Sunday, 17 December 2017

Happy Christmas, and here’s to 2018.

It’s time to draw a blog-breath for a week or two. At this time of year I seem to lunge between hibernating and manic festivities. There are wonderful family days when I’m overrun with grandchildren (oh joy) and then quiet, reflective days when I can catch up with myself (oh joy).

I’ve not had the easiest year. But they happen, and I’m fine and those I love are fine, so I can look back and be proud of that. Not that I spend too long looking back - I’m more likely to spend my reflective days with my Lonely Planets wondering where next year will take me.

And where might it take you? With an orange toad in the White House and a bunch of squabbling toffs in government in the UK we have good reason to be pessimistic. But I refuse to embrace a world in which the tossers always win. I will stand up and be counted, as often as I need to. We live in a beautiful world, full of beautiful people - many of whom have a much worse time of it than you and I. It is a world we must treasure, even if those with ‘power’ seem intent on destroying it. So if my next year takes me to the barricades, so be it.

Maybe you see it differently. Whatever your view of the world, I hope we can find a way to carry on caring about each other.

So this is my Happy Christmas to you all, and may we all have a peaceful new year. I’ll be back in 2018. 

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Not sure what Masefield would make of this?

‘Tis the season, and all that. And, having started playing with poems I can’t quite stop. So, given that most people are beyond thinking straight in the middle of this seasonal chaos, here’s another poetic effort, not to be taken seriously.

And sorry, Masefield.

I must go down to the shops again or I’ll run out of mince pies,
And all I ask is an empty aisle, and a trolley to steer it by,
And a sausage roll and chocolate log, I can’t be arsed for making
All this stuff at Christmas time when everyone else is sleeping.

I must go down to the shops again or I’ll run out of Christmas cards
For Auntie Nell and Uncle Jack, both need our kind regards
And Jim and Jill and Great Aunt Joan who cannot be forgotten
And all the kids because, you know, we have to spoil them rotten.

I must go down to the shops again, to the hectic Christmas mayhem
For stamps and sprouts and nuts and spuds and puds, but then ...
See, all I ask is a good book and a quiet night on the sofa

And a box of wine for me to drink when the whole thing’s over.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

I wandered lonely as a shroud - sorry Wordsworth!

Now I’ve started playing with poems I find ideas all over the place.

So here is A Host of Tinkling, with apologies to Wordsworth.

I wandered lonely as a shroud
That floats through salmon, chocs and cheese
When all at once I saw a crowd 
Of tinkling tinsel Christmas trees
Beside the gin, far from the peas
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle in the coffee shops
They stretch in never-ending line
From Marks and Spencer’s down to Boots
Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in festive trance.

The box of wine beside them shone
Out-did the tinsel strands in glee
A shopper could not help be glum
Beside the tinkling Christmas trees
They seemed to say, with little thought
Look at all the tat you’ve bought.

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood 
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude 
Oh joy, I can lie back with ease

For I escaped the Christmas trees.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Playing with poetry

I had such fun playing with 'The Naming of Parts' a few weeks ago (you can scroll down or find it here) that I thought I'd share my reworking of Roger McGough's Let me Die a Youngman's Death. For those of you who don't recall the original, it's here.

It was written in the 1960s - when men didn't notice that they might not be speaking for women (I know, many are still like that) so I wanted to give it a feminist perspective. (Some of you may recognise it - it's been on my website for a while).
Let me die a young woman's death;
not an old, dribbling-in-my-tea death,
not a leaking-in-the-sheets death
not a hold-my-hand
and longing-for-the-end death.
But when I'm 73,
and with dicky ticker,
may I climb Kanchenjunga and
gasp my last in thin
Himalayan air.
Or when I'm 94,
in Soho, may I fall
and break my neck when dressed
in mini skirt and sparkly sandals with six inch heels
and fuck-me painted on my nails.
Or when I'm 104,
and banned from travelling
may I stow away with Queen Elizabeth
and be caught stealing
champagne and last night's canap├ęs
and made to walk the plank.
Let me die a young woman's death;
a let-us-dance-into-the-long-goodnight death;
a hey-hey, you-you
get-off-of-my-cloud death.

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.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

When private lives become public.

I don't suppose many of you have been that bothered about Ben Stokes being involved in a brawl in Bristol last week. Young men having a bit more to drink than is sensible and then throwing their fists around is hardly original. And, given the nuclear stand-off between America and North Korea, or the plight of the Rohinja Muslims, it hardly warrants any attention at all.

Maybe that's why the newspapers have been full of it - something insignificant to get agitated about to divert attention away from what really matters.

