Glimmers of Hope in Flecks of Lilac

There are glimmers of hope. At last it seems we are moving towards spring! I wonder why it is that winter always seems the longest season. I mean, it isn’t really as if it’s been frightful – it’s just the seemingly endless dark days; days that feel as though they don’t start till midmorning and are shutting down for business by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Days that have been very cold, damp and just don’t stimulate positive thinking. Well, they don’t do much for me anyway.

Not that I hate the cold as such – a clear, blue sky on a frosty morning when you can see your breath and you have to pull your hat over your ears and can’t bear it if you think you’ve dropped your gloves! I love those sorts of days. When the ground is crunchy underfoot and you can hurry back home and drink a hot cup of tea and really revel in its heat and restorative goodness. Yes, they’re good wintery days. Even days when you’re a little bit afraid walking on a steep slope as you see the frost glistening or you have to get up early to scrape the car windscreen and your fingers go numb and you have to blow on them while the car heater is still warming up. Yes, they are great, stimulating, invigorating days.

What I hate are the days that never seem to get going. When you wake, knowing you’ve been in bed a whole night and yet it’s still pitch black outside. And it’s raining, or it’s been raining. It’s not even really cold – at least not frosty. It’s just miserable. And you’re making your tea and looking out the window and all you can see is your own miserable reflection staring back at you in the dark – like it’s your soul that nipped outside and has found it wanting and can hardly bear to give you the bad news. Then you see children going to school and it’s barely light. It’s like things you’re doing slow down but the day itself slips passed you faster, so just when you think you’ve got a grip on it, it grinds down to a halt. And you’re looking at your own reflection in the window again – wearing a ‘so where has that one gone then?’ expression. Short, miserable days. Oh I know they’re not all quite like that – there’s lots to be thankful for too – but they do drop by more frequently – those gloom-filled days.

But they are coming to an end! Ha ha! I want to laugh out loud and shout ‘so there, winter, you didn’t see me off!’

Even before it’s here, I know it’s coming. There are these signs all along the walks – tiny buds appearing on branches. Each one prompting a wee spring in my step and a slight quickening to my heartbeat. In the shade of a tree in the churchyard (oh, don’t ask me what kind of tree it was; I always get them wrong!) there they were, just peeping through the mulch there – tiny flecks of lilac. Crocii making their yearly appearance.Glimmers of hope in lilac

‘Hello, again!’ they seem to whisper, ‘Is it time?’ At first they appear quite shy, as if they’re afraid someone (like a horrid, north-westerly gust of wind or harsh frost) will shout them back down, with a ‘Get back in the ground you fools! It’s not your turn yet!’

Well, it is! There were a few hints last week – sunny intervals (as termed by the weatherfolk) and milder air coaxed them onto the seasonal stage and there they were – as if they were waiting for me to climb over the wall into the cemetery. Like a warm greeting they met my eyes and I had to pause and smile at them in return greeting. I just had to get the Iphone out and take that picture. I wanted to note it – make an imprint of it. All the rest of the day I could revisit that picture – even in my mind – and know that spring was coming – the winter wasn’t going to last forever.

Over the winter months, being someone who is seasonally affected, I really have to work hard not to let myself slip into a reactive depression. I’m not meaning a clinical sort of depression, although it can verge on that by the way it presents. I mean that the darkness seems to push me into a corner of my own life and I can find myself stuck there. It goes like this: because of the darkness I can’t go out walking so early, so I stay in bed a little longer; staying in bed longer makes me feel bad about myself, so I start the day on a low note; I roll out of bed instead of jumping; I stay in my dressing gown, as what’s the point of getting dressed? I find myself wondering it it’s worth opening the curtains or raising the blinds. What’s the point? There’s nothing to see. Just me looking back at me. I sit and think how miserable it is and this makes me feel even more miserable. I end up eating breakfast so late it makes eating lunch not worth it and then I worry that I’ll want dinner too early and the evening will seem shorter! I do shorter walks and when it’s raining they get shorter still. Not being able to be outside makes me feel even more miserable. I have to put the light on to read and before I know it, I’m closing the curtains as the darkness starts to descend – yet again! And it’s only just gone!

Do you know those days? I have to make myself get a grip. Honestly, I have to take myself in hand and give myself a stiff talking to. I find there is a Psalm that often comes to mind when I’m like this:

                        Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you disquieted within me?

(Psalm 42:11a)

I love that this psalm was probably written by King David and that he, though he was so close to God (being called a ‘man after my own heart’ by God himself! How brilliant must that be!), finds himself in these same dark places that I get myself into.

It seems important to me that I do that chastising of my soul. So when my reflection stares back at me through the dark glass, by an act of will, I make myself say this line. I talk to my own soul – essentially telling it to ‘get a grip’. Of course, as a Christian, I don’t believe that I can do this in my own strength. For that I thank God – as the second half of that verse gently steers me to where strength can be found and where my hope really is, reminding me that I’m never actually alone; God is bigger than my circumstances. They are only temporary.

                        Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my help and my God.


It doesn’t happen immediately; it isn’t like there is a blinding light or that in that moment I am lifted to some higher plain. Not at all, I have simply reminded my soul that things are not hopeless. I have a choice. I can stay in the corner of my own mind; I can dwell there in the dark. I can make my life smaller and shrink into myself. Or I can remember what the light looks like – focus on where my hope really is founded – and I can make that my driver. I can hitch my soul on to something worth getting up for. I can find light, joy, laughter, sunshine in the smile of a stranger; the hue of the leaves of a plant in the bathroom; a robin on the birdfeeder; a phone call from a friend; an episode of a ridiculous soap opera; a chapter of a good book; a slice of chocolate cake; a bowl of lentil soup; a visit to a museum.

On a short, dark, cold winter day, in the driving rain, I can curse the mud and wet; sit and watch it batter my windows; or I can go by the tree in the cemetery, shelter under the branches, stand on the mulch there and remember that underneath all this, something is happening; life is stirring; bulbs are being fed; roots are extending – and soon, and very soon, tiny shoots of green will appear, followed by flecks of lilac – glimmers of hope for tired souls.

Sunshine Doesn’t Last Forever

Sunshine Doesn’t Last Forever

ThoraOnce a month I run a reading group in a care home. I’m not allowed to read to individuals in their own rooms, which saddens me as I know there are many who would really enjoy that, because that’s against the rules as I have no DBS clearance. Well, actually, I do have clearance, at the enhanced level no less, for my role as Reader minister, and I have the same clearance for my work with New Wine ministries, but that doesn’t count with the care home because it, like all organisations, has to undertake its own DBS checks. (If you’re reading this and wondering about DBS – it stands for ‘Disclosure and Barring Service’ and replaced the Criminal Records Bureau). The whole process is supposedly in place to weed out those individuals who have ill intentions towards those who are vulnerable. Not that it can really do that – as it can only found out about those who have police records, including cautions, so the clever ones who haven’t ever been caught can still carry on doing what they’re doing. I could wax lyrical about what I think is wrong with this system but I won’t (for now anyway!). I don’t apportion blame to the care home for not allowing me to visit individuals – they are following vulnerable adult policies. That is laudable in itself. However, in our zeal to protect (and quite rightly those who are vulnerable deserve our protection), I wonder if we are forgetting sometimes to balance the needs of the vulnerable to access positive and enriching experiences. It bothers me. We can too easily forget how much pleasure can be gained from simple exchanges with another human being for instance. We can take for granted the rays of sunshine that can pierce an otherwise gloomy day when someone pauses to talk to us, or even briefly smiles at us in passing.

