From the black shed
David E, East Norfolk
Well I’m not exactly in east Norfolk, I’m on the pennine way in the north pennines. After a few hours walking I have just arrived here at an amazing spot - high cup nick, one of the classic sights on the whole route. No time to dally though.
Thoughts from the Top of the Hill
Linzy, North Yorkshire
Hard to believe that another week has passed. The main event in the news this week was the debacle over exam results. The unpopular computer adjusted results in Scotland were quickly overturned in a public admission that they were unfair to pupils. No such U-turn is likely here, as this government is completely incapable of admitting any mistakes, however harmful they may have been. Instead, they have produced at the last minute a "triple-lock" system to try and please everyone. This morning we hear that teachers are being blamed for giving over inflated predicted grades. What I find so distasteful is that governments can so readily treat individuals as numbers, subject to algorithms and percentages. Each one of these pupils has had his or her life affected in some way by a random decision taken remotely by someone who knows nothing of that child's abilities or aspirations. The whole area of mass education and testing is a tragic departure from the idea of learning for life, which should be the prime purpose of teaching. In my opinion it has become purely a conveyor belt for turning out future tax payers.
Naturally, this year is different from all other years and of course all are in agreement that children much go back to school so that life can return to normal and children will not miss out on learning quadratic equations or statistical analysis. I think there is a trend towards educating solely for employment which will deny children a wide knowledge of the arts. In recent years we have seen funding cut for music lessons, which could eventually only be available for children from well-off families. In Australia, the cost of taking degrees in "useful" subjects is being cut, while degree courses in the arts are becoming more expensive. Meanwhile, in the home of Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley, poetry is going to be an optional choice in the English Literature GCSE. For the time being, I think Shakespeare is staying, probably holding on by a thread while some government adviser works out how to spin the idea of replacing the Bard with something more useful to the workforce.
During this lovely weather I have been getting out for a walk in the mornings before the farmers arrive. Last week the grass was cut and gathered in, so all the farm gates have been open, giving more options for rambling without having to grapple with seriously difficult gate latches, or risking a close encounter with a bull. There was a short window of pleasant walking before the fields were spread with smelly slurry. Now the cattle have been turned out onto the slurried fields so they can eat up the long grass in the corners, where the machines can't reach, and the gates are closed again. Occasionally the heads of bullocks appear over the wall as they learn to do what bullocks do best.
One morning I caught sight of a huge hare, sitting on the track with his back to me. I glanced away and when I looked again he had disappeared. How do they do that? The same thing happened with one in the yard the following day, one second there and the next gone. Must watch more closely, they are fantastic to see in full flight. Yesterday there was a young one outside the kitchen door, maybe it will become tame like the pigeon and sit waiting to be fed.
Next week there are going to be more opportunities to meet up with people. Hopefully I haven't forgotten how to speak politely in company.
From Rural New York
Sandy Connors, USA
It is a lovely cool morning and still quite early so there is very little sound of traffic ~ just the chirping of morning birds ~ one can feel the way summer is moving towards fall especially in the garden ~ Everything is a bit overrun, the dominant colors changing to bright yellows and purples with lots of butterflies and dragonflies flitting about and the sound of the cicadas a humming in the background. Many of the annuals are beginning to feel bedraggled and worn but the geraniums are just wonderful and lush which is why when frost comes I will bring them indoors to keep them going during the winter months. Though I will be sad to see this summer end, I always welcome the cool crisp air, and sitting around my wood stove and fireplace again feeling cozy with the dogs and the cats about me.
Some things feel reassuringly familiar and constant, while so many others are uncertain and worrisome. Yesterday I met a woman sitting outdoors in our little library garden with a few other women knitting as they do every Thursday morning, all masked, who expressed her worry that the Thanksgiving she always hosts for her large extended family will not be able to take place this year ~ and what about Christmas, the other women asked. I hadn’t really thought that far ahead myself which is perhaps strange as I have recently been preoccupied with even more distant concerns such as redoing my will, and choosing cemetery plots.
In last week’s journal I felt so akin to those who wrote of feeling downhearted not knowing what the future will bring ~ there are no real guidelines as to how life will change from what it is now to a future which looks so precariously uncertain. I feel for families with children who have to stay at home and learn online while their parents are also still working from home, and can just imagine how very stressful that must be. I think our Macrae family is most unusual in the imaginative way they are keeping their lives rich and full with safe adventures and interesting ways of enriching the children’s lives. I must confess it does my heart good to hear of the many delightful ways they spend their days!
Hilary Q, North Norfolk
Completed the lavender harvest and together Mum and I have stripped the flowers which are now drying in shallow basins about the house. I really enjoy this seasonal ritual.
