Four women

In my lifetime, there have been three older women who have been very important to me. One was my mother, of course. The second was a family friend, Billie, who was almost exactly the same age as my mother, and the third was a neighbour, Maureen, who was younger than Mum, but still much older than me.

Mum, pictured at the top on her ninety-first birthday, was always there for us. She smothered me a bit at times, since I was the youngest and the only girl, and there were an awful lot of things I wasn’t allowed to do, and many restrictions placed on me that were not placed on my brothers. As I grew older, and jeans, rock music and boys came into my life, we clashed quite often, but she was a good mother and she was always there, baking, sewing, and knitting for us, patching us up when we were hurt and caring for us when we were ill. She had the kindest heart imaginable, even if she wasn’t always able to empathise with me terribly well. I never fell out with her – she was hard to fall out with – but equally, I never actually told her how much she meant to me,.

Billie was a very dear person with a cracking sense of humour, an infectious giggle and a very individual outlook on life – that’s her with my mother on the beach at Hove, laughing at the camera and wearing very short shorts. We didn’t see her all that often because we lived in London and she lived on the south coast, but when she did visit she would light up the room with her huge personality. She would do anything for those she loved, and I can remember my brother and I staying with her for a seaside holiday when we were very young. When her husband Ambrose developed dementia 1, she cared for him devotedly and nearly went out of her mind doing so, because he wouldn’t let her out of his sight, let alone out of the house. When he died, she coped magnificently right up until the time his cat died, upon which she fell to pieces.

This is Maureen, the slender lady on the left in the lilac jacket.

When I was about twelve years old, we moved into a rural bungalow and acquired new neighbours; Maureen, her husband, their toddler, and a lovely cream coloured labrador called Cleo. I loved dogs and had never had one of my own, so very soon I was chatting over the fence and offering to take Cleo for walks. She was a very easy dog, because she had been trained to walk at heel without collar or lead and if she was told to wait, wait she jolly well would until she was released 2. I was just thirteen years old when I got to know Maureen, and she really was a second mother to me through my difficult teenage years. I would go and sit with her when I felt misunderstood, lonely, bad tempered, stifled, emotional, or at a loose end, and she would get on with her chores and chat and listen, and make me cups of coffee, and I always felt better when I left. I’d play with her young daughter, too, making paper dolls, drawing, colouring and so on. Sometimes I’d take both daughter and dog for walks, and sometimes I’d babysit. And then I grew up, got married, moved away, and saw them only briefly when visiting my parents, and gradually we lost that closeness and saw each other only occasionally.

I write in the past tense because all of those wonderful ladies are now gone. In fact, for the past couple of years, friends, contemporaries and relatives have been dropping like flies in a room full of DEET, and this kind of thing makes you think 3.

I was thinking a lot this morning, as one of our elderly neighbours lies in bed in a care home having suffered a stroke. This gentleman has been suffering from dementia for a number of years, during which time I’ve become quite close to his wife, the lovely G. We started by offering to take G into town with us when we were going to have time to wander around because we know she loves to window shop, and because anyone who cares for a family member with dementia is going to need some time out now and again. I’ve also spent time with them in their home, just chatting and laughing together, and G and I have become quite close which is really rather wonderful. She is, perhaps, a tiny little bit of a mother figure for me, since I have lost my own, but more than that, I value her as a friend. G keeps thanking me, and telling me how grateful she is to me for visiting and for taking her out, and another thing I was thinking this morning is that perhaps I should be thanking her.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because now G is the fourth woman in my life who has become quite important to me. Recently, she thought I’d fallen over on my way home from her house 4 and she came hurrying out, quite pale with fear. She hugged me tightly and told me that she thought she was going to lose me. And so this thought stayed with me and fermented and became today’s post for International Women’s Day.

You see, I now know that I am important to my new friend, but how often to we actually tell people that they are important to us? Did I tell my mother? I don’t remember ever doing so, and now it’s too late. Oh, I knew my mother well enough to know that she would just say ‘Oh, don’t be silly – you’re my daughter! I know without you having to tell me!’ I remember hinting at it in a letter to Billie, which I sent her after Ambrose’s cat died, and she responded by telling me I was a dear girl, and we never spoke of it again. I do remember telling Maureen. On one of our rare visits, we sat and drank tea, and I apologised for all the times I’d gone round as a teenager and left her with the mess to clear up after playing with her daughter (and later, her son). She laughed and said yes, I’d done that quite often, but that she’d enjoyed having me occupy the children for her while she got on with things. It was then that I told her that she’d been my second mother and I think it pleased her. I’m particularly glad that I did so, because it wasn’t long after that that I heard that she’d died.

