Scary but true

Although Hallowe’en celebrations have suffered the same fate as so many of our customs by becoming Americanised almost beyond recognition, we still like to celebrate the festival in our house. Somehow it feels right to acknowledge the longer nights and colder mornings by keeping in tune with the ways of our forebears.

The celebration often ends up combining with another popular event – Bonfire Night. The origins of this custom are ancient as well; the bonfires were “banefires” or “bonefires” and were lit to keep evil spirits in check and the gods appeased. But then the Gunpowder Plot came along and suddenly the fires were there to burn other things and later to bake potatoes while we watched the fireworks. Whatever. Sic transit gloria mundi.

I’m not sure the children still learn the rhyme, but we were taught it as soon as we started school:

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot

I see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Ever should be forgot

Consensus these days is that celebrating the torture and death of a religious fundamentalist by burning their effigy is not really very nice. At least, I think that’s the consensus. Sometimes it’s hard to tell with the screaming and raving haemorrhaging from the red-tops.

Either way it still leaves me with apple bobbing, pumpkin carving, cinder toffee and the opportunity to frighten little kids half to death without fear of recrimination. What more could you want from an evening at home?

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Ninja Pirates in the Park (100 Words)

It was time for the annual “Pirates and Ninjas in the Park” Toddler Group picnic. Carol had found an on-line tutorial demonstrating how to make a pirate hat, and followed it with “hilarious consequences”. Freddie had his pyjamas on to imitate a ninja – admittedly with a Spongebob Squarepants vibe. But Juliet’s hat was a disaster. With a floral eyepatch and rubber cutlass her daughter was going to be unusual enough; now she would the first pirate to wear a baseball cap with skull and crossbones drawn on in felt tip. But who would argue with a bloodthirsty pirate toddler?

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A time to work, a time to play

Raccoon sleeping in a tree

Time, how do I waste thee? Let me count the ways…

Well, Plinky for a start, although less now than initially as I find the prompts becoming repetitive. Sometimes all these pop quiz pieces on songs, films, novels, makes of underwear and so on make me feel like I am living in a Nick Hornby novel. Reading High Fidelity was funny; being the bloke with the Top 10 for Everything is less amusing. It’s not fictional and it’s not someone else. We were laughing at him, not with him.

T’Interweb is a great time waster and I love that but it can get addictive. I allow myself to use it to prevaricate. My whole family has fallen prey to it. In the evenings we sit and type as though we are doing something meaningful instead of having conversations or being sociable.

However, it’s not fair to blame the web. Perhaps we need the space after a day crammed with other humans. It’s my choice and to be honest it’s a great tool for wasting time. If it were not there I would be wasting time in other ways, as I used to do before it came into my life. What ways might those be, I hear you cry, astonished that such things were possible in the primitive pre-electronic age.

Well, if we discount television, because it’s really a form of electronic entertainment, and thus by extrapolation, the wireless, then time might be wasted in various hobbies such as stamp collecting, playing patience (that’s solitaire to those reading from across the Pond), building airfix models, reading books, writing angst-ridden poetry or staring longingly at posters of [insert pop/film/tv star name here] (teenagers especially were susceptible to these last two). For the more adventurous, time could be wasted window shopping, occasionally for windows, but more usually for clothes, books, toys, make-up or other desiderata. Sports might feature for other people, although these could be dangerously sociable. In extreme cases, voyaging around the world alone in a yacht or paddling across the Atlantic by canoe were also good time wasters, even though they never caught on as mass activities; watching other people doing them on tv however was another matter. Building houses of cards, laying long runs of dominoes to be toppled or designing complex lego constructions were also possibilities.

Time wasting is a glorious expression of the human spirit, a revolt against the Puritan work ethic which demands we all be busy and that work defines our value. When we time wasters are idle, we do not spin; we shun spinning for the open horizon, be it mental or physical. Why climb Everest ? Because it was there! Why sit and dream? Because we can!

