Sunday, 19 November 2017

Annual grumpiness.

We’re well into November. Sorry to state the obvious but it means we almost a month away from the shortest day - in the northern hemisphere. Oh lucky people south of the equator! Here, 
light is increasingly precious at this time of year.

I know there are people who love the winter. (I know only because I have a good friend who loves nothing more than wrapping up like an Eskimo and striding out up a hill in any weather, and returning to a glass to mulled something by a roaring fire. She would live in Scotland if she could, and revel in the cold and the dark.)

Many of us struggle. And I think we need to distinguish between our winter struggling - whinging at the performance of putting on layers of woollies only to find you’ve lost your gloves again, the fact that evenings seem to begin at four o’clock when the lights go on - from those who suffer from SAD.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a full-blown winter depression. It is very different from annual grumpiness. I am reluctant to get out of bed on grey mornings - but I can do it. I don’t enjoy being weighed down by thick coats and hats and gloves and scarves - but I can do it. It’s fine to not like winter, but we manage it even if it comes with obligatory grumbling. Many SAD sufferers even lose the impulse to grumble.

So next time I witter about hating the cold and the damp and the dark, and how I need to go away in January and February to escape the worst of it, you have my permission (metaphorically, of course) to stamp on my frozen toes and remind me how lucky I am. I have seasonal grumpiness. I am truly fortunate compared with those whose minds and bodies want nothing more than to hibernate for three months every year.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Dear Homeowner ...

It’s that time of year again. Not just the whole Christmas thing, the tinsel and carols and mince pies, the presents that must be bought for those we love and those we ought to love ... it’s that time of year when we are bombarded by pleas from charities.

Here in the UK it is now illegal to send begging letters to named people - so I can no longer get the ‘Dear Jo, Here is a picture of a little deaf girl who will only ever be able to hear unless you send her £20 a month ...’ But they are allowed to send the same letter to ‘Dear Homeowner...’ and, since they have our names and addresses anyway, they can still target the same people year after year.

In times of austerity we depend on charities to fill the space that used to be filled by government or council grants. On top of that, organisations such as the lifeboats, the air ambulance, major medical research programmes, support for families where someone is dying from cancer, women’s refuges (the list is endless) have always relied on donations. The government’s contribution has always been a drop in the ocean of international need and so charities must pick up the slack there, too. (I’ve written about that, in ‘Everlasting’, by book about Malawi).

It seems that the charities have, collectively, decided that this season of goodwill and generosity is the time we are most likely to part with a little extra. If we can find £10 to buy socks for Great Aunt Nell then surely we can find a bit more to feed a starving child.

Many of us can - and do. We do our best, and wish we could do more. 

I am also sure there are some that have the money but who never give a penny to charities; they may have their reasons but I’m not going to guess. But there are also thousands, possibly millions, struggling to find enough to give Santa a hand this year and who simply cannot dip into their pockets to meet the needs of others. Smiles on the faces of their own children on Christmas morning must come first.

Which is why I struggle with this annual bombardment of Christmas appeals. I believe that most of us do the best we can on the charity front - and that means some can give more than others. That’s how it is. Nobody should be made to feel bad simply because they have fallen on hard times and don’t have enough to share at any time of year.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Deconstructing need.

I need a holiday. It’s been a long year, what with finding a new flat and trying to sell a house and then accepting that the whole Brexit shambles meant the house wasn’t going to sell but I was moving anyway so talking tenants and then moving to a new town ... it has been a bit stressful and I need to flop about somewhere warm for a week or few to recover. 

What is this ‘need’? I’m going to Nepal, where people ‘need’ to enough food to eat and homes to shelter them from monsoon rains. Last year I was in Malawi where ‘need’ drove men to fish in rivers full of hippos and crocodiles. Laotians ‘need’ decades of peace to recover from the trauma of years of unremitting bombing.

Here, in the relative affluence of the UK, there are thousands who rely on foodbanks because they don’t have enough money to pay for food. I know of one family caught in the delays to universal credit payments: illness has brought loss of employment and now lack of income has meant the mortgage isn’t paid and they may lose their house. (Where will they live then? Who knows ... they will need shelter from the winter cold as much as my Nepali friends need shelter from the monsoon rains.)

Yes, I have been hugely stressed this year and will no doubt be energised by some time away. But ‘need’? I must choose my words more carefully. For my misuse of the term is an insult to the millions across the world who struggle to meet their basic needs: enough to eat and a weather-proof roof over their heads.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Volunteers - and where would we be without them now.

Walk down any High Street and you can’t miss the charity shops - all staffed by volunteers.

Go to any surgery, and there are leaflets about this support group and that support group, and often a transport scheme for those needing help to get to hospitals - all run by volunteers.

Go to any community hall, and the likelihood is - it is run by volunteers.

Children’s sports clubs, youth groups - all rely on volunteers.

And where do they come from, these banks of volunteers? Some, of course, depend on the self-interest of the volunteer - support groups for people with a particular health condition are run by people needing connections with others who have the same problem. Cricket clubs are often run by people who want to play themselves.  Even so, if they want to encourage young people to join it means adults giving up their free time to teach them. 

But there are also armies of volunteers who simply give up their free time for no other reason than a general feeling of ‘needing to give something back’. I’m not at all sure what that means. But if it keeps the show on the road ...

For the show, given the lack of government investment or even interest in the way many people are struggling to get by, is a bit crumbly at the moment. Where once it was reasonable to assume that the council might invest in services for children or keeping the park clean or supporting the frail or keeping libraries open - but we’ve no hope of that now. 

