Saturday, 31 July 2010

In praise of small things- part one - playing with letters

Some time ago, my beloved accepted the honour of a meme, passed on to him by Mr London Street. Over the last few weeks he's written a fantastic series of posts about things that never fail to make him smile. The series culminated in a seriously awesome post - 'Messing with my hair' - if you haven't already read it, please do - you may laugh, you may shake your head in disbelief, you may even understand a little more about the strange man I happen to love.
Philip has now passed the meme on to seven other bloggers and, with what I'd like to think was a mixture of love and indulgence rather than simple nepotism, he included me among the seven. 
I'm a little daunted at the idea of following in the footsteps of MLS and my domesticated bohemian, very fine writers both, but there aren't many rules attached - I can write about seven things I like or love, seven things that make me smile, or actually any seven things of my choice, which ought to give me plenty to play with. And I've never been one to wimp out of a challenge. 
We live in a small house, in a small village. I like this small world, being here makes me smile; so I've chosen to write my series about seven other small things that also make me happy. 

In praise of small things - part one - playing with letters

From its title, you might well think that this is a post written in admiration of epistolary efforts. But no, when I talk of playing with letters, I really mean playing. With letters.
I was quite young when I first learned to read, when I understood the magic world that tiny shapes on the page would open up for me. Letters were a code, with a meaning, and I'd unlocked the code. It was the first time I ever felt clever. I loved to read - anything and everything. My Saturday morning wasn't complete unless it included a trip to the children's library in West Norwood and an hour spent choosing the three books I'd be allowed to take home that week.
But I wasn't only fascinated by letters that made words. I loved the letters themselves. 
With a stroke of genius that I have only recently come to appreciate, my Dad invented a series of games that cost next to nothing and involved little effort on his part, but they kept me occupied for hours.
Probably the simplest one was colouring in the letters on an old sheet of newspaper. Any letter that had a closed loop had to be coloured in. 'O's were best - so I'd always do them first, then 'p's and 'd's before the smaller hoops of 'e's and 'a's. Each different letter had to be in a different colour. It was painstaking work - I had to stay inside the circles so the letters were still distinguishable - no mean feat with newsprint, but it looked great when I was finished - my own colour code.
Another favourite with newspaper stories was the 'sausage and mash' game. This was great because it meant Dad would read to us. He'd choose a column from the Telegraph - serious world news was the best - but instead of reading it straight, he'd substitute 'sausages' for every word that began with an 's' and 'mash' for every word that started with an 'm'. Complete nonsense, but almost impossible not to giggle. Go on - try it. It puts a great perspective on politics.
As I grew older the letter games were more challenging - we became quite accomplished at finding over a hundred short words from a single longer one (ok, we were allowed 2-letter words). As we got better at it, we were allowed to set the words - of course we wanted them to be as long as possible - which meant scouring through a dictionary. And although I could never get Dad to accept that wonderful word from Mary Poppins - Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious - it was an inspired way to expand our vocabulary. Literally. 
Almost my first foray into poetry was with acrostic poems - I loved that the first letter of each line was so important - that I could read something in the lines across and the first letters down. I learnt to do anagrams, and crosswords, and then came Scrabble. All those letter tiles, each with a value, and an infinite number of uses; a criss-cross pattern of interlocking words. I'm horribly competitive - I always want to win, but I get just as much pleasure from dreaming up the longest words I can, or from changing the meaning of a word on the board by just adding a letter or two. Even now, no trip to see my Mum is complete without a game of Scrabble. 
Several years ago I set up an after-school homework club on an estate in one of the less affluent parts of London. The kids bought along the homework they'd been given at school and after an hour or so we'd finish with a game. I had all sorts of things prepared beforehand, but the one they always wanted was the simple game I'd played as a child - choosing a letter of the alphabet, for which each of them had to think of an animal, a country, a boy's name, a girl's name and an article of clothing - all beginning with the chosen letter. Week after week they pleaded for the alphabet game.
I recently realised another lasting impact when I heard a comment about names spelled backwards - immediately and with no hesitation, I could remember my own name in reverse and hear my Dad calling me it - Norahs Snikrep. 
I sometimes think my desire to write is just an excuse to keep on playing with letters.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Forward or back?

