Category Archives: Personal

And At The End

Dear Readers, it’s taken eighteen months, but on Saturday we finally said goodbye to my Dad, Thomas Reginald Palmer. We were blessed with one of those glorious days that Dorset does so well: soft sunlight on green fields, the glow of old stone, finches singing in the hedgerows and a great calm over everything.

The church had been dressed for the harvest festival, and the flowers looked as if they were illuminated from inside.

Dad’s sisters arrived and I showed them to the grave. I hadn’t seen them since the start of the lockdown, and I think for them Dad’s death hadn’t been real until they’d seen the headstone. I left them to spend some time with Dad on their own. How hard it is to lose someone of your own age, and because Dad had moved to Dorset they hadn’t been able to see him as much as they would have liked. But how much time is enough, when someone you love is gone?

The service itself went in the blink of an eye: I managed to deliver my eulogy with only a few tears, something that I don’t think I could have done if the service had been closer to Dad’s death. We listened to some Spanish guitar music, to ‘The Lark Ascending’, and to the Celtic Blessing

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
May the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

 

And then there was home-made cake and sandwiches, and a lot of memories shared. Lots of people came from the village and it was lovely to catch up with people’s lives. I wondered if this would be the last time that I’d come to Dorset – all the tasks related to Mum and Dad are now done – but Dorchester and Milborne St Andrew are so imbued with their spirit that I think I’ll still come to visit, to see my Dorset friends and to enjoy this beautiful part of the country.

Before we headed home, I walked out to the grave on my own to say goodbye, and God bless, to Mum and Dad. What remains for me, now, is an immense stillness, filled with sadness but also with so much love.

Thomas Reginald Palmer 5th December 1935 – 31st March 2020.

Getting Ready to Say Goodbye

Dear Readers, at the end of a long day in Dorset there is something so comforting about the chacking of rooks and jackdaws as they roost in the trees in  Dorchester. There are some venerable horse chestnuts and beech trees right in the centre of town, and these act as beacons for the corvids who fly in from all directions. When they land, they talk away to one another for a few minutes before falling eerily silent, as the sky turns from mother-of-pearl to sapphire. Their ancestors have probably been roosting round about here since before the Romans came. 

Earlier today I caught the bus back to Milborne St Andrew, where the service for Dad will be held tomorrow. I love sitting on the top deck of the bus and peering into the fields as we speed by. Today I noticed that three of the big fields on the outskirts of the village are now full of sunflowers. They must be a special variety grown for their seeds, because the heads are so huge that they hang shyly down, and the petals are insignificant. Is this for vegetable oil for human consumption, I wonder, or is it for biofuels? There’s a lot of maize around too, as noted yesterday, and I suspect that this isn’t because the people of Dorset have developed a taste for corn on the cob..

I meet up with a friend who is doing the cakes for the refreshments tomorrow – E made the beautiful cake for Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary Party, and although she is 88 years old she is up to her ears in coconut cake and lemon drizzle.

Cakes from Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary Party in 2017. Note the freesias!

Then we walk down to the church. It’s harvest festival on Sunday, and there are sunflowers everywhere,  proper ones this time. Fruit is piled on the window ledges and there’s a distinct smell of apples.

Outside, Mum and Dad’s grave is a little overgrown – my brother, who lives nearby, has been self-isolating after his family got Covid, one after another, until he got it too. But someone has some secateurs, and so it’s easy to neaten it up, and tomorrow E will bring some dahlias from her garden to brighten it up. I am reminded again of what a lovely village Milborne St Andrew is, and how lucky Mum and Dad were to live their final years in a real community.

By the time you read this, I will have given my eulogy, and the Memorial service will be over, and I’ll be back home. I will share how it went with you on Monday. It feels as if we’re coming to the end of one stage, and the beginning of another. It’s time to come together and to remember, grieve and celebrate.

Return to Dorchester

Dear Readers, I am back in Dorset for a few days for my Dad’s Memorial Service in MIlborne St Andrew. He died in March 2020 but apart from a brief visit for his interment a year ago, I haven’t been back. And so, today, I am almost overwhelmed with memories. Every shop, every restaurant, reminds me of when I was visiting every few weeks while Mum and Dad were in the nursing home. The walks through the fields were taken at Christmas, when Dad was still alive. I turn to the natural world to take me out of myself, to remind me that life goes on and that every thing is both beautiful and temporary. In fact, maybe the beauty comes from the transitory nature of things.

