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30th March 2021

MYDDLETON SQUARE, ISLINGTON © Copyright Stephen McKay

Memories of WW2

Well, it’s not my memory. I’m not that old. It’s a memory of a story told to me by my father-in-law (sadly now passed away) from his childhood. It was prompted by the most divine book I’ve just finished reading: The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell. This book blew me away. Such writing – it’s made me question what on earth I think I’m doing trying to write a book.

Anyway, without giving anything away, one of the locations in the book is Myddleton Square in London. The occupants of the house are well-off as you would be if you could afford to live there. But my FiL had a different story.

When he was a boy, before he was evacuated to Lancashire in World War II, he lived in rooms with his extended family in a house in Myddleton Square. The gardens in the centre of the square were encircled by iron railings. Owners of the properties (that is, not renters) were allowed to pay for a key to gain access to the gardens. My FiL said he used to watch children playing there and know that this wasn’t for him. He wasn’t bitter about it – it was just the way it was. He played in public parks or in the street. But I think how hard that must have been as a parent to know that your children were different, not good enough to play in the garden outside your home. Living in rooms and sharing a bathroom with other families was a far cry from the three storey houses standing tall and genteel, watching over the square.

I suppose the children just accepted it. Children do, don’t they? And the times were different – it wasn’t so much about equality and diversity then. But my FiL laughed when he said that one day some men came to remove the iron railings for the war effort. He said that he stood watching with interest with his friends, not really understanding the difference this would make. But it did! Suddenly, they could play in the gardens, too. Suddenly they didn’t need a key for the gate. Suddenly they were equal!

The rest of his story is a little hazy in my mind, so I hope I’m getting it right. My FiL used to listen to the wireless a fair bit and his grandfather had a daily ritual of popping to the off-licence to pick up a bottle of beer. On this particular afternoon, FiL was listening to a comedy show on the wireless. His grandfather had already put his coat on to go out, but FiL called him over to listen to a particularly funny part. This held his grandfather up, and thank goodness it did. For if he’d have left on time, he would have been in the exact spot where a bomb landed, destroying some houses. He would’ve been killed.

I remember we visited Myddleton Square some years ago. We tried to see where FiL lived. We saw the gardens in the middle and imagined what it must have been like then. The square is beautiful, the houses pristine. There is a plaque in remembrance of the houses that were destroyed and showing when they were rebuilt. An elderly lady coming out of her front door said ‘hello’ and started talking to us. We told her about FiL and she was fascinated. She invited us in to have a look around so we could get a sense of what the houses were like. We declined, feeling rude and intrusive. It was so kind of her and I like to think that if she’d lived in Myddleton Square all those years ago, she might’ve let FiL into the gardens. I can just imagine the smile on his face.


20th March 2021

Sound Mirrors

End of day. Sunset from the saltmarshes.

I love estuaries. Their constant inconstancy. On the surface they appear to be dictated by routine: the ebb and flow of the tide, the seasons. But if you look closer, really pay attention, there’s a whole world to be explored.

Last week I took my walk later than usual and found myself on the saltmarshes just before sunset. It was drizzly, but not particularly cold. Birds were flocking and noisily heading for home. Others pecked around in the mud for their supper. I was the only human in sight (and Molly the only four-legged creature).

As I turned to go home, a barn owl flew in front of me. It was so close I should have felt it. There was no movement of air, no sound, just this beautiful creature flying so close I felt I could’ve reached out and touched it. It flew across the marshes, flitted along the path in front of me. I stopped to watch it and I felt silence.

Yesterday evening I attended an online workshop exploring the sounds of Wallasea Island. It is part of an art project by England’s Creative Coast, hosted by Metal Culture and inspired by sound mirrors – precursors of radar which were placed all along the east coast from Sunderland to Kent. They were used to detect aircraft in WWI but became obsolete when radar was invented. Apparently there are still some remains around the coast (I can feel an adventure coming on!).

The artist Katrina Palmer has created a piece inspired by sound mirrors and workshops have been held in coastal locations, in response to Katrina’s work. We used our memories and our imaginations to consider sounds and surfaces of Wallasea Island (or the nearby coast/estuary). Sound mirrors distorted the noises they picked up, and in that spirit, we took on the role of a sound mirror and explored a sound and gave it life, using all our senses. At the end of the workshop we recorded our pieces and they will be used as a geocache on Wallasea Island. Geocaches will be placed around the coast from Essex to Sussex from 22nd May (for a minimum of six months, but possibly for up to two years). It’s a great way to explore the coast of Essex, Kent and Sussex, along with art installations and cultural activities.

