Wednesday, 23 July 2014

56 Up and 55 Down

Last night I caught the end of  Michael Apted's fascinating documentary '56 Up'.  I have always been particularly drawn to this programme because the children originally chosen were just a couple of years older than me.  So I've decided to join in.  On Friday I celebrated my 55th birthday - I am now old enough to cash in my pension - how did that happen?  Apted films his subjects every 7 years so I'm going to do the same in photographs, but go backwards in 7 year blocks. Indulge me, readers, if you are still here.

55 in 2014.  Chester.  Mother of teenager, part-time English teacher, still married to Paul. Missing my father who died in November last year.

48, 2007. This photo of me and Kate aged 8 was taken on holiday to Venice.  We'd moved to Chester in 2001- Paul's job again - and I'd spent a bit of time as a full-time mum before returning to part-time teaching. Here I am enjoying life again after a bout of serious illness in 2006.  Loved being a mother, but missing my own mother who died in 2004.

41 (Well actually still 40 here), 2000.  Diss, Norfolk.  Evening of the Millennium.  A happy time - the baby we'd hoped for eventually arrived.

34, 1993.  Actually I think this photo might be 1994.  We'd moved again my then to East Anglia with Paul's job. I'm with my mother at UEA Norwich receiving my MA in Education.  Career success - I was about to start a new job as Head of English at Stowmarket High School. But not a happy time - longing for a baby but no success.  

27, 2006.  Saltersland Presbyterian Church and then Moyola Lodge, Castledawson.  I got married to Paul who was from Liverpool and the friend of my sister's boyfriend.   I had been teaching English, a bit of French and some Drama since 1984, after a short spell of working for travel companies in London which I hated. Office work not for me.  Started to teach in London then moved to Luton where we could afford to buy a house.  It cost £25,000 and had one bedroom.  We sold it a couple of years later for twice this and moved to Burnley in 1988.

20, 1979 Photo taken in Paris on Bastille night.  I was spending six months there as part of my joint degree course in English and French at Salford University.  I had a great time but didn't learn much French as I spent all my time with English friends, also in Paris.  Sadly I've lost touch with these two. Those purple dungarees were my favourite item of clothing at the time.  Oh dear!  

14, 1972 Ballyronan. With sisters Diane and Pamela.  Actually it can't be 1972 as Pamela looks about 3 so it's more like 1974.  But it's the closest I could get.  Note the 'bell bottom' trousers as we called them.  I was studying for my 'O' Levels at the Rainey Endowed School in Magherafelt.  But I was more interested in hanging around the marina in Ballyronan with my cousin Lorna looking for boys.

7, 1965 On holiday in Portrush.  I'm on the right with my sisters Diane and Sylvia, the one sticking her tongue out.  This photo clearly illustrates our family roles: I was the good girl (look at how I am crossing my arms); she was the naughty one.

That's taken me all morning: dog unwalked, bathroom not cleaned, garden unmowed.  Would anyone like to join in my 55 down project?  If I was clever with technology I could set up a linky thing.  But I'm not, so I'll leave it to you.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Summer Holiday Sloth

After two weeks of frenetic end of term activity, the summer holidays have now started.  Last year year we went on holiday immediately and had quite a busy summer visiting relatives and also doing a bit of redecorating at home.  This year we don't have so many plans and to be honest I don't mind.  It's relaxing to potter about in pjs all morning and achieve nothing more in the day than making something nice to eat for tea.

I'm enjoying spending time with my daughter, aware that the long slow summers with her will come to an end in a few years time.  We are less likely to clash when the pressure of school isn't there and she can sleep as much as she wants.  I'm not booking her into any of those activities she used to do like Stagecoach drama. She's not so keen and is happy to entertain herself.  Unfortunately this usually means watching rubbish TV. (The latest dreadful programme is something called 'I Wanna Marry Harry' - fake prince, gullible American girls competing for him.)  She also spends a lot of time watching a girl from Brighton called Zooella on You Tube. She 'internet famous' according to Kate because she makes video logs of her life which loads of teenagers watch. Should I be restricting this and insisting that she takes more exercise and does improving reading like Jane Eyre?  No, I'm no tiger mum - I'm going to let her take the summer at her own pace.  It's her last chance because GCSEs begin for her in September so she'll be on the exam hamster wheel for the next however many years.  Let it go...

