Saturday, 7 May 2016

Veiled with Ghosts

It is my favourite time of year. Fleeting, but so beautiful.
The woods are filling up with drifts of bluebells again, but they are full of ghosts too, each morning as I walk through them in wind, or rain or dappled sunlight.
People and dogs and places that I can no longer reach out and touch.
The gradual veiling of our lives that happens, I suppose, to all of us.
I wrote this piece some years ago, but it has come into my mind often recently, so I am posting it again.


When I was very young, my grandfather took me on an outing.
It is one of the prized memories of my childhood.
I didn't see a great deal of my grandfather, because he lived in England and we lived in a variety of other places - all far away - but on this particular occasion we were in Cornwall, which was not his home, but was where his wife, my grandmother had been born and brought up. I suppose we were there visiting relatives when my 'outing' took place.

Together we walked up through the small, typically Cornish village to the railway station, and took the train over the viaduct. Then we walked down through the woods on the far side of the valley and someone rowed us back across the river in their boat. At least, that's what I recall.

I suppose every part of the trip was intrinsically memorable, because there weren't trains, or viaducts or rowing boats in my other life, and I was a very impressionable child. But those aren't the bits I remember.
It was the woods that transformed that outing into something so magical, they still call me back today.

We didn't have woods where I lived either, we had tropical rain forests.
We certainly didn't have bluebells.
And I'm sure that while the whole trip was beyond exciting, it was for the bluebells my grandfather took me there, and to see his own personal ghosts .

To a small child, a sea of bluebells is a life-changing experience. They are astonishing, and other-worldly, and intoxicating. It's not just the intensity of colour, or the waist-deep sea that immerses you as surely as water closing over your head, it's also the scent.

An English bluebell

You can tell an English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) quite easily from the Spanish variety which is, apparently taking over in some areas of Britain and Ireland. Apart from the occasional white one, they are always blue, they have slender stems that arch, creamy-white stamens and they are scented. The Spanish ones are blue or pink or white, are sturdier, with thicker stems that don't arch; they don't have white stamens and they don't smell.

There is nothing to compare with the scent of bluebells. It is a delicate perfume that is never overpowering, as the delightful but much stronger lily-of-the-valley can be. It teases rather than flaunts itself, and it is very hard to emulate. The only bluebell soap I have ever had that actually smelt of bluebells was a box my mother once gave me, which came from Harrods. I don't know if they still make it, but it would be worth being on their mailing list if they do, as I can think of no nicer present. I put the three, heart-shaped bars in my linen cupboard to scent my pillowcases, and rationed them so they would last as long as possible. Fortunately the In-Charge didn't mind using the Imperial Leather instead.

They say it is smell that lodges so deeply in the memory that you can never prise it out.
I believe them.
One whiff of bluebells and I am a child again, waist high in magic, my soul back on the potter's wheel being shaped - again - around that day so long ago.
But colour does funny things to me as well. My mother used to quote a line about the colour of bluebells -  ' man has ever named it yet, that shade half blue, half violet...'
It is probably my favourite colour, and everything about it is encapsulated in another line I once read: 'blue that is a lovely hurting in the eyes'.

Yesterday, on a sudden impulse, I dropped everything I was supposed to be doing, threw the divine duo into the back of the faithful little green car (the silver beast being still an in-patient) and drove to a bluebell wood that I have known of for years, but never visited. It's a long way away, and after ten minutes or so there was muttering on the back seat.
'We usually walk to the woods,' Under Dog said.
'Don't worry,' Top Dog soothed. 'This is the way to our favourite beach.'
Fifteen minutes later, it started again.
'She's missed the turn off. She's lost,' Under Dog said miserably.
'They're always getting lost. Look at the Master - he doesn't find his way home 'til supper time most days. At least we're here to find the way back.' Top Dog reassured him.

Forty minutes into the journey, they curled up on the back seat in silence, which was quite a statement, as they usually like to drive. At least, Top Dog drives, head thrust forward, gimlet-eyed, his attention only wavering if we pass another dog.
Under Dog, it has to be confessed, drives by looking out of the back window to check where we've been.

How we miss the Divine Duo

They cheered up when we arrived.
It had been a long drive, but we all thought it was worth it. The flowers weren't fully out, but it didn't matter.
They raced off between the trees and I raced back in time on a helter-skelter rollercoaster through all the bluebell woods that are part of who I am.

I was a small child in Cornwall again; an adolescent in the beech woods near our eventual English home; a lover with her swain; a young mother taking her small son to be bewitched. It is always the same.That blue against the acid green of young leaves and I can scarcely breathe. When something pierces you through and through, you always catch your breath - our deepest memories, I've heard, are held in our breath.

My son, aged 2, encountering bewitchment

As we meandered along the paths through the wood, I thought again of my grandfather, and the gift he had given me. A gift from his own experience, a gift he would have received again in the giving.