Two of my writing chums from Colchester WriteNight attended the workshop, too. We’ve made a date to check out Wallasea Island and to try to find the geocache. As none of us are technically minded, this could be hugely challenging! But that could be another story….

13th March, 2021

As most people have, I’ve been moved by the death of Sarah Everard. The fact that she was attacked on her way home and that some people believed she shouldn’t be out walking on her own at night. As if in some way she was to blame.

Sarah left her friend’s house at around 9pm and set off on the 50 minute walk across Clapham Common to go home. She was on the phone to her boyfriend.

Sarah wasn’t ‘asking for it’. I don’t know any women who do.

I’ve been watching the outrage on social media. And I’ve been reading the stories of women who can relate to being afraid when they have to walk home alone. I know that men are targets, too. But statistically, women are more likely to be attacked by men verbally, or physically.

It’s made me think over my life and the number of times I’ve been afraid or uncomfortable. It started in my teenage years. My boss at the greengrocer’s cornering me and kissing me and making me feel like it was my fault (hardly, I was a tomboy of fourteen and he was old enough to be my father), two middle-aged men on a beach smirking and saying ‘nice legs, shame about the face’ when I’d plucked up the courage to wear my first bikini.

Working in an office in the eighties and commuting by train and tube went hand in hand with gropes down my blouse, my bottom being slapped/pinched/fondled. I would cringe at the sight of builders with their whistles and catcalls, and the ‘give us a smile, love’.

I learned to never give men eye-contact, hold a folder or my bag in front of me, walk with my door key peeking out of my closed fist, and to never challenge men’s behaviour. As many women of my generation did, and many women continue to do in our enlightened age of sexual equality.

I’m now middle-aged and I see that some things have changed for the better in small ways. My daughter tells me that it’s not often she comes across this type of behaviour at work (she is a nurse). But it is still there. This idea that some men (not all men) hold that women are there for their entertainment or gratification.

My last experience of this was on a packed train on the way home from London early one Saturday evening. I’d been to a Word Factory event at Waterstones in Piccadilly with Lovely Son. The tube was filled with football supporters and we had to stand. One of the supporters decided to start a conversation with me. I mumbled and shook my head, looked down at my feet. His friends jeered. He tried again, more aggressively this time. My face was red, I was so hot, I could feel the embarrassment all around me. I told him that I didn’t feel like talking. He persisted, asked where I’d been, where I was going. I could smell the beer on his breath and hear his friends laughing.

My son interrupted and told him to leave me alone. I could feel everyone staring. Feel the men weighing him up (he’s over six feet tall and in his twenties). I tugged my son’s sleeve, told him it was okay and to please leave it. The tube stopped and we got out. Thankfully it was the station we needed.

I was shaking. My son was angry. I told him this was how things used to be when I was younger. I had learned not to antagonise, play along in a small way until I could get away. I’d learned to get off at the first stop and pretend I was changing tubes, watching to make sure I wasn’t being followed.

He said that’s not okay. He was angry. I didn’t know what to say. How to explain that it’s not all men, but enough of them are like to be a threat.

It seems to me that we have come a long way. But to some men, women will always be targets for their fun. Education and laws have done much to change perceptions. But some men feel superior and that they have the right to do as they please as far as women are concerned. I despair. It’s not right. I would like these men to walk in our shoes and be subjected to the day to day prejudice we receive on a regular basis. I would like to see them change their route home, ‘give us a smile’ on cue, and feel small, helpless.

On Monday, the House of Lords is meeting to discuss an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill making misogyny a hate crime. This is another positive step towards change. But how do you report misogyny on a daily basis? How can you prove it? We need change. We need more men (like Lovely Son) to stand up when they see it. We need to teach our children that women are equal to men. Mary Wollstonecraft argued for this over two-hundred years ago. We’ve come a long way since then. But there is still so far to go.

22nd December 2020

Merry Christmas (and especially Jolabokaflod)

As most of you know, I’m starting a new tradition this year. As I’m in love with most things northerly, I’m bringing into my home jolabokaflod (or, book flood) – the Icelandic tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve. You then spend the evening reading and drinking cocoa (or eating chocolate – I’m not quite sure, but I might do both!). As I’m now in a household of one I decided to ask my social media friends to suggest books to me and, wow! Did they ever! I received nearly eighty recommendations. I find it incredibly hard to make decisions so I chose two books:

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Wintering by Katherine May

I ordered them from a local independent shop, Maldon Books and collected them this afternoon.

