January Odyssey 1

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January in the UK is my least favourite month. Gloomy, often cold and wet and with the remnants of Christmas and New Year celebrations clinging like grey cobwebs, it seems to go on too long.
In an unaccustomed surge of January optimism, we’ve heaved ourselves out of the post-Christmas languor to pack up the van, load it with our warmest and most weather-resistant gear and head northwards towards Scotland, a trip we’ve been meaning to do for a few years and only now decided to tackle.
The van, having languished unused for a couple of winter months needed a little de-moulding in its nether regions, otherwise it felt purposeful to be loading up and re-acquainting ourselves with our little holiday-home-on-wheels. There are enough sites open to enable us to travel up [first to Gloucester relatives, giving us a head start] and get around once we arrive. The weather was set to be manageable and Husband assured me that at the first sign of snow we would return, since I was somewhat nervous about getting ‘snowed in’ and unable to return in time for the next [contrasting] excursion in February.
Motorways have conveyed us here and while there were works being carried out almost everywhere the journey was incident-free. Our first, uneventful day took us to ‘Whittingham Club’, a site near Preston and not too far from Blackpool and a perfectly acceptable overnight stop. I assume this is an ex ‘working men’s club’ as it has a club house with a bar, large screen TV, snooker tables and darts plus a bowling green outside. The site facilities are an add-on but serviceable.
Next day we covered the remaining miles to Glasgow by early afternoon, arriving at the holiday park in time for a quick excursion into the city; two stops on a small train from the nearby station.

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Glasgow is just as a city should be; elegant, decadent, grand and squalid. It is busy and vibrant, the architecture both beautiful and innovative, with ugly inserts. The honey and rose sandstone buildings dominate and there is no shortage of galleries, museums and historic sights-too many in fact to see in a single visit. There are areas of development as well as hideous, high rise blocks. The shopping streets are packed with all the usual stores, from up-market fashion to restaurant chains. There is a vast a number of theatres and concert venues as well as lively clubs and pubs.

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Next day we returned in full daylight to take in the award-winning transport museum, the modern art museum, the Necropolis, [a steep hill crowded with mausoleums, obelisks and fancy gravestones] and the cathedral [sadly closed]. From the summit of the Necropolis the tower blocks of outer Glasgow can be seen as well as the grey ribbon of the Clyde. We had no time to tour the art museum, People’s Palace or botanic gardens.
Next day we drove north west towards Lock Lomond, out through suburbs of impressive Georgian sandstone terraces and while I felt it must be a pleasant place to live, I also realised we’d given the more depressed areas such as Paisley a wide berth. It feels good to travel to the outer reaches of the UK and understand that all life does not revolve around the London and the south.

Graceless Ageing

At the beginning of a New Year I’m taking stock. I’ve documented my feelings about ‘resolutions’ before but there is never any harm in reining in consumption after the monumental over-indulgence of Christmas. A new year is also a time to do a little stock-taking on the health front and to consider any goals and plans as winter dwindles.

For those of us in older age, this article: ‘Age Against the Machine’ 

provides an excellent checklist for anyone wondering how to cope with ageing.

But it does pre-suppose that you have no health issues and are financially secure. I agree with almost all the suggestions for coping with older life except that for me, continuing work would have been the death of me.

Offspring 2, who’s been staying for a few days over the festive period asks me if I’d ever want to live with either of my progeny in [even] later life. I tell her an emphatic no, although this conviction comes from the standpoint of happiness and [relatively] good health. At this moment I am independent, not alone and [arguably] still of some use as childcare etc. I tell her I want them to remember me with a degree of fondness and not with the irritation that can arise from continuing close contact with one who has become forgetful, pathetic and dependent. It must be left to professionals in an efficient, non-smelly care home where physical and mental abuse is out of the question.

