In all the turmoil over Brexit I found a wonderful retreat in Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells. So much of his experience mirrored mine that it was quite comforting. His persecution by a dreadful nanny confirmed my experience that so many upper middle class parents before the war and even after it shuffled off their responsibility for their children to unsuitable carers. On the other hand, as I did, he loved exploring the beautiful area in which he grew up. When he went to school he suffered, as so many others including myself did, the bullying by his contemporaries for being different. In contrast to that he loved being able to roam free round his beloved Cornwall and my childhood visits to Cornwall laid the foundation of a lifelong delight so that even this year we are staying at a hotel which I first discovered when I was just eleven. The other place of freedom was university which he took advantage of so much that he was thrown out of it for failing his exams, while I came very close to that, getting a very poor degree while being an exhibitioner and in today’s world of competition I too would certainly have been asked to leave.
The poem ends with his bluffing his way to being a cricket master at a prep school and although his bluff was called he managed to survive more than a year while one of his colleagues was thrown out for driving over the cricket pitch. I too landed a teaching position at a cricket pavilion and found in the course of a year that I had no idea how to keep discipline. The last link in the chain was his connection with T.S. Eliot who was one of his prep school masters and to whom he much later showed his poems, while my wife and I, involved in the setting up of the T.S. Eliot Society, were able to invite his widow to the first ever annual T.S. Eliot Festival.
The recent murder of Jo Cox is an example of a martyrdom in the cause of freedom of speech and freedom of movement. As my mother’s family, called Lefroy, were welcomed here when they fled from persecution in Cambrai in Northern France I am obviously prejudiced in favour of treating refugees well. If this had not happened to my family I would not be here.
Over the last few months there has been a considerable increase in violence in many attitudes to those who have come to our shores for whatever reason. The whole Brexit campaign appears to have been skewed largely to consider this one thing. As refugees and migrants have become the scapegoats for the cuts which have bedevilled our society the Government has been able to get away with a confidence trick. They have claimed that their austerity measures, which have robbed ordinary people, but especially the poor, of so many of the best things in life were a necessity. They were not. The £80 billion and more that have been taken away could have easily been recouped by making the banks and corporations pay what they have owed which comes almost exactly to that amount.
Lack of social housing, forcing the low paid and unemployed to choose between going hungry and not being able to keep themselves warm, lack of provision for young people including cuts to Sure Start, are examples of the ways in which those at the bottom of the ladder have been hit, while the whole of society has suffered from seeing libraries being forced to close, post offices being forced to make great profits or go under, chemists losing their funding, to name but a few.
Which way, in view of all this, we each vote next week in the referendum is entirely up to us, but I follow Caroline Lucas, our only Green MP, in believing that if we detach ourselves from the EU, with all its faults, under the present government we would lose all the incentive there is to be concerned with such things as workers’ rights and the environment.
Recently at Little Gidding I was sitting next to a young woman from Australia, as one does, and I was telling her about my growing vegetables in pots and she introduced me to the idea of self-watering pots, no doubt badly needed in Australia.
My wife rang round in her usual efficient way and located some at Dobbie’s, a vast garden centre in Peterborough. Once there we were sidetracked into having a delicious cream tea, accompanied by piano music, despite the fact that the grand piano stood open but there was no pianist. After that we found something rather appealing in self-watering troughs, which consisted of two feet long containers with a platform with holes in, underneath which one pours the water or rain collects and on top of which one puts soil and compost. A pipe like a periscope leads down to the bottom of the trough for additional watering as and when required. Although they were just what we wanted we thought they were quite expensive so we bought just six and made up the difference with do-it-yourself ones. These consisted of the large cheaper round or square pots we had bought previously in which we made no holes and in them we stood smaller pots in which we did make holes. With a dozen of these and all the pots we already had we got together enough to plant 100 vegetables.
In the troughs we have planted lettuce, sprouts and celeriac and we have sown radishes. In pots we also have planted herbs: parsley, fennel, sage, mint and chives. Some of these we had left over from the vegetable garden we had to abandon, when we were told we could not grow vegetables in the ground, as I have recounted earlier.
We have lots of cauliflower in individual pots, broad beans, runner beans, peas, chard and squash. Most of our planting has depended on what was available at the local market and at the nearest garden centre.
The weather so far has been such that no watering has been needed since the initial planting. Some will hopefully continue to blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree where others will no doubt wither and perish; we must just wait and see what will work and what will not, for that generally is what life is like.