All of the people in my group once had purposeful roles in society – they raised families and ran homes; they held down busy jobs. Among them are retired clergy members; teachers and head-teachers; nurses, midwives, hairdressers, business owners and one delightful lady who was an entertainer for the armed forces. They have not always been frail and, as they refer to themselves, useless. The care staff I come across largely seem to me to be caring sort of people. However, there is something about the way they speak to my friends – the tone, the language used, the facial expressions I observe – that is markedly different from the way they speak with each other and it makes me uncomfortable. My group members have become ‘categorised’ – they are now ‘care home residents’ and as such must be subjected to all that comes with that categorisation. People don’t even seem to notice they’re doing it – moreover, it’s not just acceptable, it’s expected.

“Just sit back down, Jean” one very young assistant said last week, rolling her eyes at her colleague and smirking. This, to an 89 year old woman, who once ran the Home Economics department at the local high school, because she had dared to stand up and try to move a chair as they entered with the tea trolley. Despite the fact that we were in the middle of reading a very moving poem, in a group that has run monthly for over a year, there was no knock on the door and “Who wants tea or coffee?” was called out without so much as an “Excuse me” or even a cursory nod to me, who is reading to the group. Immediately, the tone of the room is altered, the beauty of the words hanging in the air is banished and the members are back in ‘care home resident’ mode making sure they don’t miss out on the only hot drink that will be on offer until tea-time.

Joanna Harris has written some excellent stories about two fabulous elderly ladies who live in “Meadowbank Retirement Home”. Faith and Hope Go Shopping was the first one and can be found in her book ‘Jigs and Reels’. They’re all written in Faith’s voice who displays an indomitable spirit and has formed a friendship with Hope, who is blind, and who was once a university professor. Well, it’s never going to be easy fitting into the categorisation of the nursing home, is it?  Especially if your life has been so very different:

“…they try to find things to entertain us, but when you’ve been you’ve been a professor at Cambridge, with theatres and cocktail parties and May Balls and Christmas concerts at King’s, you never really learn to appreciate those Tuesday night bingo games. On the other hand you do learn to appreciate the small pleasures (small pleasures being by far the commonest) because, as some French friend of Hope’s used to say, one can imagine even Sisyphus happy.”[1]

I’ve read a couple of the Faith and Hope stories to my friends in the care home – there is always much laughter and knowing comments, but there’s also a poignancy stemming from a “how did I come to this” feeling that seems to emanate from each of them.

Growing old should bother all of us – it is inevitable, if death, equally inevitable, doesn’t claim us first of course. We talk of growing old gracefully – I wonder what on earth we mean by that? Retaining some integrity? Hanging on to dignity? Accepting with good grace what one can no longer do? Does it have to mean being treated as if we were somehow part of a different section of the human race – less deserving of common courtesies?

Then there’s the business of being a bit naughty. Or defiant. Or obstinate. The chasing of rainbows and the running after butterflies. Or the desiring of ‘unsuitable’ red shoes (You simply must read ‘Faith and Hope Go Shopping’ to get that one!). Or mixing with ‘undesirables’ and even indulging in something a little bit unsavoury. We might never want to do any of these things while we actually can, but what of when we are no longer able – or are prevented from doing?

There’s a wonderful play written by Alan Bennett – especially for and performed on the radio by Thora Hird when she herself was very frail. The subtle but perceptively sharp humour, laced with pathos, is as you might expect from Bennett and you can hear Hird delivering the lines with her acerbically soft tones:

Mr Pilling says, ‘ A grand-looking woman, your daughter.’

I said, ‘You’re not alone in that opinion.’

‘Why,’ he says, ‘who else thinks so?’

I said, ‘She does.’

He smiled.

‘I’m going to read from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.’


There are clues from early on in the piece that all is not right with the way Mr Pilling relates to the vulnerable elderly ladies although if you blink you might miss them, it’s so cleverly done. With so many abuse cases in the media at present, not least the prolific and predatory abuse carried out by Saville, it’s actually a topical piece and there’s something even more disturbing about the issues it raises. I read it some years ago the first time and returning to it recently found myself not being able to get it out of my mind for some time.

Bindra’s just been round with the air freshener when Mr Pilling arrives. Raincoat always neatly folded. Puts it down on the bed. Holds up the Bible. Lovely fingernails. I complimented him on them once and he said ‘Well, its not something I would want broadcasting, Mrs Walker, but I have them manicured. Kelly does them at Salon Snippets and I count it money well spent.’

Never looks at you when he’s doing it. Just concentrates on the words of the New Testament.

Down goes the raincoat, up comes the Bible and away we go.[2]

You can’t help but feel revulsion for what Mr Pilling seems to be up to with the four residents who share their room. When Mrs Walker’s daughter (Mrs Turnbull) makes the discovery, and reports what she observes, she believes her mother’s had a lucky escape but has her eye on a compensation claim. She is taken aback with the response:

‘Not to put too fine a point on it, I like having the tops of my legs stroked, even at my age, and so does Blanche and if there’s a gentleman like Mr Pilling willing to undertake the task and derive pleasure from it then I prefer to think of that not as something disgusting but as God moving in his mysterious way…I shall tell them it was all done of my own free will. We were consenting adults. So you can kiss goodbye to your flaming compensation.

Bindra comes in with the air-freshener. I said, ‘Bindra, I think Mrs Turnbull wants a tissue’.

Shocking? Of course it is. But I wonder if that’s really to do with what is initially an apparent abuse of position or more that an elderly woman is articulating her desire to be intimately touched . And more, that she apparently has no care to who provides what she needs. Was it abuse? It seemed to be at first reading – but there was more going under that raincoat than we first guessed.

It’s what I like about the writing – that it leaves us disturbed and chewing the unthinkable over and over. Actually, there’s a bit of me that really doesn’t want to think about such things. Like when I was a teenager and I heard those noises from my parents through the thin bedroom wall. How could they be doing that? At their age? It was certainly never to be mentioned by them.

So Mrs Walker wants to make the most of the last of the sun – she knows it won’t last forever. While it is shining in our youth we take it for granted. We bathe in its rays and drink of it greedily. But we think of that other species – the old and infirm – as having no right to it. Not only are they categorised as worthy of disdain, but as no longer having a right to express desire. That sort of sunshine apparently must not be allowed to last forever.

[1] Faith and Hope Fly South in “A Cat, A Hat and A Piece of String” by Joanna Harris

[2] The Last of the Sun in ‘Untold Stories by Alan Bennett


‘Let it Flow, Let It Flow!!’ or “They have [NOT] taken away my Lord”

mary weepingI’m excited because today I am off on a weekend away with some wonderful women who all know and love the Lord! Willersley Castle near Matlock is the venue for this weekend and apparently we are in for some real treats, in terms of teaching by Pauline Thomas who aims to help us see ourselves again the way God sees us, through His eyes of love and grace. I need to reclaim my identity in Christ – I know that! I get so busy at times I forget who I really am – a child of a Heavenly Father. I am the Daughter of a King (which of course makes me a Princess!).

