Bumpy landing on the south coast
The mind is many layered, like an onion. Sitting in the garden, catching the last evening rays and reading, I was struck by another flash of seemingly entirely unrelated illumination. I suddenly saw the reason for the positive effect of this journal, for me at least. Stripped of my usual life and contacts - because of the coincidence of my move and quarantine - I am still in a sort of limbo, floating in this place where I happen to have landed, not yet able to re-anchor myself through activities, experiences and contacts. I don’t in fact mind this fallow period, but fallow is of necessity an interim period, of regrouping; new seeds need eventually to be planted. Perhaps it was Nicky’s piece, about needing other people, which set the inner layers of my mind whirring. It is fine - and often preferable - to do things alone (like, perhaps, serendipitous bus meanderings), but these things are nonetheless enhanced and given more reality by being shared, even if only in the relating. A reference point, a base to touch, a validation of one’s existence, an ‘à quoi bon?’ So hooray for the journal.
After my week of trying to make a flu jab appointment at the GP’s, I gave up and logged into the Boots website. Voilà - done in an instant - and it will be administered in an unnoticed branch inside the nearby supermarket, so no Arndale to be navigated.
My rhetorical question last week about the re-closing of schools as Covid returns might have been prophetic: it’s possible that the school next door has been hit, although the torrent continues. The remaining children still sound ecstatic to be back, with much squealing and running up and down the grassy bank next to my house. A useful message has emerged from the test and trace business: enter an Aberdeen postcode to be seen in Sussex, and you’ll be all right.
My big news of the week is that I have successfully installed a Blind which Doesn’t Fall Down!! At least not yet. I can’t think of any other way to say it: despite decades of fending for myself and doing up houses, blinds have always been my blind spot. Part of this has been fear of drilling into tiles - but I’ve done it at last. It took three hours of You Tube video watching (amongst others, there’s a nice girl from the Guardian), fetching and laying out my tools, and then the actual measuring, drilling, screwing, cutting and - hey presto! hanging. It was heaven to shower with the light on, at last. Emboldened, I went back to the store to get a second blind, but what with one thing and another I abandoned the quest and retreated home for tea and the last slice of cake to steady my nerves. It can wait. I’m getting quite good at online shopping, anyway. I’ve even just registered for Waitrose’s click and collect, although one needs to spend £40 or more and then wait about four days to fetch it. I did try popping in just before closing, after all, and we were three shoppers to more staff, so I might try that again, although there are still lessons to be learnt about how to do it in the safest and least nerve-shredding manner. I can’t keep making and guzzling cakes to recover.
I have continued, sporadically, my radiating exploration of the town. Last week I reached a particularly pleasing area, which has kept its original village feel. I do like rounding an unknown corner and finding a delight. Even one which puzzles me, like the objects embedded in the wall outside the village pump. Any ideas? In Steyning there is half an ancient pair of false teeth jammed into an equally ancient flint wall, unnoticeable unless one is shown.
I had to say goodbye to my darling friend Arthur. His mum came to pick him up and told me about her holiday walking the south-west coast path; it had done her the world of good.
Covid proved to be a sword which slashed viciously through an already fragile relationship with my daughter, my only child, and so I have been willing to take the chance of any quality moments, particularly before their world is turned upside down by the imminent baby. In fact, after some tricky weeks when fear gained the angry upper hand, she has suddenly and unexpectedly mellowed, and we are on a more or less even keel once more: consequently, I too feel better. Conversation is light, for fear of treading on eggshells, but an hour or two with laughter and no tears is to be treasured. You never know what’s round the next corner, and regret never goes away.
From a very small Island
Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight
The past week has ended on a somewhat sad and scary note, as the plague returns. All seems chaotic at the moment. I think that’s all I have to say before returning to my Nero-like stance on all things covidesque.
My personal week has been very good and very happy. Best beloved celebrated her birthday on Tuesday in a rather muted form. Needless to say we were at the beach hut for a really enjoyable few hours. In my eyes she looked beautiful dressed in her party finery. It was good to have that one day of celebration. Best beloved has been particularly busy otherwise, because granddaughter, who lives with her, is going to college this weekend, and needed much attention as might be expected.
I have been walking quite a lot. Whilst passing Ryde canoe lake I spied a black swan - Ozzie interloper - amongst the usual mute variety. In my experience black swans are usually very aggressive towards mutes, but this one seems to be an exception, flocking with the others. A lovely looking bird as are all of them.