For those who don't know, or don't care, who Ben Stokes is - he's a member of the English cricket team. And the timing of his misadventure is critical as they will shortly be touring Australia and playing for the Ashes. Which (and I say this as a cricket obsessive) is just one of many entertainments around this winter but will not make a dent on world progress.

Yet that hasn't stopped the papers and cricket pundits from throwing opinions around. Even though all they have to go on is grainy CCTV footage and a brief police report, that has been enough to demand retribution that extends far beyond anything the court may or may not impose.

For - to be clear - this is in the hands of the police. Is it their job (not the press or social media) to establish the facts and to decide, with the CPS, whether to press charges. If they do, it is for the courts to impose a sanction. That is their job. 

And once that is all done and dusted, then the matter, surely, is closed. 

But we live in an age when everyone, it seems, is entitled not only to have an opinion but also to throw it around to make sure everyone hears. That CCTV footage is all over the Internet - without any evidence of what preceded it, or what came next. But that hasn't stopped demands for the most punitive measures to be taken against Stokes’s career as a cricketer. Anything the legal system may or may not ask of him is nothing compared with the humiliation insisted on by some the papers and cricketing bigwigs.

Ben Stokes is not alone. He is just one of hundreds of public figures who do foolish things when they are young. And the newspapers exploit them all to sell thousands of copies. Misinformation breeds online. The result of all that is private lives becoming public property. 

I can't begin to imagine where I'd be now if all the stupid things I did when I was young became public property. And you? Or maybe you were saintly.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

What if ... malaria reaches America?

I wonder how many of you have caught the snippet of health news from Asia … the emergence of a lethal strain of malaria that is resistant to current treatments. 

I knew it was there in Cambodia, in a remote corner of the country on the border with Vietnam. Apparently it has now spread to Thailand and Vietnam - and so, potentially, into the ‘mainstream’ malarial areas. There has been a drive to eradicate malaria from the Mekong delta (using preventive measures such as bednets and sprays, plus experimenting with vaccines), but if this strain reaches the Mekong all those efforts will be undone.

The biggest worry is that it will spread to Africa - virulent strains already kill thousands every year, where treatment depends on proximity to a health centre and preventive measures are hit and miss.

I know that in Malawi everyone is given bednets in an effort to control the disease, but many find them unbearably hot to sleep under, and fishermen find the small mesh invaluable for trapping small fish. I visited a school and saw bednets full of holes. When I mentioned malaria people simply shrugged: it was just one more hazard of living in Africa.

But a lethal strain is more than one more hazard. It can easily spread far more widely than ebola or the Zika virus and kill more than thousands.

So, will there be panic in the western press? Not at the moment. After all, it is contained in areas that tourists and western businesspeople rarely visit. And our climate ensures that anyone returning from a malarial area cannot bring the virus home with them … so we've got nothing to worry about, have we?

But just suppose it reached, say, the industrialised parts of India which are building trade links with the west? What would we do then? How many businesspeople would happily wander around in an area knowing the local mosquitoes carried a strain of malaria that might kill them? What will happen to post- Brexit trade then? 

What if one stray mosquito found its way to the swamps of Florida? 

Oh the drug companies would swing into action then. Millions of dollars would be ploughed into research. More millions would be invested in education and preventive measures across the world.

Maybe malaria has to reach America before those deaths in Africa and Asia are taken seriously.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Anyone for hospital food?

One day, when I was in Malawi, we drove past a hospital. On the opposite side of the road, among the trees and mud banks, was a village of tents and shacks and makeshift food stalls.

‘For the relatives,’ Everlasting explained. (If you don't know who Everlasting is, click here!) ‘They know what people like to eat - so they can bring tasty food to the sick people in the hospital, good food that will help them get better.’

I don't know how many of you have sampled hospital food recently. But I've come across it twice in the past few months - and in two very different hospitals. Even so, the experience was similar.

Breakfast - cereal, and toast and tea - if you're lucky. You need to be awake when the nurse has five minutes to get it for you. Miss that window, and you have to wait till lunchtime. 

Most hospitals give you a lunch menu the day before. But there is no guarantee that they will have whatever is it you have asked for - or if it will be palatable. (Meals are cooked in a central factory, up to three months in advance.) Which is just tough for anyone with a special diet - or even a vegetarian (hardly a ‘special diet’ these days).

Tea - is a tired sandwich or soup that began life in a tin.

