diaries are worn and shaken from having been carried around in a tunic pocket, and they smell like old paper money used to, of sweat, and of human beings. One of them carries a gift inscription from Em, his wife. We bought them from another book dealer who had tired of trying to sell them I think, because he let them go at what he had bought them for at auction. He had done some research and had the man down as a Private Soldier, complete with Army number, and I took this at face value. Like so many other trench diaries, there are intermittent entries. Often the entries are made at times of great peril and stress. Times on leave or in support trenches are less well covered, suggesting that the act of writing a journal has some sort of cathartic effect. We have, all of us, found this to be true during the last year I think. 

A close reading of the diaries began to give me some misgivings about the identification of the soldier. The name was clearly written in the books, but he didn’t seem to be a Private. He had a wife and children, unlikely for the teenage soldiers of the First War. He seemed to be sometimes in charge of other men, and had work which was inspected by senior officers - and several times he was yelled out by officers, and expressed his dissatisfaction with his immediate superior.

Looking at records of soldiers serving in the First World War brought up many S. Cookes, and at least a couple of S.A. Cookes serving with the York and Lancs. One of them was a Sergeant, aged thirty three, with “kiddies” at home. Attached to his details was a record of removal from the front line for dental caries - tooth decay, and his return to the lines later. I looked in the diaries, and the entries swam out at me. The removal of four teeth by the dentist; the strange dream he recorded of pulling out four of his  teeth, and their turning into medals. The removal of six more teeth; being sent “back” for treatment; false teeth being fitted, and refitted. The return to the lines and his “Boys”. This seemed convincing proof - all the dates matched. As did the further note, of injuries received about a month later, and the entitlement of the soldier to wear the “wound stripe” on his tunic. No diary entries about being wounded, just the end of all diary entries in October 1916.


He was certainly a Sergeant too. The next rank entitled him to wear a crown insignia above his Sergeants’ stripes , and a couple of times in the diaries Cooke complained that, because of being disciplined by senior officers, “he would never get his crown now”.


Three insignificant and sparsely written diaries. But now the author is identified, and by writing about him in this journal, he lives on, at least until we decide that the servers which store digital information must be stopped from burning their own personal holes in the Ozone layer.



Words from Wood Lane

Susan Neave, Beverley

Many more people around in the town centre since shops reopened on Monday, and the cafes with outdoor seating all looked very busy. Surprised to see that Jigsaw, a fairly high-end women’s clothes shop, is about to open in the market square. Tuesday was a red-letter day. We both had our hair cut, then drove to the coast for a beach walk and pebble hunt. Cold but sunny, as it has been every day recently.


Two breakages this week. The first was a little green-glazed jug that leapt out of a high cupboard when I opened the door, crashing to the tiled floor below. I was quite cross as it doesn’t seem long since I tidied up the contents of that particular cupboard, which I can only reach by perching precariously on the arm of the sofa (unless I bother to get out the step ladder). A couple of days later I went into the front room to put away a book. I was a bit shocked to see the lid of a small majolica dish, brought back from Italy by friends many years ago, in pieces. These were arranged neatly in the dish. No animals or children that I could blame. The culprit proved to be a heavy slipware tile, which was lying undamaged on the carpet. It had obviously jumped off the shelf where it was propped against a row of paperbacks, bouncing off the dish before landing on the floor below. The tile shows two rabbits running in opposite directions, with the legend round the edge ‘If you chase two rabbits you will not catch either one’. The rabbits obviously decided it was time to run off the shelf.


Slipware tile by Carole Glover