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Queen Rosie’s Gift

Beggar – Peddler on Brdway (LOC)

Many years ago I lived in a rather run-down part of town, and had some work in a crisis centre for people who were homeless. Our clients were from all walks of life, from over-extended yuppies unable to keep up their mortgage payments to fragile pensioners who had lost their homes through addiction to drink or gambling, or through some personal tragedy. They mostly wanted somewhere warm and safe to sleep, because the streets are cold and dangerous, and they wanted to eat a hot meal and find a friendly ear to tell their stories.

It won’t come as much of a surprise I am sure that some of the people who came to the centre were as mad a bag of frogs. This didn’t prevent them from desiring a warm and safe place to sleep, but it made the work quite challenging and often heart-breaking. It was not a job I felt I could do for long as the situation they were in was often so pitiful and sad.

One of our regulars was Horace, a traditional tramp who chose to live the old-fashioned life of wandering. In the summer he would walk out of London to the country where it was still possible, although increasingly difficult, to find casual unskilled labouring jobs. I am sure that by now the number of migrant workers coming into the country for fruit-picking and similar jobs would give Horace quite a challenge, although sadly he is no longer with us to have to confront the issue. Anyway, every winter Horace woudl come back into central London looking for work and sleeping wherever he found himself. When it was especially cold and icy he would find our shelter, or another like it, and stay for a night or two, although he never liked being trapped indoors unless it was unavoidable.

One day Horace arrived at the shelter in the midst of a terrible storm, but on this occasion he brought another person along with him.

“Have a look at her,” he muttered to me, “She’s too old to be out in this you know!”

“She” was called Rosie, and she was a very elderly woman, twisted up with arthritis and stinking to high heaven. Her thin white hair was pretty lively with lice, and she had an unattractive drip of snot at the end of her large red nose. However, once you managed to work your way past her exterior attributes, you found a sweet old lady who thought she was some kind of Queen; of where I couldn’t tell you.

Horace left in the morning once the weather cleared, planning to walk down to the docks to look for work. We sent him on his way with a big breakfast and a few roll-ups to help him.

Queen Rosie waved him off, then settled into a warm corner and started ordering the staff around. The morning passed peacefully enough until lunchtime arrived and she wanted to be at the front of the queue. A number of the other customers were not too keen on giving way to Her Majesty and everything got rather heated, so I took her off to one of the interview rooms and invited her to wait until I could fetch her lunch. When I got back she was sitting quietly for me and insisted I keep her company while she ate. She slurped and burped her way through the soup and bread, then fixed me with a bright eye and started to tell me stories of her “own country” where the animals talked and elves wove magic in the woodland glades. I listened patiently, although I had lots of other work to do; she was harmless enough, and it seemed to me that a large part of the job was the listening. It was dark when she finished, the winter afternoon fading quickly and the streetlights making puddles of yellow in the damp grey London murk. I got up to go.

“You’ve been very kind to hear my tales,” said Rosie, suddenly sounding saner than she had since she arrived. “I’ll grant you a wish for your kindness; I’m an accomplished witch you know.” And her eyes twinkled a little with an eldritch light.

Well, wishes are secret, aren’t they? So I made one that was all my own, to humour her, then said goodnight and went home, where I spent a long evening updating the reports. In the morning when I got back to the centre they told me Rosie had gone to sleep in her corner, and never woken up. They had called the ambulance at 7.46 when they realised they couldn’t wake her, and she had been taken away. I updated the report again.

Not long after that I moved away from London. And my wish came true most unexpectedly and gloriously.

So thank you Queen Rosie, this story is to remember you.

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Three songs to die for

These three songs are ones I want played at my funeral. Of necessity this means I am choosing songs liable to induce tears and wailing and gnashing of teeth, because what is the point of holding a funeral if people can’t let the pain out? They will feel better for it.

The songs come from my childhood – if I am not tired of them yet I am unlikely to change my mind now. Some of these new-fangled songs from the last couple of decades just haven’t been around long enough to gauge for staying power.

I hope you will not mind my melancholy turn this evening. Things are a bit like that at the moment.

