Think Yourself Lucky!

It is generally agreed by those of us who live here in the UK that 2017’s summer has been, at best, disappointing. Other than one or two early heat waves, when you had to take to the shade or expire, the traditional July and August holiday’s weather has been unpredictable, heavy showers alternating with wind and cloud, occasional bright patches but never a sustained period of warm sunshine.

This has been good for some; UK tourism is booming [see last week’s post] with ancient monuments, museums, attractions and theme parks all doing well. Other customary, outdoor summer events such as festivals have fared less well, with many having been cancelled altogether.

As a teenager and a young adult I adored hot weather. There was never a hint that exposure to hot sun could be in any way detrimental to health. On a [somewhat abortive, though that is a different story told in an older post] trip with fellow students to southern Europe I equipped myself with some dubious tablets that purported to allow tanning without burning, thus imbuing me with the confidence to strip off and fry myself to a crisp. Later, with the advent of sunblock creams I became more circumspect but nevertheless continued to sunbathe in the interests of maintaining a glowing, tanned skin.

For many retirees a home in the sun is a longed for goal with the result that areas like the Spanish Med are crowded with ageing ex-pats, [many of whom were further encouraged by the ability to draw their pension and enjoy free healthcare whilst living in Europe-benefits that may not, now sustain].

Despite the few remaining climate change deniers, such as Trump, our weather patterns are altering. We bemoaning Brits may grumble about our ropey summers, but southern Europe has begun to experience heat waves with unprecedented frequency and to extremes. Will those who abandoned Great Britain for warmer climes be able to manage life in the dangerously high temperatures we have begun to see?

Myself, while I love the sunshine as much as anyone else I am no longer able to tolerate the punishing heat that I used to enjoy when young and this is a feature of older age. Extreme heat is dangerous for older people as it is for the very young. We travel widely in Europe, Husband and I-but outside of high summer, in late spring or early autumn, when the edge of heat is no longer there, nor are the crowds.

I am as guilty as anyone of moaning about the British weather, but perhaps we Brits should consider ourselves lucky that we are not yet too drought-ridden and baked to live our lives here. We are starting to see the impact of too much rain on our country’s crops and we are prey to floods but other, less lucky parts of the world are seeing far worse conditions. Perhaps a cloudy, breezy, showery summer is not so bad after all!

 

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Continuum- [part 2]

The story concludes with Part 2 today, as Maz learns that you cannot move on with your life and expect the old order to stay the same…

There is a roar and as I stretch to see over the heads in front I spot Jacob Rimmer, the band’s vocalist and frontman running on to the stage. He takes the mike from its stand and bounces to the front. ‘Hello Wilchester!’ he calls and is met with a deafening din from the hoards below. I’m grinning with the infection of the thrill as the remainder of them run on to take their places. ‘Are you ready for Continuum?’ he hectors and the response is an ear-splitting bellow.

At this moment Dylan reappears, pushing through, head and shoulders above most of them. He’s cradling three polystyrene boxes like babies in his arms and my relief is about more than chips. He hands us a box each as the first, pulsing drum beats herald the first number, prompting us to grin at each other like idiots then we’re nodding, stamping and hollering along with everyone else in between hot, greasy mouthfuls. I love this. I love the shared adulation, the belonging, the elation of knowing all the songs and joining in companionable singalong. It is all at an end too soon, even with two encores.

As the crowd begins to thin I realise I’d forgotten about Shona but she’s still there, behind us, looking kind of droopy, as if she won a holiday and it was to Skegness. Dylan reaches out and grasps her round the neck, pulling her to him in a clinch. ‘What did you think of THAT then, Shona-lona?’ he bawls, ignoring the woodenness of her response and the tears that are making their way down wet channels on her face.

‘Where’s Mickey?’ Shona hiccups, slumping against Dylan, who has a way of pulling in his chin and frowning when he’s flummoxed, which makes me laugh. Releasing her from the bear hug he shakes his shaggy head. ‘Haven’t seen him.’

‘We’ll give him twenty minutes then we’ll need to get the train,’ I tell them, ignoring the girl’s stricken expression. ‘You can wait, Shona if you want but I’m not missing the train home because of him.’