There are those who look to the past for their meaning and pleasure. Some spend years trawling though their family tree for the detail of their ancestry - perhaps seeking a rationale for their lives from the experiences of their forefathers.
There are many who cherish their memories, knowing that their past has shaped their present. Some time ago Philip wrote about Sweet Sweet Memory on his blog, and the increasing pleasure he is gaining from turning the pages of his memory book.
I wish it worked like that for me, but that's not the way it is. I find more resonance in The L P Hartley quote - 'The past is a foreign country' - just because I've been somewhere doesn't mean I'd want to go back or live there. My daydreams are always about the future - about something I'm working towards, planning to do, or simply looking forward to. Sometimes it's been the big things - like thinking about my children as successful happy adults or working to save for a deposit on a house. At others it's just the comfort of looking to the weekend from the woes of a mid-working-week Wednesday. I'm more likely to get excited by the potential of a new football season than any reflection on the glories of the season gone. And I'm definitely the target audience for those boxing day adverts to book a summer holiday - just the thought of a holiday is enough to get me through the winter gloom and no end of daily drudge.
So for ages I've been fine - I've had the promise of both a grand prix and a grandchild to feed my need for anticipation and expectation. Both turned out even better than I'd hoped. So am I contented? Am I heck. With a blatant and total disregard of the pleasure I get from my present - which is lovely - and dismissing any thought of counting my blessings, I'm feeling bereft.
I know I should give myself a serious talking to, and in response to at least one anticipated comment - I know I should get over myself and be glad for what I have. But right now, I don't know what to look forward to next and my dissatisfaction is compounded by a growing sense of doom about my age. I've always believed in the notion of endless possibility - that each of us can continue to change and grow or try out new things whenever we set our minds to it, but it's slowly dawning on me that the older I get, the less future there is to look forward to, and the longer the list of all those things I'll never get round to learning or achieving.
I've known for some time that I'll never be a ballet dancer, and I realise that my dreams of becoming Eliza Doolittle on the west end stage have always been tinged with more fantasy than reality, but I'm not yet ready for the shrinking horizons of 'later life'.
What I need is a plan, a cunning plan. What I need, in the immortal words of Edmund Blackadder is
"a plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel"

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Home and away

Lately I've been craving a holiday. There's something about long summer days that has me dreaming of a beach and a book, of lying in the sun, feeling warmed to the bone, of floating on the softly lapping waves of a clear blue sea.
I've never been a great adventurer; not for me the back-packing, see-where-you-end-up approach. I like to know where I'm going and feel confident that I'll be happy when I get there. Holidays are too precious to waste on finding out whether you like a place or not.
So, the perfect answer is either Greece or a Greek island - there are so many places to choose from that I know I'll find something slightly different each time, and I'm confident I'll love it.
Philip doesn't quite get it. Just the thought of the fierce midsummer heat is enough to send him running to the freezer for ice cubes. But for me, it's not only the sunshine; it's not just being away from work and having the time to read, write and reflect. It's not even the mouth-watering lamb kelftiko; chicken souvlaki or deep-fried courgettes. If I try to describe what it is that brings it all together, I can only really explain it as the rhythm of the place. There's a different pace and a regular pattern to the days.
I have a different walk on holiday - as I stroll down to the harbour after a slow breakfast of yoghurt and honey, (preferably bolstered with a few Greek fritters from the Green Bakery in Parga) my hips swing and my shoulders relax.  As I climb into a water taxi to take me round to the beach, the sounds of cicadas in the olive trees and the regular flip flop of a hundred holiday makers' feet are replaced by the gentle chug of an ancient outboard motor. Each day drifts by, interrupted only by a leisurely lunch and the occasional swim to a point in the bay from where I can float idly, glorying in the sunshine, and look back at a beach full of people who are simply having a good time. I like people more on holiday.