Also, in my guise as Mrs Posh Kindling, supplier to The Red Dot Gallery and the Artmonger in Norfolk as well as to Jamb in London, I received my first commission of 2020. The Saharan weather chased me in doors and the assignment was completed and delivered in record time. The commission came as a surprise as I was anticipating all such requests to atrophy this year.
Much celebration in the cottage next door where Daughter Number Two has achieved the A level results she deserved enabling her to go to St John’s Cambridge to study medicine. Her older sister last year also became a medical student. Both parents are medics and have only been able to visit the cottage in the last few weeks. They are exhausted and just need to sleep. I could have wept when our neighbour, the ill-favoured object, used a petrol powered hedge trimmer and other ghastly sounding tools non stop every day from early morning. Of course, this is the same party who was first out every Thursday evening banging his frying pan with a rolling pin for the NHS! With the future of the NHS in the hands of young women like those next door, I have great faith.
View from the Wrong Side of the Pennines
Elle Warsop, Oldham, Greater Manchester
So life in restricted Oldham is pretty much like life pre-new restrictions for a lot of people. And for some, even, life pre-Covid! I think a massive problem, which doesn’t seem to be addressed in the borough, is that, if you don’t watch the news and don’t go on Oldham Council’s website, Facebook page or social media, there is no information anywhere telling you what you are and are not allowed to do; like meet friends indoors or in gardens. If you didn’t know it wasn’t life almost as usual, there is no one pointing it out anywhere.
Oh! maybe I had a text message from the GP, but not everyone is receiving those. I’m not sure what the answer is. I hate to say it but the family I live with (husband and three grown-up children - for the time being anyway, until one goes back to London and another back to Uni) are just getting on with life, pretty much as normal - which I find incredibly difficult. They don’t take my anxiety, fears and concerns seriously at all and certainly don’t empathise. I am swimming against a tide of, “Oh hell here she goes again” and, Husband, “You’re making me depressed now, can’t you stop crying or go to the doctor’s” and, “You’re depressed Mum, you need help.” Cheers for that. Maybe I am slightly depressed, but guess what? There is a global pandemic in case you hadn’t noticed. What makes me most sad is that I’m not even particularly worried about catching it myself. I just want to be able to go and see Mum, sit in her garden and chat for an hour or two. And I just want them to acknowledge, once in a while, that I am finding it really hard. Is that too much to ask? I know it hurts doing the right thing at the moment. I know exactly how much it hurts. It hurts even more when everyone else in your household thinks you’re insane for doing the right thing.
In other news, a ray of bright light in the darkness. During lockdown I re-connected with an old friend from a long time ago and a distant far off galaxy. Catching up with him has been the Sky above the Rain, to quote my favourite band Marillion (don’t judge! They are amazing and you should check them out!). It is taking a while, catching up on thirty eight years, and there is a whole story to be told there, but it has totally kept me going. I have found some peace.
I try my best to be in the moment too. Like Mum, Barbara - who is also writing on here - I love watching birds and wildlife and they too have kept me going. The Goldfinch chattering on the bird feeders. The funny, plump pigeons who trick you into thinking they are slightly stupid but actually are very clever. The squirrel trying desperately to climb up the greased pole with a puzzled expression. We saw a Sparrowhawk, with a Dunnock clutched in its talons, on the lawn not four metres from the window recently. It was looking around, unconcerned as the Dunnock struggled, clearly still alive. Then we watched with fascinated horror as the Sparrowhawk ripped it apart. It spent ages devouring it and there was absolutely nothing left other than a few feathers when it had finished. I hate birds being hurt but couldn’t resent it its kill. It’s nature after all and the Sparrowhawk was clearly hungry. Nature is amazing really.
Finally to say, I am really enjoying reading others’ pieces here in this journal, though I haven’t got through all of them. It is so reassuring to know I’m not alone in this. I particularly enjoyed John Underwood’s “Zucchinis and damn butterflies” this week. I laughed out loud so much. What a tonic!
The Runaway Diaries
Sophie Austin, The Black Mountains
It's 10.30 and 24 degrees already. We are walking up a mountain. You are strapped to your dad's back, I'm carrying a picnic for the 8 of us making the climb.
Actually there are 10 of us, if you include Arrow the whippet and Uncle David who's ashes are in a green plastic vessal being carried by your aunt and who is the main reason for our walk.
Uncle David died two years ago after a long fight with MS. He was the best of men and the world is worse off without his eccentric sense of humour, actor’s charm and Northern wit. I only knew him when he was ill and although he became physically depleted, he was still a giant with an unparalleled warmth and sense of self. His ashes were unsurprisingly heavy and the weight of his last wishes weighed on us all. Giving him up to the mountain seemed too soon even two years later.