Yesterday, I walked along the beach it was really good sailing weather, with a strong, dense, and steady breeze blowing. Many kite surfers were out, tearing across the ocean at what must have been about 30 knots, perhaps twice as fast as my former mount, a Laser dinghy. I got talking to one or two surfers. They suggested I try it out, but I don’t think that will happen somehow. Were I 20 years younger...
No squirrel activity seen, but I know they are about, burying hazel nuts, sometimes in my flower pots...
John Mole, St Albans
on the dance floor
late in life
was known to friends as
who partnered Valerie
No doubt there were
occasions for apology
but both of them
might now be shocked
to find that what was once
the bump to be avoided
would become the safest way
to greet a friend.
John Underwood, Norfolk
The World Turned Upside Down
If I had a pound for every time that I have heard the expression “we live in strange times” recently then I would probably buy better quality gin.
In the eighteenth century a chapbook was published entitled “A World Turned Upside Down”. It featured an inverted world, with illustrations of geese roasting cooks, children caring for their parents, fish the masters of the world, birds catching people. It was printed with new woodcuts in 1820 by J. Kendrew in York, repeating many of the themes. We found a copy online in America and it should be winging its way to us shortly. It seemed a title too good to pass by given the strange times. Kerching! Another pound in the till. We are especially enamoured with the third image of a man jumping down his own throat, a real “foot in mouth” moment. And how many of those have we had in these strange times? Kerching! Make mine a double. It has become something of a spectator sport in the Underwood household to spot the u- turns, the failures (just the latest being a shortage of Covid testing availability because too many people were requesting tests, juxtaposed with a video clip of Dido Harding telling people who thought that they might possibly have Covid to get tested), the admissions (the government does intend to break international law but only in limited and specific ways), the inability of the government to see irony when it smacks them in the face (Pritti Patel suggesting that she would shop her neighbours to the police if they broke the law) and the failure of Matt Hancock to answer any question put to him.
Is it now acceptable to break laws but only in very specific and limited ways? I should hate to be tempted to misuse a baseball bat in very specific and limited ways should the opportunity arise. Let us hope that the government climbs down on their intentions. Oh. Stop Press, they just have... probably.
Enough of these clowns and their shambolic fiasco! Daily infections rise to 4000. We have been here before I think. Away with them. Begone. Let them whirl away in a chaotic storm of lie upon lie, failure piled upon a tottering pile of failures, and may their ears be filled with our howls of derision.
We have also recently bought a rather interesting pamphlet “Febrifugum Magnum or Common Water the Best Cure for Fevers And Probably for the Plague”. It is the “probably” that tickles me here. I suppose that it is probably less directly harmful that injecting yourself with bleach to quote the PotUS Trump “Is there a way we can do something, by an injection inside or almost a cleaning? “No Donald. Donald, no. NO.
Now, it gives me great joy to tell you that the author of the pamphlet (shown here) was a certain John HANCOCKE. I promise that I am not making this up. The advice in the pamphlet seems to be to go to bed and drink lots of water, clean water if you can get it. Hippocrates apparently suggested that we should light bonfires and burn herbs and spices on them whereas during the Great Plague in 1665, the College of Physicians suggested that “fires made in the Streets, and often with Stink-Pots, and good Fires kept in and about the Houses of such as are visited… may correct the infectious Air.” Well, in the absence of a cure, inoculation, or even the certainty of testing to know if you have, or have had Covid, in these strange times you might just as well drink water and light bonfires… Kerching!
Dianne, Youlgrave Derbyshire
Only just remembered in time. Home yesterday after 3 weeks of long walks, sea swims and catching up with friends. A friend even gave me a paddle boarding lesson which was scary and exhilarating. So good for the soul and we're hopefully in good shape to face whatever winter brings. Beautiful, sunny day today - long may it last. A short winter is what we need. I've booked a flu injection for the first time - anything to help me keep well. Now back to only meeting in groups of six which seems crazy and makes life really difficult for families, including ours.
The garden has been busy while we have been away so our London son and partner have enjoyed tomatoes, courgettes, runner beans and masses of raspberries. They arrived the day after we left and have felt much more relaxed away from London. Luckily they are both able to work from home. They have been able to enjoy having a garden and plenty of walks in this lovely part of England. They go back on Monday so we have a couple of days to enjoy their company. So good to see them after all this time.
From St Just
Jane G, St Just, Cornwall
This was to have been a thoughtful piece about charity shop browsing last week, and how handling things - even £2 vases knocked down from £3 - was a delight after so many months of enforced virtuality, and - in contrast - how sorry I was to see that David Lay's household auction has gone over to an online catalogue: which of course his serious auctions have had for years, and which no doubt means that far fewer people go to the physical viewing. But somehow the descriptions 'box of miscellaneous china including Poole sugar shaker and various pieces of studio pottery' or 'box of books including two volumes of a six volume dictionary and several old Vogue magazines' or just 'assorted tile, probably 1980s' call up pictures in the mind that are far more enticing than the sad reality that appears on the screen, and there's no chance of turning over two really quite mouldy cushion covers to find an embroidered table cloth.