I’ve got lost! I put myself up to do all sorts of stuff – with the very best of intentions always – and desperately trying to please my Father, but in so doing, I stop listening and just do what I think He wants me to do. I reckon He sighs and thinks “she’ll learn!” Well, I will, eventually – but after almost 58 years, I do wonder when I’m going to be a grown-up woman of faith. Although, it is written “all things are possible with God” Praise Him for that then!

This morning I read John 20/11-18

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

11 Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in. 12 She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. 13 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her.

“Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

14 She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. 15 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?”

She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”

16 “Mary!” Jesus said.

She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”).

17 “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message.

There are times when I’ve felt myself thinking -“I don’t know where God is in all of this” and others when I feel resentful of people for distracting me away from Him.  They come to me with their moans and groans of “It’s freezing in this church, you need to get that heating sorted” or “Your best just isn’t good enough” or “The music’s far too loud, I can’t hear myself think” or “This coffee’s revolting. We always used to have such lovely coffee….”. I hear myself thinking sometimes….”What’s that got to do with seeking Jesus!!” My mind gets bogged down with the mundane and the trivial – light bulbs, milk, central heating boilers – and I lose sight of the Lord I love. Not that those things in themselves are unimportant – we need lights on; we need to be warm enough to worship in some degree of comfort. But nothing is ever as important as seeking the Lord and we should be doing that with our whole hearts and souls. Didn’t Jesus say that very thing?

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. (Matthew 6/33)

Well, I think I stopped making it my number one priority. And I ended up blaming everyone else for stopping me doing that – when in fact I always had the choice. It was in my own gift to turn around and look for Jesus in all that goes on. In the busy-ness of the day He is there; in the sufferings and the pain He is there; in the quiet of the night when worries surface and anxieties press in, He is there. He promised never to leave and He never does; we simply choose to forget His presence with us.

So I read that Mary, through her tears, said at the graveside ” They have taken away my Lord!” Like me crying and lamenting, ‘Jesus isn’t here – this is nonsense. They have stolen Him from me; I can’t see Him any more’. Then I cried and in my heart I yearned for Him and was still enough to hear Him say softly “Bev” – just that. Just my name. A reminder of who I am and more importantly, who He is. The Risen Lord who will never leave us.

Lord Jesus, there you were when I turned around to face the right way. Through my tears I saw you. Your abundant joy flowing into me. They cannot steal you from me. I remembered the words of Paul:

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38)

A grave couldn’t hold you, nor even Death. You rose and lived among us again until You returned to the Father and now You are ‘loose in the world’ through the Spirit. So I can say with the greatest of joy, like Mary:

“I have seen the Lord!”

Bring on the weekend! Let it flow, let it flow!!


Today I Became A Writer

Yes, ’tis true! I am no longer saying “one day I’ll become..”, today I became. Don’t get all excited, I haven’t got myself a publishing deal or anything like that. All that has really changed is my attitude and self-perception.

I’ve always wanted to write – in fact I have actually written loads of stuff. I’ve just never really seen myself as a writer. It was always something I was going to do one day – when I was clever enough -when I had time – when I could think of what to write – when I knew how to do it – when I found out how I could publish – when I could afford it. And so on and so on! I’ve even got as far as resolving to self-publish – two years ago I even looked up all the information about self-publishing and was about to start, when….I got another job! So it was all put on hold again. Then I thought I had the time when I started part-time work and then….I enrolled on an MA! (Which was brilliant, by the way) – and then I finished the MA and was about to get going again and……then I volunteered to run a Toddler group (well, suddenly I had more time and it would have folded if I hadn’t done…!!). Then I (foolishly!!) became a church warden….and then…and then…

See how it goes? How circumstances eat your time and your hopes and dreams? Well, no more! I started a Blog, did I not? I have written posts that people have read, have I not? I have written. I have created by using words. I write – therefore I am! So – no more volunteering! No more excuses! This is my ‘job’ now! I am a writer! As a baker produces cakes (even if no one eats them) I, as a writer will produce words. I am taking this seriously – I have set off on my journey.

Today I have written over 1,000 words. My first endeavour is to collect all the Christian drama (sketches, monologues etc.) that I have written together and build a piece of work (a resource book) by writing a front for each one – the back story if you like – for each one.

Alongside this, and because I get bored easily and therefore need a few projects on the go at any one time, otherwise I’ll end up volunteering to run a soup kitchen or something – I’m also going to resurrect a novel I began over 12 years ago. The working title was “Georgia on my mind” – it’s about a woman who is devastated when her sister is brutally murdered – it’s not about finding the killer or anything like that – it’s about how her life changes because of the death and how she learns to live again without her beloved Georgia and the journeys she has to make back into her childhood and early adulthood to help her come to terms with this loss. (It may well turn out to be nothing like this when it is finished of course!!)

Watch this space! From time to time I may even share a few snippets of my writing for your feedback.  I will post as often as I can, if only to prove to myself I am still a Writer! I will keep you informed of my progress anyway…..wish me luck!!

Crossing to Safety


At last the snow has cleared! It’s been hanging around since Wednesday and lovely as it looks when it’s all fresh and white, the disruption it causes is annoying. I always try to really love it and get out and walk in it with my companion, Billy – who, being a dog – finds it enormous fun to toss it about and roll around in it! But, try as I might, it’s so blooming cold and it makes you wet, and it turns to slush and makes you slide and then it ices over and threatens to help you break you neck! No, if I am honest, I have to say I wouldn’t really miss it if it never snowed here again.

Today, though, we could stride out again on our walk – that is until we reached Honley Wood, where the thick covering of snow has left a legacy of sloppy mud – and there is still heaps of it all over the site of the old quarry – with sheets of ice too that can sneak up on you unawares. It’s always good to be out when the sky is so clear though. The dismay I felt when I saw it raining first thing soon lifted as the sky brightened. Isn’t it wonderful how your spirits lift as you walk and breathe clean air? After being more or less cooped up for a couple of days, I was suffering from a bit of cabin fever so it felt even more liberating to be out today. Even countering the mud and the last of the ice wasn’t so bad – a challenge well worth facing. At one point I was in a field so boggy, with whole areas of ice covering what could well have been pretty deep swampy bits, that I really had to switch my brain on to work out the best way of jumping from one tuft of marsh grass to the next. Of course, I ended up with a bit of water down the boots, but my feet managed to stay reasonably dry. Billy certainly didn’t stay dry!! He made up for the 2 days lost opportunities of mud-splashing!

The book I’m thinking of today resonates with this business of getting from one tricky bit to another – trying to make out way across boggy ground – or rocky places – or icy patches. “Crossing to Safety” is by Wallace Stegner; I read it early in 2014 and loved it. It tells the story of two couples (Larry and Sally; and Sid and Charity) who make their way across the challenges thrown at them by life – with its love and loyalties; its trials and tragedies – and how they somehow make sense of all of that through a lifelong and complex friendship. Larry is telling the story – backwards, from his stance as an aging man looking back over the times the friends have been together, sitting on a porch while his wife sleeps. What a different place they have come to now – yet they gather at the same house where the friendship was birthed: “There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters”

Each of the friends go through some tough times. We are with them as they face illness and disability; redundancies, disappointments and death. I love how they all grapple and struggle with understanding their relationships with each other – how they keep holding on to each other – even when forced apart. You’re never really sure if they truly understand each other though – if they ‘get’ one another. What seems important is that they stay on the journey together. Relationships are not easy- they have to be worked at – and just when you think you’ve ‘got’ someone, they sometimes slip through your fingers and you feel like you’re back at the beginning again. Ain’t that the truth! I guess that’s what makes it all so interesting – this people thing.