Until then I have my own, personal checklist of ways to live out retirement, which goes like this:

  • VALUE IT. You’ve worked hard and long. The job may have been stressful [it was]. Value this wonderful freedom by carrying through on long-held ambitions and desires wherever possible. Don’t fritter away the time wondering what to do and waste it by not following through on ideas.
  • Keep as healthy as possible without stressing about it. For me it means undertaking such exercise as I enjoy [dance exercise and walking] as well as eating sensible, home-cooked, vegetable-laden meals. Keeping the brain exercised is also important. I like to read and write.
  • Plan long/medium/short term activities that can be looked forward to; a holiday, a meal with friends or the next dance class at the gym.
  • Be interested in world events and prepared to learn. Learning is great at any age.
  • Try ‘out of comfort zone’ things sometimes. Eat something new and different [within healthy limits]. Go somewhere new. Listen to some new music. Read a book you wouldn’t normally choose [my book club helps with this].
  • Take in some culture. For me it’s theatre, film and music [although not together!]. While we live outside of London we are not too impoverished here. I like to take advantage of our local, volunteer-run theatre when possible and consider that we are lucky to have it [as well as a wonderful library!].
  • Let it Be. I wrote an entire post about leaving behind negative ‘friendships’ and giving up pointless contacts. I keep up with those who put the same amount of effort in as I do and forget the rest.

There is a lot more-using public transport [again we are fortunate to have bus passes and we make great use of them], cycling, travel, groups, gardening, wildlife. I could go on-but of course I don’t have time…

 

 

Playing Host to the Beast

In what is clearly a gift to 24-hour news broadcasters, newspapers and weather people, ‘The Beast from the East’ has chosen to visit the UK. I’m sceptical. I’m inclined to think that this blanket of snow, ice and bitter winds has been engendered by the Russians [or to be clearer, Putin] in order to further de-stabilise poor, beleaguered Europe; to undermine the infra-structures, to disrupt our transport systems, to bring manufacturing to a halt.
Once all this has happened, Russia can flood our [and for the purposes of this post I’m considering we are part of Europe-mere wishful thinking on my part] markets with their own products. So along with the eventual thaw we can expect a deluge of potatoes, petrol, samovars, beetroot and nesting Russian dolls. This is fortunate for me, since I’m partial to beetroot and potatoes and have two small granddaughters, although there is a limit to the quantity of petrol our lawn mower can consume in one season.
Conspiracy theories apart, this late spell of winter sparks the usual flurry of journalistic activity, producing every kind of article from ‘how to care for the homeless’ to ‘what to wear in cold conditions’ to ‘what to carry in the boot of your car in the event of becoming stuck in snow’. This is all very useful and informative-to someone who has recently moved here from Death Valley, California or the Australian Outback. The rest of us are only too aware of what to put on [layers of woolly clothes], how to provide for the homeless [inviting them in to your spare bedroom, lobbying your local council/contributing to homeless charities/adding blankets and scarves to their belongings] and what we should put in our vehicles [hot drinks/blankets/spades].
I know I’m risking eye-rolling as I mention it, but anyone who was born before the 1960s and especially in a rural location will have experienced winter weather in a home without central heating and perhaps without a bathroom. Ice on the insides of windows and across the surface of the cess pit outside in the garden latrine was the norm. We did, of course have lovely, sooty coal fires to sit around and even to bath in front of.
As a child I loved snowy, icy days; loved splintering up the ice on a frozen puddle and making footprints in virgin snow. School playtimes were a riot of fun without any health and safety guidelines or gritting procedures as we worked together to manufacture the longest, smoothest, glassiest, most slippery ice slide imaginable in a diagonal strip that we queued up for whenever we were released from the classroom. We’d return to find our beautiful little, third-of-a-pint milk bottles were filled with lumps of ice so large they had pushed the foil lids up.
This morning we woke in our centrally heated house to find glassy ice had frosted all the windows, creating an interesting, bathroom-type effect; not the fancy, curly patterns I used to find on my bedroom windows as a child but at least this ice is on the outside, which is progress.