As we get older and we start to lose people – family, friends and neighbours – we often end up with regrets. We may feel that we neglected someone, that we had unfinished business with another, that there was perhaps a rift with someone which we wished we’d healed … or simply that we never told a person dear to us how special they were to us. I ask you now to think about those in your own lives, and consider whether there is anything you’d like to say to anyone, now, before they are beyond your reach. It’s easy to say ‘Oh, maybe I’ll go and see Great-Aunt Sally next month. I’m too busy right now’, and you think you have time … and then one day, you just don’t.

1 He was a true gentleman, and did so in a very gentlemanly way. I can remember him wandering into the kitchen where B and I were talking, and he’d say ‘B, have I had my tea yet?’, and she’d say ‘Yes, go and sit down and read your paper’, and he’d say ‘Oh, have I? Alright … ‘ and wander gently away. She would then say to me ‘I’ll get it for him in a minute’ and finish her cigarette before doing so.

2 I had first-hand evidence of this when I took her out one day, told her to sit and stay while I went into the butcher’s shop … then forgot she was with me and walked nearly all the way home without her. When I realised what I’d done, I ran all the way back to the butcher and there she was, still sitting outside the shop, having watched me walk away without her and disappear.

3 And the first thing it makes me think is that I don’t want DEET anywhere near me, thank you very much.

4 They have an alarm system in their very long driveway which alerts them to approaching – and leaving – visitors. I’d left her, walked home, met OH with a fence guy who wanted to inspect some fence damage we had, and all three of us walked down G’s driveway, but only part of the way. Enough to trigger the alarm though, and make them think that a small army was on it’s way … or that I’d fallen over and was being helped up, possibly by a team of paramedics.

Farming matters

My country, by which I mean England, has a nice mixture of terrain. Quite a lot of it is lowland and green, but there are areas of mountains and lakes, bog and moor, and so on. For a long time, we pretty much had the means to support ourselves, making most of what we needed, fishing the seas, and farming the land and adding to our diets, knowledge and culture with what could be brought across the channel by boat1. And then we got silly and started chopping down our vast forests to provide wood for warships, and we wanted exotic things like spices and silks, chocolate and bananas and pineapples and so on, and we began to import and export and go to war over resources in far-flung lands, claiming that stuff belonged to us because we got there first, and our armies are bigger than yours. Well, that’s obviously an over-simplification and misses out various bits of history and it’s all water under the bridge, but the fact is that we’ve somehow lost the ability (and/or the desire) to support ourselves and we are no longer content to travel slowly using horses and carriages and some things are going seriously downhill.

Farming, in the UK, accounts for around 70% of our land use. England, this green and pleasant land of ours, has traditionally been a country of small farms and mixed landscapes dotted with hedges and drystone walls2. Now, though, our farming practices, changing over time to suit perceived needs, are threatening the delicate balance of nature. Farms have got bigger. We have lost huge percentages of almost every sort of wildlife, both flora and fauna, and we have catastrophic flooding. Since the introduction of factory farming3, animals have largely disappeared from most of England’s landscape to be replaced with monoculture arable farming.

This next bit will no doubt upset a lot of people, but bear with me. It’s just my opinion, but I do have environmentalists on my side, and considering that we are facing a very uncertain future what with global warming and all, I think we need to stop thinking about profit and more about sustainability and repairing the damage that we are doing to the planet we live on.

Monoculture arable farming – you know, that thing they do with gigantic fields full of a single crop, ripping out hedges and trees to make it easier for combine-harvesting behemoths – is not sustainable. It requires unconscionable amounts of pesticides, destroys ecosystems, and has a lot to do with the increase in flooding in certain areas. The soil in far too many of these fields is all but dead, there is no wildlife habitat to speak of, and the food that is produced is, not to put too fine a point on it, contaminated.

