Saturday, August 30, 2008

Messing about in boats . . .

I agree with you completely. To me it is a never-ending source of astonishment why people should claim to derive so much pleasure from stripping off, flailing around in cold water, struggling to dry with a damp towel, and then, worst of all - if you're on a beach - trying to wrestle your damp and sandy body back into your seemingly shrunken clothes. It's good exercise, they say! I can exercise my arms and legs just as well on a good walk - and I haven't sand in my undergarments at the end of it!

And what if the tide is going out? There you are, cold and shivering, running for seemingly endless miles in search of the water, tripping over the shingle and stubbing your toes. For what? For finally getting your feet in the water . . . then your ankles . . . then, yards further on, your knees . . . and, ultimately, it might be deep enough for you to lower yourself into two feet of water and to flap around in the shallows!

But I don't agree with you about boats! Yes, it's possible that I'd be unhappy in a small boat in the open sea - particularly one with a failed engine. But what of a rowing-boat on a tranquil river? I’ve loved rowing-boats ever since I was a child. They are slow, and safe, and if you're on a river you're in the agreeable, undemanding company of ducks, and kingfishers, and over-hanging willows.

Have you time for a short story? When I was in my early teens I went with my parents on holiday to Christchurch. On the first day of our holiday I discovered the rowing-boats for hire on the river-bank - a lovely, gentle river with next to no traffic.

Accordingly, every afternoon I made my way to the river - with a book in my pocket - hired a rowing-boat, rowed just out of sight of the boatman, tied up my boat to an over-hanging willow and spent a delightful hour flat on my back in the boat reading my book. It was an idyllic way to spend a summer afternoon. At the end of the hour I would reluctantly unhitch the boat, row it back to the boatman and return to the hotel. At the end of the holiday I went, very sadly, for my final trip on the river. When I returned and told the boatman that this would be 'Goodbye' he looked at me with great respect.
"If more young people took exercise like you t'would be a better world!" he said emphatically.
It didn't seem kind to disillusion him with the truth, so I smiled sweetly and left him with his dreams!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Uninvited Guests!

You know about the mouse who lives on my window-sill (it is now a debatable point as to whether it could be a family of mice) but I'm not sure whether I've mentioned the ants. The ants started coming in a year or so ago when the blooms from the begonia grew large and laden with nectar, dripping nectar onto the carpet.

Ants love nectar. In consequence, each year, when the begonia flowers are at their most luscious and nectar-laden, I'm constantly scooping up ants and putting them back out of the window. I don't believe in killing ants. In any case, were I to put down any ant-killer it would be harmful to Rupert. On the advice of a friend, who told me that ants can't abide chalk, I've applied chalk to the lower edge of the window-frame - it seems partly successful.

You have to be respectful of ants. For such minute creatures they are amazingly purposeful and intelligent. When we finally kill off our beautiful planet, I suspect it will be the ants that will take over. Untroubled by a sense of humour, unburdened by any ideas of fair play, they will be our ruthless successors. Anyway, back to the ants on my window-sill. They amaze me with their sensory powers. If I drop a crumb on the carpet in the hall, they find it. How? Can they smell it? Sense it? But,despite the fact that the begonia is now laden with blooms, we manage to live in relative harmony by the simple process of me picking up the fallen petals and, occasionally, scooping up stray ants in the dustpan.

Yesterday evening there was a Committee Meeting at David's house. I don't know whether you've been to David's house, but it is very elegant. Unlike mine - whichis comfortable but rather scruffy and untidy, David's home is immaculate. There are deep sofas, thick carpets, low, glass-topped tables on which sit elegant booksproclaiming the best wines of the world. It is clearly regularly cleaned by a conscientious cleaning lady, and it's a pleasure to visit.

I sat myself down on one of the low sofas beside Victoria. The meeting got under way. It must have been a quarter-of-an-hour later when I noticed that Victoria was not really paying attention to the meeting, she seemed hypnotized by my handbag.