But first, I am delighted to see these two moggies asleep in one of the windows on the High Street.

And then, look at these sunflowers!

And I love these woodpigeons, up to their shoulders in meadow grass.

And there is a Himalayan Honeysuckle down by the old machinery that used to flood the meadows.

I am pleased to see that there are sheep out on the field.

And I didn’t even realise that I’d seen a heron as well until I got home and uploaded this photo.

There is some lords and ladies….

and the harts tongue fern looks glossy and somehow primeval.

I believe that this might be our old friend wild angelica, though I have to say that it hasn’t done as well as the one in my garden.

And then I was distracted by the snails…

The field that was pasture last year is now full of sweetcorn, though the magnificent oak trees don’t seem to mind.

So by now I’m starting to feel a little less distressed. On I go along the bridle path.

I am passed by three runners – apparently there’s a charity road race on on Saturday in aid of MacMillan Cancer nurses. But once they’ve passed, silence reigns. I spot a new plant – this is red bartsia, which is apparently partially parasitic on grass and has its very own bee species. I sense a Wednesday Weed coming on….

Red bartsia

And then there is a single patch of rosebay willowherb which is abuzz with common carder bees – these little ginger critters are amongst the last bumblebees on the wing.

And how about this henbit deadnettle, another new plant for me (though very common). The whole plant seems to be exploding with enthusiasm.

And then I turn for home, and pause by the sheep because something catches my eye.

The swallows are circling and diving, catching the insects that the sheep have disturbed, fuelling up for their long flight back to Africa. And it might sound strange, but it makes me weep because the year is turning, and the swallows are going home, and maybe Mum and Dad have gone home too, but they’ve left me behind. Grieving can be so lonely, and that’s why grieving collectively is so important, and why I sense that I’ll feel better once we’ve gathered to say goodbye to Dad properly.

Bon voyage, swallows. Travel well, until the world turns.again.

Feelin’ Good (Well, Better Anyway…)

‘Dwarf ‘ Buddleia

Dear Readers, apart from waking up in the night with a fever today I’ve actually had a pretty good day, so fingers crossed that it continues! Some of the highlights of today have been:

  • Trying to do a lateral flow test. Oh lord I am fed up with tickling my tonsils and poking things up my nose but as little children are doing that every day I’m happy to suck it up once in a while. But why did my test come back void when I’d done everything right? Very disappointing. I shall have another bash tomorrow, but as I’m on the mend I suspect that my viruses are waving goodbye to me as we speak. Let’s hope they’re not heading off to infect my husband or we’ll have a wonderful week off.
  • Look at the ‘dwarf’ Buddleia! I’d say it’s about nine feet tall. Everything seems to grow gigantic in my garden. It’s a beautiful colour, but the bees and butterflies much prefer the feral mauve one in the front garden.

  • I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to the Olympics, but I have been most taken with Simone Biles, the US athlete, who spoke out  vigorously when one of the coaches was convicted of sexually assaulting the girls. She isn’t the most graceful gymnast I’ve ever seen (says she, who can just about manage a forward roll if given a push) but when she jumps she seems to defy gravity, a characteristic she shares with some of the best ice skaters and other athletes. Apparently the Gymnastics committee can’t keep up with the complexity and daring of her jumps, and is consistently underrating their difficulty. To me, she’s an absolute powerhouse, and considering that the floor work finals in London in 2012 featured 8 white athletes, she will be a model of excellence for lots of little girls watching the Olympics. Just have a look at her here.
  • And in other news, a Judoka from tiny Kosovo has won a gold medal in Judo. I’m always cheering on the little countries. Distria Krasniqi apparently took up judo after practicing with her brother, and she beat someone from Japan in the women’s 48kg final. Well done that woman!
  • And because I’ve been spending so much time feeling sorry for myself in bed, I discovered these domino videos – people basically set up thousands of dominos, tip one and hope that the effect will ripple out. I find them strangely fascinating but also horrifying – all that work destroyed in two minutes! And who cleans it all up? Do the dominoes need to be sorted back into their individual boxes to be reused at a later event? It looks like entropy in action, but I do still quite like it. There’s an example here.
  • And finally, in keeping with our musical theme yesterday (I agree with you all, it’s Elvis all the way for me, though Peggy Lee does a decent job), here is the unmatchable, incomparable Nina Simone, singing my theme song for today. Enjoy!

Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot (But Not in a Good Way)

Well Dear Readers, here is sickbed update number seven, and if only my fever would behave itself I feel as if I might actually be on the verge of getting better. I am cautiously hopeful at the moment so keep your fingers crossed! Goodness knows what this is, but I will be very glad to wave goodbye to it.

Anyhow, I was sitting in the garden and something jet- black flew in – I honestly thought it was a smut from someone’s bonfire, or a scrap of black dustbin bag. But then it landed on the hemp agrimony, and I could see that it was a peacock butterfly, as fresh as you like. I didn’t manage to get a photograph of its spectacular eyespots, but in a way that satanic black was so surprising that I wasn’t sorry.

When the light changed, I could see that the ends of the antennae have tiny gold spots on them, and you can see the butterfly’s long tongue probing into the flower.

Lots of other insects are enjoying it as well. Such a raggedy plant and yet every year it’s popular. The purple loosestrife is just coming into flower too, so there will be plenty to keep this lot going until September at least.

And then there’s this plant, which will hopefully provide some autumn sustenance – once upon a time it was called sedum but it’s now a Hylotelephium, though what variety it is I can’t remember – chip in if you know! It’s a most delightful chocolate colour.

Anyhow, to round this off, I thought I’d leave you with a few ‘fever’ songs for your delectation. Firstly, the wonderful ‘Hot, Hot, Hot’ by Arrow – if this doesn’t get a party started, I don’t know what will.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-L9jBi7sGsc

And now, two versions of ‘Fever’. What a great song this is! See whether you prefer Peggy Lee or Elvis. I think Elvis has the edge for me, but how I love that you can hear every single word, and the weight of erotic meaning that both artists give to it. Summer is officially here, though if my personal summer could get back to normal body temperature I’d be ecstatic.

‘Fever’ – Peggy Lee Version

‘Fever’ – Elvis Version

Spoke Too Soon…

Dear Readers, after feeling as if I was on the mend yesterday my fever has come back with a vengeance today. What the hell is going on? Maybe that quip about malaria isn’t so wide of the mark. Anyhow, at least I’m not working so I can crash out in bed with my teeth chattering. There are different schools of thought on whether you’re better off bringing the fever down, or letting it run its course – the fever is the body’s way of fighting the infection but it doesn’t make it a lot of fun for the battleground (i.e. me). So, I am holding on for as long as possible and then taking paracetamol when I can’t stand it any more. Hopefully it will all sort itself out. It would be heavily ironic to have a week off and be sick until it’s time to go back to work.

Anyway.

What I wanted to say was that I never miss my Mum so much as when I’m sick. I feel myself longing for her instinctive way of comforting and coaxing, her patience and those lovely cold hands on my forehead. She was always at the ready with a tin of Heinz tomato soup, or fish with mashed potato and a parsley sauce, or a boiled egg with soldiers. Best of all were the chilled tinned peaches with Bird’s custard. She could persuade anyone to eat, my Mum.

Sometimes when we were children we’d have what were described as ‘bilious attacks’. These generally involved vomiting all over ourselves and the bedclothes. My long hair was a particular challenge. Mum would change the sheets, wash my hair, change the pyjamas, put me back into bed and sing a medley of songs from the early sixties. She had a great fondness for Ghost Riders in the Sky, I remember, and also ‘The Girl in the Wood‘ – clearly Frankie Laine was a favourite. Generally, an hour after we’d gone to sleep we’d do it all over again. I never had the sense that Mum was the slightest bit irritated, but of course I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I remember that poem about love’s ‘austere and lonely offices’ by Robert Hayden, and it seems to me that that is what love is – the things that you do when you don’t feel like it, the little things that no one even notices at the time. I remember those nights, with Mum singing in the semi-darkness as a kind of magic. It seemed to me that she could heal anything, and I had absolute faith in her ability to know what to do. What a responsibility, and yet it felt like what she was born to do.