Your cousins, 9 and 11, take themselves up to the ridge with no complaints. They are David's legacy; funny, kind, and your heroes. You never met their dad, but he knew you were on the way. Your dad and I were able to tell David that I was pregnant two days before he died. Being able to share that news with him and to see the delight on his face meant so much.
And to see you now, yelling your cousin’s names as they run up to the top of the peak, it feels right that we are here fulfilling his last wish.
The scattering goes smoothly; the wind carries your uncle in a dance above the purple heather and below the bright blue sky. We watch as your aunt, dad and cousins share the responsibility, emotions that swell after a two year build up, over flow, but David continues to float in the breeze, settling over the mountain side.
Later in the evening, when you are fast asleep, we grown-ups sit out on the patio watching the bats when flashes of light coming from behind the mountain catch our attention. It looks like a distant electrical storm but with no cloud and no thunder, it looks like a distant war zone or that a giant is sat up on the mountain watching TV, the picture flickering in the night sky.
A shooting star with a long fiery tail darts across the sky and we realise we are witnessing a meteor shower, the Perseids are putting on a show for us. We lie on our backs and watch in wonder at the welcome reminder that we are all, alive or dead, just tiny particles floating in this extraordinary universe. Too profound for such an emotional day, we totally crack up and if David heard our laughter I think he would have approved.
From the South Downs
Hot days and eating outside in the garden in the dark with our son, his girlfriend and our daughter - almost tropical and with the scent of white jasmine, a sense of being abroad, the table lit by a candle. The woods around us deep with heat and forest scents - we keep saying that we could be in Italy.
Runner beans and sweet peas, the white cosmos grown a metre high, cornflowers bluing the centre of the garden bed and every evening soft with heat and the call of wood pigeons. So hot, the sweet peas turn to pods within a day, and it’s hard to keep up with the picking and deadheading before they frizzle.
Tempted by Rishi Sunak, we indulge in our first two meals out since lockdown, sitting in gardens in local pubs. Valeria works on her PhD thesis. Ben comes for walks with us. Francesca comes down for a flying visit. She hasn’t seen her brother since Christmas. What a relief it is to be together. My son’s band is changing their name from Hank to Headwars, which somehow suits the times. After ten days of a wonderful extended visit from Ben and Valeria, they set off back to Norwich. Thunder rumbles all day in the garden, but no actual rain.
The recession is gathering in the background, and I can’t help wondering what the future will hold for these three people in their twenties. My daughter takes a bag of runner beans and a jam-jar of flowers back with her to London.
I’m reading a book, recommended by my friend Jane Rusbridge, The Well Gardened Mind, which finds plenty of evidence for the transformative power of gardening in people’s lives. The author uses evidence from prisons, inner cities and history to show how a connection with nature saves lives and minds.
I’m still washing off the shopping and gelling my hands when I touch anything outside of our house and garden. The trees look autumnal, distinctly golden on the hill opposite. Blackberries are ready to be picked. Back to my writing now, well behind my self-imposed schedule. We’ve had a lovely interlude and now must pick up the threads of the creative life again.
Annabel, A village in North Norfolk
This week has been calmer in my life but not in the lives of teenagers who have got their A level results based on an algorithm. Some heart broken A star student has been down graded by 3 levels. My friends daughter has got her chosen place at her 1st choice university but many have not.
In my world, the client was very happy with the barn and has commissioned a bit more work which is good. I haven’t drunk all the gin yet! At the beginning of the week another client came round with her children who were put in the shed with paints. The younger one, not yet 7 was very excited to find the chickens in the garden and went off with an egg. The next day we had another meeting and Lola, the little girl looked at me and said “Are they opals?” referring to my earrings. Yes they are I said. They are my birthstone she said and I said mine too as my birthday is a week after yours. This was such a sweet little conversation with my cheeky 6 year old soul mate. We are both going to wear all our opals at the next meeting. You two! Said her mum.
I’ve been in the shop quite a lot this week as there are masses of people about. There has been a sea fret over Holt for the last couple of days so people have dragged them selves off the beach and started shopping. Hoorah! It was frantic this morning. Had to have a pot of booja booja ice cream to get me through the afternoon.
Trump is trumpety trumping about, mainly about Joe Biden's running mate who is Senator Kamala Harris of California, the first black woman and South Asian American in that role.
The government here have introduced a quarantine from France starting at 4 tomorrow morning so there is a mad exodus now with people rushing back across the channel on planes, trains and ferries.
Otherwise it’s been major watering as it has been so hot, combine harvesters and tractors, four hares on the field yesterday, three buzzards on Bridget’s track tonight. Picked a lovely bunch of flowers for someone this morning and met a gorgeous golden retriever puppy called Chester this afternoon who I could have happily walked off with.
