Mary’s projects mostly

Mary Hildyard, Totnes, Devon

Of course one very good way to snap out of gloom is to get busy. So I filled this week with projects; not only getting down to work on them but also planning several new ones. 


On Saturday Dianne and I had a zoom hour of block printing - each in our own kitchen working - chatting as we worked. We have done courses together and worked on projects together for so many years that, although virtual, this felt almost normal. I tried out my new printing blocks, making borders on tea towels. I also printed some wrapping paper to wrap my grandson’s birthday present. I had earlier cut a lino block with his name. Sam turns six this month; when I last saw him he was four. 


On Sunday I started another Design for Weave Course. Twenty four weavers on zoom - is there a collective noun for that? I invite suggestions. This first session was invigorating  and challenging and I came away full of ideas.


Monday was Jeremy’s birthday and he was given the waistcoat that Dianne and I had worked on during the year. I wove the fabric: Dianne was the tailor. I had woven the fabric pieces during the first lockdown and then given them to Dianne when visits were allowed in the Autumn. It had been challenging for both of us and we were pretty chuffed to see Jeremy looking so good in it.



Cotswold perspective

Rosemary, Rodborough Common

I received the following email from our Editor Margaret this week:- 


"Dear Rosemary,

I heard part of a programme on the radio this afternoon, Clare Balding tracking down big cats (leopards etc), on Rodborough Common. I thought of you and wondered if you’d seen any?!


Big cats in the Cotswolds??!!"


Dear Margaret - this is my reply.



Rumours have been rife in this corner of the Cotswolds for many years. Tales are told of a large black cat, a 'Panther' lurking in the undergrowth, living in Woodchester valley and in the dense woodlands below our home on Rodborough Common.

This has recently reached a crescendo following the discovery of two deer which have been killed and ripped to pieces in the valley. Experts says both maulings had the hallmarks of a big cat. 

The 'cat' affair has now reached the national press and radio, next stop TV cameras and reporters.

DNA evidence has been removed from the carcass of the deer, and plaster castes taken of the paw prints in the mud. However, no conclusive evidence has been found.

Is this just another wild goose chase, or someone's rather well fed black domestic cat, or is it a Loch Ness Monster story? 

Woodchester Valley, was also once home to another significant interloper - A Roman of high status, thought to be a Governor of this province, or even the Roman General, Vespasian himself. He built himself a large villa in a prime spot in the valley which was decorated throughout with exquisite mosaic pavements. A particularly significant one, known as the Orpheus Pavement was discovered in 1693.

The pavement is one of the biggest, complex, and intricate mosaic designs ever found in northern Europe and measures 2,209 square feet. When it was completed, it contained one and a half million peices of stone (tesserae). It was made around AD 325 by craftsmen living in Corinium (Cirencester) with the main design based on Orpheus and his relationship with nature. At present the original pavement is buried beneath the churchyard in Woodchester. The last time it was uncovered in (1973) 140,000 visitors caused such traffic congestion in the narrow streets that the villagers decided it should never ever be unearthed again. If it was uncovered can you imagine just how many visitors would arrive now, not only from this country but from all around the world!!

I do know that the pavement exists, but does the large black cat?


Care in the time of Corona

Shirin Jacob, Ålesund, Norway

What’s the momentous thing that happened last week? 

Aside from a rise in cases of the disease that shall not be named (632 dead/ 75,000 cases) and no sign of a vaccine here in our 55-65 age group... we found a Polish tailor who will unpick my sofa cover and copy it in the Indian brrrrrrright Pink from Tricia Guild that I’ve chosen. God help us. 


One of the 70 strangers who was guided through our home in 2019 as part of the Ålesund Autumn 2019 theater festival, Høstscena, rang on Saturday to ask if he could pay us a social visit. It was a momentous occasion for me. Norwegians here don’t invite themselves home. He came with a bunch of beautiful roses for me and had coffee and cake with us. He works with «utviklingshemmede» patients in our town. People with developments delays. A kind, thoughtful man. We will keep in touch.