I still miss you, Mum. I always will.

Oh The Irony….

Dear Readers, there is something a little ironic about having gotten through 18 months of a pandemic without even being pinged by the NHS app, only to catch something and end up self-isolating when ‘Freedom Day’ is today, 19th July. On the other hand, ‘Freedom Day’ won’t be freedom for vulnerable people, people who have compromised immune systems because of chemotherapy, elderly people or anyone else who has reason to fear the devastating potential effects of this virus. With only 50% of the country double-vaccinated, would it really have hurt to keep things on an even keel for another month or so? I don’t doubt that most people will continue to be sensible, but there has been a leadership vacuum of colossal proportions in this country. My heart goes out to people working in the NHS who are seeing the numbers of the hospitalized rising inexorably. We have been abandoned. No wonder so many people are filled not with joy at the unlocking, but with trepidation.

Anyhow, I have done my Covid test and posted it, and now I wait to see if what I have is something known or something unknown. I feel a bit tired, but basically much better, so I will just have to be a patient patient. Thank you for all the good wishes, and in particular to the person who reminded me that even if  it’s not Covid it doesn’t mean that  I should rush headlong back into my usual frantic round of activity – I think the phrase was ‘other viruses are available’, which made me hoot.  That is excellent advice. I feel tired to my bones somehow: it’s sometimes a struggle just putting one foot in front of another. But then, there’s always the garden, and it’s too blooming hot to do any actual work so I just sat in the shade and tried to pay attention, as that is the cure for most ills.

If you look very carefully at the picture below, you can just see a tiny plane about to enter the clouds. Who remembers that feeling when you’re on a flight and the plane starts to judder as you enter the clouds, as if it’s flying through something viscous? Or that extraordinary sensation when you get above the clouds and there’s the sun and that perfect blue? It always reminds me of that Buddhist sense that behind all our nonsense there is that clear, vast ‘mind’ that is available to all of us if only we could put other things aside.

I wouldn’t want you all to think that I was being too lazy, so I actually got up and wandered over to the pot of ‘wild flowers’ that we planted about a month ago. It’s fair to say that they haven’t been a stunning success, but what’s with the brassica? It looks like oilseed rape to me.

But all is not lost, because I did notice a small white butterfly hanging around earlier this morning, and when I bent down for a closer look, she has laid a single egg. Now, if you’re a gardener I can imagine you not being that impressed, but at least Small Whites only lay one egg, as opposed to 50 like a Large White. I shall have to see if this one survives, and shall have to remind my poor long-suffering husband not to water too enthusiastically this evening when he gets the hosepipe out.

In other news, the Great Willowherb is just opening. Every year the buds are parasitized by some little moth, and every year it seems to make not a jot of difference to the flowering.

And the collared doves are huddled in the whitebeam for shade. I think these birds are underestimated on the looks front, with their subtle shades of cinnamon and fawn and dusty grey.

And so, there you have it. I expect a few more garden posts in the next few days, but the weather looks gorgeous. Stay safe out there, UK people, and avoid any idiots….

R.I.P Bailey, King of the Cats

Bailey, the world’s most magnificent cat in 2017

Dear Readers, a few nights ago Bailey, the King of the Cats, went to sleep for the last time at the fine old age of nineteen years. He has been so much part of our life, and of the lives of many people who lived in the County Roads, that I wanted to pay tribute to him here.

I first met Bailey before we even moved to East Finchley. We were standing on the patio of what was to become our new home when we heard a loud and persistent miaowing issuing from the bushes. Up strode Bailey. He bobbed up for a head scritch, rolled on his back and then marched up to the back door, demanding to be let in. As it  wasn’t yet our house, we decided that this probably wasn’t the best idea, but once we were living there he became a regular visitor.

On one occasion I heard the voice of Bailey’s owner, followed by an all-too familiar wailing.

“Bailey! Come down from there. Don’t make a show of yourself”.