Those were the days by Mary Hopkin

I fell in love with this song when I was little; I saw Mary Hopkin singing it on television and somehow it seemed like the saddest thing in the world. I think it was my first realisation of the fragility and transience of life, that we do actually all grow old and die and sometimes we have regrets. It was pretty powerful stuff for a seven year old. The song makes me feel the same way as the early analogy of life as a sparrow flying from the storm outside into the light and warmth of the crowded hall and then back into the darkness and cold. It isn’t comforting except in its shared humanity and recognition of our precious passing days.

Dream a little dream of me by The Mamas and the Papas

This is another one of those songs from childhood. I used to sing it to myself when going to sleep. Unlike Mary’s song, it was comforting. If I am going into the last sleep, then this is the song to take me there.

Nevertheless, along with comfort in the face of the inevitable I want to wave two fingers in the face of oblivion, hence ending with my last song…

Behind Blue Eyes by The Who

This is the most modern of the trio. It is the complete summation of my teenage angst and fury at the world.

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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Nom du jour

Dougal and the Jumble Sale

My parents gave me a first name which I hate. It is generally the preserve of ladies who are at least 83 years old – this has always been the case, even when I was small.

So I have often considered the option of changing my name, although in practice it’s too much effort. This does not mean I have not used other names on a temporary basis in the past. For one whole year I was known to a select few as Florence, due ot the inability of my landlord to remember my real name. Florence held some possibilities, although I am not keen on the abbreviation of Florrie (sounds too much like “floury”; also my auntie Florrie was a bad-tempered woman so I have some issues with it). Nor am I keen on being associated with the terribly sensible Florence of Magic Roundabout fame; she might have been the one who saved the day, but she rarely seemed to have much fun.

My best friend’s mother always called me Felicity Jane. I quite liked the sound of that when I was little. For some reason it made me think of cowgirls who shouted “yee-hah” and galloped across the prairies on horseback. I couldn’t tell you why.

In my teenage years I was rather taken with Olivia. It was unusual yet sophisticated, glamorous and exciting. Olivia was the kind of woman who danced all night in a glittering dress with very attractive gentlemen in tuxedos, or played baccarat in Monte Carlo, or drank cocktails on yachts in the Mediterranean. Olivia lived the good life, and was explicitly not a teenager in the Home Counties weighed down by homework and spots.

Now that my own name and I have fallen into sullen acquiescence over sharing this lifetime, I am less inclined to seek an alternative. However, I will need a nom de plume for my award winning novel as I will want to retain an element of privacy once I have fame and fortune at my fingertips. My current preference is for Cerulean Blue. She sounds simply heavenly.

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Land of the Painted People

White Cliffs of Dover

So you want to hear about my country, do you? Well, it could take a while – we have a long and sometimes proud history. Sometimes not so proud, but overall I like to think it’s broadly positive.

I’m not sure how our history impacts us day-to-day any more. As a country we claim to be tolerant and fair-minded. In practice that can sometimes seem a little hollow, to put it mildly. But on the whole, yes, I think it’s right. So, dear stranger, you would be welcome.

We are a Western democracy – we like to think we invented Parliaments, and certainly we were involved very early with a model of constitutional monarchy which seems to be holding up fairly well. We haven’t had any major internal conflicts for about 350 years now, although that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been the occasional incident of name-calling, and we can hardly be complacent about our behaviour where Ireland is concerned. My country is also intricately entwined with other immediate neighbours, and in fact we have a single identity as the United Kingdom, which breaks down most often at sporting events and in arguments over money, just like most families.

We have an Established Church, whose head is the monarch. This church, dating back to the Reformation of 400 and more years ago, is not usually evangelical or energetic. It is quiet, calm and generally welcoming of a broad range of opinion and debate. It is accepting and undemanding, and this suits our character; we are mostly suspicious of relifious activity which is excessively public or demanding. This does not mean that people are irreligious (although most people do not go to church), merely that religion is a personal and private affair for those who believe. On the other hand, it os sometimes said that the National Health Service is the clsoest thing to a national religion that we currently have as it is one of the few things that pretty much the whole nation supports unequivocally; debate about some of the details notwithstanding.