Building on greenfield sites – that thing that they do where developers place ‘options’ on land that doesn’t even belong to them and put in outline planning applications, so that they can go to a farmer and offer him hundreds of thousands of pounds to sell them a field to build hundreds or thousands of houses on – is not sustainable. We are losing farmland at an unacceptable rate, which not only reduces the area on which we can grow our food, but it further increases the loss of wildlife. Not only that, but much of our fauna, not unsurprisingly, often requires exactly the same type of landscape as we do. There are bog and moor and mountain specialists, but a huge amount of our wildlife likes to live where we like to live; in more equable conditions and where the food and water and shelter options are more varied. So the arguments that ‘only 10.6% of our land is used for housing, you know’ are rather specious.

More to the point, perhaps, is that both of these things have an extremely negative effect on the balance of CO2 in the atmosphere. Trees are probably the most efficient thing we have for locking carbon into the environment, with hedging also doing very well indeed, thank you very much. And yet we are told to use less of this, more of that, on a personal level, while the big boys and girls continue to play their wasteful games.

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Michael Gove – who, as I remember, nobody liked very much prior to the election4 – has been making some encouraging noises. He seems to have all the right priorities and is promising some very good things. Of course, we will have to wait and see whether all this is actually put into practice or if it will fall by the wayside of political expediency, but the future is beginning to look a little brighter. Then there are people like Lynne and Stephen Briggs, whose innovative measures on a farm in Cambridgeshire look most exciting indeed. They are bucking the trend and dividing their huge fields into strips – almost like the old mediaeval ridge & furrow system, only … well, not really. Their 21 metre-wide strips are divided by trees, running north-east to south-west across the fields to maximise sunlight coverage. Their trees are apple, but they can be fruit or nut, giving high-value cash crops, or something like hazel, which produces large quantities of usable wood when coppiced. Profit from agroforestry (as it is known), can increase productivity by 40-50%, because the crops grow and are harvested at different times, and it’s three-dimensional farming, for heaven’s sake, making far better use of the space. What’s more, the trees bring nutrients up from the depths with their extensive root systems, parking them in the leaves, which then fall and rot, and cycle the good stuff up into the topsoil.

Another wonderful thing about this is that it would return our green and pleasant land to that lovely patchwork of crops mixed with trees and hedges of different shades of green and brown, and the autumn would have proper colour again instead of vast areas of dispiriting stubble and stinking stalks of oilseed rape. Add the proposed Northern Forest project which has now been approved, and if it weren’t for HS2 about to cause the destruction of huge swathes of irreplaceable virgin forest on its way up north I’d be a very happy bunny indeed.

1 There was – of course – poverty and inequality, but we haven’t exactly solved those now, have we?

2 Mm .. yeah, OK. This is fairly recent historically, because in the middle ages England was covered with vast tracts of virgin woodland and later grew into a feudal system consisting of a landlord whose land consisted of a large house and parkland, and a little autocracy of small farms and smallholdings. This began to change, partly due to changing laws, depressions and so on, and we started to import more goods, then there were two World Wars which basically left us with a system pretty similar to the one we have today. Historians will pick this explanation to tiny pieces in two minutes flat, but that’s basically the gist of it.

3 An abomination if ever there was one, and the single most devastating blow for animal welfare in my lifetime.

4 Possibly because of the way he shafted Boris Johnson.

Let’s not start …

You know that saying ‘Let’s start as we mean to go on’? Well, let’s not. Just .. let’s not, OK?

The New Year has rolled in with me still recovering from shoulder surgery, and suffering from a fluey virus which has given me bronchitis/asthma1, so I can’t do much at all right now and I’m feeling pretty miserable and helpless. Could be worse, I know, and to be fair, I’m not hospitalised, I’m warm and well-fed, and I have my lovely OH who is taking good care of me. But my spirits have not been improved by the snippets of news which I’ve been reading just lately.

The Orange Buffoon is determined to challenge the Volatile One to a spitting match which might well end in tears, the weather has gone crazy, and the environment is under multiple threats both large and small. Yesterday I heard that a small wooden footbridge in our village, much used by walkers (both with and without dogs or children) has once again been vandalised by some idiot with a power saw, and has had planks from the walkway removed leaving gaping holes through which a person (or a dog or a child) could fall about twelve feet to the brook below. This footbridge is on a back road in the country. It isn’t on the way to anywhere, unless you’re a dog walker, and you’d have to know it was there in order to find it, so I’m guessing it’s some deranged local (with or without some kind of bizarre grudge).