Now, we’re in tier 4 so no travelling is allowed. Except I had books to pick up and as Maldon is on the river, how could I keep away? I took Molly with me and after collecting my books we wandered down the high street and along to the quay. It was a magical time. Today has been one of those days when day never really got started and it felt comforting to be outside, by the water, as day slipped softly into night. After all the drama on the news, it was soothing to be among such gentleness. Lovers sat on benches, birds squabbled and squawked as they settled down for the night, lights twinkled and reflected on the water (well, it was mostly mud as the tide was out, but I’m a romantic, as you know), and I found I was so very grateful for that moment.

So now I’m home. Lovely Son is spending Christmas with me and he arrives tomorrow. I’ve got my books (and chocolates, and cocoa!). Christmas is different for everyone this year. So many people have lost so much. So many people are feeling the bite of loneliness.

Sarah Millican is doing something on Twitter called #JoinIn. Anyone who’s feeling lonely can join in, just tweet, using the hashtag. It’s the tenth year of this initiative, so don’t be afraid to join in if you’re feeling alone.

To all my friends, if you’re feeling lonely and are not on Twitter or don’t fancy the #JoinIn group, send me a direct message and we can ‘talk’. This Christmas will be strange. But we will get through it.

And so, dear friends, I wish you all a safe and happy Christmas. And lots of lovely books!

13th December 2020

Yesterday evening I went to a Christmas party – on zoom, of course – held by Colchester WriteNight. And, being writers, we wrote pieces to read out. It was great fun and there were some tremendous readings. There is such talent in this group and I am in awe of them all. There was poetry, monologues, stories, humour…..and unfortunately I let the side down with a sad tale. I tried to write something funny in the style of Pam Ayres but I just couldn’t manage it. This little piece wormed its way through my head to my pencil and after a week of failing at humour, this was written in about an hour.

Christmas Ghost

The train stops on the way to Edinburgh. It had seemed like a good idea: Let’s go somewhere different for Christmas! But now, being stuck somewhere outside Durham because there is snow on the line…. It’s a bit like Murder on the Orient Express, I say as I look out of the window.

Agatha Christie hadn’t been your thing at all. You were more into adventures of derring-do, Spartacus and Ben-Hur. But in recent years you lay next to me as I watched Miss Marple and Poirot. You were intrigued by the Belgian detective, bringing me titbits of information along with my tea. The hotel on Burgh Island was Agatha’s inspiration for her book: And Then There Were None. Yes, you called her by her first name as if she were an old friend of ours. David Suchet perfects his Poirot walk by clenching a coin between his buttocks, was another favourite. Nothing crude like arse cheeks. Buttocks. It was so very you. And you’d walk across the bedroom imitating Poirot’s gait making me laugh until it hurt.

The driver announces over the tannoy that we may be some time. The buffet car is open for free hot and cold drinks. I wonder if you might go and grab us a coffee but I know that if I ask you will say that it’ll be mobbed, let’s just stay here and watch the snow falling.

Do you remember when we visited Burgh Island? I ask. We lay in the grass and listened to the waves crash below. And we had afternoon tea at Agatha’s holiday home. You don’t answer but I’m sure you’re remembering too. I wonder if there’ll be a murder? I joke. Murder on the Edinburgh Express! Ha! That would be fun.

The lights in the carriage flicker and die. I can see the snow outside now. It is deep and coming down fast. Thick, white flakes are illuminated by the frost moon. Down and down they fall and I am mesmerised as I watch, and I remember.

I see a faint image of a woman in a nightgown. Her grey hair is wispy and her eyes are sunken into hollowed cheeks. I start at the familiarity of her.

I look at your reflection. When did you become so old? Your thin lips are bloodless and a tear traces down your liver-spotted cheek. I wish I could take your sadness with me. I am tempted to swivel my eyes across the glass to see my own reflection. But I hold on fast to you, afraid to move. The woman raises her hand to her face and blows a kiss. I think you feel it for you close your eyes and try to swallow down your grief. She turns around and is obscured by the snow. I want to comfort you but I don’t know how. I hover above you and kiss your head and then, without wanting to, I go out into the snow.

12th November 2020

On the first day of lockdown 2.0 (gosh, aren’t we turning American? Why it can’t just be lockdown 2, or ‘the second lockdown’ is beyond me) I met lovely daughter for a socially distanced dog walk. She showed me a place I hadn’t been to before – salt marshes on the river Crouch at South Woodham Ferrers.

The morning was foggy and Dickensian (my favourite type of weather) and the tide was out exposing the mud banks of the river bed. We saw many wading birds and gulls, and even a heron. Sadly, I forgot to take my camera so I’ll have to commit it all to memory. The river is tidal and there’s a causeway across to Hullbridge on the other side which wasn’t quite exposed but I bet you could’ve made it in a 4×4. Not that I’m encouraging anyone to try, mind you.

