Wednesday, 19 July 2017

My friend, Etta Gray

This was my Etta, with her husband, George -laughing at me, as so often. I say 'was' because I will never see that beautiful, loving, laughing face again. She died last week, and something in me has broken.  Not just for me, but for all those other people whose hearts she held, so gently, in the palm of her hand.

She was my neighbour while I lived in Orkney, for only a couple of years, but they were probably the most difficult 2 years of my life.  Shortly before we met, and became neighbours, I had given birth to my 3rd child, and had, again, bad post natal depression. 6 months following the birth, my only parent, my mother, had died, with only about 4 months warning. To say I was in a bad place is a gross understatement!  We were such different people, but Etta's great gift was that she loved - everyone, and she wrapped me in that love, and stopped me from drowning in my pain and self judgement. She loved as one should, seeing all the frailties and foolishnesses, but accepting and forgiving them, doing all within her power to hold up the good in all she encountered.

Etta had barely left the Islands, going to mainland Scotland in her youth, where she met the lovely George, who was from Peterhead (his Peterhead dialect, combined with the Orcadian lilt he acquired, made him almost incomprehensible to we southerners, till you got the rhythm of it!) and only went to town about once a week, to do her messages, but she was wiser by far, than many I've known with the widest experience and the finest of educations.  She, and her mother, Granny, fed and nourished the whole of the world they touched, with pancakes and their love, and the world is so much a pooer place without them.

In 1981, my relationship with my partner had broken down to the point that he had convinced me I was an unfit mother, and my children would be better off without me, and I moved out of my little home next to Etta & George, and struggled to find a new sense of myself, a way forward. I remember, vividly, standing on the edge of a very high cliff, that autumn, looking down at the waves pounding the rocks below, and thinking how easy it would be to just take that step forward, and put an end to it all - I was convinced of my unsuitability as a mother, my partner (father of 2 of my 4 children) would look after the children, no one needed me at all (this wasn't mere self pity, I truly believed I was that unworthy of existence) Then Etta's face rose in my mind, how much she loved me, how disappointed in me she would be, and how hurt she would be - and I couldn't let her down. I had to fight this, for her, who, alone in my life's experience, had loved me without condition. 

After I left Orkney we didn't keep in touch much, neither of us was good at writing letters, or making chatty, gossipy phone calls, it wasn't that kind of friendship. But when I was able, I would go knock on her door, and we would put our arms around each other, and I felt safe again. I will never feel that kind of safe now - but worse, neither will George or her 3 lovely children, and their children.  Many, many hearts are wounded, and will be weeping at her graveside tomorrow.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Values.

I went to boarding school,,not because my family were rich, quite the opposite. I was the beneficiary of 19th and early 20th century philanthropy, attending schools originally founded as orphanages fir the children of Merchant Navy seamen lost at sea. By the time my father was lost off the coast of Wales on Christmas Eve 1951, they were schools, and when I was 7, a month or so before my 8th birthday, I started the summer term at the Royal Merchant Navy School, in Collington Avenue, Bexhill.

Since my father had died, my little sister had been born and I had been to many schools, as my mother travelled the country, doing any live in job she could get, and keep her daughters with her. I can't say this did my formal education much, each school seemed to be at a different stage of the curriculum on my arrival, so I still have some peculiar gaps in my understandings!

The staff at RMNS Bexhill were mostly very fine, caring people. I remember the Headmaster coming and tucking in the the new kids for the first few nights, singing us to sleep, trying his best to ease the transition for very young children.

In due course, we moved on to the senior school, at Bearwood,  near Reading. This was in a very grand mansion, donated by a newspaper magnate just after the First World War, at which time, of course, there was a very large increase in the number of Merchant Navy orphans!  One of the first things that happened was a medical check up (in the elegant Sanatorium donated by Lord Nuffield) where it was discovered that I was so severely short sighted that they were rather amazed I was doing as well as I was, academically,  as most teaching was via a blackboard in those days, and I cannot possibly have seen what was on it! Amazing what a lonely little bookworm can teach herself, if her mind is hungry enough!

Despite being the boys' favourite victim, it was a wonderful place to be, with enormous grounds in which a child could wander and feel safe, caring, if strict, staff and a solid moral structure to give children a degree of emotional security. In fact, ex pupils still return, and are devoted to the school, even now it has been sold and become the flagship school of a big public/private school chain.

And here's where the values come in. In 1961 the girls part of the school closed,  and we were dispersed, at the Merchant Navy's expense, to schools nearer to our homes. At the end if each year, the school held a Leavers Service in the beautiful St Nicholas Chapel (Nicholas being the patron saint of sailors, amongst others)

At the end of the service, those leaving were lined up at the altar rail and presented with a bible or prayer book, dedicated to us and signed by the Headmaster, with a little card inside. On the card was the statement made to all leavers by the Headmaster as these were handed out. I can still, over 50 years later,;remember it word for word, and it's values have guided me ever since.