We’re picking up the chip boxes and collecting our belongings when he reappears, loping towards us, an inane grin hovering around his lips. As he reaches us he folds his gangly frame down on to the ground and motions us to do the same. He stretches out his long legs and leans back on his hands, revealing a ribbon of smooth, tanned stomach in the gap of his between his T-shirt and jeans. His head rolls back and he sighs. ‘Man…’ he slurs, ‘man…. Shona has knelt on the grass beside him but Dylan and I stare down, rucksacks on our backs and still holding the chip boxes.

Mickey’s unfocused eyes fix on Shona. ‘That was some fantastic shit, man’ and as she kisses him he rolls backwards on to the grass pulling her to him. She’s smiling like she won the lottery.

‘Come on, let’s go’ I say to Dylan. He gestures towards Mickey, who is uttering senseless chuckles where he lies with Shona draped over him like an exotic quilt.

‘We can’t leave him like this, Maz.’

‘He’s got Shona to look after him. I don’t want to miss the train!’

Dylan hands me his chip box, stoops and grabs Mickey by an elbow, dragging him up, shouting, ‘What did you take, Mick?’ He’s a big guy, Dylan, as tall as Mickey but with a beefy frame. He puts an arm around Mickey’s waist. Shona’s hanging off the other side as if she’s welded to him.

We make slow progress towards the station, surrounded by thousands of homeward bound fans which makes me wonder if we’ll even get on a train let alone get home but Dylan manages to drag Mickey all the way to the station, up the stairs, on to the platform and at last on to the train where we sink down in a heap by the exit doors.

 

 

It’s nearly Christmas. From my seat on the coach I’m gazing out at the drab towns as it travels southwards. I’m wondering if my choice of St Andrews was a deliberate ploy to get as much distance as possible between my home town and uni. This is my first visit home since I left in September and I’m hoping to help the time to slip away by catching up with friends but my messages and texts to Dylan have not been answered so I suppose he’s been as caught up in university life as I have. I don’t call my parents as often as I should, although the few times I’ve spoken to Mum she’s had no news of any of them-Dylan, Mickey or Shona. The Continuum gig seems a lifetime ago now.

I’ve left it late to do any Christmas shopping so I struggle up on my first morning at home and walk down into town, where the familiar streets look smaller to me and a little tired; some of the High Street businesses have disappeared or been replaced by charity shops but at least it’s warmer here than in Scotland.

I’m browsing in the fair trade shop when I think I see Shona. I say ‘think’ because to begin with it’s just the back of her, the signature white hair hanging down like a waterfall but when she turns I get a shock. Her shape has transformed and she has the substantial swell of pregnancy. Before I’ve time to move she’s spotted me and she’s making her way around the display to reach me.

‘Maz! It’s great to see you!’ As she leans forward to air-kiss me I’ve an uncomfortable sense of the proximity of her bump, as yet unmentioned. ‘You’re looking,’ I hesitate ‘-well’. She steps back and circles her protruding stomach with her forearms, her eyes dancing with excitement.

‘I’m having a baby in March.’

‘Congratulations’, I murmur, ‘Is it…?’

She breaks in. ‘It’s Mickey’s.’

I’m nodding but I can’t look her in the eye. ‘And are you and Mickey…?’

She laughs. ‘No, Maz I’m not with Mickey any more. But my baby will have a dad. We’re living with my Mum at the moment but we’re going to get a flat as soon as we’ve got enough money for a deposit.’

I’m struggling to understand. This is Mickey’s baby but he won’t be the father.

‘You met someone when you were pregnant?’ She shakes her head, chuckling.

‘No-no one new. I’m with Dylan, Maz. He wants to take on me and the baby, too. He doesn’t care that it’s Mickey’s. He got a job at the DIY store and they might be making him a department manager. You must come round and say hello!’

 

 

Back home in my bedroom I put on my headphones and listen to ‘Every Life’, my favourite Continuum album. Sitting on the edge of my bed, listening to Jacob Rimmer screaming out the lyrics the tears stream down my face. Dylan. Big hearted Dylan. No wonder he didn’t reply to my messages and texts. All this term I’d thought he was at uni and he never even started. I’ve lost him and with him my old life, my home life, my formative life.

Christmas comes and goes. I go through the motions with my family, the traditional, familiar routines a soothing background to the mourning I feel. Much as I love my family I realise I’m looking forward to getting back to St Andrews now, to throwing myself into the new term.