As if that weren’t bad enough, the same thing has been done at Ferry Meadows, a local country park eleven-and-a-half miles away, which has an excellent record for wildlife curation, watersports and family fun. It seems pretty certain that it’s the same person because the same two events have gone hand in hand before2, so they must have transport, as well as a power tool and a grudge. At the country park, they not only vandalised nearly two dozen memorial benches and all of the wooden footbridges, but they also hacked twenty-six newly planted trees in half3.

I’m not sure what kind of maggot gets into someone’s head for them to deliberately go out and do this kind of thing. Being somewhat of a student of human nature, I can kind of, sort of, understand what motivates someone to commit a one-off act of vandalism as an expression of frustrated anger, but this goes beyond such an act. This is a deliberate, cold-hearted, selfish desire to wound other people and make them suffer, either emotionally or physically. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt, either by falling through a gap in a footbridge or over the side, or by falling backward off a bench. Such a desire must surely be rooted in mental incompetence of some kind because there are very, very few people who are truly evil.

But you know what? The true measure of man’s spirit is not to be found in how many times he gets knocked over, but in how many times he gets back up again. This vandal (or vandals) will not win. The footbridge in my village has been roped off, and will be repaired as soon as can be managed. The bridges and benches in the country park will also be mended and the trees replanted by many willing hands. Eventually, of course, the person responsible will be caught and punished, and life will go on, and he – or, it has to be admitted, she – will be quickly forgotten, because that’s what happens.

So in this new year, this 2018, I will shake off my cough and my sore ribs and my shoulder will heal themselves, and I’ll get back on the treadmill and put myself on the Clever Guts diet4, and eventually we will get our new dog. I am already looking forward to the hoverfly season and to getting back out into the garden and planting up my new plants and digging a new pond and putting OH to work getting the new bee houses installed, and no doubt I’ll have great fun photographing all this stuff. I have plans. Venice in the spring, learn to speak French, improve my Italian, begin Swedish Death Cleaning5, visit relatives and some new people I only know from the internet, and I also want to replace a row of Leylandii with a mixed deciduous hedge.

Sounds fun, huh? We may have started the year badly, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue that way. I bet the power saw-wielding chopper-up of benches won’t have half so much fun as me!

Photos of the damage at Ferry Meadows courtesy of Martin Chillcott

1 It’s a bit hard to distinguish between the two, since both give you a lot of congestion and wheezing and make you cough. All I know is that I’ve been coughing for far too long, my ribs hurt, and I need to use my inhalers to the limit. But since the treatment is pretty much the same, I guess it hardly matters what you call it.

2 The same vandalism was perpetrated in the same two places within the same time-frame and along the same path of destruction a while back. Yes, it’s circumstantial, but my money is on a repeat offence by the same person.

3 I think it’s the trees which annoy me the most. Trees take time to get established and become useful to wildlife and, indeed, us. We all need trees to deal with pollution and with the CO2 in the atmosphere. Destroying a tree is like smacking yourself in the face with a brick. Only less messy.

4 Michael Mosley’s Clever Guts Diet is a one-off protocol to rebalance your gut flore (your gut’s microbiome). Since I suffer from acid reflux, which might be affected by those little guys that live down there, I thought I might try it.

5 Swedish Death Cleaning is an approach to clearing out accumulated junk, and one which I sorely need. The name comes from the philosophy that it is unkind to leave your horribly cluttered house to your children to deal with after you’re dead.

Talking Turkey

Today, OH and I were carving the last of the ‘sandwich’ meat from the turkey and I was putting the scraps into a bowl for the birds. It was a good bit of turkey this year. We just bought a crown, since there nobody was coming for dinner, but it was a free range, Bronze Feather crown, and you really can taste the difference.

Suddenly, OH had a thought.

OH: Do they really eat this?

Me: Yes, they do, some of them.

OH: Isn’t that a bit odd?

Me: Why?

OH: Well, it’s a bit cannibalistic, isn’t it? I mean, eating meat from the same species…

Me: We don’t get many turkeys around here.

O tempora, o mores!

As Christmas and the end of 2017 approach, I look back on the past year and wonder.

These times we live in. Are they good times, or are they bad? Will people look back and say “Wow, those guys of the Second Elizabethan Period had it cushy, did they not?” or will they be shaking their heads and muttering “Those poor things – how did they survive?”