All for now
Love Annabel xxx
Jean, Melbourne, Australia
This is been a difficult week filled with anxiety. I keep thinking nothing much has changed but the feeling of incarceration has intensified. This is surely nonsense because I can still go out for walks but knowing there is a time limit on it each day changes it into something slightly unpleasant. We're heading into the 3rd week of Stage 4 lockdown, the number of daily new infections is going down slightly but numbers of deaths, especially in nursing homes, are still awful. We still have so far to go. Victoria's health minister just said the improved numbers 'are probably a blip'. Insidious and corrosive political point scoring has crept back into press conferences - maybe it was always there, but it was less obvious? - eroding the sense that we are all trying to work together because it is affecting all of us.
Sometimes only animals help. This morning I heard a miaow outside the door and the Big Bruiser who lives in the flat below me waltzed in. He had a great time exploring EVERYWHERE making sure everything was up to standard before choosing s spot on the bed to rest up and survey the domain. Definitely less gloomy after BB's visit!
From the Editor
Awoken this morning by thunder and the sound of heavy rain. ‘At last,’ I thought. An hour later it was all over. Drought conditions remain.
I made three lists about Lockdown and the last few weeks yesterday: what I haven’t missed, what I’ve missed, and the good things to emerge in my personal life.
Shopping in supermarkets.
Television (ours has lost its signal, and I prefer to watch catch-up on my iPad. I LIKE watching on a small screen, it’s like pictures inside my own head.)
The Archers. I have been a regular listener for thirty five years, but I gave up when the programme was reduced to lockdown monologues. And suddenly I find I don’t have to stop gardening at 7.15 and come in to prepare supper and listen. Somebody tell me when it returns to normal, please, I’d quite like to know how they’ve been coping.
Newspapers. I sort of miss the weekend ones with the reviews and arts articles. But we have the TLS and London Review of books delivered. Enough.
Visiting plant nurseries and art exhibitions.
Day jaunts to places like Holt, Bungay, Cambridge.
Longer visits to York and Cornwall and the Cotswolds to visit family and friends.
Hosting our Annual Poetry Picnic.
Friends staying in the house.
The opportunity to buy a puppy. (They have been in such demand during Lockdown that prices have trebled and puppy farming has boomed. Not good, but I’m sure my cat Bertie is secretly pleased.)
Good things :
Gardening in my pyjamas.
No need for a handbag, a purse, or cash.
Managing our own plumbing when the sink leaked.
Making bread regularly.
Not eating so much chocolate. (This is a loss too. I just keep forgetting to put it on my online shop.)
Tidying up even less than usual.
Not mowing the grass, rewilding. (And what a gain in bees and butterflies! )
Instagram and the Plague Journal. Both of these have been such an interest and support. So many new online friends and connections, one has really felt part of a community. Thank you!
Similarly, FaceTime and Zoom. I didn’t use either before March. I have kept better contact with many friends than I did before Lockdown. And somehow, seeing each other, even occasionally upside down or out of focus, makes it very intimate and real.
Learning how to manage without an Achilles’ tendon. To cut a long story short, I caught my heel in a hole in the floorboards last September. The agony! After three visits to the surgery over two months I was passed on to Physio who told me I’d snapped my right Achilles’ tendon. Off to A and E and then Orthopaedics. Doctors said too late to mend in plaster, surgery too tricky, get used to it. By March, I was still hobbling about and in pain. With Lockdown and Spring and the garden waiting, and no other help, I decided, so what? - Just get on with things despite the pain and hobble. I now have a slight limp, much less pain, and I’ve spent the last few months gardening and decorating. Well, more gardening than decorating.
The Kindness of Others. I’m well aware how dependent we have been on others to survive the last few months so well. And one hears so many accounts of kindness and generosity.
Working with Sheila. As I’ve said before, Sheila does all the hard work of designing the layout and putting everything online. And she does it with such skill and good humour and only the occasional complaint. We’ve only seen each other twice since March, but we are on the phone regularly and this coming week is her birthday, and next weekend (22nd/23rd August) she is having a weekend party to celebrate. Plenty of room in her garden and environs to socially distance. It will be great.
BUT this means she will need your journal entries in by THURSDAY at 3pm next week, so she can get the journal edited before the celebrations begin.
I will send reminders.
A Very Happy Birthday Sheila!!
Sheila: Thanks Margaret - I have enjoyed working on the Journal with you - and continue to do so.
What a brilliant idea it was of yours. I feel enriched by the entire experience and have found a whole new circle of wonderfully diverse and interesting 'friends'. Thanks to everyone for your continuing contributions. X