But I'm afraid if I go on writing it will just turn into a howl of despair about the ineptitude of the government, shifting goal posts, and the way fear has been normalised, to the extent that a friend's son was given the words 'infectious, cautious, anxious' to write out multiple times for spelling practice. I hope his mother will write in demanding they use 'rambunctious, glorious, gregarious' instead.
From Rural New York
Sandy Connors, USA
The weather has finally turned ~ autumn has arrived with a few very chilly mornings in the 30’s so the screens are off the windows keeping the house a little warmer than outside. Stopped by the farm stand to pick up some delicious Concord grapes, freshly grown onions, and little potatoes and carrots for more soups. Baking bread again in the mornings ~ all these things make me feel very fortunate, while we worry for all those living on the west coast with the awful smoky air and loss of trees, wildlife and homes.
I continue to stay at home with occasional garden lunches with friends or a drink in the evening. Working on the hand-coloring of my engravings to send to England, while I listen to the radio or a book on Audible ~ quiet peaceful days here. Greetings to fellow journalists ~ I hope you’ve also had another fruitful & safe week.
Chris Gates, Norfolk UK
So here we are, less than one full week into the new school term and, by all accounts, it’s chaos on the Covid Front. Barely 80% of kids are in school, either being ‘withheld’ by parents or in a revolving shuttle of being sent home with sufficient of the dreaded symptoms to warrant exclusion pending a negative test to show they’re ok to return. Siblings of the excluded are not included in the testing when it does happen, so are forced to self-isolate too as are whole rafts of pupils from the same ‘bubbles’. These may be anything from a small class of 25 to a whole year of 350...
The problem is that the testing regime is over-stretched and getting a test is difficult and getting a result back anytime soon also difficult - the labs are finding it difficult to keep up. It’s all very difficult. Made more difficult, as ever, by poorly formed protocols and advice. Poor old Hancock has a go at defending the system in The House, resorting to blaming those that really shouldn’t be tested for clogging the works, but it’s hopeless really. We’re still only at 200,000 per day tested from a capacity of about 350,000 - itself far less than BJ promised... ‘world beating’, ‘gold standard’, ‘moonshot’ and in the millions. Bolton and Rochdale testing centres have solved the problem by not answering the phone. They are, of course, ‘hotspots’ and some of their schools are shut.
It’s reported anyone in Twickenham is invited to get tested in Aberdeen. Possibly good news for you, David H: there is a workaround... by all accounts, if you live in Twickers and apply for a test in Aberdeen using an Aberdeen postcode, you may get offered a test in Twickers. That may be an Urban Myth, there’s one or two about.
Unbelievable but not a myth, GP’s and others from the Care Sector were until today (Wednesday) surprisingly, not regarded as a special priority for testing, so our community ‘front-liners’ are unable to work if they suspect infection and flounder around like the rest seeking a test. Matt now promises to address this, soon but who will he displace from the queue? Schools.
A stat emerges as the week progresses (may be true): only 20% of those who should self-isolate do. This may explain the increase in infection, and most probably reflects economic need (qv Banham Poultry) rather than misunderstanding. Then there’s certainly cheerful disregard to good sanitary practice: the Welsh charabanc party, stopping at several pubs on their way to the St Leger meeting at Doncaster and presumably more on the way home. This is refuted by Doncaster Racecourse who say they have no record of them. Mind you, they only have an ‘estimate‘ of 2500 for attendees, so how would they know to the nearest 30 or 40?
Whatever, tonight (Thursday) 2 million in the north/north east face further lockdown measures. As do some parts of Wales.
Some Care Homes have resorted to private testing at up to £250 a pop just to keep staff in harness - they can get results in 24 hours as opposed to a week or more.
There’s nothing illuminating from testing chief Dido Harding who says she was surprised there was a call on her testing abilities when schools and colleges went back. She must be alone in that and wildly over-promoted - but then she is a close friend of BJ.
By the end of the week, media is flashing the notion we can expect UK-wide restrictions as a sort of circuit-breaker to slow the otherwise inevitable rise on infections... by the time you read this on Sunday, they may already be in place.
Enough Covid angst. I’m writing this from the cosy parlour of an old fisherman’s cottage (no sign of the old fisherman) where I’m holed-up for a few days exploring Blakeney, doing a spot of fishing, walking and little else, fuelled mainly by Malbec and Cromer Crabs. Hope to avoid an encounter with the Cromervirus, see you on the other side of an ‘exciting’ weekend.