Now, I spend quite a bit of time on Facebook, and Facebook is not, of course, a very good mirror to be holding up to society 1 because everything tends to be both exaggerated and rather black & white, especially when it concerns the headline news stories and the info-GIFS and the shared posts that go around (and around, and around), but it does throw into sharp relief some of the issues we face. I see posts about every aspect of the human condition, from the highest acts of humble selflessness and heroism, through the beauty and awesomeness of life on our planet, and the virtues and rewards of living with simplicity, right down into the sewer of our utter arrogance, evil-doing and greed.

A future reader might deduce that the things are amazingly chaotic for us – everywhere, all the time. Conflicting points of view, opinions, suggestions, and versions of the truth are posted alongside scientific proofs, government decisions, and interpretations of current facts which all clash and disagree with each other. People are sweet, polite, and helpful, and rude, angry, and profane, which can result in them either offering assistance and comfort or swearing at each other in fifty-seven different languages and a thousand assorted accents. We petition to save obscure and almost invisible spiders from extinction, and we laugh collectively about a pregnant woman and her children being pelted with hard-boiled eggs from a moving car.

What kind of people are we, the Second Elizabethans, and what has made us this way?

I think we have been changed more than we like to admit by technology. If you had told me, when I was fourteen years old, that one day I’d consider it quite normal to carry a pocket-sized device with me every day, on which I’d be able to make a phone call to the other side of the world from the middle of a field, I’d have been surprised. If you had then told me that this same device would take instant photos without the need for film, play my entire music library directly into my ears, tell me the weather at home and abroad, answer pretty much any question I cared to put to it2, allow me write and receive messages, access TV and radio, teach me a foreign language, play card games with me, and read me to sleep at night, I’d have laughed in your face. But we do have our phones, and our laptops, and an awful lot of us love them to bits. And we conduct far too many of our social interactions via texts and video messages and social media on these things.

Many of our technological advances are clearly beneficial. The advances made in medicine, technology, transport, and food production3, new ways to save mankind, new games and entertainments, new labour-saving devices, etc. Trouble is, all these things come at a price, so we have an ageing demographic who need to be supported4, and we have the rape and pillage of vast areas of the earth’s resources and habitats … and we have pollution. Pollution with a capital ‘P’. Look up ‘Jakarta is sinking’ on Google. Go on, I’ll wait for you here.

Another huge problem we have to deal with is instant news media, which brings atrocities from all over the world into our living space twenty-four hours a day in inglorious colour and sound and movement, and serves only to stress and depress us. Oh, and to give fresh ideas to psychopaths and criminals about how next to hurt or kill people and gain notoriety, so we get a lot of copycat crimes and crazy people claiming resposibility for things they didn’t do.

And so I imagine that, one day in that dim and distant future, someone might stand up and say:

“Here, hang on a minute … they did what? But how could they not know how stupid/damaging/counterproductive that was?”

Take a second or two to wonder about that, and how many things it could apply to. Now. Which of those things would stand out as the single factor which defined, and maybe condemned, our era? And while we’re on the subject, what would win the gold medal for the best of our times?

As a species, we are the most destructive on the planet, but we are also the most inquisitive, and the most creative. This is just as well, because the havoc we are wreaking on our planet is beginning to catch up with us. We will need all of that creativity just to survive to the end of this millennium. However, I do have faith that we will pull ourselves back from the brink and survive, if only we can persuade our governments to think beyond the next election. That, I think, is the new trick we must learn.

1 At least, I hope not!
2 With varying degrees of truthfulness and accuracy, it has to be said
3 But only, of course, for the rich part of the world. For the rest, while these new methods of food production enables many to earn a living, it usually pays them a pittance, relatively speaking, and by destroying their ecosystems and altering their whole economies, ensures that they will continue to provide their raw materials while they can, because there’s nothing else left to them by now.
4 This is also a problem in its own right – illustrated by the current dissent about pensions, but that’s another story

Don’t Feed the Magic Reindeer!

You’ve all seen it. It’s on sale at all the craft fairs, it’s available on Amazon, and on eBay to name but three sources. Playgroups and reception classes make it for their children to take home. Someone may even have given some to your children already. I hope that someone wasn’t you, because I have some bad news.

This stuff kills wildlife.