All was lovely, all was grand. The three dogs were having a great time, and we were socially distancing catching up. Lockdown 2.0 might not be so bad. We’d made it through the first one and that had lasted for months. So, chitter-chatter we went as we made our way along the riverbank. Until….suddenly….out of the blue (or, out of the mist, I should say) Cassie (the smallest of the three dogs) smashed into my legs from behind sending me crashing to the ground. Yep. I was flat on my back and my ankle throbbed.

Now, this is an unexpected bonus of a foggy walk, there was no-one else around and so I could lie in the mud and try to get feeling back into my ankle in true dignity. After a few minutes, the feeling returned and I gingerly stepped along the rest of the walk. It didn’t feel too bad, to be honest. And I couldn’t see the mud on the back of my jacket and jeans.

By late afternoon I was hobbling. At bedtime I had to go upstairs on my knees. In the morning I had to come down on my bottom. Despite bags of frozen peas and hot water bottles, my ankle swelled and swelled, I now had a true cankle, and was unable to put any kind of footwear on. Even socks made me cry out in pain.

Normally, I would find forced rest and recuperation to be a good thing. Normally I’d think: way-hey…writing time! I can’t do anything else, after all. But these are not normal times. I hadn’t realised how daily walking had become so much of my routine. Although I sometimes didn’t feel like putting on my boots and heading out, usually I came back feeling better. But now I had trouble feeding the chickens, let alone stepping out the front door. My mental health deteriorated dramatically. There have been tears and palpitations, binge eating (I nearly broke into the Christmas biscuits but sanity prevailed) and meal-skipping. I’ve had more mood swings than the Mary Rose fairground ride. It’s difficult to remember that these moods are not me, that this is fleeting, and that once I can get walking again, I will feel better. Meditation and reading has helped me a lot.

So now it’s been a week. My foot and ankle are still swollen and are a pretty mosaic of purple, black and yellow. I’ve had a walk around the block and I’m hoping to go to the supermarket today or tomorrow (if I can get my tyre pressures sorted, but that’s another tale of woe). I am hopeful that soon I’ll be able to get back into my boots but in the meantime, I can’t wait for that. I’m finding other ways to lift my spirits…..online Christmas shopping…..and writing my Christmas cards. Yes, I know it’s early. But once we’re out of lockdown I want to spread my wings and walk, and walk, and walk.

26th June 2020

Life as we know it, Jane

As lockdown restrictions begin to ease, like most of us, I’ve been evaluating how my life has changed. Do I want to go back to life before lockdown? Will I make changes? I think that most of us will – or at least we’ll try to.

I know it’s been a struggle for many: juggling work, schooling and childcare; not being able to see friends and family; being shielded from the world; worry about jobs and money.

For some it’s been a fairly relaxed experience with more time to take up new hobbies, explore the countryside, slow the pace of life down.

For a few of us, life in lockdown hasn’t been very different from our normal routines. We are used to being at home, dealing with loneliness, and planning each day so we get through our chores (although finding the motivation is sometimes difficult!). Some of us, before this pandemic were already living in semi-isolation and only making forays into the big world when we felt able.

I’ve also managed to grieve. Fully. I haven’t had to put a brave face on things if I had an appointment or a date with friends. I’ve been able to stay in bed all day if that’s what I’ve needed. And I’ve been able to cry (oh yes, not a river, but a whole ocean). And in my heart’s breaking, perversely, it’s healed just a little bit more.

I live on a main road – a commuter route – and the absence of traffic has been soothing. Now it’s back to its usual noise of engines and radios, motorbikes hammering through and horns shouting. I find I am feeling a little on edge, my nerves are starting to jar. When I walk in the woods early in the morning, the rush hour has already begun (at 5am!) with vans and lorries hurtling past, ignoring the 30mph speed limit.

During lockdown I’ve taken part in many online events – there is so much there to find. I’ve spoken to family and friends on the phone, I’ve zoomed, I’ve emailed – and it’s all been at my own pace.

I’ve heard that some people are afraid to come out of lockdown because of coronavirus. Funnily enough, catching it isn’t something I’ve worried about. I suppose that when the very heart of you has been twisted and torn you are sort of resigned to fate. That being said, I haven’t been stupid and have taken precautions.

I’m not sure how I feel about coming out of lockdown. I need more time to isolate, to put a sticking plaster over my vulnerability. I think that’s why I bought the campervan – because when it all gets too much, I can disappear for a while. And breathe.

June 2020

My first blog post on my brand new shiny website. Thanks so much for visiting. I don’t blog about anything extraordinary, I am an ordinary sort of person. But I hope that you will enjoy my posts inspired by love and nature.

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