Our sloth contrasts with husband's very busy life.  One of the reasons we haven't gone away is that he has just returned from a trip to Italy.  With his nephew, he drove 2,000 miles across Europe and back to compete in the Maratona, a challenging cycle event in the Dolomites.  They did it but it was tough with lots of climbing and they struggled to cope with the altitude.  And now he's back at work, up early every day for his long commute while I'm still in bed.

Yesterday was my birthday and I had a lovely day.  It started with a morning walk in Delamere Forest with husband, who'd taken the day off, and the dog.  Then a relaxing couple of hours at the hairdresser's eliminating my grey roots.  Kate and her friend who slept over on Thursday evening had made me a Lemon Layer Cake and in the afternoon a few friends called for tea and cake.  Moved on by 5pm to the bottle of champagne husband had brought back from his trip - he'd stopped off en route to Italy at a vineyard in Reims.  Then out to our favourite local restaurant where I had aubergine parmigana which was delicious.

My present from my husband was a Polar Loop activity monitor.  So next week will be able to measure just how idle I am.   

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Twelfth

Today is the Twelfth.  Most of you won't have any notion what I'm talking about.  When I was a child in Northern Ireland the twelfth of July was a big day out.  We'd go and watch the bands parade, the flute and accordions and even pipers in kilts.   There were banners showing a man with long curly hair on a white horse.   We'd eat strawberries from little wooden boxes and follow the bands and the men in their bowler hats and orange collarettes to a field where some men would make speeches we didn't listen to and we had a picnic.

It wasn't until I was a teenager that I realised that this big day out wasn't for everyone in Northern Ireland.

This morning on the news there was an item on the news about the Twelfth in Northern Ireland and the likelihood of sectarian violence later today because of disputed routes for the parades.  The presenter on the BBC could hardly disguise his contempt for the marchers and how he considered it ridiculous to be making a fuss about walking along particular stretch of road.  They had an 'expert' from Liverpool University who explained that the community is still largely divided into Catholics and Protestants with few integrated schools or what he described as 'mixed' marriages.  Sad but true.

When I meet new people in England and they realise that I'm from Northern Ireland, they often ask me if I am Catholic.  I'm always a little embarrassed to admit I'm from Heaney's The Other Side.  No one from Northern Ireland ever does this.  We don't need to: things like names or schools give it away.  As Heaney said in 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing', ‘the rule/ that Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod/ and Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape’.

This  article by Jenny McCartney  published in 'The Spectator' last year, 'Seamus Heaney's poems are for Protestants too',  explains what I'm trying to say better than I can. And, as I can't seem to stop myself these days, another poem:

The Other Side
Seamus Heaney

Thigh deep in sedge and marigolds
a neighbour laid his shadow
on the stream, vouching

'It's poor as Lazarus, that ground,'
and brushed away 
among the shaken leafage.

I lay where his lea sloped
to meet our fallow,
nested in moss and rushes,

my ear swallowing 
his fabulous, biblical dismissal,
that tongue of chosen people.

When he would stand like that
on the other side, white-haired, 
swinging his blackthorn

at the marsh weeds, 
he prophesised above our scraggy acres,
then turned away

towards his promised furrows
on the hill, a wake of pollen 
drifting to our bank, next season's tares.


For days we would rehearse
each patriarchal dictum:
Lazarus, the Pharoah, Solomon

and David and Goliath rolled 
magnificently, like loads of hay
too big for our small lanes,

or faltered on a rut - 
"Your side of the house, I believe,
hardly rules by the book at all."

His brain was a whitewashed kitchen
hung with texts, swept tidy
as the body of the kirk.


Then sometimes when the rosary was dragging
mournfully on in the kitchen
we would hear his step around the gable

though not until after the litany
would the knock come to the door
and the casual whistle strike up

on the doorstep. "A right-looking night,"
he might say, "I was dandering by
and says I, I might as well call."