And there was Bailey standing on top of the ten-foot fence at the end of the side return. He had gotten up there, but seemed not to have worked out how he was going to get down. We humans stood and considered what to do. I tried standing on a chair but it wasn’t quite high enough. Fortunately at that point my six foot three inch tall husband arrived home from work, fetched a stepladder and rescued him. Carrying Bailey up the road to his actual house became part of our weekly routine. I think he regarded us as some kind of taxi service for when he was too tired to walk the last hundred yards home.

We soon made friends with Bailey’s actual family (or ‘subjects’ as I’m sure he thought of them). We were in regular contact, as Bailey developed a habit of wandering off. We never fed him, but other people did, and locating him became quite a problem. I am convinced that Bailey never thought of himself as a cat, but as a small furry human being. He would make himself at home on the armchair and watch benignly as I worked. He also loved sitting in the sink, normally (but not always) when there was nothing in it. We learned that what he loved was to drink from a running tap.

Bailey trying to get us to turn the tap on by telepathy.

Finally!

You would not believe that in these photos Bailey was already fifteen years old. He retained his elegant good looks for most of his life, and he was such a popular character on the street that everyone seemed to know his name. Well, you couldn’t really miss an extremely vocal pure-white cat who simply demanded to know who you were and what you could do for him. I had the sense that Bailey always knew what he wanted, and a bit more besides. We found we had a lot in common with Bailey’s owners, and we would probably never have found out how much if Bailey hadn’t ‘introduced’ us. He always seemed preternaturally wise to me.

As the years wore on, Bailey got a bit slower and a bit stiffer, like most of us, but he was still a regular visitor to the garden. The birds never bothered about him, and I never saw him try to catch anything. Other cats scattered at a glance. He would sometimes pay a visit to the garden ‘waterhole’ for all the world like a domestic lion.

Bailey drinking from the pond

He’d always march straight up to the back door and yowl to be let in. If he caught your eye from an upstairs window he would re-double his efforts.

Let me in!

In April this year he paid a visit to the garden. He was clearly a very elderly gentleman, and yet he still announced himself in the usual way,

He was very wobbly on his legs and so we called his ‘Dad’ who came to carry him home. It is so sad to see an animal towards the end of his days, and yet Bailey was a cat who defied pity; he was still the same regal cat that he’d been when we first met him eleven years ago. He loved people, was never happier than when he was plonked down in a patch of sunshine, and seemed to be of the opinion that everything had worked out for the best. He was, as Samuel Johnson said of his beloved cat Hodge, a very fine cat indeed.

R.I.P Bailey. The street is quieter, and much sadder, without you.

 

Things You Don’t Want to See in the Wood

Dear Readers, is there anything more pleasant than to walk amongst the oak and hornbeam trees on a sunny morning, minding your own business and enjoying the song of the birds? Well, if you went down to the woods in the past few weeks you might have gotten more than you bargained for, because here in Coldfall Wood we’ve had one chap exposing himself to women walking past, and another man bursting naked from a bush to confront a woman going for a wander by herself.  Personally, I think we do ourselves no favours by ignoring these events on the basis that the person is  just a mildly comic ‘flasher’. As someone who was, as a young woman, barged into a ditch in a wood in Winchester by a completely naked man and then chased through the undergrowth after I managed to get away, I can vouch for it being terrifying. I can still remember how he smelled, and how I got welts across my arms after running through nettles and brambles. I remember thinking that I would never see my parents again, and that they wouldn’t know what had happened to me. When I finally found some people and told them about the attack, they remarked that there were some very strange people about these days, as if I’d come across someone talking to themselves or wearing a funny hat. It still makes me furious to think about myself as a young woman,  shocked and bloodied, being told that what had happened to me was so was so insignficant.

Even if you are not touched, to be suddenly confronted by someone performing a sexual act that you have no wish to witness. let alone be part of, is a kind of violation, and I suspect that the shock and disgust that it engenders is part of the thrill for the perpetrator. I know of women who’ve responded wittily and disdainfully to such events, and well done them, but in my experience men who have these kinds of compulsions will choose the mildest, most inexperienced and often the youngest of women to torment. Ask your young friends, your daughters, your nieces what’s happened to them. You might be horrified.