Hopeful Travel on a December Day

I listened to a programme about the way the digital age is influencing literature and drama. Thrillers and crime novels are becoming trickier to construct in these days of mobile phones and closed-circuit TV. It is more difficult to make characters disappear and dialogue has become problematic with the advent of text, email, messaging and so on.
This week’s trip to visit Offspring in her new house illustrated perfectly how our lives have been transformed since devices became essential in our lives. A quick glance around a crowded train reveals rows of passengers travelling together on a shared journey  engrossed in their own little world of screen, plugged in, switched on and oblivious to everyone and everything around them.
Things have moved on since stepping into a carriage and settling into a seat would be interrupted by interminable blurtings of ‘I’m on the train’. A mother climbs on with a toddler and searches for a seat before taking out a phone and placing it in front of the child; pacification by screen. Around me individual travellers sporting earphones are watching videos, listening to something, typing something, reading something, scrolling, swiping, clicking. Almost everyone is lost in their own world, communing with unseen entities.
To me, any unfamiliar travel is interesting, whether it offers stunning scenery or not. This winter trip, taken on a dank and gloomy December day is not pretty, does not offer historic sights or amazing vistas-but although I have my own tiny screens tucked away ready for a waiting room or a platform, I am held enough by the changing views from the window. I like it all. I like seeing the misty fields, the sleepy villages and the towering pylons of the docklands. I like the industrial conglomerations and the uniform suburban streets. I love to peer down into the gardens that line the tracks-abandoned toys, vegetable beds unkempt in their winter state, lines of laundry hanging in the damp air, neat rectangles of lawn and summerhouses with misty windows.
We change trains. The platform where we wait offers people watching opportunities and I’m struck by the way travellers dress. There is a plethora of hole-in-the-knee jeans, a look I’ve not been tempted to adopt, having long ago abandoned high fashion in favour of comfort. On the next train I’m taken with the sight of a man reading a paperback. It is a Dave Eggars novel. I’m tempted to ask if it’s any good but fear I’ll be intruding.
We change again-and again. [It is not an easy journey]. I’m struck by the paradox of this travel. Altogether this expedition to the outer reaches of the capital has taken four trains and a bus. All of the vehicles [including the bus] have been stuffed full of phone-wielding, laptop-tapping screen users. Technology moves on apace. Transport does not.
The return is no better, requiring a bus and a further four trains. The windows are dark. I sit back and delve into the reaches of my rucksack for my Kindle…

It’s Christmas. Happy Christmas to all my lovely readers, whoever and wherever you may be…and a happy and peaceful 2018.

 

[Not] All about Mexico…

So, Mexico then. We’ve had a short, winter sun break there. Of course I realise my impressions are not too representative, since we’ve only looked at a small, sanitised-for-tourists part, but here are some observations about this much-maligned and despised by reactionary Americans country.

Weather

                The eastern coast on the Gulf of Mexico, the principal tourist destination, is termed part of the Caribbean and rightly so, since the climate, like most West Indian islands is warm, tropical and cooled by a breeze. During our ten days there was one overcast day with the occasional five minute shower. It was, however still very warm-a perfect destination for those of us who’ve tired of our harsh, British winter temperatures.

Interior

                We did venture inland, albeit in the care of the [excellent] tour guides running the excursion. I was as fascinated [being possessed of a writer’s nosy nature] to see the villages with their pastel-hued cottages and the thatched, traditional Mayan homes as I was by the ancient archaeology of the site we went to visit. The open countryside was tropical forest and extremely flat. Here, away from the coast it felt much hotter.

History

There are many fine archaeological sites to visit but we opted for Chichen Itza since it’s the best known and was nearest to our resort. It has been very well excavated and restored, extensive and the only drawback is the cacophony of howler monkey calls fabricated by the stallholders using wooden devices for the purpose of attracting attention to their wares. Our tour guide was experienced and knowledgeable. We went on to the beautiful city of Valladolid, where the colonial buildings lining the streets make for an elegant setting, no more so than our lunch venue in a wonderfully restored Spanish style house with a palm-shaded courtyard.