Finally, her face transfixed with horror, she gave me a nudge, "Your handbag!" she hissed, "It's alive with ants!!"

I looked down at my handbag. I rather like my handbag, it's French and rather elegant. But, sure enough, Victoria was perfectly right. Out of the top of the handbag, in a steady convoy, was streaming a positive army of ants. I wanted to laugh. They looked so absurd. But Victoria was clearly far from laughing. I thought quickly. Why were the ants in my handbag? How had the ants got to my handbag? Then I remembered. At the bottom of my hand bag were a couple of throat pastilles, the ants had clearly found their way across the living-room, through the hall, up on tothe chair and into my bag all in search of the throat pastilles! But I'm afraid I decided against honesty. Somehow this didn't seem the right environment to admit to an admiration for ants.

"Where on earth can I have put my handbag?" I said, inferring that I'd placed it on an ant-ridden wall on my way to the meeting, "How amazing!"

"Kill them!" urged Victoria. I felt terrible. Had I been at home they would have been carefully tipped out of the window. As it was I'm afraid my principles were sacrificed to popular demand. At Victoria's urging I, too, started stamping - secretly hoping that the ants would get away in the thick carpet.

When the meeting was over, and I was home again, I ferretted down into the handbag and found the throat pastilles that had caused all the trouble. They are now in the ant-proof waste-bin!
So if, on Tuesday, David tells you that he is having problems with ants in his beautiful home, please look totally surprised! If the survivors set up camp in the thick, luxurious pile of his elegant carpets it's nothing to do with me!!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

New Home for Old Medals

With time on my hands, I turned to something that I really don't enjoy - clearing out and tidying. A place that I'd always left untouched, perhaps because I still look upon it as 'sacred' to my father, is the chest in which he kept all his private papers. The chest, complete with father's papers, came with my mother when she joined me in London. It's been in my bedroom, securely locked and undisturbed, ever since.

But what, I wondered, if something happened to me? What was in there that father might like me to give elsewhere? Last week I went in search of the keys to the chest (it was a near miracle that I finally located them) and opened it up. Amongst a welter of other things (my first letters home from boarding school amongst them), I discovered my father's war medals. Not only that, there was the document testifying to the fact that he had been Mentioned in Despatches. There were his regimental books, his training manual, his notebooks from the field. What on earth should I do with them?

I phoned the Imperial War Museum. Needless to say, they had quite a bit of wartime memorabilia. But they did have a good suggestion to make. Had my father anold school, they wanted too know, perhaps his old school would treasure them for their historical value? They could be helpful to bring history lessons to life.

My father went to King's School in Rochester. Did it still exist? I put it into Google and found that it not only existed, but it was clearly flourishing. I wrote to the Headmaster, a Dr. Ian Walker, who, it seems, is a Lay Canon at Rochester Cathedral. He has now replied telling me (and, wait for it, this is the good news) that they would be proud to have my father's medals.

Dr. Walker has invited me to visit the school and bring the medals. I have deferred this kind invitation (perhaps I'll go next year) and am arranging for the medals to be sent to him direct.
Wouldn't my father be thrilled! He was so proud of his old school. So think of me later in the week packaging up the medals - together with a photo of father in his youth so that they'll be able to picture their proud ex-pupil!

A war-time story about my father. When peace was declared my father was in France. He was the Captain of his regiment, and, in this role, it was his job to make sure that all the soldiers received their pay. Father, an overly-conscientious individual, was hard at work on the pay packets when his batman burst into the room. "It's over, Sir!" he cried in high excitement, "The war . . . it's over! They're all out on the streets, Sir. Come and celebrate!" My father, after expressing his pleasure at the end of the war, told his batman that he couldn't possibly do anything as frivolous as celebrate until he'd worked out the pay packets. His batman scratched his head in exasperation, before finally giving voice to his feelings, "You're a damned fool," he burst out, "but you're a gentleman!" My father who told that story with the greatest pride, looked upon it as his finest compliment!