There’s this wonderful bit in the story when the couples leave their children with Charity’s mother and nanny while they go off into the wilds of Vermont. The plan ( and as always it is Charity’s plan – she plans everything, including everyone’s lives) is to take a horse, backpacks and really rough it – using ‘Pritchard’s’ notes (Pritchard being a real intrepid explorer and camper). And she intends to follow it to the letter…..

“On this trip [canes] have been declared compulsory. Pritchard, whose book on the outdoors Charity has been reading in preparation for the trip, recommends walking sticks, blackthorns, alpenstocks, or some other support for rough terrain and as a protection against hostile dogs.”

The husbands make fun of Pritchard – but not when fearsome Charity is around of course. One of the things he definitely recommends is double-checking your list to ensure everything is packed. So, just as they are about to set out she has them unpack to try and locate the tea. She berates Larry for not packing it and this threatens the harmony of the whole endeavour until the lovely Sally goes to fetch tea from the house and they can finally set off. Sid is angry with the way Charity speaks to Larry, “she acts like his mother, not his wife” he says to Sally and is often irked that Larry doesn’t fight back. On this occasion, it would seem that Larry too is rattled. In an usual fit of anger, he throws his stick away to Larry’s astonishment, who ends up keeping is – “but then, nobody is making me carry it”. Later they are waiting for the wives to catch up:

“He is still sore from that scene at the loading, his nose is still bloody. But notice. When [Charity and Sally] are within a few hundred yards he stands up and goes along the wall picking late raspberries and ripe chokecherries, and when they chug up, pink with exercise, exaggeratedly puffing, he goes to them, Charity first, and holds out a handful of berries as if expiating something.

“‘ Why thank you! she says, extravagantly pleased. ‘oh, don’t they taste good, and natural? I love their pucker’

In a few minutes we start again, Charity now in front with Sid, Sally and I leading Wizard behind. But as we begin to move, Charity notices a lack. ‘Where’s your cane? Have you left it somewhere? Already? Oh, Sid!'”

So much for subversive behaviour! You have to admire that moment of revolt though – and even more so that gracious offering of tender fruit.

Some of the most unlikely people come together well in relationship when many of us would be thinking “that’ll never work”. And don’t you find yourself wondering “how does he/she put up with that?” Mostly, we just don’t know what’s going on – what hidden depths there are to be uncovered by someone who really cares. I bet there are more than a few who think I’m the boss in our marriage – they have no idea how much I depend on that most marvellous man and I doubt they could guess at just how much I adore him and he me. It matters really only to us. You see, in the end, he’s the one I head for – my own place of safety – and I’ve crossed a fair few bogs to get here.

To Have and to Hold

untitledI have doll’s houses on my mind today. I’ve been looking at them in town, wondering whether to buy one for little Jessica – or would it be better to buy Duplo, or Lego and let her build her own? We just want to do the best for our children or grandchildren, don’t we? We want them to have toys with the most ‘play-value’.

There’s a short story about a Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield, that I love. Written in 1922 and set in rural New Zealand, it’s a tale about the cruelty of class distinctions. I’ve read it several times in groups and it never fails to enchant and always gets people talking. There’s something about the heartlessness of the adults and the way the children are sucked in to that that speaks to our sense of injustice.  But it also makes us think hard about our own attitudes to the differences between social classes. Like many stories, we look for ourselves in the telling and wince as we see shades of our beings right there between the lines.

Today, I’m not thinking about that theme though – it’s the joy of having a doll’s house that captured me in this story when I very first read it and does so each time. The picture painted in words is just delicious:

The hook at the side was stuck fast. Pat prised it open with his penknife, and the whole house-front swung back, and – there you were, gazing at one and the same moment into the drawing-room and dining-room, the kitchen and two bedrooms. That is the way for a house to open! Why don’t all houses open like that? How much more exciting than peering through the slit of a door into a mean little hall with a hat-stand and two umbrellas! That is – isn’t it? – what you long to know about a house when you put your hand on the knocker. Perhaps it is the way God opens houses at dead of night when He is taking a quiet turn with an angel…..

Don’t you just want to hug yourself with delight at this? I could almost hear myself squeal. We had one – at our home in Mill Lane – my sisters and I sharing ownership. It opened just like this one and, joy of all joys, it was wall-papered with brick patterned paper on the outside! We loved it. They always had hooks, didn’t they? You could just unfasten that hook, let that front swing back and, just as it says “there you were, gazing…”. All of us seem to love that very idea of being able to see all, at the same time. Of having control of every room – of being able to position the chairs – just so – with the little peg dolls, lolling back with their sticky-out legs at awkward angles, sitting on them.  Trying to tuck those limbs under tables, or popping them onto beds which were ridiculously out of proportion but none of it mattered, because they were our people in our house and we were putting them where we thought they should be. I could tell stories with those people – they had great and happy lives in that house with me in control.

It’s that swinging back image that continues to thrill me most of all. The very idea of being able to see so much. It does sort of give us an insight into how it might be for God and I love that Mansfield puts that image in there of Him tiptoeing around the quiet streets after dark, accompanied by and angel, checking up on us all……

“I’ll just slip this hook off, Gabe, and have a peep in here. She was a bit upset earlier today, so I’ll just pop my head in and see….oh that’s ok, she’s sleeping soundly. All is well again here. Hang on; what’s that going on downstairs? Oh I see her youngest is up raiding the fridge again! Does that boy never stop eating?”

I see God shaking His head at such wayward greed, but never intervening – we make our own choices after all – and then quietly closing the front of the house up again before He and Gabriel continue on their way. Of course it’s a ridiculous image but it’s also a comforting one to know that I am watched and looked over. Although, I guess the actual thought of having the front of my house opened up to the elements in the dead of night is not particularly comforting – given we’re in West Yorkshire and it’s always so blooming cold here!

There were always lots of lovely, little things in doll’s houses – miniature clocks or coat-stands, for instance – that warranted being inspected in close delight. I have in mind just now a tiny box of oranges that Nicola, my daughter (11 years old at the time) once bought from a little specialist doll’s house shop in Marple Bridge. She didn’t even have a doll’s house – she was simply entranced by the loveliness of this piece. In the story, Kezia, one of the little girls who becomes a joint owner of the doll’s house is entranced by one object especially….

But what Kezia like more than anything, what she liked frightfully, was the lamp. It stood in the middle of the dining-room table, an exquisite little amber lamp with a white globe. It was even filled all ready for lighting, though, of course, you couldn’t light it. But there was something inside that looked like oil, and that moved when you shook it.