Mexicans

                All those we encountered were friendly, cheerful and helpful. This applies not only to the hotel staff, who you might expect to have been indoctrinated with a corporate hospitality vibe, but to people we met when out and about in the town, helping us when we were consulting the map, serving us in bars and using public transport [which was efficient and very cheap]. Mexicans, on the whole are smallish, an attribute that I find particularly endearing being somewhat height-challenged myself.

Food

Everything we ate was delicious. The hotel breakfasts and dinners were a spectacular plethora of everything comestible you can imagine, so much that three meals daily would have been impossible. We especially loved the variety of fruit, vegetables and salads available although one could easily have lived upon burgers and chips [fries] for the entire time-as indeed many seemed to. I am still a little uncomfortable with the ‘all-inclusive’ mentality, where anything is served at any time to anywhere, so that if I am reading on a beach I still prefer to get up and find sustenance for myself rather than be waited on. I realise this is a dated attitude and we were, to an extent berated by the waiting staff themselves for under-consuming…

So-to conclude. We did not venture into the lawless, violent lands of the drug cartels. We eschewed the west coast and the south, where heartless kidnappers commandeer innocent travellers and ransom them to their families. We met nobody who wanted to burgle, extort or shoot us at close range. Everyone we met was lovely. Some people are nice and some are not. QED.

2016? Sleep on it…

Christmas-yes it’s lovely, yes it’s festive. There is a warm, fuzzy glow everywhere-in the shops, in the pubs, in the cafes, along the streets and in the homes. We decorate, we shop, we cook. We send cards and receive them, exclaim over seldom contacted friends’ messages, speak to long-distance relatives. We deck the halls. We peel, chop and baste. We make table decorations, lay out crackers, pass things around, pour drinks, make toasts, watch the Queen/don’t watch the Queen,  play games, hand out gifts, open gifts, watch TV’s lack-lustre, festive offerings, crash out, wake, get up and begin again.

We eat too much, drink too much, feel bloated. In the mornings there is a swathe of last night’s glasses bearing dregs, demanding to be washed; and chocolate wrappers festooning the surfaces along with crumbs and pieces of nut shell. The dishwasher groans as you heave open its door, its bulging contents demanding to be dispersed.

I look forward to Christmas as much as the next person, preparing and anticipating but then when it comes all I really want is for it to be over. It belongs to children, this winter celebration with its pretence of magic and if you’ve access to a small child there is pleasure to be got from their enjoyment-otherwise there is a tendency towards anti-climax.

Nobody should wish their life away, especially when what remains is dwindling but 2016 needs to be behind us. It has been the year the world turned grim, forgetting any lessons history should have taught and returning instead to crude, emotions-led political decisions, territorial feuds and downright bestiality.

I’ve said before that I don’t do resolutions but planet earth needs to do some. There is an alarming deficiency of concern over climate change as we are about to be plunged back into over-reliance on fossil fuels. Genocide and brutality abound within and outside of conflict zones and how on earth is any of this to be tackled if we exacerbate hostility to foreigners and visitors by cutting ourselves off?

Though not a fan of cold weather I’m feeling introspective at this, the dormant part of the year. Yesterday the frost painted a stunning picture of a tree on our bedroom window, reminding me that there is still a lot to love about the world around us if we choose to preserve it. In winter nature reins in, hibernates, repairs and prepares. We should do the same, appreciate and cherish what matters the most. So I’m not going to feel guilty for spending time doing very little; for watching the garden birds or staring at a view or sitting quietly and thinking-because it’s just me doing what the season dictates and having a dormant spell until spring rushes in and stirs everything up!

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Happy New Year, Anecdotage readers-here’s to better things in 2017!