I finally managed to find the contact of the prominent Norwegian potter called Elisa Helland-Hansen. I had admired her domestic pottery online but found a gallery that represents her here closed till Easter. Elisa is 71 years old, born in New York to American and Norwegian parents and graduated from Bergen. Elisa has worked with a wood fired kiln most of her life but moved up to Seimfoss near the Hardanger fjord with a new life partner she met online a few years ago. I love the story of this fearless, feisty woman who has taught, been a professor of ceramics at HDK, Gothenburg University, has exhibited and is collected internationally and.... was so accessible and kind on the phone with a complete stranger. No airs and graces. Follow her on Instagram @elisahellandhansen and see her beautiful photographs of nature. I’m going to try her pinekjøtt recipe, which is our Christmas/New Year highlight in Norway, in which Elisa adds dark beer and juniper branches to the water, whilst steaming the salted lamb ribs. Mmmm!!! I am taken with Elisa because for her, age is just a number. She leads an active life, fishes for salmon, notices little details in nature and takes a daily photographic record, knits her own sweaters and clearly loves being domestic. How she finds time to throw her pots, drive five hours to her friend’s wood fired kiln and to fire the pots, is inspiring to me. I believe in the concept of ‘modeling and mentoring’. Life long learning till we die can be had from reading especially autobiographies, watching films and by learning from inspiring people like Elisa. The world is their oyster, as it can be for all of us.   


Although I had a very good career as a gynaecologist and don’t have problems making executive decisions like moving continents to an unknown place at the age of 58, I am fully aware that I suffer from ‘negative filtering’. Ten people can compliment me but I focus on the One negative comment or event, which colours my mood and day. Part of the “dark troll on my left shoulder, ‘I am not good enough’” problem that I referred to last week. I’ve dealt with it by consciously being grateful Daily for the wonderful people in my life, events, comments, and occurrences. I don’t write a daily gratitude journal but I notice and make a mental note. Thank you, Marie-Christine, from our blog for your deep, thoughtful comments last Sunday in an email to me as well as for referring the wonderful potters you know. Thank you for noticing.  


Hugs and love to you all.




John Underwood, Norfolk

Crash and Burn


The week has largely been taken up with stacking and chopping firewood for next Winter. We had two large loads of logs delivered on Saturday, and because they were good and dry, decided to get them stacked in our woodshed before the threatened rain arrived later in the week. I do like a nicely stacked woodpile. I think it stems from holidays in Switzerland and Austria as a child, where tidily stacked wood is probably a civic duty, or at least a neighbourhood expectation. Every traditional house seemed to have beautifully stacked wood surrounding the lower floors. At our last house, I had two walls to stack against, leaving the end of the stack to be self-supporting. This meant very careful stacking at the corners – rather like dry stone walling – and I only had one pile collapse. It was just unfortunate that I happened to be standing next to it at the time. Now we have a shed which stops things collapsing, but still requires a tidy front edge. Ally doesn’t share my obsessive compulsion for neat woodpiles, seeing moving wood as just another chore to be done. When I tried to justify my grumpy fussiness and cited Swiss holidays as a child, I was told by Ally in no uncertain terms that I had had a privileged childhood and should be jolly lucky that she was helping to stack the wood at all.

The Leylandii trees that we have had felled all needed clearing and the wood splitting. Log splitting with an axe is hard work, and satisfying and frustrating by turn. Sometimes a well placed stroke splits a log into several pieces. Other blows land less well and you end up in a struggle to pull the axe from the knotty lump in which it is embedded. I knew that the only way to get the job was to throw myself at the task until it was done. Man v log. There is no gentle or relaxing way to go about it that I know of. I also felt that I could do with the exercise to help burn of the Däim chocolate bars that  I have been stuffing my face with over Winter like a manic hamster. It was also certain that a couple of days of hard high impact log splitting would just about finish me off physically. And that is what happened. On Monday and Tuesday I chopped, and we carted and stacked. On Wednesday and Thursday I sat in front of the stove and enjoyed the fruits of our labour, barely able to move for aching muscles. Pass the Paracetamol, the Ibuprofen is wearing off.

Now of course we have no excuse not to get on with building our garden structure. The wood is delivered, the corrugated tin awaits. Ally and I, we do like a bit of shedology.


From a very small Island

Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight

Writing on Friday morning I look out of my window and see clouds scudding rapidly across the sky and wonder when the next heavy downpour is to come. We are clearly in line squall conditions as meteorologists would say, so there is much instability around in the atmosphere. This seems to model the state of the world, both the human and non-human parts of it. Nothing really remains stable forever, and we lot are being thrown around and constantly reminded that we are not in control. Sermon over!  


I have gone through a very strange experience this week. My eldest, Kate, sent me a message to say she thought I would enjoy watching the BBC TV programme 'Blitz Spirit with Lucy Worsley'. Indeed, I watched it and found it very interesting and apparently well researched. Something early on in the programme, during the scene setting part, set me back on my heels though, because there in a short film clip was my mother, centre stage! It seemed impossible, but there was (and is) no doubt in my mind. She was there, in a very pleasant garden, holding a tray of teacups, smiling at the camera, and clearly interacting with two other women. There was no commentary over the scene, so I surmise it must be a home movie. The face and smile were unmistakable, the setting very likely, and even the teacups looked standard Royal Navy issue. Her clothes were also totally right. Although I haven't been able to locate any thus far, I have memories of looking at photos of my mother at the beginning of the Second World War. She looked mostly just as she did in the film clip. Quite a mad happening really!  


