Domestic interruptions

THE GOOD SIDE OF THE COVID YEAR

IMG_5531 Blue sky and clouds

I regularly talk to an old friend on the landline, a really old friend. He's 91 and lives alone. He doesn't have access to the internet. He says things now are worse than they were during the War. And he says it with feeling. Gloom pours down the phone line. I replace the receiver with a heavy heart.

It's so unfair. I haven't suffered badly this year. My house is warm and light. There are plenty of lovely walks round here. I'm in good health. I live on a pension (no need to worry about my job). I'm half of a couple, so there's always someone else in the house to talk to, or moan about Boris.

Still, there are huge absences. Children. Grandchildren. Friends. And listening to BBC News is like adding weights to the lid of a cosy coffin. Best not to put the radio on. Best not to watch TV. Best to stay safe. Stay well. Hide until it all goes away.

But the public anxiety's like fog trying to get in the windows. What can we do to counteract the gloom?

I've got into the habit of counting my lockdown blessings, some of which are a bit weird (spoiler alert). 

Often I've found myself guiltily happy, since I've done better than many of my friends, some of whom are not just isolated, but also ill or depressed. One has died. I miss her.

Anyway here's my list. If you have positives of your own, please add them in the comments box. Help to offset the dark.

Good things from the year of C

I've learned to make butter by shaking double cream in a large jam jar. Now I do this regularly. And I went back to making cakes. GREAT cakes.

I found some mung beans at the back of the cupboard. They must have been (no pun intended) there for years and years. The good news is that if you soak them in water and leave them in the dark overnight, and then bring them into the light and wash them gently three times a day, they still SPROUT. So we've had quite a few Chinese stir-fries with home-grown bean-sprouts. Strangely satisfying.

After a bout of sciatica, I began to do breathing and stretching exercises every morning. Lovely. So good for me. And walking every single day, sometimes as many as three walks. I limited desk work to three hours. So now I'm fitter than I was. More energy too (though alas not for desk work). (Yes, the sciatica gradually went away. It was a message.)

I started listening to science podcasts while doing the stretching exercises. Marvellously educational.

Sat and read. Sat and read. Sat and read. Sometimes sat in the sun and read.

Decided to stop drinking my two glasses of wine a night, not least because it was starting to become three. Discovered Marks & Spencer's alcohol-free G&T, an oxymoron in a can. After this, all sorts of mocktails and juices. Discovered I'm much calmer without my alcohol fix, and apparently fewer migraines. Definitely better sleep.

With the help of the sewing scissors, I removed the wires from my bras. What have I been putting up with all these decades?

I have learned to jog, though only for short stretches. I have finally experienced that endorphin kick other people talk about. Yay! 

Masks are a pain, but they help prevent chapped lips. Most useful. Also going through the freezing cold vegetable aisle in Aldi is much warmer when wearing a mask.

Cleaned the whole house for the first time in years. Poor spiders. I have even cleaned the windows! We can see the trees properly. And I've finally cleared all the weeds off the concrete block paving in the back garden. It almost looks respectable.

I've begun to talk regularly to my cousin Wendy on the phone. We've never really known each other, though we were born only a year apart. But now we do.

I have walked through the trees every single day. I started in spring, then summer. Then the amazing autumn golds, swishing through the leaves. Now the bare winter woods. Already fresh green spikes of grass finding their way through. I didn't know I liked walking in the rain.

New breakfast: oatmeal porridge every morning (so much better than the kind made with oats).Learned to love maple syrup. Good on the oatmeal porridge with a little cream (though my other half will only eat salt).

Good grief — I haven't had a head cold in a whole year!

I have practised the ukulele in the conservatory with rain beating on the roof. My time keeping isn't very good. I bought a metronome. I practised the ukulele with two metronomes: the rain and the actual metronome.

In all our twenty-three years (or nearly) together, my other half and I have never spent so much continuous time together. By some miracle, we still get on well. We were sorely tested in November when some pipes burst, and the repairs dragged on for weeks and weeks (still not finished). Adversity can drive people apart; it can also bring them closer.