Jean, Melbourne Australia
We Melbournians have been living with some form of lockdown since March, and for the last 6 weeks it's been at 'Stage 4' which has severe restrictions. It's been very wearing and there's a growing sense that people are very tired of it all. Hence the recent attempts at lockdown protesting (not successful) and a few more people out without masks on than a couple weeks ago. However, as we've gone from 700+ new daily cases at the start of Stage 4 to 21 new cases today, it appears the Victorian government strategy is indeed working. There still are deaths - 7 today - but those numbers are also coming down. So a big BOO to the state opposition whose leader keeps shouting that these policies are a disaster, Victoria is going to hell, etc.
Last week we were presented with the 'roadmap' for opening up the state, with the message this will be very gradual. There are still outbreaks after all, 90 active cases just found in SE Melbourne, 34 of whom are linked to 5 families who had apparently been socialising and travelling beyond the allowed 5km limit. The roadmap now allows Melbournians two - not one - hours of exercise outdoors and the curfew has been extended to 9pm - rather than 8pm. The really new thing is for those of us living on our own. We can add one designated person to our 'bubble' who can visit us at home, within the curfew hours. And we can visit them at home - but only if no one else is there!
You may think this is a wonderful initiative and the answer to one's lack of social contact. But first you have to decide WHO will be that person, with the risk you will offend other potential bubble joiners. You have to consider the people that person is in contact with and whether they pose a risk. Dinner is probably out unless you eat very early but if dinner stretches on past 9, your buddy has to stay the night so as not to breach the curfew. That means dealing with the chaos and clutter in the second bedroom...
Good news: My US November election ballot arrived today by email and I just read that a Michigan judge has ruled all ballots postmarked by November 2 and received up to 2 weeks after the election will be counted. Yes!
And sad news: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, has just died. A powerhouse and towering figure. What a loss.
Then and Now
Now and Then: House Room
Well, you had the garden. Now for the house that went with it. This lockdown we have been refreshing our stairs and landing with Annie Sloane’s gorgeous soft chalk paints, so our 400 year-old walls are glowing happily. But when I think of my grandparents’ house, I know that as a child I lived in its illusory permanence. A fresh coat of paint, a new chair would have seemed a wound on its unchangeability. The workaday houses my parents lived in have left few traces, but my maternal grandparents, Victorians to the core, set up in ‘Woodlands’, Kilnwell Road, Market Rasen, Lincs when they were married in about 1900 and saw no reason to change anything until they died in the mid twentieth century. I write the address in full as I remember writing it on the postcards I sent as ‘thankyous’ for presents – with a penny ha’penny stamp, or a tuppeny one after 1940!
If I eat an imaginary Madeleine, I can still bring it back out of the dark, its corridors, the soft hiss of gas-mantles, the bellboard with its trembling indicators which told you someone had pressed a bell-push in a distant bedroom for a long-gone housemaid to come scampering at beck and call. Here I was a below stairs child, a kitchen child, spifflicated, walked hand-in-hand with, and dreadfully spoiled by Evelyn, my grandparents live-in maid and companion. Will you believe me when I tell you that my grandmother, kindly, pearl-necklaced, stoutish, and with ‘a very slippery knee’ as in Walter de la Mare’s poem, said that she did not think she had ever made a cup of tea for herself in her life? (My mother had been an only child there in a household of maids, cook and gardener.) Everything in that house moved slowly, from the threadbare oil-clothed sofa by the window stuck over with wartime yellow mesh against blast to the mahogany and bevelled-glass chiffonier, the biscuit tin in the shape of an owl mysteriously filled with corks, the tall crocks in the pantry sweet with rising home-made bread, the steel-engraved print of the old farmer and his dog surrounded by the sale of their old farmhouse — all moved so slowly you could hardly tell they were creeping away to dust-motes and memories — except for Evelyn, affectionately called “the human tornado” by my grandfather.
The beauty of this unchangeability in a world driving itself helter-skelter into madness was summed up by Geoffrey Grigson in his account of his father’s vicarage in Cornwall. “There, everything was in its proper place for the last time”. Yes, and it still is, living now in the only semi-safe place to keep things: words and a head of myths and remembrances. Who were that child’s friends? A grandfather clock, with a rocking boat, a skylight of rosy glass, a night-light torch whose batteries illuminated another owl, this time of frosted glass, a spun-glass bird of unearthly blues and silvers poised on a Christmas tree in front of deep velvet curtains, a box of Richter German composition bricks my mother had played with as a child — and still, some eighty years later, not one of them is lost and they fit their box as the picture on the lid instructs.