Alright, so I quite simply had to do some research. Firstly, I looked in the programme credits for the name of the producer. It turned out to be Emma Frank, and she in turn was easily found on Facebook. Anyway, I have sent her a message with a request for help in identifying the source of the clip. As I write she hasn't responded, but it's probably not that high on her priority list! Secondly, from family knowledge I considered the places it might depict. I remember my mother talking of that time, and of my father's postings as a naval doctor. It seems they were living in a married quarter in the naval hospital, (RNH Haslar) in Gosport, until about half way through 1939 Following that, father went off to the Mediterranean in a battleship, and my mother moved into rented accommodation a short distance from the hospital. Looking very closely at the screenshot from the programme I quickly decided the house in the background wasn't part of RNH Haslar, but I did know well the road where the rented house was, so could search there easily using Google Earth. I have a particular memory from my very early years - I was born at the beginning of 1944. My now departed eldest sister Jill used to take me to visit a woman of whom she was very fond. This woman had been a neighbour of my mother's during the early war, and I can still remember the house she lived in!

To cut a long story short, I looked on Google Earth, identified the house I used to visit, and next door, allowing for changes made over time, was the house in the screenshot. I am in utter disbelief over this - it's so amazing! Well, that was a long tale that has little to do with the plague, but it has been my big happening of the week. I hope I haven't bored the dear reader too much. Other activities for me have been walking when the weather allowed and quite a lot of music. The Irish language is on hold for the moment - maybe it's just too hard for me - I don't know. I have received an invitation to a real live gathering of people at Easter. This would be legal, being in the context of church worship, but I'm not sure I'm ready in the least for such a thing. How can a basically very gregarious person change into a near recluse? I think the answer is when plague strikes!  


Thanks to Margaret, Sheila and all. I so look forward to the journal each week. To me it's wonderful...



Greetings from the far south

Mark Waller, Pretoria, South Africa

There seems to be a constant zig-zag of hopes and despair, as people wait for vaccines to be available more widely amidst the persistent toll each week of thousands of new cases of Covid and hundreds of deaths.


The beautiful late summer-early autumn sunshine and heat belie the worrying state of things in the country.


Tomorrow (Saturday) there’s a memorial service for Karima, whose illness and death I mentioned in my last two Journal entries. The event will be broadcast on a couple of TV channels and there will be speeches by a lot of high profile folk. It reflects not only Karima’s great standing as a journalist and political commentator, but also the sense that her loss due to Covid has hit us all the harder because the disease so closely threatens us all.


Thanks to Marie-Christine for her response concerning Karima, and for asking about what book I would recommend that “represent’s today’s heart of South Africa”. That’s a hard one. This country contains so many disparate, contrasting, clashing or else subtly different realities that I don’t think there is any one book that succeeds in reflecting the place properly. I guess that such diversity is true of all countries, really, but SA’s massive inequality and social divisions, it’s existence as a series of small islands of wealth in an ocean of poverty, it’s terrible history, and today’s rampant violence, especially femicide, make it hard to comprehend in any holistic sense.


My desert island choice of one book, if I were pressed to decide, would be a slim volume of poetry: More than a Casual Contact by the great SA poet (and former political prisoner) Jeremy Cronin. This was published in 2006 but it continues to speak to the SA of today, and even in some ways to the dragging awfulness and anguish of the corona pandemic.


Here is one of the poems from the collection I like.


Heron’s place


Here the winter Tongati trickles from miles of cane field,

Through the indentured smell of molasses,

Under the M4, to come to sea.


A sand-flat under and inch of water.

A place that might be lifted

On a fringe of incoming wave-surge

That flips and spins up

Minnows the size of small coins.


Which is why she is here

All afternoon, holding fast to place,

Pinning down the specific,

Unregarding of the heavy-duty mill trucks

That grind the highway behind.


Further on, a curve of beach, here, there,

Solitary rods mark fishermen, hoping for shad.

Most of them the unemployed-retrenched

Some still wearing frayed mill overalls.

For them, this is not hobby

But the pursuit of proteins

For the squatter camp hidden 

In a patch of vestigial forest behind

As they cast lines

Weighted with old spark plugs.


“In the past, the tourism industry

Presented South Africa merely as an exotic landscape,”

It’s my friend, on TV, the minister,

“Now communities must learn

To package themselves and their cultures.”


I think of poetry — when 

There’s a sudden, flouncing, knock-kneed

Holding up of skirts that’s neither

Exotic or packaged

As the heron bolts off in pursuit of minnow.


