The answer my friend…

…is blowing in the wind etc. just like everything else in Plymouth. I was trying to take a photo of my book to tell you about it and the wind just keeps interfering with the cover. If I had an ounce of sense in my head I would have done it inside but the idea was to show you a late summer evening. Ha! I’m thinking of calling time on Summer this year and getting HOH to bring the balcony furniture in. I have a recurring nightmare that it will blow over the balcony and kill a dog walker and I will be filmed for Spotlight news, handcuffed, and getting bundled into the back of a Black Maria. I must get more sleep. It has rained the bally down half the day here and even when the sun came through, it was a bit choppy. I understand that for some of the people of many lands who read this, it may be a completely different season but I can’t help that. It is all about me, as you know.

I have just finished A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Someone recommended it online but I can’t remember who. What a lovely book this is. Set in 1922 in Moscow, it tells the story of Count Alexander Rostov – a member of the Russian Aristocracy. As the Russian Revolution trundled on and it became clear that the score was going to be Bolsheviks 1 Aristocracy 0, many aristocrats were brought before tribunals. Rostov was sentenced to live under house arrest in the Hotel Metropol. Previously, he had lived in a luxurious suite but now he must live in an attic room in the hotel – for a long, long time.

This is a story about how he lives his life in these reduced circumstances. How the people who served him, become his friends and colleagues. It’s about the guests he meets and those who make room in his heart as he does in theirs. It’s funny and affecting and tense as well because he is sometimes in danger. The whole book gives your soul a bit of a rub down in these testing times. I loved it and I have decided it will be a brilliant film starring Ralph Fiennes. Who do I call?

Speaking of calling, Aged Parent has found the 999 buttons on her phone again. She has a chest infection and had decided that it needed top-level attention. Now, you may not remember but last year she went through a heavy 999 phase and for about only the third time in my life I lost it with her because one night she phoned them without running it past me first, I had to wait with her for five hours for the ambulance during which time it became obvious that there was nothing wrong with her – later confirmed by overworked paramedics. So this time she was a bit cagey when I heard the ambulance had been called again – twice.

Explanation 1

I don’t know where they came from. I just opened my eyes and two paramedics were standing there.

Me – Unlikely.

Explanation 2

The carers called them.

Me – They say they didn’t. They say you did.

Explanation 3

Did they? Well, I did dial the numbers but someone rang me up just before and said “Listen to your chest, Beryl. Ring 999 now.”

Me – Who was that then?

No idea. They just rung and told me to phone.

Hmm. Was it you dear reader? Just put your hand up and confess and we’ll say no more about it. Please don’t say it was God because he loves me very much and would not do that to me. Anyway, she is on antibiotics now so should feel better. I, however, am very tired. Have a good weekend.

Definitely Older

Saturday morning, flicking through the newspaper and noticing yesterday’s telly page I say “Drat!” HOH enquires what the problem is. “I missed Gardners’ World.” There’s a brief moment when we look at each other and then I realise that I am officially an old biddy. (We don’t have a garden but I love Gardener’s World. We have a couple of small balconies which HOH tends to but we are unlikely to be harvesting corn on the cob anytime soon).

I have also sent for a knitting kit, which I confirm is absolutely NOT the most cost-effective way to do any kind of craft. No laughing at the back all you craft types. Big needles, straight lines – that’s the kind of knitting I like. It will be a cardi one day – you mark my words. Unfortunately, I am unable to give you any kind of clue as to when that day will be but the finest knitting minds in this apartment are working on it. Aged Parent used to knit a lot when she was younger. She was very good but she wouldn’t teach me – she said she didn’t have the patience. However, she did make me the most amazing cable cricket sweater so swings and roundabouts eh? She gave it up in the end because she said it was making her nerves bad – all the counting and the concentrating. I suspect that will not be a problem with me.

She is doing ok by the way. This week she has been to a picnic, a cream tea in the dining room, watched a film about spies that sounded quite confusing, and attended 4 afternoon’s worth of Bingo. So, last week I spent every night in, watching telly and knitting while she is giving the Bouvier sisters a run for their money. In answer to your next question – no it isn’t cheering her up particularly. I suppose the potency of such a glittering social life pales for the best of us in the end.

Is anyone noticing a slight autumnal tinge out there now? There does seem to be a little edge to the air and HOH’s habit of leaving the doors to the balcony open (fresh air/sunset views/annoying me – pick your reason) is beginning to attract wildlife. One evening this week we were joined by a moth that was so large, it could easily have been accompanied by the theme from The Dambusters. I did my usual thing of running into the bathroom and closing the door. (Please do not comment and say they are more scared of me than I am of them. Firstly, you cannot possibly know that, and secondly, I am not sure that would be physically possible). HOH goes looking for the moth and can’t find it anywhere. This is troubling news and I announce that I am like Gene Pitney and I can never, ever come home again or, at least until this is found. Anyway, it turns up two days later when HOH is on a late shift – flying out from behind a rice jar. Do not tell me it didn’t know that the most insect-useless person in the house was home alone. That was a long night.