I have a problem with these jobs being cut. Part of me would like to let the system collapse so that people could see the extent of the damage these years of austerity have done. But we can’t - because real people will suffer and resources such as libraries will be lost forever if we do.

So here I am, in a new town, trying to get to know people. And along came the opportunity to volunteer at the local Arts Centre, to support their work with children and young people. Ten years ago I suspect someone would have been paid, on a sessional basis, to do the ‘dogsbody’ tasks that underpin these projects. But the half-term painting project, completing wall after wall of pictures for the local pantomime, would have been almost impossible for one worker and one artist. 

It was knackering but I loved it. Three days with children, helping to mix paint, cleaning brushes, and somehow creating great pictures in spite of the chaos and the mess - it was wonderful. I know, in the current climate, I’ve not deprived anyone of paid work. But should things change then it’s essential that I withdraw ... or maybe apply for the job ...

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Today we have naming of Storms.

Today we have naming of storms. Yesterday
We had light sunshine. And tomorrow morning 
We shall have to do what comes after the storm. But today,
Today we have naming of storms. Brian
Rages like lions in all of the neighbouring gardens
For  today we have naming of storms.

This is the wild west wind. And this
Is the wild west rain, whose damage you will see
When you peer from your door. And these are the wellies
Which in your case you might not have. For without wellies
You cannot jump in puddles, which is surely
The one benefit of Brians.

This is the chain saw, which is quite simply fired
With a quick flick of your thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. For the trees
Soon will be crumpled and broken, felled to the floor
By the great winds of Brian.

As this as you can see is a candle. The purpose of this
Is to light your way to bed when your lights and your heating
Are doused by storm Brian. We call this 
Pulling together in the face of Brian. But if 
We have wellies we can jump in the puddles.
They call it playing.

They call it pulling together. It is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. Like the saw
And the candles, and even the wellies
Which in our case we might not have. And still the wind
Howls round the chimneys and rages at trees.
For today we have naming of storms.

With apologies to Henry Reed.

(Written, as you might have guessed, last Saturday.)

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Don’t they know it’s not Christmas?

It’s the middle of October. The trees are turning orange and gold; the squirrels are burying nuts; it’s time to get out the warmer woollies.

And the next festival (how we need them to brighten the shortening days) is Halloween. And so, yes, there are pumpkins in the markets and wizards in the toy shops. 

So why are there fireworks, already, sparkling and twinkling and crackling, filling the dark skies with  colours. Don’t get me wrong, I love fireworks - but we’ve another three weeks till bonfire night (here in the UK at least).

Even worse - there are Christmas decorations in the shops. Red and silver and winter green. Giant gift displays. And the background music in John Lewis last week … (brace yourself) … O Little Town of Bethlehem. Yes, with more than two months to go, the shops are already trying to tell us that our great aunt Nellie can’t live without a scented candle or several. You’d best try those fairy lights because you can’t possibly be the only home in the village without a flashing Santa by your front door. 

More than two months - that’s over a sixth of a year, and already we are bombarded with Christmas. 

I understand that shops are having a hard time at the moment as we tighten our post-referendum belts. I understand that many families need to spread the cost of Christmas. It is an expensive time of year and the prospect of debt can only make things harder. However, do these hard-up families need their children winding up to the big day, asking for this latest that gizmo or that whatnot - for weeks and weeks and weeks. It’s fine for Mum and Dad to hide whatever under the bed for a month or few, but how hard must it be to have little a Harry pleading each time they do the weekly shop.

There’s more. With the shops full of Christmas trinkets, Halloween and Bonfire night risk drowning in the tinsel. And where is the space for those who don’t recognise Christian festivals to have their moment in the spotlight? 

I’m privileged to have friends all over the world. I know it’s Diwali next week, and so shall light a candle or three to celebrate. And please, if I have Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist (or any other) visitors this week, please tell me if you have a festival before the end of the year, and I’ll light candles for you too. And if you have a birthday - let us all know. You, too, need your own celebrations. I might save you a firework.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Winter plans.

I've usually got my winter plans sorted by now. At the first sign of autumn chilliness I'm researching flights and plotting itineraries.

But this has not been an ordinary year. The move - to a town where I knew no one - was an upheaval. And my house is still not sold. I have a tenant but at the moment all the rent is going into those keeping the house comfortable for her. Which means I need to be a bit more creative on the finance front.

That said, the winter looms. I love my new flat, but the prospect of January in the U.K. still feels like some sort of punishment. And my batteries need a bit of a recharge after this last year.

The solution - well, it's obvious to me. And a quick email exchange with Tika has sorted the basics.

Yes, I'm going back to Nepal for a few weeks. Not to trek or tackle tigers. But to rent a self-catering room in Pokhara. A place where I can potter about, spend time with old friends, and probably wander about in the foothills of a mountain or two.

Last time I was in Nepal the country was picking up the pieces after the earthquake. And many of you contributed to my little fund to rebuild a house. The need was overwhelming - but we could make life better for one family. Well, we have raised enough to make life better for two families, and money is still coming in from the sale of the ebook and being used to support the village health centre.

And so, while I'm there, I hope to make it to Chitepani and take a photograph or two, so you can see just where the money has gone.

The rest of the time - I'll potter about, and read and write, watch a sunset or two. And I'll try to steer clear of the crocodiles.