(ten days later)
On Wednesday I posted father’s war memorabilia to his old school. It was quite a parcel. Not only were there the medals, but I also found fragile, but perfectly legible, programmes of concerts that his regiment put on in the trenches. There were wonderfully evocative photographs taken on the front line - father, looking about thirteen, sitting triumphantly on the bonnet of his lorry; a group of absurdly young and vulnerable lads, arms around each other, beaming at the camera. There were letters from the front, dailiy journals, even buttons from his regimental jacket. All this went off to Rochester. Today I had a phone call. The parcel has arrived safely and they are absolutely delighted with the contents. The History Master says that it will bring his lessons to life, the medals are going in a trophy cabinet. How Father must be pleased!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

By any other name . . .

It was lovely to hear from you, but I don’t agree with you on the subject of roses. You can’t lump all roses into an amorphous group.

Let’s get this straight. First of all, and this may be hard to believe, but there is no such thing as a pink rose. Before I'm accused of blatant lying, let me hastily add that there are roses that are pink, roses that are red, roses that are white and roses that are yellow. But it is the rose, and not the colour, that defines the type.

There are tea roses, and climbing roses, and shrub roses, and standard roses, and moss roses, and miniature roses, and musk roses - all of which revel in a range of colours that would gladden the heart of anyone in search of a rainbow.

There are cabbage roses of such pinkness and voluptuousness that each fallen petal would cover a dinner plate. There again, there are prim, pink, miniature roses of such delicacy and virginity that, rather than be seen to shed their apparel in public, they quietly wither when the flowering is done. There are confident, cream and carmine climbers whose firm flowers reach upwards to the sun. There are golden tea roses, tipped with apricot, that appear wax-like in their perfection. There are aspirational, white standard roses, that radiate moonlight and hold their fragile blooms like tapering candles. There again there are opulent, white, shrub roses whose heavy blooms would rightly adorn Marie Lloyd's best bonnet. Finally, there are the many-petalled, crimson musk roses with a perfume so strong that it comes out togreet you, and stamens so dusted with fine gold that they leave gold-dust on your clothes if you brush too close.

Perhaps Shakespeare was right in saying that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but it needs more than just a name to do justice to the beauty, mystery and infinite variety of the rose!

PS. How could I possibly have overlooked the wild rose? Shakespeare’s magical ‘eglantine’ . . . possibly the most beautiful, ethereal and transient of them all . . . and it’s pink!!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Box Hill

How to describe the effect of Box Hill?

Yes, you do need to 'lift up your eyes unto the hills', the action evokes recognition and awe, and in this age of democracy, equality and debunking it's beneficial to acknowledge that there is something/someone higher than you are. But you also need to reach the top of the hill in order to gain stillness, perspective and understanding - or so it seems to me.

Rupert and I spent most of our holiday on the hill, or by the river - walking, watching, buying postcards - and, after returning to the hotel for tea, went back up onthe hill in the early evening just to 'be'. Sitting there, it was curious to realise how it takes time to fully appreciate all there is around you. At first you take in the obvious - the trees, the grass, the view - slowly, as time passes, and your mind quietens, you notice the harebells, the ripening blackberries, the droplets of rain from a recent shower, the scented air, the vastness of the sky.

You hear the wood-pigeon coo, and wonder just how long it has been cooing. And you are taken aback by the wonder of the clouds - such incredible, magnificent shapes, so many different varieties all scurrying across the blue and, below them, the shadows chasing across the grass. But, more than anything, you become aware of the enormous sense of presence. It grows on you. And, as it grows on you so it, in itself, becomes more and more substantial. Ultimately you recognise that the presence is far more substantial than all the seemingly more tangible things that first caught your attention. But what iscurious is that the moment there is activity - such as a group of children running past - the presence dissolves and retreats, rather like ripples disturbing the serenity of a lake. Than, as quiet returns, so the presence re-establishes itself. And you don't want to leave, because you have this growing conviction that the longer you staythe more you will be a part of the presence, and the more it will become a part of you.