In 2014 as I was coming up to 80 I decided it was a good moment to start rowing again. My last serious rowing was 65 years ago when I reached the finals of the junior sculls at my school! However I did cox the fourth and last boat of my college at Cambridge, so appropriately my debut at the local rowing club was as a cox of a senior citizens’ four. I managed to steer them into the bank several times but otherwise it was fine except that I was never asked again, so I took to steering my own boat alternating that with going in pairs, with ladies who seemed to be spare like me. Between the autumn of 2014 and 2015 I managed to get in about fifteen trips without serious incident, making my way the two miles to the boathouse on my electric bike or on foot. My fellow rowers were very helpful in trying to prevent me from lifting weights which were too heavy for me. Then there was a gap of about eight months while I dealt with various ailments until May of this year when I started again. I teamed up with a fellow oldie whom I recruited but who had done rather better than I, being actually allowed at times to join the elite four. We took two trips together, the first one going fine apart from the fact that again my steering wasn’t too good and we ran into several reed banks. However the second was not so uneventful. This time when we got on to the bank we managed to capsize the boat trying to extricate ourselves. Fortunately the famous four were not too long in rowing our way, but then they had to go back to the boathouse to launch the motor boat to come to our rescue. This took a little while so that we had twenty minutes in a very cold river. We managed to keep afloat by hanging on to the boat and treading water like mad, but we also managed to get close to freezing. When we got ashore my friends in whose car I had come was able to drive me back home where I was wrapped in dry towels. Our lovely warden heard what had happened and immediately came rushing over and dialed 999 with the result that we very soon had a paramedic and two ambulance drivers dancing attendance. They were all wonderfully helpful and sanguine about my foolishness, gave me oxygen, took various tests and most kindly stayed until my temperature and blood pressure had risen to normal limits and then I was sent to bed with a hot water bottle. This put a rather inglorious end to my brief rowing career for good, as I was firmly told by all concerned. All part of life’s rich tapestry, as they say, which in my case I recently described as a comedy of errors.
Despite a tendency for people to send greetings by email, most of us still receive quite a supply of cards, not only at Christmas and Easter, but for birthdays, get well, thank you or just pretty picture post cards. I imagine that, like us, you can find space on a windowsill – we have a spacious one – or mantelpiece – we don’t have one – and leave them there to enjoy for a little while, but then what? Some people, who are good at that sort of thing, may be able to alter them for reuse, while otherwise we probably recycle them if we are concerned about the environment. But we have come up with something completely different: we have found a large envelope and stuff our favourites inside it and after a while we begin to take them out one by one, day by day. It is amazing how often we find ourselves looking at them properly for the first time. Then, when we have enjoyed the picture, the cause, if it supports one, the printed and/or written message, all this enables us to remember the person or persons who have sent it, and, perhaps, the last occasion when we met. This can become a prayer for that person and we have a ready-made subject for prayer for up to 365 days of the year (we are bound to forget to look at one or two or are too busy to do it that day). Sometimes this reminds us that we need to communicate with that person, having perhaps recently lost touch with them, so we can give them a ring, send an email or even send a card back. Once we have made a thorough scrutiny of the card and maybe found something really surprising, like a beautiful Christmas card designed by Eric Gill which celebrates the fact that it was animals who first gave praise to our Saviour, we then have another envelope where it can go into store and be brought out again at a much later date, unless we decide that that particular card has had its day and can be disposed of. If you have a special time of day when you pray for other people, that is the ideal time to do it. We would love to hear if any of you is doing it already or would like to have a go.
Kind people often lend or give me books to read. Sometimes I read them out of a high sense of duty! I am usually a very slow reader but yesterday I managed to skim-read a whole book in one hour, which was all that was needed. At the beginning of this year I was given a book by a friend from our Staffordshire days who has the wonderful knack of finding just the right books for both of us. This one was called Meadlowland by John Lewis Stempel and it is the month by month account of an unimproved meadow of four acres in Herefordshire. As many people know, all but 3% of meadows have been what is called improved; that is a variety of grasses and wild flowers have been removed and in their place has generally been planted or sown unadulterated rye grass on the assumption that that provides better feed for stock. This has been kept in place with fertilisers and herbicides. In his January chapter the author gives this definition of meadow: “Meadow is surprisingly strict in its meaning and is from the old English moedowe, being related to mawan, to mow. A meadow is place where grass and flowers are grown for hay, the dry winter food for livestock. A meadow is not a natural habitat; it is a relationship between nature, man and beast. At its best it is also equilibrium, artistry”
In his section for May 14, which I am now reading, the author records the result of this artistry in this one four acre field bounded by hedges and trees.
Another uproarious morning of birdsong to greet the rise of light. The dawn chorus is also an aid to who is nesting and where. Male birds proclaim their ownership by singing from a conspicuous vantage point. In the field’s hedges this morning there are three pairs of blue tits, two robins, two wrens, one song thrush, one long-tailed tit, two blackbirds, one great tit, one chaffinch, one hedge sparrow. Mid morning and the curlews have stopped their singing. I miss it so.”
Meadowland is my ideal bedtime book: it helps me to go to sleep calmly while maintaining my interest, and every so often I can give myself a treat by substituting it for whatever else I feel I have to read.
Seven years ago we moved to a complex for elderly people like us. Our neighbour down below, a lady in her nineties, was a keen grower of vegetables, the only one among the forty five residents, apart from one who was sensible enough to grow his vegetables in an allotment two miles away. Our neighbour had been growing her veg since she moved in when the flats were first built. Her speciality was runner beans which were very successful, growing to a considerable height. I joined her with these and gradually added others till I had about eight different varieties of vegetable. Four years ago sadly she had to move away. Soon after I was informed that there had always been a rule, which nobody had mentioned, that vegetables were not allowed except in pots. I was rather sad about this and I dispatched all my raspberry canes to Little Gidding, our last home, where I had turned a grass walled space into a very productive garden, complete with a fig tree and espalier Cox. I speculated that I had been punished as I am an extremely untidy gardener and my garden was the most untidy patch in the whole complex.