There's been no holiday for us this year, and for one reason and another, there's not much likelihood of one soon. But Philip's always saying that living in Shoreham is just like being on holiday, so today I've been testing the theory.
This morning I flip-flopped to the village shop for croissants, orange juice and coffee. We breakfasted at the table by the window, with the sunshine pouring in, watching the swifts flying in and out of their nesting boxes across the street. This afternoon we went for a stroll around the village. We stopped to smell the roses in the field by the grape vines, then we dawdled along by the river looking for trout. Everywhere we went people stopped to say hello and have a bit of a chat. Henry was sat on the bench outside his house, reading stories to the lady friend who was tidying his front garden; Chris was busy clipping his box hedges but paused to pass the time of day; Dan and Kelly had just returned from a trip to Norfolk and were sitting outside the Kings Arms enjoying a beer. They all seemed relaxed and happy.
I have to admit that Philip has got a point - there is a particular rhythm about Shoreham as well - just like being on holiday.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Living with broken things

Our broadband and telephone line both died on Wednesday. It was more than slightly frustrating at first - I've been home from work this week and could have wiled away many happy blogging hours. But by the second day I'd adjusted.  Daytime TV is really hideous, but I did manage to catch an interview with John Barrowman which was no little compensation and I've always been a sucker for a bit of Midsummer Murders.
While passing the time so profitably on the sofa, I came to realise that one of my real, and frankly underestimated, skills in life is the ability to live with broken things. I'm not talking about the odd dead lightbulb that takes weeks to change while your eyes accustom to the gloom, nor the missing coat button that you only remember as you're about to walk out the door. I mean the real living with broken things and the adjustments that you can make around them to carry on with everyday life.
For months the door of the kitchen fridge was hanging from only one hinge. But we adjusted. We learned the skill of holding it up as we opened it, of never leaving it open while we poured milk in our tea, of lifting it slightly to rest on the stub of the broken hinge as we closed it.
A while ago the clothes-hook-on-the-bathroom-door became the clothes-hook-on-the-windowsill - holding up dust rather than dressing gowns. But we adjusted. And our dressing gowns were just as accessible on the floor.
A few weeks later the handle fell off the top door of our airing cupboard. But we adjusted. We soon found out how to open the door by reaching up through the slats of the cupboard below and pushing it open from inside.
In our last house it was the toilet flush. Only a particular downward flick of the wrist could achieve a full bowl-filling cascade. It was beyond all visitors - you could tell by the amount of time people spent in there and the sheepish, embarrassed look with which they'd emerge. After a while the downward flick also failed. But we adjusted. It soon became just as easy to lift the lid of the cistern, reach in and pull the mechanism up.

In case our landlord ever gets to read this, I should assert that we're not really slothful and slovenly - it's just that sometimes the business of living gets in the way of an immediate repair, and in the fullness of time all of these broken things have been fixed. It's strange though, how long the adjusting lasts - I still open the fridge door gingerly and never leave it hanging open - the shiny new hinge is getting so little use it might well outlast me.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

One very big weekend

So, we weren't in the world cup final, but this weekend turned out to be a pretty significant one nonetheless. Its memorable ingredients included an anticipated arrival, an unexpected return and a long-awaited treat, all stirred up with a measure of excitement, a pint of pride  and a pinch of relief. With so much going on, it's taken me til Tuesday to find the time to write about it. There's a lot to cover, and I've done it in reverse order of importance, so bear with me.

Saturday was the first pre-season friendly for Bromley FC. I'd ended the previous season feeling totally disillusioned. Not only had my favourite striker, Nic McDonnell, left the club, but the players seemed to have lost heart somewhere along the way, limping through to an obscure mid-table position without really trying. Many times I was heard to despair 'Nic would have got that' as another ball rolled untouched past the face of the goal. It got so bad, we even decided to stop going to the away games - if the players couldn't make an effort, we didn't see any point in doing so ourselves. But a new season always brings fresh hope- the promise of new signings, the dream of promotion, the chance of a cup, or even just a decent unbeaten run. On Saturday afternoon, I arrived just before kick-off, too late to see the team warming up, or to know who was actually in the squad. We sauntered round to our customary spot behind the goal, saying hi to those we hadn't seen all summer and then we saw the team run out. The sun was shining brightly, so I had to shield my eyes, but it wasn't an illusion - there in front of me, all of my optimism was immediately rewarded - Nic was back. Not only back, but looking fit and happy to be there, he played as though he'd never missed a game, fighting for every ball, always in the right position, and yes, he scored as we beat  Gillingham - just as he'd done when we played them in the FA cup, only this time the result was in our favour as we won 2-1. A perfect Saturday afternoon.