I live in a rural part of the north-east of my country and only visit larger cities for work. However, most of the population is in fact urban and indeed, lives in the south-eastern corner of our little island. We are an island nation you see, and that affects much of our history as well as our current attitudes. It can make us a little anti-social sometimes, and divorced from the concerns of our closest neighbours. Indeed, with a history of world-spanning Empire, some of our closest cultural relationships are with nations very distant from us geographically. We are united to them by shared history and by linguistic similarities. However, these versions of English are diverging with every generation, and now our own children are being culturally separated from their parents through the impacts of on-line and other social media. The beauty of our language is that it evolves continuously and creatively; not many people would be able to understand the idiom of even a couple of generations ago. However, as the century turns we find we are no longer driving our language as our fellow English speakers derive their own terminology and this in turn feeds back into our daily speech – much as we previously took on terms form other languages which are now used commonly, such as “bungalow”.

As we are situated at the northern edges of our continent we have a damp and cool climate, protected by the Gulf Stream – although for how much longer we cannot say. Global Warming may leave us colder and wetter and with a more ferocious weather system; even in Roman times our island was recognised as a temperate and fertile land, producing superior apples, wool and other goods. We traded tin and furs and slaves with the Mediterranean long before the Romans came, and our name for these islands, “Britain,” derives from the Celtic “Pretain” meaning “painted people”, and was recorded by the Greek writer Pythias who visited the island around 325 BC.

Our economic situation is less fortunate today. As part of the global market we are suffering recession and hardship, although no worse than others, and in many ways better than some. Our most recent general election this Spring has left us with a coalition government which is in many ways unsettling as it is not a common model for us and may or may not last. We are afraid of a double-dip recession and awaiting the results of a spending review (which means a not-spending review). However, it is unlikely to lead to significant civil unrest; as a nation we rarely take to the streets en masse. In some ssegments of the community there is a perverse enjoyment of the austerity measures being imposed ; they resonate with the situation facing our grand-parents 70 years ago during the Second World War, a period many see as our country’s finest hour both militarily and domestically. Many of us live in the past, like aged relatives remembering their childhood but forgetting to turn off the oven.

If all this sounds too depressing, do not be down-hearted at the prospect of a visit. As well as a wealth of historic attractions we have thriving local communities and small businesses to match against the failing high streets and mothballed industries. We have beautiful scenery, folk traditions and stunning new art forms in every field, writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, film makers and on-line content creators. Our television output is among the best in the world, and our architecture is amazingly varied and often humbling from gothic medieval spires to the gherkin in London’s financial district. Despite being such a small country we can provide you with entertainment and activities to suit any taste. Personally I recommend a pint of ale from one of the hundreds of small-scale breweries, or if you are not a drinker of alcohol, perhaps a cream tea either in a traditional rural tea shop or one of the high class hotels in a large city.

I love my country, both yesterday and today. I hope to still love it tomorrow. If you do visit, I hope you find a cause for enjoyment too.

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The hour was late….

When our children were little we read them any number of great books, some of which I had read when I was small (yes, the Magic Faraway Tree was still magical after all those years). In fact some of them we read so many times we could recite them by heart, which made early morning story time much easier because we just lay in bed and took it in turns to say the words while the offspring in question did all the manual labour and turned the pages.

Of these rote-learned stories the one I was always happy to perform (and I use the word advisedly) was “Peace At Last”. Oh the noises you could make! There were, among others, snoring Mrs Bear, Baby Bear with his aeroplane (nyaow, nyaow), the ticking clock, the humming fridge, the dripping tap, the singing birds, the snuffling hedgehog, and in a grand finale the morning sun (SHINE, SHINE!) followed by the alarm clock (BRRRINGGG!).

It was not a restful story, as you can see; that was the point of it after all. However, without fail it was the one guaranteed to end in hysterical giggles and endless encores. It was more than a book, it was an entire soundtrack, a performance showcase for the versatile human vocal system, an experiential overture. It was a book to be enjoyed together, in a big cuddle, noisily and happily.