Goodness! You really want to see that lamp, don’t you? So did another little girl in the story. A girl from the wrong side of town. She hears about the lamp and something inside her is touched – but she dare not even dream of being able to see it. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it, by saying how it happens that she does see it, but there is this beautiful moment when she snuggles up to her sister …

But now she had forgotten the cross lady. She put out a finger and stroked her sister’s quill; she smiled her rare smile.

‘I seen the little lamp,’ she said, softly.

Then both were silent once more.

It’s within us all, it seems, this desire to peer at something exquisite and sweet – a likeness of something real – yet something small enough that we might take in our hand, hold and turn about and simply find joy in. What part of us is this speaking to? I wonder could it be that connection we have with our own Creator? He that fashioned us in His own likeness – and cares about every little bit of us (even, we are told, the very hairs on our heads) I often think of the delight He must have in looking at what He has made and seeing what we get up to. Of course, I think He wouldn’t always be happy with what He sees – we get up to awful mischief and make a mess of things repeatedly. However, like most parents of wayward children, He must surely find lots to smile about as well as plenty that amuses Him!

It’s made me think – all children should have access to doll’s houses and the most exquisite little pieces to cherish and coo over. Something beautiful to have and to hold……and make us smile.

When Walls Come Down

Dry-stone walls proliferate the countryside of West Yorkshire. They dominate the landscape. They ramble over fields, moors – line the lanes – march around the edge of meadows. They’re striking in the most beautifully, arresting way. I don’t think I’m the only one who finds themselves spending time just looking at them – wonderingly. ‘How did they do that?’

In the run-up to “Le Grand Depart” of “Le Tour de France” which came to Yorkshire earlier in the year, some of the cyclists from other countries came to Holmfirth to ‘scout out’ the terrain. A press conference was held with a group from Belgium and Germany. They were asked questions about what they thought of the hills and so forth, and then one of them said “I have a question for you – about the walls. They are everywhere. Even in the highest places. How did they get there? Who put them there?”

Who indeed? A survey in 1988 recorded 5,000 miles of walls in Yorkshire. 5,000!!! That’s a huge number. They’re not the only kind of boundary of course, but they make up the most with 620 miles of hedgerow and 155 miles of fence – according to the same survey. So what do they do? They proclaim ownership. They keep animals in – and people out. Or at least they aim to. Where I live – they hold up gardens – indeed they hold back hills from sliding into roads, making it possible to inhabit these steep slopes that would otherwise render it impossible to build upon.

This one holds up a cemetery! As it’s at the end of the lane where I live, I pass it most days. I don’t always stop and look at it – of course not, I take it for granted, like most people. It’s always there – holding up the land. But when I do, I am amazed at the work it’s doing and how majestic it is. I love how the moss has gathered on the stones and how it’s all become a part of the living landscape – even though the stones themselves are dead things. No doubt all sorts of tiny creatures are making their homes in the crevices of the stones. I have to wonder if they’re watching me gazing up at the wall!



But they don’t last forever! They need attention – they require skilled people to care them and ensure they remain capable of doing the job. There are plenty of them like this – with sufficient gaps in them to enable Billy and I to get into our favourite woods to chase those pesky squirrels! (It’s Billy doing the chasing, by the way, not me!!)




When I clambered over this one recently (see next pic), I found myself singing the lines of a song a musician friend of ours composed some years ago “When walls come down..” it was called. I remembered the tune, but only a couple of lines. The sentiment though was about the importance of pulling down walls so that people could see and mix with each other. That’s the downside of walls, isn’t it? They might make us feel safe – keeping the enemy out, but they can also prevent integration. They can fix us in one place and stop us being able to grow through exploring what’s beyond the place we’re living in. So of course, windows, doors and gates – legitimate ways to move beyond the walls are essential. But with those comes the additional problem of having to monitor who passes through them.


I got to thinking about a book by Doris Lessing. Well, actually it was the second of a series of books “Canopus in Argos: Archives”. The book I’m thinking of is “The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five”. It’s a brilliant piece of writing about gender conflict – described by many as feminist science fiction. It is set in the metaphysical zones that circle Shikista (which could allegorically be Earth). Each zone there is a distinct system at play – ways of relating to each other and rules about living. Zone Three is matriarchal and egalitarian; Zone Four is patriarchal and militaristic and Zone Five is tribal and barbaric. The story is told through the voice of the Zone Three chroniclers and tells how a marriage was ordained between the Queen of Zone Three and King of Zone Four and later between the King of Zone four and the Queen of Zone Five. Confused already? It is not as tricky to follow as it sounds – it’s actually really good and beautifully written.

It certainly made me think about the way we identify ourselves with place and how we are socialised into a way of behaving; how we adopt beliefs and practices, sometimes without questioning or challenging. But also how easy it is to become fearful of difference; how we might build walls to protect ourselves – but from who? Often simply from the unknown. What we do not know we cannot understand; what we cannot understand we often fail to get to know; what we cannot know we cannot get close to. Walls keep others out of our place – but keep us in ours. Is this the best place to be?

The Queen of Zone Two is changed forever by her marriage and by mothering a child of both zones and finds herself somewhat displaced and disturbed. Later in the book she is allowed to look into Zone Two…

“Into that Zone (Two) she had taken the senses of Zone Three and, of course, of Zone Four; whose citizen she now was, but had tried to take in, to assess, that high delicate place but without what was needed to assess it. Who could tell her what in fact she could have seen there, if differently tuned, if more finely set?” page 196, Knopf edition, 1980

You see how it speaks of how one changes, how one becomes different by association with people of a different place? She knows now that there is more that she could be – she could become more ‘finely tuned’ and see yet more than she already can. There are horizons that stretched beyond our present vision – there is much, much more than this.

And what of the King? Who has to endure another marriage.

“Then he lay awake in the dark, arms behind his head, thinking. Of this savage girl, with who he promised himself all kinds of pleasures, the more satisfactory because she would not be expecting them. Of Al-Ith [the Queen of 3], whose thoughts seemed to be flowing there around and near him….and there was more than a little anger in him. He knew that he was forever caught up and bound, if not to her, then her realm, her ways – so that he could never again act without thinking, or be without reflection on his own condition. And he did not regret it, not that, yet even now there was a part of him that said she had put a spell on him – and that she must be exulting, knowing that his new queen was at this moment laughing at him in her tent.

He could no longer be as he had been, the Ben Ata who had never doubted what he should do; not could her react from any higher or better centre or state. He was in between, and horribly uncertain” p 209, as before

You can’t help but feel sorry for him, can you? The queen of zone three disturbed him so much that he too is forever changed and cannot go back to how he was. A good thing? He’s now ‘horribly uncertain’, so you’d possibly say not. But is certainty always such a good thing? Isn’t it a better thing to be a little unsure and therefore cause yourself to tread more carefully – to be just that bit more cautious, and thus have a better chance of not falling down the slippery slopes? Confidence is good – but we can be confident in the wrong things and confidence without competence is downright dangerous.