"I charge you to remember always the great bounty you have enjoyed at Bearwood, and in the years to come, to do all you can to help others by thought, word and deed.
Remember, too, that you carry with you the good name of the Royal Merchant Navy School.
May God Almighty direct your course,  and strengthen and inspire you through all your days."

I no longer believe in any god, but those values have stayed with me, along with the gratitude for the caring and generosity of people who had no obligation towards me. Somewhere in the intervening years our society has lost touch with those values, and it is a great loss. It was a far from perfect world then, and people were no more perfect then than they are now,;but there was a great deal more compassion and generosity, and we knew that, mostly, we really *were* all in it together. Rich or poor, we could all suffer misfortune, deadly diseases and war, and there, but for the grace of fortune, any of us could go.

As a society, we have lost our sanity, our sense of balance. I do hope we find it before collective suicide is unavoidable.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Fortress Britain

Our nation's current government would have us believe we we are assailed by potential invaders from all sides. 'Migrants' crowd at our edges, determined to stream in and rob us of all our jobs, homes and wealth, Europe wants to turn us into a satellite state of a 'United States of Europe' and take away our sovereign powers, the poor, disabled and elderly of our own population are contributing nothing to the bank accounts of our nation and their lazy expectation of being supported by our hard working families is draining the nation's wealth.

What unspeakable tosh!  What is actually draining the nation's wealth is a bunch of greedy so-called business people who have no idea whatsoever how to run a long term, healthy business and are asset stripping the country for the short term gain of themselves and their mates. As Britain discovered during the war, being able to supply your own country with the basics of survival is very important, exports are great to provide extra income, but if you rely on imports for the basics, you are soon in deep trouble if an emergency arises. On our trip to the seaside today, I noticed a new 'solar farm' being erected near Bristol - great, for our energy independence and ecology, not so great, when you realise it is being erected on good farming land, that could be grazing animals or growing fruit or vegetables.  Why are we importing low quality, tasteless food from abroad (which is superficially 'cheap' but of dubious nutritional, environmental and taste quality) when we have fed ourselves well, and deliciously, from our own farms for centuries, until very recently? Because it's not profitable for those who are already so financially wealthy they've lost all contact with reality, that's why.

Some of our greatest British companies, such as Cadbury, Fry, Rowntree, now, sadly asset stripped to multinationals for the benefit of said wealthy fools, started out, not to garner wealth, but to benefit the people of this country. All those famous 'chocolate' names were companies started by Quakers, to try and create an alternative to alcohol and pubs, in a time when alcohol had become just as serious a problem, if not worse, than 'binge drinking' today. The intent was to create places to meet and socialise without alcohol, and to make chocolate fashionable instead! They treated their workers well, valuing their contribution to the business to the extent of building top quality housing and communities for them, with schools etc, rather than the squalid 'back to backs' most of the other workers of the industrial revolution were stuck in. These employers also cared for their elderly workers, instead of tossing them into the workhouse. These business methods created multinational businesses, only when they ceased to be family businesses, cleaving to moral principles did they deteriorate into mere money creators.

Our worldwide economies today are run by gamblers, playing with other people's money and lives to generate short term profits for themselves - the losses always fall on those whose money they have been gambling with, never their own. This isn't just bankers, this is the many multinationals on the stock market - they are gambling with the money and lives of their workers and customers, not their shareholders, the shareholders are pulling the strings. Only when we cease to buy the ideas, values and goods of the merely financially wealthy and greedy will we change this set up - and it IS a set up, and we are the fall guys.

If they won't think long term, and they won't, for our own sakes WE must. We cannot have a 'fortress' at all when we have sold vast swathes of it to China, America and heaven knows where else. We have sold of most of our independence already, willy nilly, because those running our country are financial and social illiterates. We, the people, need to take our country back, by being VERY conscious of where the money we spend goes, by supporting small, local businesses, by building community.  If we have community, and stand together, we are greater than those who would harvest us as 'Stock' (yes, that's how the DWP, for instance, refer to us, the citizens of this country)

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Winter blues

I am miserable today. For most of the last 25 years we have lived in caravans or motorhomes,  which are small,  well insulated spaces - easy to get warm and to keep at a comfortable temperature.  This is our first really cold day since moving back into bricks and mortar,  and I am colder and more miserable than I can remember ever being in one of our little boxes on wheels.

We have central heating, and it's raised the temperature enough that we can just spread our butter, but my body has always been rubbish at dealing with temperature extremes - especially cold! My arthritic joints are aching like f@%$ and stiff as anything, and I feel miserable. I wish we could afford to go back to living in a tin box on wheels.  Isn't that ridiculous?