I used to see my two grandchildren every week. I took it for granted. Since March, I've seen them only four times in all. But each time has been the quintessence of joy.

Have only filled the car up with petrol three times since March. More money to spend on coffee, poetry, and presents to post to the grandchildren.

The sky has been more beautiful this year than I ever remember: crisp, and clean, and clear. No vapour trails. Just amazing cloud formations. A free show every single morning. Never the same twice.

We have lovely neighbours. 


Recent Comments
Guest — Fokkina McDonnell
Lovely to read. I always do a gratitude list at the year end I've started to learn Swedish on Duolingo - the little green owl is ... Read More
Wednesday, 30 December 2020 18:57
Guest — Stephanie Green
Dear Nell, What a cheering post. I'd been feeling a little down post-Xmas (Zoom chat not quite the same as actually meeting with ... Read More
Wednesday, 30 December 2020 20:04
Karen Wells
Every best wish for the New Year
Wednesday, 30 December 2020 20:54
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EILEEN ÒG

MUM-AND-DAD Kath & Howard Curry: The singers

In the olden days, before there were radios in cars, folk travelling on long journeys used to sing. As a child, I always liked story songs best. Our family of four used to rattle out Clementine and Walzing Matilda with gusto. Walzing Matilda has a ghost in it and ghosts are always good. I think of Clementine as our mother's song, Walzing Matilda as our dad's — I never learned all the words to Walzing M. because they were so mysterious — jumbuck and tucker bag and swagman. But it was great hearing dad sing it and joining in the chorus..

At bedtime, sometimes an adult would sing to my sister and me to get us off to sleep, especially our grandmother on dad's side (we called her 'Nanny'). As I get older, her songs draw me back, and I wonder about the world they came out of — music hall, perhaps, or old 78 records. Where did she first hear them? Inside what kind of life? How did she know all the words — because she did know all the words, and once I did too, and so did my sister, who had a fabulous memory. As we grew up and were assailed by contemporary tunes, the words started to disappear.

It's a very strange thing about being a granny-age yourself, though. You find yourself losing some bits of memory while other bits come back, like an onion unpeeling and rediscovering itself. Snatches of those old songs keep coming back to me in bits and pieces, phrases and flashbacks. Thanks to the wonder of the web, if I can remember even some of the words, I can find recordings, I can even find (what a joy!) all the words.

Here, for example, is one of Nanny's favourites — 'I wouldn't leave my little wooden hut for you'. And she often sang a lullaby — 'Sweet and Low', the words of which are by Tennyson (we were injected with poetry without knowing). I can hear her quavery voice now, and since I'm the age she would have been then, mine quavers too.

She liked strongly sentimental songs. Her repertoire included 'I'm forever blowing bubbles' and 'Sonny Boy'. And she particularly liked (and we did too) 'If those lips could only speak', which I'm betting she knew in the Peter Dawson version I've linked to. It's a music hall song and she told us this song was based on a true story — that the woman in the beautiful picture in a beautiful golden frame was shot by her husband in a hunting accident. Did she invent this?

But the song I loved best was one I could never find, and mum sang it. I thought it was called 'Eileen Orr', and I always remembered, and loved, the tune, and some of the words — but with gaps. A few years ago I looked for it on the web and failed to find it.

But this week I looked harder and there it was, in several recordings on YouTube. Where did our young mother first learn this song? Lord knows. Her version, as I remember it, was not wholly true to the Percy French lyrics. I think she did sing 'Eileen Orr', not the proper name in the Irish song, which is Eileen Òg

Eileen was the Pride of Petrovore, not (as I'm sure my mother sang and we sang with her) the Pride of Pethragar. 

The villain of the story should be 'the hardest featured man in Petravore' — not, as we sang, 'the ugliest looking man in Pethragar' — but we would never have understood 'hardest featured' — maybe she changed it. I'm sure we sang: 'Eileen Orr, sure that was what her name was, / Through the Blarney she was also famous'. 