As we sat there one evening, held captive by our surroundings, there was a minor explosion behind us and a woman with a dog burst through the bushes. Stopping short, she stared transfixed at the view. "Oh ... gosh!" she exclaimed.

I don't know why I've been wittering on. That says it all!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Saga of Tripe and Lites!

I went to have a session of acupuncture today. I have great faith in my acupuncturist and, because of this, I told her all about Rupert's recent troubles (his jaw wentout again yesterday) and sought her advice. Not only is it his arthritis, it's also the anxiety and depression brought on by the arthritis. The pain and restricted mobility is worrying him. A fully-flexible jaw is vital to a cat and sympathy, I've learned, is counter-productive. It just makes him more worried. So, it's cheerfulness and positivity from now on. There's no depression in our house!

Sue, my acupuncturist, was full of helpful suggestions, amongst them the idea that I should cut down on his acid intake (turkey and chicken) and give him some good, old-fashioned innards, the so-called tripe and lites. It was excellent advice, the only problem being that where, in affluent Kensington, could one possibly go for old-fashioned, down-market, innards? No supermarket would have heard of them, far less stock them. Lidgates would look in pained amazement at anyone making such a plebian request. I thought of putting 'tripe and lites' into Google - but it wouldn't much help if I found them in Pakistan! I came home, still debating the question. Eventually, not knowing what else to do, I 'phoned Lidgates.

"I wonder if you could help me," I asked, "I've a friend who's been prescribed tripe and lites. He badly needs if for a controlled diet, and I was wondering whetherperhaps you could get it for me?"

After a moment of surprise, the woman on the other end of the phone promised to look into it. I was left holding on for several minutes. Finally, she returned ...

"We could manage it," she said, "but we'd have to order it. We couldn't have it for the weekend." "Monday would do perfectly," I assured her.

And so it was agreed, I gave my name and phone number and agreed to go round to collect tripe and lites on Monday. Heaven knows how much there'll be, I didn'tlike to specify a quantity . . . oh, dear, the ice compartment of the fridge is already overflowing with Rupert's fish!

So, think of me on Monday. And keep your fingers crossed that no questions are asked about my suffering 'friend'. Rupert is the best possible of friends, but I'm notsure that they'd see it in that light!

(Monday mid-day) Just back from Lidgates. Not surprisingly, I'd never been to Lidgates before. What a magnificent emporium! What an incredible array of meats . . . of assorted pies . . . of cheeses . . . of chocolates . . . I was lost in wonder. And what an elegant shop, with its beautifully uniformed staff and the walls bristling with awards and commendations. I said that I had come to collect my order. They asked me, very courteously, if I would kindly wait for a moment as it was being assembled. How much tripe and lites did they think I wanted? I began to feel apprehensive. There was so little room in the fridge. A charming young man in a straw boater came up to me with a tray of meat.

"I'm so sorry," he said, "this is all the lites we could get."
It was more than Rupert could eat in a fortnight, so I thanked him profusely and told him that it would be perfect. My order, both tripe and lites, was finally handed to me over the counter.

"I've never seen lites before," confessed the young man in the boater, "tell me, how do you cook it?"

It didn't seem the moment to confess to being a vegetarian, nor to admit ignorance.

"You braise it," I said firmly. In the absence of any knowledge, it was what I intended to do. You could hardly go wrong braising. He looked duly impressed. "It's for arthritis," I added, "I'm hoping it will work." The courteous young man said that he, too, hoped it would be helpful. Grasping my heavy load, I walked out of Lidgates.

Oh dear, I've only cooked a third of it. There's a plastic tray in the fridge piled high with Lidgate's top-quality, succulent tripe.

You don't happen to like tripe, by any chance . . . . ???