I think the change of the seasons is bringing the continuing pandemic into focus. I have really enjoyed lots of the online offerings and particularly want to draw your attention to Tony Collins on Kindred of the Quiet Way this morning but I would like to go to church now. I would like to sit in the same room as like-minded people and drink rubbish coffee and have myself steeled against the week to come.

COVID-19 has put a foot on the brakes and that is not an entirely bad thing. Leaving aside the death and destruction, there have been things to learn, things to enjoy, and time to look at a different perspective. But, there is a sense that time is passing and opportunities are being missed. I saw a brief thing by Paul Scanlon saying that the cavalry isn’t coming – start what you can now, begin what you think you may be being called to do, and expect God to do what is needed. Outside of my paid work, I sometimes feel I have been a bit lazy in lockdown but time is passing, the days are shorter and opportunities are more precious and I am older. I am definitely older.

Knights and Honour and all that jazz

How is your week going? Unfortunately, I, like the great Karen Carpenter, have been talking to myself and feeling old. (Rainy days and Mondays in case you are wondering. That’s the first line. The rest of it doesn’t cheer up really). Even the fact that Aged Parent gave me her Mint Aero which she won at the Bingo (Chocolate gives me wind – you have it) has not brought me any nearer good cheer.

I have watched the media this week and like another husky-voiced songstress, Bonnie Tyler, I have wondered where all the heroes are. On an entirely useless digression, does anyone remember that “I Need a Hero” was the theme to a terrible 80s TV series in which a beautiful model type chap would flirt furiously with his widowed lady boss while fighting crime etc. etc. Despite him being quite obviously gay which meant method acting was off the menu. I think it was called “Cover Up”. Lasted one season. One season too many probably.

So, where are the Good Guys? When we sang “When a Knight Won His Spurs” at school it was considered to be a good thing to be honourable, courageous and true. Please do not write in about the problematic Crusades. I’m just trying to make a point here.

When I was young, if people, especially people in public life made a big cock up – when they were proved to have been negligent – they resigned. This will be astonishing to young people. It never happens now. This week the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson took his abject failure to provide anything like a credible results service to the young people of this country as an opportunity to arrange a photo-shoot behind his desk which was adorned with a bullwhip. (For one moment I thought his ego had allowed him to imagine he reminded us of Indiana Jones – trust me, no-one looked like Harrison Ford in that movie – no-one). But apparently it was because he used to be The Chief Whip or something. Anyway, resignation does not seem to be on the cards.

Also in my day cronyism or jobs for the boys or nepotism whatever you would like to call it was considered bad form. Now we can close whole science departments down, set up new ones and give them to our friend Dido Harding to run (Apparently, giving it to to a scientist to run was a no go). See also Liz Truss/Michael Gove etc.

Then when a young man commits an atrocity at the Manchester Arena where 22 people die, and he doesn’t feel the need to attend the sentencing or listen to the witness statements of the bereaved, he doesn’t have to. Perhaps he is a coward, perhaps he had something more pressing on. I can’t help thinking that I would have been happy to fireman’s lift him up into the courtroom myself but he does have rights and I understand that. But to attend and look these people in the eye would have been the right thing to do.

The lines around right behaviour seem more blurry these days. There doesn’t even seem to be a pretence that you are at least giving it a go. I don’t know if it makes you more or less cheered if I told you that even as far back as Ezekiel in The Old Testament, God was looking for people to do the right thing. (How far back is was Ezekiel? Not sure really – Old Testament – long way back – certainly further than Jimmy Tarbuck)

I looked for someone to stand up for me against all this, to repair the defences of the city, to take a stand for me and stand in the gap to protect this landI couldn’t find anyone. Not one.

Thing is though. He didn’t give up. Not on me. Not on you. Not on the principles of there being a right thing to do. I’m not saying everything in the olden days was good – see press-gangs, rickets, Terry and June. And I am aware that lots of dastardly people used laws and justice to do very unjust things. All I’m saying is that right is still right, honour has not left the earth and all the original instructions on how to live still stand.

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
    what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbour,
    be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don’t take yourself too seriously—
    take God seriously.

There you go. Be of good cheer and follow this – not all that other stuff. You’ll feel better for it.

Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean?

By Fran Hill

We wagged church today and walked on Bigbury Beach in the rain. It was lovely – it was spitting a bit really, not raining. There is a lot of posturing in wetsuits always happening at this time of year on Devon and Cornwall beaches. A lot of people would like you to believe that they are experts in something that they have never ever done before and are trying very hard to impress cool young people who know their way around a surfboard. I am glad I am old and decrepit and no-one will ever mistake me for a surfer. Still, there is amusement to be had. We watched an American gentleman talking to a lifeguard and trying really hard to pretend his Weever fish sting wasn’t really killing him. (They’re tiny but they have needles in their spines which they share with unsuspecting humans by burying themselves in the sand just where the beach meets the sea – just where bare feet will be a wandering – the little rascals). Bless him, I think he was panicking a bit because how could something that small deliver that much pain. However, a nice lifeguard gave him a laminated sheet to read which assured him that people hardly ever go into toxic shock or have a heart attack and he seemed a bit comforted.