That house and garden gave me what everyone deserves but not everyone has the luck to experience: the sense of the ‘great, good place’. I cannot give you my great, good place, only hope that you have one to match mine. I still put it back together in my head to find sleep on restless nights, anxious that I seem to have lost a jug, a bowl somewhere between now and then. It was not a house of events, it was a house of being, where I prowled from scent to scent, room to room, threading the maze. And, at night, only the growl and throb of Lancaster bombers setting out and returning: the roar of a wartime Minotaur. This poem is in gratitude for a deep magic:
You carry yourself away: a freight of silence
Closed by the settling dust, the curtains’ slow, calm fall
Across your bent glass and the deep lustres,
The phlox, the hot paths and the cherry wall
Your gas lamps burn on, pressing their yellow blurs,
Their soft snake-hiss against the swarming night,
Your furniture is mirrors, dark smells, lairs,
Lawns level off, your trees twist out of sight —
And all is Lemuria: a family of ghosts.
Manes exite paterni — and thrice again to make up nine.
At any midnight, hands washed, spitting the black beans,
How should I conjure to redeem myself and mine,
Cleanse your barrow of bricks, that scatter of years
Which holds the otherness of once-familiar things?
No placation can ease my head, or yours,
Of the dead we knew, and are: the uncrossable rings
Draw tight about us. There, inviolable,
Childhood is sealed off in its rock tomb,
Valley of Kings, rose-red city, long trouble
Of gold masks, love, lost stuff heaped in a locked room.
Ovid notes that at this festival, Lemuria, it was the custom to appease or expel the evil spirits by walking barefoot and throwing black beans over the shoulder at night. It was the head of the household who was responsible for getting up at midnight and walking around the house with bare feet throwing out black beans and repeating the incantation, “I send these; with these beans I redeem me and mine” nine times. The household would then clash bronze pots while repeating, “Ghosts of my fathers and ancestors, be gone!”
From the Editor
So, this week, we finally went on a jaunt. On Monday, we set off to Burnham Market to deliver books to the bookshop there (we have been having a small clear out). We set off far too late, without a picnic as planned. Just bottles of water and some pears from the garden.
It felt ridiculously normal to be driving off into North Norfolk, yet we haven’t been on these roads since February. Lots of cars in Burnham Market, but it was lovely to see Hilary at the bookshop and have a face to face (or mask to mask) conversation. I dived into the next door deli and nearly wept at the sight of so many fresh fruits and vegetables. I came out with a bag of delicious additions to our pantry.
We then drove along the coast road in the sunshine, enjoying the wonderful sky and light. Wells was packed with people and dogs, but we caught a glimpse of the sea out, out beyond. Lovely long views over Blakeney marshes, past the tempting Wiveton cafe. By this time we realised we were running out of time as we had to get back to receive the weekly Waitrose shop! So no time to visit Holt and Annabel’s shop (a treat for next time, Annabel) but we made a quick pull-in at Back to the Garden, not at the lovely cafe, but at the deli to stock up on Norfolk cheeses, Norfolk fudge, and some really good olive oil. Again, I was in retail ecstasy. Two shops in one day. Excessive.
The drive back was delightful but uneventful. We were in time for the Waitrose man, and we were pleased with our sense of adventure. We had re-entered the world. And we realised that the window for expeditions might be closing.
The rest of the week has been downhill all the way. And not just the politics and the threat of a return to lockdown. We returned on Monday evening to the news that a dear friend, the poet Anne Stevenson had died unexpectedly that day.
Two years ago Peter, our friend Anthony Thwaite and Ann had done an event (readings and in conversation) at the Buddhist centre in London. A wonderful large audience, a wonderful warm, funny evening (you can watch it on You Tube).
Anne, despite her deafness, had been on wicked and wonderful form. It was the last time we saw her, as she lived away up in Durham. She will be missed as both poet and friend by many (see obituaries in Guardian, Telegraph, New York Times already).
Today in the local paper, the EDP, one of our loyal readers, Frances Mobbs, has written a lovely piece about the Plague Journal in her monthly column. See below. Thank you Frances, thank you to all our readers.
I’ll let Anne Stevenson have the last word:
Before the beginning - unknown.
As after the end - unknown.
But floating, stretched between,
The mind’s harmonic mappings,
frail as gossamer,
costing not less than everything.
I am alive. I’m human.
Get dressed. Make coffee.
Shore a few lines against my ruin.
EDP article by Frances Mobbs
Saturday 19th September 2020