Sunday brought with it the culmination of nearly four months waiting. For my birthday back in March, Philip had, with enormous generosity and no small amount of self-sacrifice, bought us tickets for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. My excitement has been mounting in all that time, so by Sunday I was like a kid on Christmas Eve, almost dancing with anticipation. And I wasn't disappointed - not for a single second. All the little things I'd worried about simply evaporated. The journey to Northampton was a breeze - even the M25 was clear and incident free. Organisation at Silverstone was spot on - we were in and parked in no time. And our seats were great - I hadn't realised how good the wider view of the track would be from sitting up in a grandstand. Once again the sun was shining, and the crowd waved madly at the drivers, as they were paraded around the track on the back of a flat-bed truck. I watched the red arrows display in wonder - how don't they all crash into each other?
And then it began - and oh! the noise! the thrill! - watching those shiny fast cars going past again and again and again. Even though Button didn't win and Lewis only got second, I couldn't begrudge Webber his win - I know how much it would have meant to him. And I'd thought that I'd never see Michael Schumacher driving an F1 car again, so that bought an added poignancy. I only wish the race had been twice as long.

So what, I hear you ask, can possibly top that weekend of sporting excitement and dreams fulfilled?
Well - while I was sitting, standing, shouting and screaming all weekend, I was doing so with the warm glow of happiness, relief and pride that had stayed with me since 10.45 on Friday morning, when, weighing in at a massive 10lbs 11oz, my daughter Claire's first born son, and my first grandchild, entered the world.
In the past I've been a bit sniffy about 'baby blogs' and some sort of superstition has added to my reluctance to write about Claire's pregnancy, but I understand better now the generosity of my fellow bloggers and I know you'll indulge me for a while - I am, quite simply, chuffed to bits. Of course I think he's beautiful, and I think my daughter and her husband Paul are incredibly clever people to have produced him.
I'm looking forward to watching him grow, I can already see myself reading him stories, taking him to paddle in the river, helping him build a den in the woods; and if Philip (or Gramps as he now is) gets his way, we'll soon be teaching him to dig and grow at the allotment.  But more than that, I have an overwhelming sense of optimism - that here is a new little man, who just might grow up to make the world a better place.
So, welcome to the world Eddie Ray!

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Going underground

There are always plenty of things we should be doing on a Saturday morning, but today was just one of those proper summer days when the world outside is calling, so Philip and I set off for a walk through the valley.
We know how incredibly lucky we are to live in this beautiful place, and today there was no beating it - blue skies with wispy clouds trailing through, fields carpeted with scarlet poppies. In the distance the lavender was turning purple, to our side the River sparkled in the sunshine. It was a bit like a Disney movie; white-tailed rabbits stopped still in front of us, butterflies twirled and danced around our heads; and the tiniest frogs imaginable hopped across our path. Above us the larks were calling, at our feet crickets scraped and creaked. Even the drone of a plane overhead had the sound of romance about it.


So, amid all this glorious beauty, what was it that intrigued me most? Holes.
That's right - holes. Holes in the ground. We passed tunnels drilled into the ground, neat, perfectly round. No sign of their occupants. We were left guessing - who lives in a house like this?

Too big for the rabbit we'd passed - and a fox would get in there in no time, so probably a badger. Further on there was a whole series of holes in the bank - that must be the rabbit hangout. Our walk was turning into Wind in the Willows, I was half expecting Ratty to pop up and say good morning. Part of our route crossed the local golf course - we had no interest in the holes there, but stepping back into the wooded path at the other side we almost trod straight into the next dip in the ground. Probably as well that we didn't - we'd stumbled across a ground nesting bees' nest.

Which left me wondering.
Bees spend their days in the sunshine, they fly amongst the most glorious bright flowers. How can they bear to return to a nest that is a dank, dark hole in the ground. What happens when it rains, does the water come through, is there mud in the honeycombs? Do they find intruders constantly trying to invade their space - worms slithering through, centipedes marching?
We didn't investigate or dig around - for obvious reasons, so I will have to imagine what the underground bee world was like. Rather than the cold, grave-like burrow it appeared to be, I shall instead picture a hall of golden cells, full of nectar and pollen, the aroma of honey and the soothing hum of a hundred bees returning home to chat about their day's work in the sun.