It's the cuts, of course - diets reduced to a bare minimum. No thought of offering something tasty and tempting to encourage sick people to eat. Which is why, if you should be visiting a hospital at lunchtime, you will see so many people arriving with plastic boxes full of something truly tasty. ‘They know what people like to eat - so they can bring tasty food to the sick people in the hospital, good food that will help them get better,’ as Everlasting said.

80% of the population of Malawi live in poverty. So it's not surprising that it's a challenge for hospitals to provide adequate nutrition to patients as well as treatments and medication. 

But in a wealthy economy like ours? There may be a conversation to be had about whether patients should make a contribution towards their food. But, as things are, patients with relatives nearby who have the time and energy to provide good nutrition will fare better than those with no one. Yet another division between those who have family to fight for them and those who are alone and abandoned.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Rationing the news.

I have to make myself watch the news at the moment. The political shenanigans in the UK and America are painful enough (the bungling might be comic if the potential consequences weren't so catastrophic) - but they pale into insignificance in the light of the recent onslaught of ‘natural disasters’. (The ‘..’ indicates a recognition that some of these may be the result of man-made climate change.) 

As one storm followed another - have we forgotten those who died in the mudslide in Sierra Leone? The floods in Asia that I wrote about last week, and those in China? Hot on their heels came the storms and hurricanes currently battering the Caribbean and America. A huge earthquake in Mexico has been relegated to the inside pages of the newspapers. 

Everywhere, or so it seems, people are homeless. Refugees from Africa and the Middle East brave the waves of the Mediterranean. Bangladesh - those areas not under water - are flooded with Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.

It’s overwhelming - all this need and trauma. But we still have to deal with the realities of life. Domestic stuff has to go on - we need to decide what to have for supper and if we have enough milk. Lawns need mowing. Children need kisses before heading off to school.

I can only speak for myself here - I have to ration the news. If I catch every bulletin I risk being paralysed by the sheer extent of it all. But that way madness lies. And failure to look after the daily trivia helps no one. But there are times, when I musing over which book to choose in the library or picking over apples in the market, that I find myself reflecting on the insignificance of such choices. 

It's a dissonance that I find deeply uncomfortable. I don't have a solution - and maybe that's fine. We should not turn our backs - nor our feelings - on the millions of people in such terrible need. But there is no point on wallowing in their reflected misery - we have lives to lead. Few of us are able to  up sticks and do anything practical to help (though we can contribute to appeals). All we can do, it seems, is notice the enormity of it all and then keep the show on the road in our own small corners of the world.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Why are some floods more floody than others?

You can't have missed the pictures of floods in America. The impact of the storm in Texas and Louisiana has been truly shocking - and the heroism of those working to help those in need cannot be underestimated. Thousands have lost everything, and are now homeless. The water is now receding in places but the clear-up has yet to begin.

You might have missed the extent of the floods in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and now Pakistan. I've seen the occasional bulletin on the news programmes and passing pictures in the papers, but nothing like the coverage we've seen (here in the U.K.) from America.

So, just in case you think this is nothing more than a heavy monsoon, here are some figures. These floods have gone on for weeks - and there is more to come. Thousands have died. And (according to The Guardian) forty million people are affected. 

That's right - forty million people. 40,000,000 people - people just like you and me.

Now I don't wish to minimise the distress of those caught in the floods in America. Their trauma runs deep and their need for help is urgent. Already the relief effort is predicted to cost billions of dollars and Congress is being asked to help.

But I've no idea what it will cost to clean up the devastation in Asia. I know one of the most urgent needs is clean water (available in bottles in America) to forestall a cholera epidemic. I know they need mosquito nets to prevent malaria running wild. Local people are doing what they can. Friends of mine in Nepal have given blood and blankets. 

So where is the international relief effort? I am certain it's there. Volunteers will be working their socks off trying to provide shelter, food and health care. But who will pay?

Where is the disaster relief appeal? 

We've grown accustomed to disasters such as this prompting international appeals for money. It's the only way to raise the sums needed to scrape the surface of such huge need. So why not this time?

Or are we so focused on those wading through water in America that those in Asia somehow don't matter quite so much?

(When I raised this on Facebook I ruffled a few feathers. How dare I accuse anyone of racism, that sort of thing. But sometimes feathers need a bit of ruffling, don't they?)

Sunday, 27 August 2017

The sky is no limit

I'm not sure why I find big skies so exciting. But here, in my new flat, I can stand on my balcony and have a view around 240 degrees - and it changes all the time. And so, given that describing skies is so difficult I'm going to just give you some pictures.

These are all taken from the same place, all looking more or less to the west. And they will begin to show you why I love my new flat!