In fact, the official version goes:

Well Eileen Òg, that was what her name was
Through the Barony her features made her famous

In whatever mode you sing it, it's a beautiful song, a cracking tune, and some of the lyrics are terrific. Boys oh boys, it's where I first learned how cannily words can fit to a rhythm and how utterly satisfying it is when they do. 

And 'Eileen Òg' is a story, sad and funny. To think that some of its words have been ringing in my head all my life and now — by some miracle — I find people still belting it out, making new recordings, passing it on. Cathy Jordan's version is a delight. I'm singing along at this minute. Eileen Òg — sure that was what her name was! 


Recent Comments
Guest — finola scott
Oh this resonates so much. I've read Percy French's hand written songs, in a museum o the coast near Belfast. I was surprised at h... Read More
Sunday, 17 March 2019 13:33
Guest — Charlotte Gann
I love this picture. What are they doing with their hands? Clicking their fingers? ! Lovely to have all these songs in your mind,... Read More
Sunday, 17 March 2019 17:47
Helena Nelson
Each of them has a cigarette in their right hand. Probably what saw my dad off in his early sixties...
Monday, 18 March 2019 10:21
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THE NEED FOR GRAVY

ALAN_DIXON Christmas card woodcut by poet and artist Alan Dixon

Christmas is not so O-come-all-ye-faith-filled these days. I note a great many llamas on the cards this year. Things change. 

I don't mind the llamas, even the ones in Santa hats.

Over half a century ago, I was one of a generation of children who spent quite a lot of time in a church around December 25th. But we were not as faith-filled as you might think.

Children have a way of getting round the hugeness of religion, side-tracking it with their own take on things. Irreverence is a great asset when it comes to staying sane—though irreverence, too, is learned.

My maternal grandmother, who died when I was three, used to say (I know because my mother told me) 'There's an end to everything. Two to sausages.'

And my maternal grandfather, not famous for wit, allegedly said to my father at his wedding (it may have been part of a speech): 'This is the end to all your troubles, son. The front end.'

Then there was my close friend Jenny Green at school. She taught me a lot about subversion. At our school, everybody was issued with a hymn book. We had to make brown paper covers to keep them clean, and re-cover them annually. We carried those books dutifully to assembly each and every school-day morning. On the front cover most of us had written, as expected, HYMNS. But Jenny (oh how I admired her cleverness!) had written HERS.

Our favourite Christmas carols (all to be found inside HERS) were the ones we could subvert. Lord, how we need to subvert! 

(It is one of my favourite features of poetry too: sending the reader off with one set of expectations only to find the poem has overturned every one.) 

Our Father which art in heaven, Harold be thy name (one of my grandfathers was called Harold).

This very morning on the radio I heard a church choir singing one of our all-time favourites—'The angel Gabriel from Heaven came'. It has an undoubtedly beautiful tune, and lovely words too. But that's not why we liked it. We liked it because of the gravy.

The best kind of subversion is liberating because it undermines everything but nobody knows you're doing it. So shepherds washed their socks by night, and the Virgin Mary in that beautiful carol was not 'most highly favoured lady' but 'most highly flavoured gravy'.

On Christmas Day, we even got the gravy. 


Recent Comments
Guest — Maria Taylor
My ten year old girls are constantly singing this version of the Wham Christmas song: 'Last Christmas I gave you a car / and the v... Read More
Sunday, 23 December 2018 12:50
Guest — Charlotte Gann
Excellent! Please keep subverting, Hymnal Nelson x
Sunday, 23 December 2018 13:51
Guest — MANDY MACDONALD
Come for tea, my people.
Sunday, 23 December 2018 13:57
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Remembering Jack

JACKCARD

Since my early twenties, I've owned a little brooch, a gold 'true love knot' dotted with tiny pearls. My mother gave it me, but it belonged to my father's mother, and was given to her by her first boyfriend Jack. Jack went off to the war and didn't come back.

So that was the end of Lizzie Wray's boyfriend Jack's story. I never knew his second name. 