He doesn’t regret his relationship, although he is conscious that his very being has changed him and he, like her, is somewhat disturbed and displaced. I love the way he sees himself as ‘forever caught up and bound’ – not just to her, but to everything from the place she came from. I feel that happening as I live in West Yorkshire now. When I go back to Marple, I know that I have different eyes – a different way of looking at things. Going across the ‘border’ of the Pennines has changed me. I’m not sure I would describe myself as ‘displaced’ but I know I cannot leave Honley behind when I’m in Marple – I’m becoming more and more wrapped up in the ways of this place. Funny how he talks of ‘more than a little anger’. There’s clearly a part of him that is resentful of the changes that have happened and of the bondage he speaks of. We’re none of us as free as we like to think we are. All of us, it seems, are bound by our obligations to people and places. I cannot do some things without a voice from my past whispering in my ear “that’s not right!” or “You go girl!”. Breaking free of those voices might be possible – but would be challenging. And do I want to be free of them?

All this from looking at walls! Not only are they beautiful, they are intrinsically linked with our very beings – in the way we define ourselves and where we fix ourselves in time, place and season. I’ve climbed over many walls; walked through gates and scrambled over stiles. I know this – there are many more walls I want to climb over and many I want to pull down. But there are many too that need to be mended and kept in place.



Who Will Bring Us In From The Cold

Imagine being out in the pouring rain, chilled to the bone and having no one to turn to. Do you ever find yourself having that sort of thought? It’s on days like today – when the rain has been almost relentless with the wind hurling all sorts of things around, paying no heed to the status of anything – that I do find myself pondering such questions. Cheerful soul, aren’t I? Well actually, homelessness can and does happen to people from all sorts of backgrounds and social strata. A manager of a shelter for homeless people told me that in recent years he has seen many more middle-aged men, who once had high-flying careers, having been made redundant and lost their homes, sleeping rough – often in their cars (all that is left of a ‘better’ life).

Sleeping rough has been increasing exponentially in recent years. In one year, records released by the Department of Communities and Local Government show a 23% increase of people sleeping rough (from 1,768 to 2,181 on any one night).

Don’t get me started on the reasons underlying this increase! For now, I’m just thinking of the hopelessness of having nowhere to go and no-one to turn to. That overwhelming feeling of not knowing what to do next; that there is no place you can put your head.


You see, when I’m out walking, especially on the very worst of days, there is something so reassuring about the knowledge that, whatever it feels like now, there will be an end to it – a place that will be warm and dry; where there are towels to dry your hair; somewhere you can shake out your coat and hang it; a hot cup of tea and maybe even a bowl of soup! These things, small as they seem, are the things that drive you on; like twinkling lights in the distance.


When we did the Trailtrekker earlier this year (100k in 30 hours, walking with no sleep, across the Yorkshire Dales), the sight of the water-stations and checkpoints at regular intervals along the way rose up like mirages. We’d be hobbling and aching and just about all done in, then we’d see a sign “500m to next checkpoint” and suddenly our feet could move faster, our legs propelled us on with renewed vigour. From somewhere, because we’d been given hope, we found an inner cheerfulness and we could go on.


It brings to mind the story of Janet Dempster (‘Janet’s Repentance[1]’) who is married to an abusive husband,  who is also the town’s lawyer. She is a proud and beautiful woman, but has turned to drink to help her cope with her disastrous marriage. We’d say today that she was alcohol dependent, but then her neighbours talked of her being ‘unwell’ or ‘having headaches’ – this is a Victorian novel, you see, so the actual ‘issue’ is never really mentioned! The nearest we get to it is in reading that her beauty ‘is enhanced by the faint physical traces of her addiction’.

 scenes of clerical life

Matters come to a head when Dempster comes home in a drunken rage and violently turns his wife out in the night, wearing only a nightdress. She has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. At one point she finds herself sitting on the freezing cobble stones and contemplates simply staying there, letting the night take her. Then, from somewhere, comes the memory of a kind, elderly friend and she makes her way through the streets to her house and manages to wake her:



‘It is I, Mrs Pettifer; it is Janet Dempster. Take me in, for pity’s sake.’
‘Merciful God! What has happened?’
‘Robert has turned me out. I have been in the cold a long while.’
Mrs Pettifer said no more, but hurried away from the window, and was soon at the door with a light in her hand.
‘Come in, my poor dear, come in,’ said the good woman in a tremulous voice, drawing Janet within the door. ‘Come into my warm bed, and may God in heaven save and comfort you.’
The pitying eyes, the tender voice, the warm touch, caused a rush of new feeling in Janet. Her heart swelled, and she burst out suddenly, like a child, into loud passionate sobs. Mrs Pettifer could not help crying with her, but she said, ‘Come upstairs, my dear, come. Don’t linger in the cold.’
She drew the poor sobbing thing gently up-stairs, and persuaded her to get into the warm bed. But it was long before Janet could lie down. She sat leaning her head on her knees, convulsed by sobs, while the motherly woman covered her with clothes and held her arms round her to comfort her with warmth. At last the hysterical passion had exhausted itself, and she fell back on the pillow; but her throat was still agitated by piteous after-sobs, such as shake a little child even when it has found a refuge from its alarms on its mother’s lap.


A friend who needs so little explanation; who asks no questions, but instantly responds to this desperate need: isn’t that the kind of friend we would all wish for? To know there is someone who can offer a ‘warm bed’ without hesitation or concern for themselves, must surely offer the most beautiful beacon of hope. Yet, how many of us can be sure that we have someone in our lives who we could call upon when the going gets really tough, or the night is most dreadfully cold? When I first read this, only two years ago, I recall stopping and thinking about this. Did I have that person, that one person, who could be relied upon to open the door no matter what time of day or night it was? And would they offer a spot in their own warm bed for me if I really needed it?


I consider myself truly blessed, because I didn’t have to think for too long and was able to list a number of people who I could confidently turn to in such a situation. Of course, we don’t want to face this really, do we? It isn’t going to happen to us. Really?


Sadly, many people do feel completely alone and have no one to turn to. Mother Theresa said that loneliness was the worst disease that anyone can endure and I read in the Guardian today that the “number of men over the age of 50 suffering from severe loneliness in England will increase to more than 1 million in the next 15 years”.



Loneliness doesn’t only affect those who live alone; you can be lonely in a crowd, but also in the context of a relationship. I guess Janet had become increasingly isolated, partly due to the shame of what was happening in her marriage and of her (mistaken, but understandable) self-perceived blame in how she was handling things. She was a desperate woman and that’s seen so clearly in the way she responds to this overt display of affection from Mrs Petifer – she becomes ‘convulsed by sobs’. I just love how the older lady covers her and holds her until her sobbing subsides.


Sometimes that’s just all we are called to do. Offer a hug, some warmth and our nonjudgmental, but comforting silence. So, to finish, a second question – who would turn to us in their hour of need?

[1] Eliot, George, Janet’s Repentance, in Scenes of a Clerical Life, first published 1857 (Penguin Classics)

The Terrible Truth in the Telling


“They came, the brothers, and took two chairs” (Thomas Hardy)

It’s the foulest of days! After one of the mildest Septembers ‘since records began’ (why do they insist on saying that all the time?!!), we are shocked to wake and find havoc being wreaked on our road networks by strong winds and driving rain. It doesn’t take much, does it? To shock us, I mean. The weather even made the news this morning. Have we so little interesting stuff to talk about that we have to have the weather conditions commented on by journalists? There he was, the journalist, hanging on to one of those huge fluffy covered microphones (they always make me laugh – I mean, could you really talk into one of those and not think you were whispering sweet nothings to a dead squirrel?). He was on the bridge across the M62 at Ainley Top, Huddersfield, letting us know how windy and terrifying it was for motorists. Well, I guess they hadn’t noticed that themselves, had they? They hadn’t woken this morning to find billions of wet leaves being hurled around, making it slippy- slidey and obscuring vision and the rain lashing their windscreens; they hadn’t dealt with the spray from large vehicles; they hadn’t dashed from their houses to their cars and got themselves drenched? No, they were all completely oblivious to these conditions until the BBC very kindly and sensibly went to the trouble of reporting on them for us. Bless them for that!

