You know that family dynamics have reached a transitional point when your entire stock of chocolate biscuits appear in the re-cycling bin. They do this spontaneously — apparently of their own volition. You call your daughter who is staying for the week-end to witness the mystery. You both stare into the gaping mouth of the green food-recycling bin where pale, slightly crackly milk chocolate digestives peep out from beneath cauliflower leaves and carrot peelings. “Perhaps it’s for the best, Mum? They don’t look very fresh!”
“I just fancied something sweet,” chips in son-in-law from somewhere in the background. The plot is edging towards a painful denouement. “But I couldn’t find anything that had expired later than 2018.”
“But, but…” I suddenly sound defensive, “We’ve only just dealt with the spaghetti mountain.”
“Not quite” interjects Judas Iscariot who is helping set the table, ” we’re up to 2016.”
“Well that’s no age at all for dried spaghetti” I snap, I’m starting to sound petulant. “Anyway, I’m on a war footing.”
So I have reached some sort of milestone. It only seems yesterday that I was furious with my own mother when I caught her rummaging through my kitchen waste to rescue things that she felt needed to be recycled — this was early in her eco-warrior phase. She had done this by emptying the entire contents of my kitchen bin onto newspaper on my kitchen floor.
I seem to have come all the way around some sort of cycle — I think I’ll go and hide my dirty underwear, like great-granny did, in back copies of the Daily Telegraph and start spitting my pills behind the toilet cistern.
I have just listened to a couple of women, their voices laced with empathy, talking on the radio about grief. They would think me a hard bitch or in denial — my husband died 4 years ago — I loved him — I think of him every day. BUT I moved on with my life almost immediately — the reasons for this are simple.
1. I always knew he was going to die and not just because everyone dies — sometimes I think people forget this. He was also 10 years older than me and he had cancer and he smoked and drank and ate bacon sandwiches and always lived life to the full.
2. I had planned for his death — I consciously valued my friends, not letting my other relationships dwindle during his illness. Our affairs were in order, we had discussed his funeral, he had an up-to-date will, I knew what he wanted me to do with his possessions. I had something suitable to wear for a funeral and had my hair cut regularly just in case.
3. I had an outline plan for my life afterwards — visiting family and spending time with my interesting, lively women friends, writing and not making any decisions about my life for at least twelve months.
3. Ever since his diagnosis I had known his prognosis (he had preferred not to be told) and I dreaded his passing — the mode of his dying — I did not want him to suffer — I knew he would loathe invalidity — he never gave in to his illness and clung on to his extrovert persona regardless of what the illness took from him. This meant that being in hospital was exhausting for him and he hated it.
4. In the event his death was dramatic but almost instantaneous, this may have been traumatic to his son who also witnessed it but, to me it was a huge relief — he had gone suddenly, a massive haemorrhage and complete collapse. No pneumonia, no difficulty breathing, no pain, just a big surprise. He had remained himself until the bitter end and now he was gone.
I was alone, but I had a plan and knew what to do.
Moving on? A human life is a very short span –you cannot afford to squander any of it. When opportunities arise one has to grab them while you can. The trauma of bereavement gives you a little burst of rejuvenating adrenalin — you can’t afford to waste that either!
Sometimes we confuse grief with guilt, with fear of the unknown and with loneliness, all of which are part of it. I would urge folk that the best way to avoid these is to think about them before the event, anticipate and plan, come to terms with what is ahead, be it joining a choir or talking to a friend.
And children (I am well) but don’t fall into the trap of thinking your Mum or Dad will always be there!
The weather is bad and I have been browsing in my great-granny, Isabella’s photo album, an object lesson in why you should label photos. Isabella (1873-1964) is here photographed in about 1895 in North London where she was born to Peter and Mary Grant.
Here she is sitting at her mother’s right hand side with her Father and all her siblings; so many girls.
Peter Grant, seen here with his Victorian family, was the son of farmers from Boharm on Speyside, 15 miles south of Elgin, He went to London to make his fortune working initially as a clerk in a wine importers and probably meeting his future wife on a trip home to visit his parents. He eventually had his own import business specialising in port and sherry — as a child I always enjoyed visiting my Great Uncle George — seen here in his youth, lolling on the right of this photo. By the time I knew him, he was a rotund, red and shiny old gentleman with whiskers who went up to town every day in a black jacket, pin-striped trousers, a bowler hat, shoes in which you could see your face and carrying a tightly rolled umbrella. It seemed to me that he lived in the corner of a Victorian museum — a large ground-floor flat in Jackson’s Lane, Highgate. He was surrounded by drapes, oil paintings, bronzes and a large white marble bust — he would rise occasionally to warm his behind in front of the fire and at the end of each visit he would sidle up to me and secretly press two half-crowns into my hand. As I grew older, regardless of the time of day or night one always received a glass of excellent port and a digestive biscuit! His ports and sherries sold on their reputation — he did not believe in advertising. Eventually he sold his sherry interests to Harvey’s who did, and the rest is history — the great sherry boom of the mid-twentieth century!
Mary Grant’s family hailed from Inverness where her father worked as an architect. It is a typical story of migration — although she lived in London, Isabella spent holidays with her aunts and uncles in the north of Scotland often at Lossiemouth. Here she is in 1894 at a tennis match in Stotfield, Lossiemouth.
Another intriguing annotated photo from her album is Gilbert R. Betjemann.