 

A Very Happy Christmas to all Anecdotage Followers and Visitors-

Since Anecdotage is on Christmas Day this year I’m posting a seasonal story on the blog. While it is a story for children it is also a parable of our times. The birds in our own garden seem to have definite characters, making them ideal fodder for fiction…

Goodwill to All Birds

                  Rowena Robinson was huddled on the spindly branches of the lilac tree. Her feathers were puffed up like a seeding dandelion while Roy, on the branch above her was filling the garden with a selection of his latest songs.

“I don’t know why you’re bothering with that rubbish!” Rowena nagged. “Nobody is taking any notice. It won’t get us any nearer to the peanuts; not with that rabble hogging the bird feeders.”

She jerked her beak at the bird table across the lawn. The Starling family, all seven of them, were feasting there, tearing into the peanuts and the suet as if it was their last meal on earth. Shreds of food rained down upon the grass. Rowena shook her head. “Their manners are terrible! Look at the mess they make! No wonder their chicks are so badly behaved, with the bad example they set. And why do they have so many children? Three or four is enough for any bird, surely?”

Roy hopped down to join his wife. Cold and hunger was making her bad tempered.

“They are hungry too, my love. Perhaps we should call them the Starvling family! And if they drop scraps on to the grass it’s easier for some of the smaller birds like Jenny to pick it up. Wrens prefer the ground for feeding after all. Stevie and his chicks will be done in a minute then we will get a turn at those nuts. We’ll need some supper. It’ll be dark soon.”

Sure enough a light came on in the house, illuminating the garden and prompting the Starlings to rise up like a cloud and swoop away over the fence. As the Robinsons prepared to fly over to the bird table a door slid open on the patio and the giant figure of a girl chick stepped out. Rowena turned back with a squawk of alarm as her husband landed on the stones next to the girl’s feet. He bowed several times in front of the enormous figure, who stood still and murmured to him in her strange tongue. In her hand she held a bag and now she shook it over the stones, peppering the ground with delicious seeds, nuts and mealworms.

Roy called to Rowena, “Come on over, dear. There’s enough food here to feed a flock!” But she shrank back into the tree, trembling.

“Roy! Get out of there! It isn’t safe.”

He hopped over and looked up at her. “Dear, the people won’t hurt us. They like us. They are the ones who put all this food out. We must show them we like them too. When we gather around them and sing they keep feeding us.”

He coaxed her from the tree, leading her on to the stone slabs to where the girl, Millie was standing.

Later, feeling well-fed in their cosy roost as they prepared for sleep, Roy was explaining about the family in the house. “That one you saw, the one who served us the meal; that was a hen-chick. They call it a girl in human language. I don’t think she lives in the house but she visits quite often”

“Girl” Rowena murmured.

“Then there’s an old hen. She lives there all the time. They call it a woman.”

Rowena yawned. “How do you know she’s old?”

“Well her feathers are all white and straggly. Of course, the poor things only have feathers on their heads and they can’t even fly.” He turned to his wife but she was asleep.

The next morning, after a quick preen and a beak wipe they peered out to see Mark and Mandy Magpie strutting around as if they owned the place and making their usual racket. The other birds hung around at a distance listening to what sounded like pistol volleys. Rowena sighed.

“Not much chance of breakfast any time soon, then.”

“No-but they are the only ones who can keep Squirrel at bay, so they have their uses! What do you think that is?” Roy indicated a bedraggled, grey mound of feathers on the slabs by the door. Rowena stared, aghast. “Oh Roy! Do you think that dreadful cat’s been here again?” She shuddered, remembering the last time the fearful beast had terrorised the inhabitants of the garden.

“I’m going to take a closer look.”

“Roy you can’t! It isn’t safe with the Magpies there!”