I shouldn’t mock, but we are as a nation, seemingly obsessed with the weather. We can’t even stand in a bus queue without longing to share our opinions on what it’s doing today. One of my favourites has to be “Can’t make its mind up, can it?”. Of course, “it” can’t make its mind up! “It’s” not a person! “It” hasn’t got a mind! “It” is simply the prevailing conditions! “We can’t grumble” – this usually said after a cold wet day following on from two consecutive sunny days. Apparently, we have no cause to complain if we have had at least one day of summer when the temperature rises above 2°C. We must not upset “It”, in case “it takes umbrage and refuses to allow the sun shine again!

Being tickled by the idea of the change in the weather making the news, I was browsing through a book that I’d used to collect together quotations and scraps of reading to return to one day. My attention was drawn to a Hardy poem – “The Announcement”[1]

They came, the brothers, and took two chairs

In their usual quiet way;

And for a time we did not think

They had much to say.


And they began and talked awhile

Of ordinary things,

Till spread that silence in the room

A pent thought brings


And then they said: “The end has come,

Yes: it has come at last.”

And we looked down, and knew that day

A spirit had passed.

It’s the way the scene is set with the ‘waiting’. Something is known to the tellers that the listeners don’t yet know, and even as they wait they hope to be wrong. But a sense of something is created in the mood of all as they wait – and it’s that, to me, that makes the poem so beautiful. The stillness of it; the wanting to hold on to the moment where that telling, and its implications, has not been told, yet knowing, really knowing that it must be told; that there is something that will happen. In all of that, there is a soft tension that can be felt by all but never spoken of.

It’s the “usual quiet way” that perhaps leads those watching to hope. So things are the same as they’ve always been, are they not? Surely nothing can be wrong? But then comes the talking “of ordinary things”. There must have something extraordinary in that ordinariness to create that tension that becomes the silence that spreads in the room that a “pent thought brings”. A thought we try to hold back from having – because once thought, once tripping delicately through our mind – we cannot take it back. Thoughts we have thought take on a life of their own and begin a chain of events that often we do not want to set in motion, but we must.

It brings to mind a memory of watching a documentary about the Hillsborough football disaster, when 96 people were killed and over 700 injured in the most horrible way. One of the mothers of two teenage girls was talking; her daughters had gone to the match with their father and she had remained at home but had watched the horror unfold on the TV screen minutes after the whistle had gone. The girls had been in the central pens but their father was in a different part of the stadium along with a friend. He tried desperately to find out what had happened to them amidst the ensuing chaos but it was hours before it was confirmed that they had been killed; their bodies taken to the school, acting as a temporary morgue. He had to return home without them and tell his wife this most dreadful of news. She tells on the documentary of how she saw him climb out this friend’s car and look towards the window where she was standing. “I ran out of the house and down the drive, but saw his face and knew what he was going to tell me. So I ran up the street as fast as I could. I thought ‘If I can just get away he can’t tell me, then it won’t be true.’”

As though she could push away the telling and hold back the horrible impact by not hearing the words. Reality cannot begin as long as she has no confirmation of the worst possible news.

There’s something of a horrible tension between wanting to know the truth but yet not wanting to hear it vocalised. When we have been feeling ill, with symptoms we cannot explain, it can be something of a relief to finally receive a diagnosis that means we can begin to manage or treat. Having a name for a condition can be helpful and at least give us something to focus our energies on. Now we can feel less helpless and get back in control.

I saw this all too often too with parents of disabled children. They would know something was not right and when someone eventually could name a condition, or identify a particular impediment, it was as though they could begin to move forward once again. For a time they had been circling, feeling as though they were going mad; feeling isolated from all those families of ‘normally developing’ children. There were differences that couldn’t be sufficiently explained. In cases of illness or disability, one has been living ‘in the dark’ quite often for so long that an announcement, although in some ways dreaded, is also welcomed, as it marks the end of what has often been a nightmare of not-knowing.

There is a difference when the announcement is about death. This is about the end of a life and there is no going forward for the person whose life it was. Where there was once a person, there is now a gaping hole. Whatever our beliefs, there is that moment, that we would rather not face, when we are told; when we come to know. For the Hillsborough mum, the ‘pent thought’ made her scream and run to attempt to stave off the terrible truth. I remember my mum’s face when she had to tell me my grandfather was dying of oesophageal cancer and had only days to live. I didn’t run or scream, but there was a mad moment where I almost covered her mouth to stop her telling me. As she was speaking I was uttering words of denial. As though only in the telling will the truth emerge.

“The end has come…at last”. Life endings are inevitable; we will all share that experience and yet none of us will be able to recount it to another and thus give the comfort that all of us, if truth were told, really desire. As each person leaves the life we know now, there is a moment that has to be marked “And we looked down, and knew that day – A spirit had passed”. Somehow it seems fitting that that is what we do. A collective sign of acknowledgement – ‘you have gone and I remain’ – and also of our helplessness. This last thing we cannot explain or control, yet must one day face ourselves.

[1] The Announcement by Thomas Hardy: p428 “The Collected Works of Thomas Hardy” 1994 Wordsworth Poetry Library Press

Season of Mists and Not So Mellow School Days

It’s a time of year to be cautious when out walking. The weather, mild as it is at the moment, can catch you unawares, as clouds cover the low sun all too quickly and the day becomes cold with little warning. It’s a hassle knowing what to wear. I set off in a fleece at 7.00 am as it feels cold but 20 minutes later it’s tied round my waist as I’m sweating profusely. And if it looks like rain I’ve already got my waterproof round my middle. The answer of course is usually to take the rucksack, but I’m generally only out for an hour on the daily walk, so it seems a bit like overkill. I already go armed with a walking pole, because the ground can be so tricky with the adverse camber (now there’s a great term!!) and roots sticking up, as well as muddy paths in the parts of the woods that never see much sun, that I feel the need of something to steady me. So you’d wonder why I ever bother going if it’s such a treacherous activity, wouldn’t you?


The thing is there is nothing quite like that feeling of freedom as the garage door lifts (we always start and finish in the garage – it’s not for cars, you know, it’s for drying off dogs, hanging damp gear and storing boots and other paraphernalia!!). I breathe in the morning air and look to the sky – whatever it’s like, we have to go – and we’re off. Following the path alongside the cemetery, dipping through the woods and down to the stream, where Billy gets his first paddle of the day. He just has to leap in and have a drink, whatever the temperature. These mornings it can sometimes be difficult to see him in the woods – him being so golden – against the brilliant red and orange colours of the fallen leaves.