Gilbert was a member of their circle, he was a violinist also working in his family’s luxury goods business. Isabella was an excellent amateur pianist, I suspect she accompanied Gilbert (son of the, then, well known conductor Gilbert Henry Beaman Betjemann, whose father was a cousin of John Betjeman, the poet laureate’s grandfather. I mention this because I have been reading John Betjeman’s biography (they dropped the final ‘n’ due to anti-German feelings around WW1) and I remember my Great Granny talking in rather disparaging terms about the ‘rhymes’ of said celebrity poet!
In the March before he died Gilbert made Isabella this little pot which stands on my windowsill to this day. This must have been a wedding present — the monogram ‘IN’ is for her married name and the tiny inscription — his maker’s mark: GR Betjemann fecit, March 1896, 2 months after her marriage.
She married Mitchell Nicholl (1865-1948) another ex-patriot Scot from Kirkcaldy in Fife. He was 8 years her senior and had started as a stock jobber’s clerk in the City some time before 1891 but within 10 years he was listed as a self-employed, Stock Exchange Jobber, married with a 2 year old daughter. It was his father, the sea Captain, I discussed in a previous blog published on 2019/05/08, entitled “In the family — Shipwrecks and Cholera”. He died of cholera in a foreign port having lost everything in a shipwreck.
Isabella and Mitchell Nicoll — social mobility in action — the growing Edwardian middle-class, thanks to sound education and possibly helped by the inability of the class-bound English to fit a Scottish accent into the established order!
c1900, Isabella, with her mother and her daughter. My sons-in-law will read what they may from this image!
Powys Council Superheroes Dafydd and Jamie, mobilized from Llandrindod Wells, have braved the elements to unbung our culverts and release our flood water — the valley reverberates with satisfying glugs, gurgles and the sound of rushing water!
Rainfall of 100ml in 24hrs and it’s gone on for days (uncorroborated due to unavailability of rainwater gauges “no-one here needs to measure it!” Our little stream has overflowed for the first time in living memory, mine.
And the road in the dip had turned into a lake — but here is Dafydd:
doing what must be one of the most satisfying jobs in the world — here is the apotheosis of his craft!
The great unbung! See the job satisfaction:
Meanwhile Bill and I continue our flood surveillance — the innovative unblockable, hurdle-based, stream valve is working well.
And I think how much Alan would have enjoyed the diversion of so much muddy water.
This is to put all you keen gardeners in your place.
It should be reassuring to see what happens if you do absolutely nothing. We dug the pond because we were fed up with having to evacuate the tadpoles every year as the puddles dry up and their wriggling density becomes alarming.
Here it is 4 months later — despite the drought!
There are fishes too, very tiny super-sonic ones. This is promising:
A frog wondering where her favourite puddle has gone. There are water boatmen and the southern hawker was patrolling all summer, though we haven’t seen the female laying eggs we live in hope that soon the mud will be teeming with insect larvae.
Sometimes an image will transport you to another time.
The carved bench ends of St Winnow’s Church in Cornwall take you straight back to 1520!
The same place, the Fowey estuary, but 500 years ago. A Tudor boat, like the ones they saw from the church yard, but in a heavy sea, blown by the wind god.
Local craftsmen will have been carving what they knew. Images and icons of the time, emblems, armorial bearings, monograms or, maybe an allusion to a sponsor, perhaps a guild. They were artists so there is more to the work than Christian symbolism — they capture the essence of the time.
According to Todd Gray, A Gazetteer of Ancient Bench Ends in Cornwall’s Parish Churches, these carvings of tools are images of the Passion (above is a hammer and pincers, pillar with cord and 2 whips). With my artisan’s hat on I wonder if they represent carpenters and the ceremonial truncheons — the marks of authority of maybe the constable and the two keepers of the poor-house.
You will note that some of these bench ends are better preserved than others — the church was renovated in 1874 and care was taken to preserve the ancient bench ends at that time.
As I get older I realise how short is a lifespan. How near we are to 1520 — how nothing changes. Here is the bench end that confirms this. Have you noticed how the archaeologists on TV are obsessed with ritual — I always look for practical explanations — is this chap a sinner or just marking the brewer’s bench?
Newlyn is our favourite harbour. It may be an Icelandic gull or a black redstart that draws us, but it is the turnstones at the harbourmaster’s office that enchant us, dashing about avoiding the comings and goings of vehicles instead of waves, as they monitor the sandwich situation within and without the office.
Seems to me that in recent years the fishing fleet is looking smarter and younger. But then, I find that’s true of most things!
But there are still old friends —
and ropes to trip over
potentially propelling me into the green depths and alarming the old seal lolling in the harbour waiting for the tide to rise high enough for him to snatch the discarded crabs.
The bright young boats are hung with clusters of fenders like boat-eggs, tended by fishermen.
Notice the threatening weather which reminds us of the rigours of their chosen occupation.
The best thing about visiting an active fishing port is the evening meal.
One careful resident, since refurbishment in 1603 — the Sackville family, who still live there though it is now owned by the nation and managed by the National Trust. Literary note: yes, Vita Sackville-West lived here for a time and was visited by her lover, Virginia Woolf, who wrote about the house in Orlando (1928).
It was always said to be a Calendar House, with 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards, P G Wodehouse added that it also had [only] 20 bathrooms! Modernisation has removed some staircases and added some yards, but it is certainly substantial — the footprint is 4 acres!
Some of you know my preoccupation with drains and plumbing generally. One of the things that impressed me at Knole was the Jacobean leadwork — the magnificent ornamental rainwater heads with turrets and fretwork. Other examples have initials, dates, chequers, stars, chevrons and bartizans.
But wait — I’ve found another photo.
1749 — what happened then? Can’t find out — maybe they just renovated the plumbing! Does anybody know?