Alice once said, “What is the use of a book without pictures?”

We say, “What is the use of a book without sound effects?”

Nods.

Goodnight. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.

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Afternoon Tea with the Ladies

Ada_Lovelace

I can’t imagine turning to a historical figure for advice. On the whole I prefer to seek advice from those who know me and my situation.

However, I can think of a number of interesting people I would enjoy inviting over for a cup of tea. Mind you, I would worry about how they might take their tea after the revelations from a recent visit to Dove Cottage about the multiple reuse of tea leaves in the early 19th century. Posting them to a friend after the third brew! What! Or maybe that was just the way Dorothy Wordsworth did things, who knows? I do know I wouldn’t have one of her cups of tea though.

Still, I might invite some icons. In fact the more I consider my options I find myself edging towards the ladies. I fear “historical” men would be too “historical” in their views of women to be able to engage in a reasonably equitable conversation (I accept this is rampantly generic but we shall never be able to prove how right or wrong I am, so indulge me! It’s my party and I can invite whom I wish).

The invitation list might include such leading lights as Jane Austen, Ada Lovelace, Aphra Behn, Margaret Fell and Mary Wollstonecraft (she would be allowed to bring J S Mill with her if she wished).

In such illustrious company, however, I would be so busy panicking that the scones were too dry or the tea too strong (I do like a good strong brew – NAAFI tea my mother calls it. Certainly it would not suit DW, as already discussed) that I would not have capacity to join in. They would probably all think I was the scullery maid anyway.

Plus I would need to make sure they were all up to speed wih current events. That is going to take some planning: perhaps I could produce some information packs personalised for each guest. Would I need to make attractive binders to contain all the information? Would I need to adapt my English to an appropriate style for each reader? So many unknowns! Otherwise would they would just be staring at each other? In fact I am rapidly going off this idea. All this preparation and then complaints about my tea. Why are you putting me through this stress, Plinky? I was never an accomlpished social organiser, you know that!

OK, deep breath, think of cool wet grass…in with the good, out with the bad.

Better.

Actually, Plinky, I think I’ll give this one a miss. Unless there are any good historical party organisers i can approach for advice? Mme de Pompadour perhaps?

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Walk with me

I live near the North Yorkshire Moors so I suppose my favourite place is there, being as it’s wherever my head finds itself. This is because many years ago I took part in a guided meditation where we invented our own favourite place.

Let me describe it to you a little.

To reach it you have to close your eyes and take a step into your mind, leaving your body behind as you find your way. A couple more steps now, like the children going through the wardrobe into Narnia, and there you are. Now you can see the path leading across the meadow of wildflowers. It’s high summer and the sky is full of birds singing. You can feel the warmth of the sun on your face. The meadow is on a hillside so you will have to climb up through the flowers and butterflies to get to the top. It’s like climbing up into heaven.

When you get to the top you can see the wood at the far edge of the meadow and make out a path leading into it. The wood is dim and cool, and provides some shade from the sun. You can hear a brook a little further in and smell the smell of damp earth and green growing things. The birds are in the trees still, their songs like liquid gold.

Following the path may take more or less time depending on how you feel: the journey only takes the time you want to spend on it. Now you follow along the edge of the stream, watching for the sparkles in the water where the sun reaches through the canopy of trees. As you come around the final bend you see the cottage. The main thing about it is that it is warm and snug and waiting for you. It will smell of fresh coffee and warm bread and all the other smells which comfort and soothe the weary heart.

Inside the cottage there are any number of rooms to explore. I like to go to the library and sit in the armchair while I read or write or daydream. The armchair is a big old leather monstrosity, sagging a little but ready to fit to my shape. There’s a soft blanket over the back to wrap round you as the evening cools. You can sit here and rest from all the troubles of the world for as long as you like while the sun streams through the window, and the shadows of the trees waver on the opposite wall. A feeling of peace and calm will fill you and you can take it with you, stepping just so to slip back into the waking world.

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