Just before the book review and there is a connection – it’s about a teacher – it’s tenuous but it’s there. Can I just put my two penneth in and say why on earth can’t we just give pupils the grades their teachers gave them? Ok, some may be a bit high but this has not been a normal year. Let these poor kids go to uni and have a great time. If they are not good enough they will know soon enough. And, unlike members of this government, they will probably hold their hands up straight away and say so. We are in the middle of a pandemic. No-one has failed because no-one has been able to take their exams and it wasn’t their fault. Give them a break! Phew. Going for a lie down in a dark room now.

Anyway, the book. This is a diary of a schoolteacher. It’s a bit in the style of Bridget Jones with a visit to the scales and the mirror every morning to examine menopausal acne. I was a bit worried at first because I’m not sure that Adrian Plass has done the author any favours by describing her as “The Victoria Wood of the classroom.”. That’s a high bar there. So it is a joy to discover that the book is a really good laugh with genuine laugh out loud moments. Fran is obviously a teacher and knows her stuff – especially about the heavy load of outside school hours work which, at one point seems to be taking its toll on her whole life. The most joyous parts are the parts with the pupils who she obviously adores (and also feels driven to the end of her tether by) and you do get a great picture of how rewarding teaching is and why people do it – despite the bone-numbing exhaustion. I had a look at the Amazon reviews which are almost uniformly excellent apart from one person who winges about the Christian element of the book. I have a few things to say about that. Firstly, if this is supposed to be a rounded and honest appraisal of what makes this woman tick then it should include her spiritual life. Secondly, if this is your idea of too much Christian content, you need to get out more – or maybe read the books I was “encouraged ” to read as a youngster. Thirdly (and I really don’t want to sound like some terrible right-wing strange person here but here goes). If she were a Buddhist and mentioned that every Wednesday night she met up with mates to go a chanting – I am willing to bet good money that it wouldn’t even get a mention. Does my head in.

I’d like to see a sequel, to be honest, as, towards the end, we get to find out a bit more about her past life and I think it would be good to know more about how this has affected her as it comes out in the open. Anyway, this is really good. It’s writing with depth but it’s really funny about a normal person doing a sterling job. There’s also a good deal of writing about cake which is apparently what is keeping the teaching profession going under a great deal of pressure and that can certainly never be a bad thing.

I like it warm…

but not this warm! We have a heatwave in the South West of England. So we got on the ferry and had a small tincture by the sea. I was slightly concerned by the colour of that sky as I knew we would have to get back on the ferry and would rather not do it in torrential (if warm) rain. You may well have it hotter. We also have a tourist wave. Devon and Cornwall are officially full according to local police etc. That is, under COVID-19 reduced capacity rules we cannot fit anyone in.

It is a difficult balance, isn’t it? For every person leaning over a motorway bridge with a sign saying “GO HOME!” there’s someone else with a small cafe or B&B that needs every penny of the business. It seems to be a bigger deal here because the South West has done quite well so far with the old R rate (probably as much to do with the population density as it is the sterling work undoubtedly done by us) People in St Ives are particularly fascinated by tourists’ inability to keep to the left side of the street, despite lots of signs supported by stout and helpful ladies in green polo shirts called Barbara who are giving up their free time to help direct you around. (Mind you St Ives’ streets are notoriously narrow and winding).

Speaking of directions, can I just draw your attention to our local shopping mall – Drake Circus? (It’s Plymouth – Drake’s Island, Drake’s Square, Drake’s Place. The City Council were having huge palpitations when the Black Lives Matter movement turned their gaze on his troubling slave-trading beginnings). To follow the social distancing directions in the mall you need a good compass, Google Maps and if possible the services of Hiawatha or Henry Stanley. I keep finding myself facing the wrong way while I am trying to get into Waterstones and one person cutting across the lanes in the opposite direction seems to throw the whole shopping centre (all three floors) into disaster movie-level chaos.

Anyway, these are piddling things. I would just like to thank everyone for the remarks and prayers that you sent last week. I have deliberately not replied one to one because it didn’t seem appropriate and also it felt a bit inadequate. But I was moved and encouraged and felt the way people feel when they have been prayed for – which I have known before. So my heartfelt thanks.

I have had a week where I have tried to slow down and lament a little but it has mainly left me a bit confused. (And behind at work). However, I did have a lovely conversation with one of his friends from the Sixties who had gone to church with him. No-one had been in touch with him and I thought he ought to know. He lives in Torquay and we had a laugh about the holidays there when I was very young. Conversations like that are good for the soul. Also, HOH took me out for breakfast which we did in a socially distanced way – sitting outside (at least until the thunder started), ordering on the app (no provision to order sausage barm WITHOUT butter) and leaving details for contact tracing (pen and paper rather than “world-beating” app). It was very lovely.

I was a bit concerned about Aged Parent but, whether it’s dementia or the fact that their relationship wasn’t exactly Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson, she hasn’t mentioned it – except to say that she won’t be going to the funeral. I’m not sure it was ever an option – for either of us. She was more worked up because they couldn’t get the DVD to load on the communal showing of The Sound of Music, to be honest, and I think that is a good way to be, taking into account all the circumstances.