The morning light, dappling on the floor of the woods is just beautiful. I suppose that’s why Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” sprang to mind today. It may sound naff to you, but I heard myself saying it out loud

                Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,    Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;    Conspiring with him how to load and bless     with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;


What a rich and sumptuous a poem it is; ripe and plump with goodness, the words capture all the tawny shades of the season. I couldn’t recall much more of it – I’m not that brilliant at remembering poems – just bits of them. But I found myself leaving the autumn morning and flying down the years to when I was at secondary school. It was where I first heard and studied Keats. In English Lit. At Marple Hall County Grammar School for Girls. And I find myself stiffening, as though ready for another miserable day there. That school did me very few favours and very likely did me a lot of harm and I’m saddened to say I hated almost of every day I was there – certainly the first year.

One of only three girls from my primary school to pass the 11 plus and go to grammar school, I was so thrilled and my mum and dad were really proud. However, after only a couple of days, I was disheartened, disillusioned, disappointed and on my way to being disinterested and disaffected. The sheer hugeness of the building was of course an issue, but all children have to overcome that at transition I suppose. It was more that I was separated from the two girls I had gone with – and was with 27 I had absolutely nothing in common with at all. Now, I didn’t think I was shy – but suddenly I found myself almost socially inept. At my little church primary, I’d been quite important. I knew everyone. I was a monitor; well thought of by the headmaster and teachers. I loved that school. I loved the little playground; the iron steps that went up to the staffroom that was above the stage in the hall; the outside stinky toilets; the cloakrooms with wooden benches and pegs; the field that was surrounded by gardens of houses where people I knew lived and which had fences we climbed through to take short cuts. I loved the milk that came in crates; school dinners with pudding and lumpy custard; recorder lessons; singing in the choir; taking harvest festival parcels to the old people’s home; reading “Treasure Island” aloud in class.

Most of all I loved Miss Briggs, my last teacher there. She was about 92 – stick thin, with wispy grey hair on her head and her chin. She terrified most children and many a boy was whacked with the plimsoll she kept in her desk (a high one, because she never sat down – ever!!) But she was also deeply respected and loved and she adored me. I worked hard, was bright and loved reading – her ideal pupil! And she encouraged me greatly. As did Mr Thorpe, our headmaster: a bit stern, but a darling of a man. He assigned the older pupils tasks of great importance – like copying out lists while sitting in his warm study (he always had one of those little five-bar electric fires in there). I was someone there – a person who mattered. I believed I could have done anything, been whatever I wanted – wonderful things like write great novels or be an actress or a teacher. Well, Miss Briggs made it seem as though they weren’t wild dreams – she believed that with hard work and a respectful attitude you could achieve your ambitions.

Grammar school crushed me. It made me small. I was there weeks before I had a real conversation with any other girl. (The 14 boys who had been with me were in another school and I never really spoke to them again). I had to catch a bus and every minute of that journey was a trial. It was noisy and horrid and took me away from the lovely place where I lived to that nasty, great building with loads and loads of stairs. Every lesson was in a different room on a different floor and everywhere seemed to smell of disinfectant. All the girls in my new ‘form’ (we weren’t in classes any more, they had to be ‘forms’, which I had always thought were wooden things you sat on!) seemed to know one another. They talked differently to me and about different things and I very soon picked up that most of these girls slept in bedrooms by themselves and had mothers who were at home when they got in from school and fathers who went to work in suits, with briefcases.

What I was seeing was my first glimpse of social class difference. At St Mark’s we were all much the same, in terms of class. Most of my friends lived on the council estate like me; those who didn’t lived in terraced houses on a main road (which I thought were tiny) and a couple in semi-detached ones. To me though, I felt the luckiest of all – living opposite a dairy farm, surrounded by wonderful fields, hedged by blackberry bushes and close to woods, a river and a fabulous canal (a great place of adventure, where once we found a dead dog, complete with maggot filled mouth, floating!!). Suddenly I was thrown into a place where differences in class were not only apparent, but where some girls were afforded a higher status because of what their fathers did for a living or where they lived.

It wasn’t so much the girls themselves – it was something about the attitude and behaviour of the teachers. They were mostly a frightful bunch. Few of them could teach well – they shouted a lot, wrote on the blackboard and dictated much, but gave out little encouragement. I don’t recall any teacher asking me any questions about myself or my life outside of school. I was very unhappy in my first year and it was only really English and French lessons that I enjoyed at all. The scariest lesson of all was Geography. We had a witch of a teacher – she was truly frightening. And she hated me. Well, it was mutual. I started to avoid her lessons – making out I was having clarinet lessons! (Honestly, I would have been ready for the Halle the amount of lessons I said I was having!!) She eventually found me out – and that I hadn’t done a single homework assignment for the whole of the first term. (I hadn’t done much other homework either actually! I hated it all so much as soon as I got home I hid my school bag and tried to forget all about it). Did the witch make any attempt at all to find out what was wrong? Did she heck! My punishment was to have to spend every single lunch period in her form room, watched by a couple of senior girls, copying out everything I had missed over that first term. The witch and I remained committed enemies for the two years she taught us and even now the very thought of her sends shiver down my spine. (My mother admitted recently that when she met this demon at a parents’ evening, she too felt quite terrified!!)

I did eventually settle down and make some lovely friends though. I had a wonderful youth hostelling holiday with three of them –an adventure that awakened my love of walking and the outdoors. One of my saviours was a fabulous English teacher, Miss Snell, who established I was good at Drama, loved reading and really encouraged me. However, I didn’t leave school with any honours and just about managed to scrape together 6 ‘O’ levels, before I left to go to college and eventually into nursing. I don’t think any teacher held any great expectations of me. I recall a careers interview I had with a charmless, chinless lady with bouffant hair, too much perfume and foul pink lipstick and wearing a revolting blue knitted suit.

“Have you thought about what you will do when you leave school, Beverley?”

“Yes, I’d like to be a teacher, Miss”

“Oh, no, no, no. I really don’t think so, young lady. You’re simply not academically capable of such a career”.

Really? And of course, I had a personality, didn’t I, so that would certainly have precluded me, wouldn’t it? Old bat!!

Somehow, despite being ‘academically incapable’, I made it through nursing, hold a good first degree, a teaching qualification and a Masters. I’ve held clinical specialist posts, management positions (was Head of children’s nursing in fact), teaching posts, project  management and government advisory roles. I used to dream of meeting this ‘careers expert’ and shoving my qualifications and curriculum vitae where they would never see the sun again! But you know what? I’m over it. I’ve let it go. I refused to let those few years of awful experiences define me for the rest of my life. I also let go of the feelings of wanting to ‘get back’ at those teachers a long time ago. I know who I am now and I am confident, not so much in myself or my own abilities, but in the One in who gave me life and in whom I placed my trust more than 20 years ago.

It won’t be the same for all kids though. So if you’re a teacher and you’re reading this, do think on the amount of influence you have on a developing individual. You’re in a privileged position and young people, despite an often tough exterior, are fragile beings and easily knocked. Don’t step on their dreams! I give thanks for the many friends I have who are teachers – all of them dedicated and passionate about education and getting the best out of their students. It’s a joy to know you are out there working with children, helping them to be the very best they can be. I salute you!

My thoughts, opinions and general ramblings on my own reading and walking and all sorts of other things that happen in my life!