Magic Reindeer Food is sold in little cellophone packets, tied with a festive ribbon and with a cute festive poem on the attached label. If it looks like porridge oats mixed with craft glitter with maybe a few seeds and sequins mixed in, it’s because that’s exactly what it is1. And you know what? Not only is the glitter inedible, it can also contain toxins which are absorbed from that cute little Christmas robin’s gut when he comes bob-bob-bobbing along very early in the morning and eats it before you are even awake2. As if that’s not enough, the sharp edges of the glitter can damage the lining of that gut leaving Mr Robin open to all kinds of diseases.

Of course, robins will not be the only ones to take advantage of the feast. Mice, rats and squirrels will eat it, and so will hedgehogs if they are awake, and hungry enough. Then there are the invertebrates, the slugs, snails, worms, etc.

You might not care too much about the rats, the slugs and the snails, but they will all suffer, because Magic Reindeer Food is pretty indiscriminate. And think about the wider issues; do you imagine that this stuff magically disappears after Christmas? No. It will get washed down into the soil, where it will not only utterly fail to decompose, but may pick up toxins from weedkillers and pesticides, and eventually some will find its way into streams, dykes and rivers where it stands a good chance of ending up inside a fish, or a bivalve like a mussel or a clam.

All this might not sound very important to you, but in fact microplastic is becoming a big problem in the environment – as anyone who has watched nature documentaries lately must be beginning to realise. We are now being told that since the ingestion of microplastics begins with the very lowest forms of life, which are then eaten by progressively larger animals, the amount of microplastics is being concentrated (along with those toxins) into fish destined for our own tables, and into animals which eat fish, like otters and seals. Some of these toxins affect health, including fertility. There are now whole, doomed, dolphin and orca pods which cannot breed because of the pollution in the seas.

If you are now thinking, ‘Yeah, but the small amount of glitter in my little packet of Magic Reindeer Food won’t make a lot of difference – it’ll be fine!” Well, join the club. Thousands – if not millions – of people across the UK and the US are thinking the same thing.

How much glitter does that add up to? How much wildlife will it kill, do you think? Will the 2016 batch of glitter be in your next tin of sardines?

There is, however, an alternative. Online, you can find many wildlife-friendly recipes for Magic Reindeer Food which contain the oats, but also quality bird seed, dried fruit, nibbed nuts, etc. There are even recipes for harmless, gelatine-based ‘glitter’ to which you can add natural colours like beetroot or spirulina powder. A little chilli powder in the mix will deter rodents – they don’t like chilli whereas birds don’t care, and the important thing is, it won’t harm them.

1 To be fair, there are Magic Reindeer Foods out there which do not contain glitter. I can’t say whether these are safe or not, because it depends what’s in them, but clearly they are going to be better than glitter.

2 From Wikipedia:

“Furthermore, plastic particles may highly concentrate and transport synthetic organic compounds (e.g. persistent organic pollutants, POPs), commonly present in the environment and ambient sea water, on their surface through adsorption. It still remains unknown if microplastics can act as agents for the transfer of POPs from the environment to organisms in this way, but evidence suggest this to be a potential portal for entering food webs. Of further concern, additives added to plastics during manufacture may leach out upon ingestion, potentially causing serious harm to the organism. Endocrine disruption by plastic additives may affect the reproductive health of humans and wildlife alike.”

We’re on a roll …

My dear OH does like an orderly life, bless him. Pity he is stuck with me, because I am not orderly. However, I do replace the toilet rolls if they are empty – or even nearly empty – so hold that thought for a moment.

A few days ago, I went up to the bathroom to perform my ablutions, and noticed that there was a piece of text stuck to the backboard of the shelf where we keep the toilet paper. I peered closer, and this is what I read:

Well, as I thought about this, I noted that this shelf is to the left of our most convenient piece of porcelain, and I glanced thoughtfully at the immobilising sling which confines my left arm.

And what I thought was “Hmm”. Bearing in mind that I do replace the rolls when necessary and I can’t use my left arm at the moment, was this little ditty not lacking just a tad in empathy? Not to mention that it had a distinctly admonitory edge to it.

I took a deep breath and wrote a poem of my own. And that’s why there are now two pieces of paper taped to the backboard of the shelf.

Nobody can say that life is dull in our house!