Meanwhile, Annie Wray, her younger sister (my great-aunt) also had a boyfriend who went off to fight. He was called Hamlyn Radford, and he went to France and did come back. He came back because he was shot through the chest in 1916. He survived that, and mustard gas, which he told me had made his hair fall out. He was indeed entirely bald.

Lizzie married someone else: Joseph Curry. And when her son to that someone (my dad) was ten, that husband died too, though of natural causes. And she married for a second time: Harold Essex (I have a silver lapel button with a tiny photo of Harold inside it). 

But she kept Jack's brooch, because I have it now. I've just cleaned and polished that little eternity symbol for the first time in nearly half a century. It seemed appropriate on Remembrance Sunday.

But recently something else happened. I was going through photographs of my mother's (she died at 91 in 2015) and I came across a yellowing card: a sort of postcard with an embroidered panel, and the lacy panel has a flap, beneath which something presumably once went.

The card is marked and dirty. You couldn't wash the embroidered section because it's firmly fixed to the paper frame. Should I keep it or ditch it? I was in the mood for throwing things out. Then I turned it over and saw the handwriting (I have never noticed it before). It says, in faded letters, Yours Jack.

Do you ever feel as though you've had a little nudge? As though someone, not here, is sending a tiny hint that you should pay more attention?

Of course it could be any Jack. Any Jack could have written this on the card. But he's also dated it, and the date is 26/7/17.

Does that mean he was killed at Ypres not long after? Maybe. 

In tiny print, I can see the card announces its provenance as Paris, though the red, white and blue of the embroidery makes me think it was made for the British. I always assumed Jack had bought the brooch in England and gave it to her before he left. But perhaps he bought it in France and posted it to her. Either way, I think the brooch may once have been pinned to the card, and may have sat beneath the flap that says BEST LOVE.

Who were you Jack? How old were you when you died? What was your second name? You might have been my grandfather – or at least somebody's grandfather – had you only survived.

All the people who might have known about my grandmother's first boyfriend are long dead, and Jack even longer. I would have shared this with my sister, but since last year she's gone too. So here's to the memory of Jack. To Jack, and all the other Jacks.

If I were to wish anything for my own grandchildren, and for all the other children in the world, it would be for human beings to find a way to stop making war, to put all that behind us. Isn't war the single most stupid thing an intelligent species could ever make?

Recent comment in this post
Jane Wheeler
oh, surely that is/would be if you had time a very good poem?
Thursday, 29 November 2018 09:33
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SMALL POEMS FOR WASHING UP WITH

VIOLETS

There's something special about small poems – the ones that slip into your head so you can take them round with you invisibly....       

I find washing up with a poem in my head particularly satisfying. Poems are also good for dusting, polishing, hoovering, and long walks over the hills.

If I'm cross, and don't want to speak about it, a bit of a poem will do it for me. Usually the end.

For example  – 'we should be careful of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.' That's Larkin, of course (the end of 'Mowing'). 

Or 'In Nature there's no blemish but the mind. / None can be called deformed but the unkind' from Twelfth Night.

But a whole small poem has a special something, like a little fish alive and wriggling.

This one has been following me around lately. It's by Elinor Wylie (from Angels and Earthly Creatures, 1929) and full of grief, though doesn't leave me feeling exactly sad. More moved by a sadness shared.

Perhaps, in fact, it's a love poem, rather than a grief poem. Or perhaps they're one and the same. Because whoever it was written for – there they are in the poem about their absence! 

In fact, there they are forever, or for as long as this little poem slips into people's heads.


Little Elegy

Withouten you
No rose can grow;
No leaf be green
If never seen
Your sweetest face;
No bird have grace
Or power to sing;
Or anything
Be kind, or fair,
And you nowhere. 


Recent Comments
Guest — Davina
It's also the last poem in the collection, and that gives it a special significance. She'd finalised the order of the poems in Ang... Read More
Sunday, 22 April 2018 12:01
Maria Castro Dominguez
Thanks Helen for your beautiful post and sharing such a poignant love poem. I´ve always loved small poems and they work wonders wh... Read More
Sunday, 22 April 2018 14:40
luigi coppola
I love Kay Ryan (Token Loss, Silence, Dog Leg come to mind), Tennyson's The Eagle, AR Ammons' Sad Song, Ogden Nash's Fleas, My Own... Read More
Wednesday, 25 April 2018 18:08
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A MOMENTARY STAY

 When life circumstance throw us into disarray, it seems there's a natural human instinct to create order in a corner of the chaos.