At last I’m on the coach, pulling northwards, the January skies leaden and a fitting backdrop for the grey cities we pass and the dreary mood I need to leave behind. I listen to music, read a course book and at some point I sleep. It is late when we pull into the bus station. I stand to pull my rucksack from the rack, shuffle down the aisle to the front and down the steps into Scotland. There is a fine drizzle falling so I lift my face and let the soft mist bathe it, tasting the wet smoky air and I’m smiling. Soon I’ll be back in halls. There’ll be news, gossip, coffee, doors open, laughter, music blaring. This is my new life and I love it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living in a Cultural Desert

The time has come to finally accept that summer is now over for this year. We managed to extend it by a month or so by nipping off to warmer climes, but even there autumn is nudging in. I tend to go through a period of mourning at this time-not being a fan of winter, the cold or the dark. We also have to turn our attention to all the outstanding chores that are necessary when one takes up residence in a new abode-a list that is lengthening as I write.

In our absence an invasion of a miniature sort has taken place in that the outside and all its mini creatures has invaded the space. Chez nous has become spider haven, with a spindly arachnid lurking in every conceivable corner. Going to the study to get a pen [with which to redirect a pile of wrongly addressed mail-some of which had already been redirected here] I made the mistake of reaching out only to find I was plunged into an Alien-like scenario, my hand ensnared in a gargantuan, cloying candy floss of gossamer. Ugh!

Outside, much of the stalwart inroads that had been made before departure in taming the rampant ivy, brambles and unwanted interlopers is now rendered inadequate by their enthusiastic return. October is the month I’ve allocated for planting the climbers I’d brought with me when we moved so time is of the essence. Accordingly I’ve now crippled my back and various other parts with a marathon session of planting. Re-acquainting myself with the garden has only served to demonstrate how much work there is to do in it.

This is also the time when I turn my attention to cultural life and begin to cast around for entertainment to fill long, dark evenings. Those who’ve read these scribblings before will know how much I abhor musical ‘shows’ and how much I love a good play. Here in the provinces, however we are not well served. My own small, local theatre has a programme of events that includes a few broadcast screenings but is dominated by tribute acts, mediocre musical soirees and the odd has-been. The venue is run by volunteers, is a cosy and welcoming space with an art deco façade. It should be a magnetic powerhouse of activity.

A little further afield, in the seafront, tourist metropolis only a bus ride away there are two large concert venues, both touting…yes, tribute acts, has-beens and performers I’ve never heard of. There is nothing for it but to go to the movies. The critics have done a hatchet job on ‘The Girl on the Train’ [a novel I enjoyed] so I may have to try Woody Allen’s latest offering.

After much searching I discovered that Nina Conti-a comic genius with puppetry-is on at the end of the month; on I went to the seating plan. Nothing in the circle except for single seats or restricted view. Nothing in the stalls except for single seats or restricted view. It’s no surprise. I’m not the only person starved of quality live entertainment!

The Horrors of Rentrer d’Ecole

My school friend, Paula Booth and I were much taken with everything French. My parents took us camping in the Vendee-a long strip of beach-laden coast devoted almost entirely to camp sites and all things holiday. These days very little has altered there from those sixties summers. Paula and I were earnest students of the French language, revelling in all opportunities to practise the discipline. Opportunities came thick and fast due to my parents’ knowledge of the language being confined to what could be written on the back of un timbre sur un carte postale.

We loved the department stores, spending hours wandering around ‘Monoprix’ or ‘Au Printemps’ searching for small gifts to take home and lusting after the clothes. Back then French clothing was expensive.

But even then one element of the shopping experience was tantamount to torture for us; there would always be large banners plastered over every window bearing the words: ‘Rentrer d’Ecole’. Horrors! No sooner had we escaped into our own summer adventure than we’d be dragged back to reality by this sinister reminder.

Becoming a teacher did little to assuage the ‘back to school’ syndrome. You’d flog your way through the last, painful weeks of the summer term buoyed only by the prospect of the long break. You would manage the last days, despatch the little charges to their disgruntled mamas, pack up everything, recycle the ‘best teacher’ mugs and the scented candles then set off in a haze of exhaustion and euphoria-only to drive past a plethora of shop signs bearing the hated exhortation to purchase the Autumn term’s necessities.