OH learns to cook (salad included)

Since I’ve been incapacitated with the shoulder surgery, I’ve really been unable to do any cooking1. Even opening a tin is a two-handed operation, so OH has Taken Over The Kitchen. You see, he’s lived through two long periods with me being unable to cook, and this time he decided that he should learn to cook, so that we could both eat better. As this is something I have frequently told him that he ought to do, I was pretty happy to hear it.

At first, he needed me there right by his elbow2 to guide him through every step, but he’s learned pretty quickly. Now I can sit in the lounge for most of the time, and he’ll call through to ask specific questions, whereupon I can get up and help in a more involved way where necessary. He’s cooked shepherd’s pie, making a nice soffrito as a base, cooking the meat in proper beef stock – no stock cubes – and serving it with gravy and fresh brussels’ sprouts. OK, so he used instant mash with a little grated cheese for extra flavour. You can’t have everything. It tasted great!

OH has made me some great salads. He’s oven-baked chicken breasts, made pasta sauces, which he served with fresh pasta and nary a jar in sight, and he’s made pies with a option of oven chips or new potatoes – plus gravy for me, because I love gravy.

He’s made beef stew completely from scratch in the pressure cooker, and served it with rice3.

He has roasted vegetables, taking fresh onions, peppers, courgettes, potatoes, baby tomatoes, baby parsnips, mushrooms, butternut squash, and rosemary, and learning to clean, peel and chop them appropriately and getting the oil hot and all, despite his extreme respect for the oven and spitting fat.

He made a very good goat cheese and asparagus risotto the other day. All fresh ingredients, with nothing tinned, or instant (unless you are pernickety enough to call a basic but purchased chicken stock (Waitrose) or dried herbs ‘instant’).

Yesterday, he made meat pasties, which we had hot yesterday with roasted vegetables, and cold today with oven chips and brussels. So sue me – I love sprouts so much that I’ll eat them in the oddest combinations! Anyway, after we’d finished, the following conversation ensued:

OH: “Was that OK?”

Me: “Yes, thank you, it was lovely!”

OH: “I gave you the one with the thinner pastry, because I thought it would be easier for you to manage one-handed. This one was a bit harder to cut.”

Me: “I picked mine up and ate it with my fingers.”

OH: “Oh … I didn’t think of that. Well, you could have had this one then. I didn’t know you were going to pick it up with your feet and thong it into oblivion!”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Word Salad continues. No worries – we’re off to the Papworth sleep clinic again on Tuesday! Maybe they’ll come up with a plan …

1 – Even opening a tin is a two-handed operation, and I have zero strength in my left arm, and strict admonitions as to what I’m allowed to attempt.

2 – “Move back a bit, you’re in my light”. “Where did you go? I need you!” Etc.

3 – The rice was microwaved from a packet, but come on – he’s only been learning to cook for a few weeks, and he’s done some pretty impressive stuff without recourse to very much in the way of pre-prepared foods. More than most people, I reckon!

Armistice Day

“What does the word ‘armistice’ actually mean?”

That’s what OH asked me today, and it’s a good question. We all know what it means in terms of Armistice Day – it’s the day WWI ended, isn’t it? But in terms of the dictionary definition? It simply means “a cessation of hostilities in times of open warfare”, and the cessation can be either temporary, while an attempt is made to negotiate a treaty, or permanent, when it then becomes the end of the conflict. Thankfully, that was the case in November, 1918. The Armistice was signed at eleven minutes past 11am, which is why this is the time we honour the fallen with a two minutes’ silence on November 18th each year.

So I’ve been thinking of the fallen today, and in particularly those who were shot for ‘cowardice’ having refused to return to the fighting while suffering from overwhelming fear and terror – and what we today would call PTSD. Some of these men had been treated several times for ‘nerves’, and this was recorded in their service records, but ‘shell shock’ was not considered an excuse. These men and boys (some barely sixteen years old) gave as much as they were able, poor gentle souls, and when they could give no more and their minds were broken, they were executed. Any military pensions were voided, and in some cases their families were evicted from their homes. Thank heavens that all three hundred-odd of them have now been pardoned, but their senseless and inhumane deaths cannot be reversed, nor can the years of shame, anger and suffering be wiped clean from the lives of their loved ones.