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Early history

On Christmas Eve 1951, my father was lost at sea off the Welsh coast in Cardigan Bay.  I was 4 and a half years old, and my mother had just discovered she was expecting what turned out to be my little sister.  This event left my mother destitute, as my father was a handsome, charming man, loving and a joyous companion, but prone to borrowing and putting bills behind the clock on the mantelpiece, metaphorically speaking, and never actually getting round to paying them! He left debts of over £3000, an enormous sum at that time.

We travelled wherever Mummy could find live in work, until my father's father also died, and left money in trust for my sister and I. My father's brothers bought a little terraced Victorian house in Canterbury (almost the exact twin of the house we rent now) for £500, and spent a further £500 gutting it, restructuring it and fitting it out to a modern standard.  That left a further £1000 to be invested to provide a little income, and gives a reasonable idea of the scale of my father's debt!

About 18 months after we moved into the house, I was sent to boarding school, just before my 8th birthday in 1955. My father's aunts had discovered that because he was a Merchant Navy Master Mariner, we were entitled to free education at the Merchant Navy School, which meant that my mother did not have to house, feed or clothe me for 2 thirds of the year - saving a fortune. So, in the spring, off I went to Bexhill, on the south coast,  near Hastings.

Let's gloss over how I felt, which was pretty bloody awful, to be frank. I knew this was taking an enormous load from my mother's shoulders at the time, and have only understood more deeply as the years have gone by - she was doing the very best she could for me, painful though it was for a frightened, lonely and bereaved little girl. I was fed and clothed for 10 years, better than I could ever have been at home, and taught to think.

That education was an enormous, incalculable gift - because it truly was an education, rather than mere processing through a schooling system. I met some extraordinary people, both fellow pupils, and fascinating and dedicated staff members. In the post war years there were still many British service families posted residentially all over the world, sending their children back to Britain for their education, and many of my peers only saw their parents for the summer holidays.

Many of the staff, too, were still in recovery from their experiences in the war, seeking out their way forward in the peace time world, emotionally  and physically battered by their war time lives. However, with few exceptions they cared deeply for the children in their care, and we were lucky. I remember the first few weeks of my first term, when I, and a couple of other little girls, were desperately homesick, the head master came to tuck us up at night, chat to us and sing us to sleep!

I was a funny little scrap, desperately short sighted, but not yet with spectacles, so I couldn't see the blackboard, and buck teeth to put a rabbit to shame. I was also desperately shy and unconfident - a bully's dream! It was a mixed school, unusually for boarding schools of the day, and the boys got much entertainment, for much of my school life, from pressing my buttons.

I was taught to have an open mind, to ask questions, and to understand,  rather than merely store information, and do/be what was expected of me. I was taught to respect others, but that respect needed to be earned, too. I had an education, while most of my contemporaries got schooling. I shall always be grateful for that.

Confessional

I confess I am much better at socialising and being a good friend online than I am in the flesh. Face to face I am socially awkward, and get more and more uncomfortable the larger the group, so most serious social occasions completely freak me out - a wedding reduces me to an incoherent puddle. When I can give all my attention to one person it's fine, I can listen properly to both what they say verbally and their body language, and give them the considered responses they deserve. Put me in a crowd and there is simply more input than I can process comfortably at the speed required.

I suspect that this makes me seem both stupid and anti social to many, but it's not the case - I love people, and am distressed when I can't give each person my full attention. I just can't do the superficial thing that becomes required when in large groups. Perhaps I simply care too much about everyone! As I was once told "your circle of concern is larger than your circle of influence, so you get overloaded." As good an explanation as I've heard so far!

So, thank you to all my online friends for giving me the opportunity to be the kind of supportive friend I've always wanted to be, and apologies to all my face-to-face family and friends who never got my best because there have always been too many of you at once!

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

A posher potage!

Since my last post seems to have aroused a certain enthusiasm for old fashioned, simple food, here's some more!

Ingredients: one onion, 2 chicken breaststroke (cubed), 2 parsnips, one carrot,and a handful each of green lentils and barley. Mix them all together with a tin of chopped tomatoes, plus another tin full of water and a stock cube in a slow cooker/crockpot or a casserole in the oven and cook slowly for at least 8 hours.  This batch also included the remains of some creamed vegetable soup (puree of carrot, parsnip & sweet potato with seasoning and a dollop of creme fraiche)

Serve in a bowl with crusty home made bread and butter,  and maybe some cheese for a contrast of flavours. This made enough for our dinner tonight,and 3 more bowls worth to freeze and take down to have as lunch with Aunt Barbara. 5 meals for less than £5.