[This is the point that elicits, from those in non-education related occupations a deluge of remarks about ‘easy life’ where the teaching community is concerned. ‘9-3’, ‘part-time job’, ‘nothing but holidays’-yes, yes. My one answer to all of those is ‘why aren’t you doing it, then?’]

And while the ‘taking them out of school’ debate rages on Husband and I are finally able to take advantage of the off-season benefits that others enjoy after careers of being stuck with peak season prices. I’m not launching into a diatribe this time about why children shouldn’t miss school, but it always seemed to me that it was the parents who wanted the Spanish beach or the Disney park. Frankly-most kids like nothing better than messing around in a rocky stream in wellie boots or riding round a camp site in a pack of bikes. Most parents of young children would agree that to be a success, adult and child holidays have to be centred on the children.

So if you want a holiday like you had pre-children your options are a] leave them behind with a doting relation or b] wait until they are grown up.

Since Husband and I are in our dotage we fall into the latter category. Not only can we holiday when we please but also where. Hooray! We are off to Europe!

 

 

 

Festival Time

Weather or not [and more often inclement]-it’s festival season. They’ve become bigger and more elaborate over the last fifty years. As a teenager I escaped the parental gaze and attended plenty of concerts, some of which were outside, notably Pink Floyd in Hyde Park on a blazing hot day, July 1970. I was seventeen. The concert, like other Hyde Park gigs, was free.

The mother of all music festivals, Woodstock had been in 1969. It held an alluring, magical quality for us then; we who would never have the option to attend packing instead into the cinema to worship our heroes-Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, Ten Years After and the rest.

Festivals began to be a feature of the summer. The Isle of Wight, Glastonbury and Reading became fixtures and were supplemented by a rash of music events as time progressed.

Now it seems there is a festival on somewhere every week during the summer months but the free and easy ethos of the sixties is long past. Most of the larger, well known events carry an eye-watering ticket price, often with facilities to match, for those prepared to pay. Glastonbury offers luxury yurts with en-suites, although those with a thirty pound, pop-up tent are still welcome. There are multiple stages offering a range of entertainments, food from every culture, handy stalls flogging much needed wellies and waterproof capes.

Last weekend we were once again running our own, local, modest music festival on a green stretch by the River Stour. The festival has run for twenty five years, charging a small sum for entry and donating any profits to charity. The performers play free, the staff are unpaid volunteers; but the festival is under threat from council regulations and spiralling costs. Sadly, security has had to be put into place to keep real music lovers, festival goers and families just wanting a happy day out safe from gate-crashers, those wanting to bring their own alcohol rather than using the festival beer tent and other party poopers. They are few but still not welcome.

In addition to all of this, we volunteers are almost all getting on in years. Putting up fencing, constructing a stage, fetching and carrying, bin emptying and litter picking late into the night takes a toll-especially on Husband, who has the added anxiety of responsibility for administrative matters. As a lowly ticket seller and general helper my duties are less imperative, but the role can be varied. This year I undertook tasks ranging from repairing plastic swords [purchased from a toy stall] to retrieving a pair of stray dogs that threatened to run wild inside the compound. Then there are arrogant young men who strut past the ticket booth with a nonchalant swagger and have to be called back, large families who flock in, people for whom complaint is a lifetime goal-especially when it comes to forking out £5 for a day’s music!

But in a quiet moment, when the sun shines and we pause to survey the arena where groups of festival goers are lounging on picnic blankets, children playing, a swarm around the beer tent and a full marquee it feels like a great thing to do.

 

Welcome to our Shores!

It can’t have escaped the greater part of the world that here in little old Britain we are experiencing a time of flux. Amongst the dire predictions of disaster that are flying from every media orifice are those of unaffordable foreign holidays, difficulties over flights, problems with customs queues, visas, reciprocal health cover and more besides. Horrors!

The gloom that has settled over our British summer is further compounded by an unseasonal bout of wet, windy and miserable weather. So not only are we facing the prospect of holidaying in the domestic bliss of our home shores but will be doing it in thick sweaters, raincoats and wellington boots.