But now I stand behind him
in the dark yard, in the mourn of prayers.
He puts his hand in a pocket

or taps a little tune with the blackthorn
shyly, as if he were party to 
lovemaking or a strangers weeping.

Should I slip away, I wonder,
or go up and touch his shoulder
and talk about the weather

or the price of grass-seed?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Summer Saturdays

A few weeks ago our village hosted one of those National Garden Scheme Open Days where local people - those who have a garden worth showing off - open their gardens to the public.   The rest of my family were not interested so went along with my neighbour to visit three gardens which I drive past every day, but which are hidden from the road by a high wall.  Three very different gardens, each equally impressive.   My favourite was the one with the vegetable garden and fruit bushes.   What struck me about all of the gardens was that the emphasis was not on perfection, pruning and weed free beds, but on the profusion of  plants.   That's where I go wrong I think: I spend too long trying to get my garden under control.   So my mock orange bush has hardly any flowers because it was clipped back at the wrong time, unlike the arching scented bushes covered in white flowers in the gardens I visited.  It was a lovely afternoon - the sun shone and we wandered around the gardens and had tea and cake served by the WI.

Then last weekend I visited my sister who lives in a village north of Brighton and attended their village fayre which, it seems, has been held here for the last 700 years, since it was founded in Norman times.  It began with a parade of floats on the theme of Carnival.  We watched this and then followed to the showground, where there was an arena surrounded by bales of straw for events like a tug of war, the start of a fun run and various other forms of entertainment.  There was also a traditional fun fair, a beer tent, a Pimms stall and lots of stalls selling jam or crafts.  And the WI were serving tea here too.  And coffee cake, my favourite. Must be getting old - went for the tea and cake rather than the Pimms.  I'll be joining the WI soon.

These events brought to mind a poem by Philip Larkin called 'Show Saturday.'   (There's a pattern emerging in my recent blog posts - I hadn't realised how many poems are floating around in my head.) Larkin has a reputation as a bit of a cynic, but he, like me, seems to enjoy these traditional summer events.  The show he describes is more of an agricultural show like Ballymena Show in Northern Ireland which we used to go to as children.  Daddy would show his prize bullocks and often won rosettes.  This is an extract from a longer poem.

Show Saturday
by Philip Larkin

Grey day for the Show, but cars jam the narrow lanes.
Inside, on the field, judging has started: dogs
(Set their legs back, hold out their tails) and ponies (manes
Repeatedly smoothed, to calm heads); over there, sheep
(Cheviot and Blackface); by the hedge, squealing logs
(Chain Saw Competition). Each has its own keen crowd.
In the main arena, more judges meet by a jeep:
The jumping’s on next. Announcements, splutteringly loud,

Clash with the quack of a man with pound notes round his hat
And a lit-up board. There’s more than just animals:
Bead-stalls, balloon-men, a Bank; a beer-marquee that
Half-screens a canvas Gents; a tent selling tweed,
And another, jackets. Folks sit about on bales
Like great straw dice. For each scene is linked by spaces
Not given to anything much, where kids scrap, freed,
While their owners stare different ways with incurious faces.

The long high tent of growing and making, wired-off
Wood tables past which crowds shuffle, eyeing the scrubbed
Extrusions of earth: blanch leeks like church candles, six
 pods of
Broad beans (one split open), dark shining-leafed cabbages-
Of single supreme versions, followed (on laced
Paper mats) by dairy and kitchen; four brown eggs, four  white eggs,
Four plain scones, four dropped scones, pure excellences
 that enclose
A recession of skills. And, after them, lambing-sticks, rugs,

Needlework, knitted caps, baskets, all worthy, all well done,
But less than the honeycombs.

And the ending which I love.  Larkin is good at endings.

Let it stay hidden there like strength, below
Sale-bills and swindling; something people do,
Not noticing how time’s rolling smithy-smoke
Shadows much greater gestures; something they share
That breaks ancestrally each year into
Regenerate union. Let it always be there.