In giving Rupert tripe, I'd stupidly overlooked a critical factor. Tripe and rump steak are visually, and in every other way, so different that I'd failed to appreciate that they come from the same source. When Rupert was a kitten, with frequently recurring stomach upsets, he had been diagnosed with a bovine allergy. Everything that came from cattle (even milk) upset him. For the rest of his lifeI've been careful to give him nothing that was bovine based . . . until the tripe . . . The meal he was eating when I wrote to you was destined to come up as quickly as it had gone down. Poor Rupert was very poorly. There was only one thing to do . . .

Had there been someone of an enquiring mind in Holland Park this morning, someone with lively curiosity and time on their hands, they might have wondered at the sight of a woman with a cat on a lead peering over the fence in the woodland area. They might have puzzled as to why, on a sunny morning, with no shops nearby, she was carrying an apparently heavy carrier bag. They might have been a little mystified as to why this woman, after looking round a little furtively, wouldperiodically, appear to deposit something over the fence in the area known to be frequented by the foxes. Had this inquisitive person been really curious, he or shewould have walked up to the fence, after the woman and cat had departed, and been even more puzzled to see little mounds of meat half-hidden in the fallen leaves. There would have been no solution to this mystery, and the inquisitive person would have gone home still puzzling. But the foxes, I hope, would have been very happy!

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Rose, a Keyhole, and a Sheer Delight!

"Don't forget," said the grizzled Chelsea Pensioner, handing me a rose, "its name is "Remember Me."

I promised him that I couldn't possibly forget. How did I come to be given a rose by a Chelsea Pensioner? Well, in all honesty, it wasn't really intended for me. It was intended for Lady Thatcher.

But let me start at the beginning ....

A friend had told me about a performance at the Royal Chelsea Hospital which was part of this year's Festival. A tribute to the life and music of Liszt , it was called 'Odyssey of Love'. The pianist was to be Lucy Parham, and the readers were Joanna David and Martin Jarvis. I had told her that I would very much like to go. We arrived early yesterday afternoon, with half-an-hour to spare before the performance. If you remember, when I went to the Mayor's Garden Party at The Royal Chelsea Hospital last week, we saw the Great Hall, but the Chapel was locked. I had been disappointed. This seemed an ideal second opportunity, so I left my friend in the State Apartments, happily studying the portraits, and hurried off in search of the Chapel. Alas, once again it was locked. But there was this Ancient Pensioner standing in the vicinity. It was a time, I felt, to be a damsel in distress. Well, perhaps not a damsel exactly, but you know what I mean. I approached him with a wistful, hopeful expression.

"I'm so sorry to bother you," I said, "but I'd love to see your beautiful Chapel and it appears to be locked. I wonder if you can help me?"

Gallant soldier that he was, he rose to the occasion. He battled with the locked door - to no avail. Then his eyes lit up with an idea. "I could let you in at the back door," he said, "don't tell anyone."

I was beginning to feel quite guilty, he really was a very Ancient Pensioner, and I was causing him a lot of exertion . . . I was also feeling a little furtive. We reached the back door to the Chapel, the choir entrance . . . but, to the great disappointment of us both, this, too, was locked. My poor Pensioner's face fell. But old soldiers are not defeated so easily and he had a compensation in mind. Suddenly, to my great surprise, he reached down intoa capacious pocket and produced a large rose. Proudly, he held it out to me.

Every Sunday morning, so he told me, Lady Thatcher comes to worship at the Chapel. Every Sunday in the summer, my Ancient Pensioner awaits her arrival with arose in his hand. On seeing her, he holds out his rose, tells her that it's called 'Remember Me', and asks whether she'd be kind enough to accept it. Every Sunday, she smiles, takes the rose, and my Ancient Pensioner goes away happy. But this Sunday Lady Thatcher hadn't come. The rose sat wilting in the Pensioner's pocket . . . until I came along in need of something to assuage my disappointment!

But I wasn't wholly disappointed. After saying thank you and goodbye to my new friend, I slipped back up the stairs to the locked chapel door. So here is a key-hole view of The Royal Chelsea Hospital!