To be fair, wet, windy and miserable summer weather is so far embedded in the ethos of a British holiday it has become an essential component-part of the essence of a traditional British seaside vacation. For the uninitiated, what else should a new visitor to British shores expect from their holiday?

To begin with, there is the matchless experience of staying in a British hotel, guest house or B&B. Where else are you provided with sticky carpets and overpowering aromas of disinfectant? You may get to sample the famous, ‘full English’ breakfast-a carb and fat-fest consisting of a lack lustre sausage, some pinkish, slimy bacon, a greasy egg and blotting paper toast. This feast is designed to arm you for the rigours of the day to come, when you are to set off out into the gales and torrential rain for some sightseeing.

What should you see? You should not miss the delights of the pier, where you may stagger along against the wind to the end, where although the view may have been obliterated you will be able to while away an hour or two feeding coins into slot machines-this will also provide some shelter. Exiting the slot machine arcade gives you an opportunity to enjoy the pier for a second time as you stumble back to the promenade. You may wish to hire a deck chair for an hour or two, weather permitting. Be sure to open your umbrella. You will be rewarded by the sights of British beach-goers as they walk their dogs or scour the beach with metal detectors. There may even be a lone swimmer-dressed of course in wet suit, goggles and cap.

If you have made it to lunch time you should not pass up an opportunity to try that great bastion of traditional English cuisine, fish and chips. Years ago this mainstay of the national diet was served rolled up inside sheets of newspaper, providing the added bonus of reading material once the contents had been consumed. These days, with the onset of health and safety, together with dwindling newspapers the packaging consists of a polystyrene box and may or may not be furnished with a plastic fork. Examples of the packaging are readily available to view around the streets and pavements of our towns.

The afternoon can be spent browsing the shopping centres, where a range of pound stores and super-buy  emporia interspersed with charity shops will clamour for your attention. Your evening will consist of a return to your accommodation for a tepid shower in your rustic ensuite, followed by an evening meal in one of the many and culturally varied restaurants at your disposal. Will you choose the kebab house, the Indian, the Chinese or MacDonald’s?

Well-what are you waiting for, international tourists? The pound has rarely been lower! Welcome to the UK!

 

Cut to the Chase!

What do you suppose is the biggest threat to planet Earth? It’s a tricky question. Perhaps it can be answered by calculating the relative proportions of news coverage devoted to various global menaces.
Many would say terrorism, and it would be a fair answer, judging by newspaper headlines and daily bulletins. Who couldn’t fail to be frightened by the actions of those who hold life so cheaply? We identify with those who are held hostage and look on in horror as they are shown kneeling at the mercy of their captors and aware of the appalling fate that awaits them. Just when everyone is reeling from suicide bombings some new ghastly and shocking strategy is developed to horrify the infidels.
Then there is disease. Ebola is racing like a bushfire in West Africa, threatening to spread into the wider world. Even if it is to be contained some other, terrifying disease will take over and need to be subdued.
And what about resistance to antibiotics? This could constitute the biggest scare humanity has known since the wonder drug that is penicillin was invented.
Wars? Famine? Financial meltdowns? There are plenty of world disasters to choose from. But to me the single most compelling, the most threatening and insidious peril is climate change-overwhelming all other dangers like an eclipse.
Take Australia. The country is suffering from ever hotter and drier summers, rendering increasingly more of the land uninhabitable as fires and soaring temperatures become the norm. A similar picture is painted in parts of Africa. In other areas of the world flooding and torrential rains have made life untenable as people seek ever more inventive ways to survive. In the future populations will need to move into the parts of the planet that can be lived in comfortably [http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/28/climate-change-has-arrived-global-warming-icecaps-deserts].
This summer, whilst on our travels we met several couples who had travelled north from their southern Spanish retirement idylls to seek cooler conditions further north [in the South of France]. One couple explained that around their hilltop villa near Cadiz the temperature was too hot [in the 50s] to go outside and uncomfortable inside with the air conditioning unit going full throttle. It must be prohibitive to fuel such air conditioning-what of those who cannot afford the cost?
And what of those who cannot afford to move, make alterations or adapt? They are the unlucky ones; those who had the misfortune to be born in countries bearing the brunt of the climate changes.
Meanwhile we are all sleepwalking into an uncertain future as we bomb each other to smithereens and wring our hands over financial recession. What idiots humans are!