So when sirens sound and bombs are imminent, someone may linger to make the bed, or clear the table, or put another piece of the jigsaw into place.

An ambulance is called, and the caller—never mind the chest pains—packs her overnight bag neatly, each thing in its proper place. These things matter.

A violent storm in autumn whisks leaves off the trees and the next day human beings scurry out of their houses, sweeping them up, pushing them into sacks and wheelie bins and compost heaps. Pointlessly. There will only be more.

And in this house, faced with more than one serious illness in the family, it seemed time to organise the boxes of books under the stairs, though other, more important, responsibilities were looming.

You see, we have one room packed with pamphlets upstairs: from here Matt does the packing and posting out for orders, reviews, competitions. In this room, he also has the acetate sleeves, the padded envelopes, the compliment slips, the review slips, the flyers, the newsletters, the postage stamps and customs stickers—everything carefully in its allotted corner—even to the safety pin with which he pricks each acetate sleeve around a pamphlet to let the air out so it will lie flat in the envelope. (This room was a bedroom once.)

In another upstairs room (my study) more books and pamphlets are in tottering piles on a small chest of drawers. Boxes of toner are stacked in one corner, two more boxes of books, reams and reams of paper, white and coloured. The envelopes of poems for the July reading window are filed on the floor, as are a number of other papers waiting to go up the ladder into the roof. (Don't ask about the roof.)

But downstairs, under the stairs, there are far more boxes, and when there's a new delivery, as there was on Friday, yet more boxes go there. It's almost impossible now to get under the stairs, and frequently we forget what's there—or believe a box of books is there that isn't—because we've sold them all. Periodically, I do a recce, involving dust, heaving, reconciliation and a new floor plan. That was what happened yesterday. it's tidier now with a outline of what is where. Some things have been carried upstairs and restacked in other stacks. Publications can be pinned down, their geography (for the moment) fixed. A degree of order has been established in one corner of our lives.

It struck me, while under the stairs heaving boxes, that individual poems are doing much the same thing. Many of them arise from a some kind of maelstrom and attempt to establish their own bit of order. They grapple with problems. The ones I like best creep around the problem describing it from one angle or another rather than solving it. But description is in itself a sort of solution. It puts things into place. it creates a floor plan. The more meticulously it makes its measures and phrasings, the more satisfying it feels.

Poetry likes patterns and patterning. It doesn't have to be rhyme and metrical form, but in the grimmest circumstances those features come into their own. They solve nothing; but they resolve something. (I'm thinking this morning of Anthony Hecht's More Light! More Light!, the least consolatory of poems, and yet ... )

While under the stairs I was thinking about Andrew Marvell's 'Bermudas', which has always struck me as one of the oddest of poems. If the singers are pilgrims, why are they in a rowing boat? What happened to the Mayflower? Where exactly are they going? There's something so surreal about it all, and yet delicious. "He gave us this eternal Spring / Which here enamels everything, / And sends the fowls to us in care / On daily visits through the air"—I like its rhyminess and chime-iness. I find the boat of singers both ridiculous and charming, whatever their sense of entitledness. What they really are is workers. It doesn't matter what they sing (though singing about delights is preferable to singing about despair) so long as it keeps the rhythm going, keeps them going wherever they are going:

 This sung they in the English boat
 An holy and a cheerful note:
 And all the way, to guide their chime,
 With falling oars they kept the time.

And then the poem suddenly stops. Just like that—no warning at all.

But we can keep going. We have established a measure of order and pattern under the stairs and we can keep going. A 'momentary stay against the confusion of the world', as Robert Frost has it. The reading window is open and poems are welcome, especially from rowing boats and subscribers. There's plenty of space on the floor.


Some of the books under and beside the stairs
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