But he’d already taken off. He flew over to the patio and perched on a window ledge above the feathers, ignored by Mark and Mandy who were squabbling and squawking over a fat ball they both wanted. Rowena saw Roy bend towards the feathers as he chirped at it then was astonished to see the feathers move! A bedraggled head appeared and peered up at her husband.

Just then the door opened and Millie stepped out. Mark and Mandy screeched and rose up grumbling to retire to the nearest tree but Roy stayed where he was, watching. When the girl-chick spotted the heap of feathers and got down to look at it Rowena gasped, for the heap of feathers did not get up and fly away or even try to move. The girl-chick went back inside the house and Roy glided back to his wife.

“It’s a pigeon, Row. His name is Preston. I know pigeons aren’t very clever and they’re a bit common but he’s in a bad way. I think his wing is injured. He says a car hit him. Look-the girl-chick is coming back out.”

Millie returned. In one hand she held the peanut bag they all knew so well, in the other a saucer of water. She knelt by the pigeon and placed the water and some peanuts next to him. Then withdrew to the other end of the patio. Preston raised his head to stare over at Roy.

“It’s alright” chirped the robin. “The girl-chick won’t hurt you. She helps us all.”

“Shush, Roy! You know we don’t talk to pigeons! They come in here from miles away and take all our food and water!”

Roy cocked his head to one side. “My love, we are lucky to be very well looked after here in this garden. Does it really matter where this poor bird is from or who he is? He may not be like us but he is a bird all the same. There is enough to go around, whoever needs it, isn’t there?”

“I suppose so. But he won’t stand much of a chance if he stays there anyway. Fox will get him.”

She was right, thought Roy.

The next morning Preston wasn’t there and in his place was a box. Millie stepped outside and poured some nuts into it. “Is it some new kind of bird feeder?” Rowena asked and Roy went to look. “He’s in the box, Row! Preston is in there!”

“Don’t be daft, Roy. Have you been eating those rotten apples again?”

“It’s true-go and see for yourself.”

She took off and made a cautious circuit over the patio, peering down at the box before returning to their branch. “He seems a bit better today-more perky and he’s tidied himself up a bit.”

Two days later they woke to see Preston standing on the slabs tucking into a saucer of peanuts. Roy called to him. “How’s it going? You’re looking much better.”

The grey wood pigeon took a few wobbly steps towards the edge of the slabs. “Since the girl-chick gave me food and a safe place to sleep my wing is starting to feel less painful. I might try a few exercises after breakfast.”

“Take care, friend,” warned Roy, “The Magpies can be very rough and we sometimes get Fox here in the garden, too!”

They watched as Preston hopped around the garden, flexing his wings and wincing then propelling himself half a metre into the air in a series of leaps whilst flapping. At last he flopped on to the slabs for a rest.

“He’s persistent. I’ll give him that.” Rowena glanced sideways at her husband.

Preston got stronger every day until one morning they woke to see him flying around the garden and making experimental landings on branches and the grass. He stopped on the ground flower bed below them and squinted up with one beady eye.

“I’m off this morning. I’ll say Cheerio. Might be back some time. Thanks for all your help.”

Roy flicked his tail. “Take care friend. You know where we are.”

Preston bowed deeply before making an ungainly ascent, circling once and then heading west. They watched in silence until he became a tiny speck. The patio door slid open and Millie stepped out, looking about her and into the box, which was empty. She called something into the house behind her and a short, old hen-person came out to stand by her.

Roy took off, calling to Rowena. “Come on!”

“What are you?…” Rowena spluttered but flew to join him on the patio next to the two humans. “Sing, my love. Sing with all your heart!”

The Robinsons perched together on the edge of the bird bath, serenading the hen and girl-chick as they stood smiling outside the door. Millie clapped her hands. “That was so beautiful. Thank you. I expect you’re hungry after all that singing!”

She sprinkled a liberal helping of peanuts on to the slabs in front of them.

“There-you see?” Roy nodded at his wife. “We are so lucky. We live in the best garden in the world.”