Maybe not a summer show, this one.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Year in Books: July plans and reflections on autobiography

I loved 'Oranges are not the Only Fruit', Jeanette Winterson's fictionalised account of her childhood and teenage years.  In  my June read 'Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?' she revisits her past but this time it's autobiography.  Actually I didn't enjoy this version of her story anywhere near as much as 'Oranges'.  I knew what happened to her and nothing more was revealed here, though I did like the portrayal of the English teacher who put her up and encouraged her to apply for Oxford when her mother threw her out.   Also I was a bit surprised by her decision to refer to her adopted mother (she who says the words which give this book its title) as Mrs Winterson.  In fact, I felt a bit of sympathy for her mother at times.  I found myself wondering about how these events would read if Mrs Winterson had told them.  In fact that would be an interesting thing to do with the novel - a lesson plan in the making!  She also does not mention her mother's early death at all, though she does seem to have been reconciled to her father in later years. There are some details about Jeanette's later life and how she finds it difficult to love, having been denied it in childhood.  Yet she seems proud to list several of her partners, including film director Deborah Warner and Susie Orbach. She also writes about finding her birth mother Ann; no happy ending but a question answered. I like these lines from the end of the book which show the complexity of her feelings:
'I am interested in nature/nurture.  I notice that I hate Ann criticising Mrs Winterson.  She was a monster but she was my monster'.

All this got me thinking about the blurred distinctions between autobiography, memoir and fictionalised real events.  Autobiography cannot actually be 'pure' or true as it is filtered by memory.  Another line from Jeanette Winterson's book is: 'It is a true story but it is a version.'  When I wrote about my childhood memories and showed the results to my sisters I discovered that they had a different recollection of the same events or that they remembered in detail things and even people I had forgotten.  There's a book about the nature of memory, the title of which escapes me at present, but it's in a notebook somewhere.  If I can find it, I will add it to my July list.

In July there should be time for more reading as term ends next week.  So I plan to read 'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt which others have recommended on this link up.  And I like the sound of 'Perfect' by Rachel Joyce, the Harold Fry writer.  I would also like to read Jean Rhys's 'Wide Sargasso Sea', 'Jane Eyre' as told by Rochester's wife 'the madwoman in the attic'.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

'They have flown away' - birdwatching in June and W.B. Yeats

One of my greatest pleasures this springtime has been watching the birds on the peanut feeder which hangs from the washing line outside the kitchen window.  I've blogged about this before and included several blurry photos of rarer visitors such as the nuthatch and the woodpecker.  The one above was taken on the 20th May.  But when I returned from my trip to Ireland at the beginning of June, these birds seemed to have disappeared and now there are just a few blue tits.

I was a bit fed up about this and had various theories, blaming husband who hadn't refilled the feeder when we were away or poorer quality peanuts. Or a particularly vicious magpie..  I googled it too and apparently it's common for birds to visit feeders less often in June.  Something to do with them moulting or needing to find food with a higher moisture content for chicks or the availability of other sources of food - the slugs are rampant this year.

Whatever - they have gone.  And this has added to my general feeling of melancholy at present.  Looking back I can see this is obvious from my last few blog posts.  I think my readers may be getting fed up with my rather self-indulgent and nostalgic blog posts too as, after a spate of increased activity, comments are drying up again.  They too have flown away.

In Northern Ireland as children we'd go the lough to watch the swans.  In Ballyronan, even before the marina was built, we'd go to The Quay, a dilapidated landing point on the lough, to watch the swans.  I still do, though am wary of them remembering tales my granda told about how they can break an arm with their wings.  I cringe when I see children feed the swans up close these days at the marina, preferring to view them from a safe distance.

Swans in Ballyronan.  Photo by Kate.

There's a poem about swans which keeps going through my head at present and it kind of captures my mood.  Wrong time of year for it, but here it is anyway.  It's beautiful and very sad.

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,   
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water   
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones   
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me   
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings   
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,   
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,   
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,   
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;   
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,   
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,   
Mysterious, beautiful;   
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day   
To find they have flown away?

Update  This morning as I was writing, I glanced out of the window and the woodpecker was back.  Very symbolic!!! Need to get over myself: the longest day may have passed but it's still summer.