But what is saddest, and what is sometimes difficult for people who haven’t had such an experience to understand, is that such events have long-lasting effects. After what happened to me, I could never again enjoy being on my own in an open space without being vigilant. Believe me, when I’m in the woods I know if there’s someone around, if they look suspicious and if I’ve seen them before. In a way it makes me feel closer to the animals for whom this is their everyday reality – no sparrow or wood mouse can afford to relax their guard, and it seems that the same is true for women. I’m not saying that I’m terrified of harm every time I walk out of the door, but the possibility of something happening is real and present to me.

Nor does it stop me doing what I want to do: I walk where I want to walk, when I want to, and if sometimes I have to steel myself to get out of the door, then so be it. I made a decision all those years ago that I would not let someone stop me from enjoying the thing that gives me the most solace, the natural world. And maybe these days I’d be one of those stern women telling the miscreant to ‘put it away’. We need to reclaim the woods, because I think some men take it for granted that they are the normal inhabitants and lords of these places, and that women are an anomaly. The woods actually belong to everyone, and we have as much right to walk unmolested as anyone else.

It’s important to report incidents of indecent exposure to the police – sometimes people need treatment for their compulsions, or you may stop someone from graduating to doing something worse. Believe me, if someone does this to you, the chances are that they”ve done it before and are going to do it again, and the next person might be even more vulnerable than you are.

And chaps, if you’re walking in the woods and you see a woman on her own that you don’t know, think twice before rushing up behind her unexpectedly, and be sensitive about engaging her in conversation, especially if there’s no one else about. You might only be being friendly, but she is probably already  considering you a potential threat, however lovely you are (and I know that the men reading this blog are kind and gentle human beings). Just be thankful that, generally, you can walk in the countryside without anyone waving their private parts at you, or trying to elbow you into a ditch. You don’t know how lucky you are.

 

Professional Whistler

Dad at the Marina close to Minnesota

Dear Readers, whatever happened to whistling? When I was growing up, everyone seemed to do it. Paperboys whistled on their rounds. Van drivers wolf whistled out of their windows at any female between 11 and 65 (these days they yell obscenities which is hardly an improvement). To attract a friend’s attention, you put two fingers in your mouth and emitted a startlingly loud blast (which I could never do, but was impressed by those who could). Nowadays the paper boys (those who are left now that we all read the news online) listen to music on their phones rather than making it, and I suspect most people never learn to whistle in the first place. The only living things whistling on my street are the starlings.

Dad was a long-established whistler. He would put a Nana Mouskouri or Demis Roussos record on the player, and would tap along for the first thirty seconds. My brother and I would wait for the inevitable. Dad would pucker up and join in, invariably half a bar late and with a tune that only roughly approximated what was actually happening. Sometimes he would stop and give it another bash, and on other occasions he would rush to try to catch up. We were often in silent stitches by the end of the performance, but Dad would always look quietly content, as if the race had been difficult but he’d got there in the end.

I don’t remember the last time I heard Dad whistle. It might have been around the time that he was diagnosed with COPD, but for years he’d barely had the breath to sit in his reclining chair comfortably. As his health, and Mum’s, declined, there was precious little to whistle about. But when I had lunch with him in the home in March last year, they were playing Spanish music and serving Spanish food, and I saw him tapping along with Julio Iglesias. He puckered up at one point, as if about to start, but then the Spanish chicken turned up and he set to with enthusiasm. It was the last time that I ever ate with Dad, or had a proper conversation with him, because he died on 31st March. The tuneless whistler was finally silenced, and there will never be a performance like it again.

How amused Dad would have been to hear that there is such a thing as a professional whistler! I thought of him when I read this piece in The Guardian yesterday. Here’s an excerpt:

‘Sitting by the deathbed of the Hollywood veteran Harry Dean Stanton, professional whistler Molly Lewis delivered her most poignant performance to date. The Australian-born musician whistled otherworldly versions of Danny Boy and Just a Closer Walk from Thee, the gospel ballad Stanton croons in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke. “He kissed my hand – it was such a beautiful moment”, remembers Lewis of her intimate 2017 performance”.

So, naturally I had to have a listen myself. For your delectation, here is the video for Lewis’s 2021 single ‘Oceanic Feeling’. I think the sound is utterly beautiful, but it might be better listened to rather than watched – it’s difficult not to be distracted by the comic appearance of someone whistling.  See what you think!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZ6vuWFxvGM