A digestive shaking of her neck tells the outcome.

And then she returns composed

Back to place, her neck a supple rod,

Her beak a poised cast.


I think, as I was saying, or poetry

The least commodified of arts,

Solitary, a bit, given to outburst

Suspicious of shine, wakeful to slipperiness

Each line weighted just so,

Insisting upon the actual, unpackaged, this-sidedness of things.

Tenacious to place,

Standing its ground.


Whatever the highway behind.


From More than a Casual Contact by Jeremy Cronin, Umuzi Books, Cape Town, 2006


Vie de château

Marie-Christine, Blois, France


Last week Susan explained for us the connection between Wales and leeks. Along the Loire the wide sandy fields have a blue-green matt color, a unique color, beautifully calm. The last leeks are being pulled out now, so half of the fields still have them, the other half showing the light yellowish-brown of naked earth. 



I have just read an article in Libération about what's happening on social media and manipulative information websites, frightening, orwellian. In France, many hospitals have had their computer systems attacked, medical informations about their patients stolen and sabotaged. This is just the medical aspect. It's a new way of taking power over unprepared democratic and "prosperous" countries. 

To balance it, in the same paper, was an article about a charity organising courses for Indian woman to become taxi-drivers, so they can get a job (in 2005, 36% of woman in India had a job, and today it's only 26%).

Worst case scenario 

I remember the short video when Stephen Schwarzman (of Blackstone investment bank) asked Mrs May, at an investors' meeting in New York, about Brexit, "How bad can things get?". He had just bought some properties near Victoria Station. She answered "We believe in the good thing". I have said before that Mr Scharzman is one of my admirations, for his CV but mainly because he gives money to improve the gardens and the surroundings of my beloved Château de Chambord - I feel like an enchanted princess when I go there. 

Everybody wants to believe in the good thing. 

But would you elect a politician who tells you : "You can trust me, I have prepared a worst case scenario. I know what to do if a unknown virus kills a lot of old peolple, at the same time as crimes and terrorism become more frequent, a starlet kidnaps a member of the Royal family, children's poverty increases, schools are closed, the pubs as well, and our neighbours on the continent we share are upset with us?" 

Probably not, mainly because we hardly believe a worst case scenario can happen. Social behaviourists say that we are biased to prefer optimism, that's probably how humankind survived. 

Tenth anniversary

Fukushima earthquake (9.1 magnitude, the highest level), tsunami and nuclear accident. In my weekly magazine, Le Point, the then Japonese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, talks about his experience during the catastrophe. He could not get proper information, and asked the head of the National Nuclear Security: "Why can't you tell me?". The anwser came: "I am an economist, I don't know about nuclear power stations" - a commentator remarked that it's the politicians who nominate the heads of governmental bodies. Naoto Kan, talking now from his experience, thinks that when an urgent, unknown, huge problem arises, the government should first consult specialists with different opinions, then choose a course of action considering the worse case scenario and decide on that basis. He also says that he is now against nuclear-produced electricity, and that hydrogen power should be studied more urgently. 


Sorry, the sun is shining today, but I am not in my best mood. 


I shall comfort myself with Chopin's nocturnes.


Serge Clément. Montréal 1977


Words from Wood Lane

Susan Neave, Beverley

Thursday evening, and tomorrow’s deadline looms. I also need to write my local history piece for the fortnightly street newsletter, yet another excuse for not managing to write much for the Plague Journal. My neighbour, who prints and distributes hard copies for those who need them, is out of action. She was walking her dog on Westwood common yesterday morning, in poor weather, and slipped on some mud. She is now in hospital with a broken leg.

Exactly a year ago today we took part in two celebrations. One was a funeral, the celebration of the long life of our former neighbour and friend. He was born in 1926 and had spent his working life as a GP in Cornwall, a job he loved. Looking back it was such a blessing that he died before the pandemic, when visits to the nursing home where he spent the final months of his life were still possible. In the evening we celebrated the birthday of another good friend with a delicious supper cooked by her husband. She had developed dementia and had other health issues, and he knew it might be the last such occasion she would be well enough to enjoy at home. She died peacefully in the summer. Although she was twenty years (and 3 days) older than me, we got on well, and enjoyed many joint birthday suppers. This year I’ll be celebrating by reading all your Journal entries on my birthday! Then I'd better make an early start on next week's entry for the bumper anniversary edition.


Thin air

John Mole, St Albans



When did I last say

Would you please come in


less as a question

than a measure of delight?


When did I last think

Where shall I go today


as if the world beyond

were free to wander in?


When was I Iast together

with that nearby friend 


whose welcome onscreen visits

have been commonplace?


When shall I expect to hear

this inner voice of mine


and sllence it

with just the one word Now?