I’m thinking also of the men who were forced to shoot their comrades. Some of the men making up the firing squads were the wounded, commandeered from field hospitals, just as long as they were capable of holding and firing their rifles, and some of them were barely sixteen years old, too. Imagine one of your sons being required to do this. Imagine your son being one of those executed.

We must not forget the men who died fighting in the Great War – The “war to end all wars” – nor must we forget those executed for being unable to bear the horrors of it.

No, we must not forget them.

Photo from Pixabay, the site that offers completely free downloads of royalty-free photos, some of startling quality, as you can see. I would encourage anyone who makes use of the site to do as suggested and make the occasional small donation – either to the site or to the individual photographer. 🙂

Give these guys a medal!

It occurs to me that the last few posts here on the Sparking Synapse have been, shall say, a tad on the cloudy side of the street.

Partly this due to the fact that I am a little more than three weeks into having to wear a very restrictive shoulder immobilising sling night and day for six weeks, and I am constantly uncomfortable, hot, and unable to function normally, with a side order of pain, random itchiness and boredom. This the second such period within five months, with a surgical repair thrown in for good measure, and I can’t even have a good slug of wine now and then because alcohol doesn’t mix too well with heavy-duty painkillers. So perhaps it’s forgiveable, but methinks it’s maybe time to haul on those bootlaces a little and cheer the fuck up.

So, with this in mind, and with a gentle reminder from Valerie over at A Mixed Bag, I am inspired to write this.

As we go about our daily lives we come across all sorts of people, and all-too-often, the ones that leave the biggest impression are the idiots, the rude, and the incompetent. We love to come home and say to our families and friends “You’ll never guess what a stupid woman in Boots said to me” or “the way some people park is (expletive of your choice) atrocious” or “it took me forty-five minutes to get home today, because some stupid idiot at the council thought it was a good idea to … (blah, blah, blah). And if we are angry enough, we follow it up with a complaint in writing, do we not? Or we get all hot under the collar and pick up the phone and give some poor lowly office worker hell. Yep. I know. I’ve done it myself. In fact, I am in the middle of a series of ultra polite, barely-sarcastic-at-all emails1 at the moment with a company who refuse to refund the shipping costs on some returned goods (but that’s another story).

The thing is, dear readers, that we so seldom remember to fill in those forms and write those letters – or even go home and tell our loved ones – when we are met with smiling helpfulness and efficiency, or outstanding service.

Basically, we do not thank people enough, or give credit where credit is due. I try to remember to do so but it’s so easy to forget, and if you’ve ever worked in the service industry, or in any job where you have contact with the public, you’ll know how one compliment or genuine smile of heartfelt thanks can brighten your whole day2.

So I’m going to try to concentrate on looking for the good in people again. To this end, at the end of my hospital appointment yesterday I filled in one of those feedback forms so industriously that the young lady behind the desk asked me if I was writing a book.

Despite the title of this blog post, the quietly efficient, the compassionate, the polite and the helpful don’t usually want a medal, and quite often they don’t even need to be commended3. But everyone does like to be appreciated, and we all feel better for meeting someone who knows how to smile without being patronising, or help someone in need without being pushy. A smile here, a word of thanks there, a bit of eye contact … and I’m told that the best way to show your appreciation for an employee – especially someone who works for a smallish company – is often a letter of commendation to their boss, which mentions them by name.

So go ahead. Make someone’s day! And it doesn’t have to cost you a thing.

1 I specialise in ultra-polite, barely-sarcastic-at-all letters of complaint. They are written rather passive-aggressively, I have to admit, and in the best and most polished prose I can muster, with perfect grammar and high-level language (Thank you, Mrs Learmont*). The recipient knows that I am probably being rude, although there’s nothing in what I say to hang that particular hat on, and they are left in absolutely no doubt that I know what I’m talking about. Of course this is never the first letter that I send, I only do this if I get stupid, misinformed or obstructive letters back in reply to my first letter, and the progress into veiled insult is gradual, and always well deserved.

* Mrs Learmont was my High School English teacher. She was a Scot, and she was fierce, but she gave me an enormous affection for our beautifully rich, complex, and absurd language.

2 There doesn’t even have to be money involved, though in the restaurant/cafe trade where the waiting staff are often poorly paid, it certainly helps.

3 Although some of them perhaps do, especially if they’re in the running for a “Volunteer/Employee/Etc of the Year” award. And why not, if they deserve it?