Thursday, 12 June 2014

Remembering Sadie Ferguson and Ballyronan Post Office

Ten years ago today, my mother Sadie Ferguson died.  Too young at 73 - she never did get old.  In fact, in those final weeks she seemed to look younger.  The face of a frightened child greeted me on my last visit before she died. Here she is in happier times.

And here is an extract from the short memoir I wrote last year, about her 35+ year career as postmistress in Ballyronan.

When I was very young, about 3 or 4, our dining room, a dark place with heavy wooden furniture which was never used, was transformed into Ballyronan Post Office. The old postmaster, Mr Love, a bald man with a grey moustache like a scrubbing brush, retired, giving up his grocer’s shop and post office business.  Mammy, despite having at that stage 3 girls under five, took over as village postmistress, a role she fulfilled for the next 35 or so years.  She was unusual in the 1960’s: most of the local farmers’ wives brought up their families and some helped with the farm work.  Mummy was different: she would have nothing to do with the farm; never helped with the milking like Auntie Cissie, and pursued her own career and independent income. And so the post office played a large part of our lives when we were children.  

As we lived on the premises with a connecting door from the shop to the living room, Mummy was able to care for us get on with housework and preparing meals while responding to the bell which told her that someone wanted to collect their pension or post a letter or buy a postal order.  Sometimes when it was busy, floors remained unbrushed and meals were late, but that was just how it was and we soon learned to help.  So did Daddy when it came to getting the dinner on the table.  Our family was very different to those portrayed in the television advertisements or in the Janet and John books we read in school, with the mummy in an apron welcoming home the daddy from work with a hot meal ready on the table.

In the Post Office we also sold some other goods, mostly stationery: envelopes, brown paper by the foot from a big roll under the counter, birthday cards, pens, pencils and rulers.  But Mummy also stocked some goods for her own convenience as well as selling them to other local women.  So there were drawers full of colourful Sylco spools of thread, knitting needles of various sizes and a tall glass fronted cupboard full of wool from Hayfield: 4 ply, double knitting and Aran.  For back then the women of the village would knit matinee jackets and bootees for new babies in pale blue and pink and lemon and school jumpers for older children in shades of grey or bottle green.  You could also buy knicker elastic by the yard and Dr Whites’ sanitary towels, wrapped discreetly in brown paper and kept under the counter.  

We were fascinated by the Post Office : the date stamp with its ink pad; the little damp sponge and plastic thimble Mummy would use when counting notes; her high chair; the little brass scale with tiny weights as well the big black parcel weights with handles.  The post office was busiest on Tuesdays and Thursdays because Tuesday was Family Allowance payment day and Thursday was Pension day.  You could set your watch by certain customers who came at the same time every week.  Some would stay and chat to Mummy, if she wasn't busy.  But she took her position seriously; whereas customers called Daddy 'Jim',  she was always Mrs Ferguson.  She also seemed to act as local citizens' advice, making phone calls for those whose benefit hadn't come through and helping the family who always ran out out money before the next family allowance payment was due.  She really was a cornerstone of the community. 

And on these lovely long summer evenings, I remember the rare sunny evenings when we were children in Ballyronan.....  

On sunny evenings in summer after the Post Office closed Mummy would sometimes take us to ‘The Point’.  This was a narrow strip of soft sandy beach on the Lough a few miles away, officially called Traad point.  For us it was heaven. 

To get there you had to walk down a narrow overgrown path through trees which seemed a long way to us when we were six or seven.  You eventually emerge onto the beach which is sheltered on one side by the point which gave it the name.  The beach slopes gradually so we could paddle there happily when we were small.  In my memory the water was warm and the evenings sunny and we would drink C&C brown lemonade or my favourite strawberry flavour.

Mummy loved the sun.  Though often cross with us, she wasn’t fussy about the house like some other mothers and so was happy to leave the tea dishes on the table and take advantage of the long summer evenings when the sun shone.  We would bring the big brown tartan picnic rug and she would sit there and turn her face to the sun while we played in the shallow water....

I arranged for a In Memoriam notice to be placed in this week's Mid Ulster Mail.  I hope it will encourage others who read it to remember her too.