After a while my wife Judith took me in hand and found an excellent RHS publication all about growing in pots. This said that the best sort of pots were plastic ones, so Judith found me a discount store in Peterborough which sold good sized plastic pots at a very reasonable price, so we brought home a dozen to add to the half dozen we had inherited. We then had a leaflet through the door from the milkman saying that he was selling peat-free compost so we ordered two large bags of that and Judith also found some blocks of Traidcraft coir compost to which one added five litres of water and we got two of those Some time ago we had been told we were not allowed to make our own compost because it would attract flies. We looked through the RHS book and chose eight varieties of vegetables again and then had to decide whether to plant seeds or seedlings. Seeds would be cheaper but seedlings would be more reliable, so we will probably do a mixture of both. As it is May it is the ideal time of year as I was once told that it is risky to plant much earlier because of possible frosts.
This reminds me that when Lloyd George came up against difficulties he used to sit on the bank and watch the way the river did not try to knock over a boulder but went round it.
50 years ago I spent a year in Greece studying the rural church there. I found that the smallest village had their own locally ordained priest whose job it was to be the local pastor and to conduct all services in the local church but not to preach, so that he did not have to be trained in theology: preaching in the church and teaching in the schools was the job of theologically trained lay people.
Ever since then I have wondered why we could not do the same, especially in our rural areas. It seemed to me that every parish could produce at least one or two people who could be the local church leader or leaders.. Unfortunately the dominant trend went the other way, which was to bring together a collection of parishes under one full-time incumbent. In some places this has worked well, but in many others it has put an excessive amount of stress on the incumbent. However in some dioceses local people have been ordained and in one parish in Staffordshire a retired teacher is making a great success of being in charge of a parish of 1000 people. She has the backing of a group of lay people called out by the Church Council to meet with her on a regular basis to pray, study and plan for the way forward and she is also backed up by another team which guides a dozen parishes, of which hers is one, all working together and serviced by a group consisting of full-time stipendiary clergy, other local clergy and lay ministers. This arrangement has two main advantages, the first that no ministers are isolated in their ministry and secondly that those clergy and laity who wish to contribute are encouraged to do so in the way that is right for them on an equal basis. When I was working in that setup as part of a ministry team I felt greatly relieved from having to work on my own.
It has become the custom to make a big thing of birthdays that end with 0. I have just come through the ritual of entering my 81st year during which people routinely ask me if I feel different, to which I either reply “not at all” or “I’m really ancient now” according to the temperament of the questioner. In fact crossing that boundary can give one the chance to look back in anguish or anger or even pride over the previous x number of years. It’s pretty well bound to be a mixture with a leaning towards one or the other way, again according to one’s temperament. I must confess to feeling a little satisfaction at having got that far in reasonable shape, but given the fact that my father lived till he was 103 it is not so surprising.
Usually my birthday, January 2nd, is a rather insignificant adjunct to Christmas, but this time it was the other way round. For almost the first time we didn’t all congregate over Christmas, but five grandchildren, two daughters, and two sons-in-law with the addition of a brother-in-law and a nephew/godson all assembled at a place in a nearby village complete with a swimming pool and a table tennis table. Usually 2 or 3 regulars kindly remember to send cards but this time I had loads of most imaginative cards and emails from the most surprising people. My wife arranged two parties, one a lunch in a pub with a Spanish menu, where a variety of people who had known our daughters as little girls 40 years ago could take a second look, joined the family on the day, and on the next day a tea party with a cutting of the cake to which all the residents of our complex were invited. The octave was rounded off by my two same daughters arranging for the old couple to have a night in a local spa
Once upon a time we used to rejoice in receiving cards from our friends and family with a printed message of Merry Christmas or some such, and, if we were lucky, a brief expression of affection. One variation at this stage was that a host of charities saw cards as an ideal way of bringing in some cash and many of us obliged. The first step on from a plain card would be a few scribbled lines of news which quite soon developed into a typed sheet of paper folded inside the card. But typed news became insufficient: it had to be accompanied by photos even though they might be so small that it was difficult to distinguish what or whom they depicted. This went on for a while till the great internet revolution which prompted us who were too mean to pay for buying cards and posting them resorted to emails, the more skillful carrying on the tradition of including photographs. The final refinement was a Jacqui Lawson E card which could have choir boys trotting into a church or doves flying around a tree. So what next?
As with so many things that are new there will always be some, thank goodness, who will prefer the traditional ways of doing things. I say thank goodness because otherwise we receptors would be deprived of the joy of desperately trying to find homes for the lovely multitude of cards which still comes through our door. For many of us there is a mixed economy. We may send newsletters to people who send us newsletters, we may send emails to those who use email and we may still follow the good old way of finding just the right card for the rest , especially if they are not the slightest bit interested in having to read all the details of what we and, if we have them, our children have been up to. And we may continue to rejoice in supporting one of our favourite charities even if it does cost us an extra bob or two.
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