Now I realize what a two-edged sword it must have been, because now I understand the perpetual cycle of memory. That happiness and grief are inseparable.
I can only imagine what was in my grandfather's heart the day he took me on that outing. He must have been looking back, just as I was doing now, at the endlessly turning circle that somehow weaves an individual picture for each of us. He had walked those woods with his lover, with the wife she came to be, and then with his small twin daughters, long before he bequeathed bluebells to me.

I suppose he felt happiness for my joy and grief for his own sorrow.
Because the love of his life, the woman who had first taken him to those woods, died when my mother was only twelve.

My grandparents, young and happy

There are no better words than those of Kahlil Gibran: 'When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. And when you are sorrowful, look again in  your heart, and  you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.'

If a bluebell wood can make you smile and make you cry, then truly it is the sum of all things.


Sunday, 17 April 2016

One Household Name to Erase

Not long ago, on Countryfile - a favourite Sunday evening programme about life and work in the British countryside - a small article in the programme showed the 'new' Boots the Chemist factory. Bizarrely, I felt a small inner glow - that warm kind of feeling generated by safe, familiar, homely things. Not about the ultra-modern state-of-the-art factory, but about Boots itself.


Who doesn't know Boots the Chemist? They are an institution of British Life. Also now of Irish Life. The programme even went on to elucidate on Mr John Boot himself, who started the business in 1849, and his son Jesse Boot who carried it on to fame and fortune. John was a farm worker, but when he became ill, he changed his career, and - following in the footsteps of his herbalist mother - started making and selling remedies. He opened a shop in Goose Gate, in Nottingham, which after his death his wife continued to run. It was called M & J Boot, Herbalists.

It was Jesse, later 1st Baron Trent, who created the Boots that every Briton knows and - perhaps until now - has loved. Between 1883 and 1920, Jesse opened 660 shops, employing more than 14,000 people.'Chemists to the Nation', he called his company, and he set a high benchmark by looking after his own employees almost as if they were family. According to his biographer, Stanley Chapman, Boot employed welfare workers to look after the health of those who worked for him, he took staff on day trips and even set up sports clubs for them. He also became something of a benefactor, giving land to build Nottingham University and later building women's halls of residence. He was also generous to various causes in Jersey where his wife came from.

And so Boots the Chemist, the High Street name we all know and trust, was born.
It has even, over the years, become almost an extension of the NHS. I have certainly gone into Boots and asked for advice on what I should take for this, that or the other, in an attempt to stall in-coming bugs, or to avoid having to go to my Doctor. According to investigative journalist Aditya Chakrabortty, 'Healthcare professionals refer to the firm as an “essential component” of the NHS. It is to outpatient care what the high-street banks are to the UK’s money system: a massive private-sector firm delivering a vital public service. And it takes a lot of public money to do so: around £2bn a year for prescriptions alone, according to independent financial analysis, or a third of Boots’s annual income in the UK. Then come the patient-care services paid for by the taxpayer, and the contracts Boots is now taking over from the NHS – to host GP surgeries in its stores, to run pharmacies in hospitals, to manage hearing test centres and specialist clinics monitoring drugs that prevent blood clots.'

So, more than just a household name, then.

But alas, although in-store everything still seems, superficially, the same, it isn't.

I have been reading Chakrabortty's excellent article this weekend in The Guardian, and I think it's pretty safe to say that John Boot, and even his entreprenurial son Jessie, would be shocked to know that since the takeover of Boots back in 2007 by Pessina and KKR, everything has changed and continues to change. For one thing, Boots has now been passed on again - to the American company Walgreens. It's now the Walgreens Boots Alliance and looks set to become part of the US chain Rite Aid, 'a deal that will make it the largest pharmacist either side of the Atlantic – with 73-year-old Pessina at its head'.

Perssina himself - a Monaco-resident, who collects yachts, appears to have made somewhere in the region of £10bn since 2007 from the acquisition. Not a bad little earner, you might say. 
According to Chakrabortty, 'In 2006, the year he merged his wholesale business with Boots, Forbes magazine ranked Pessina as the 428th richest man in the world. By 2015, he had shot up to 99th place.'  And it has been claimed that 'Alliance Boots had legally avoided paying over £1bn in taxes to the UK since going private. Yet around 40% of the revenues for its British business come straight from the NHS'

Inevitably, the gain of some comes at a loss to others. Boots the Chemist, in this case.  According to Colin Haslam (professor in accounting and finance at Queen Mary University of London), the new board employed a financial policy of 'stretch and extract - loading Boots with debt, then pulling out as much as possible for investors without reinvesting in the business' 
Quoting from Chakrabortty's article again: 'Before the takeover, Boots UK bore a modest 50p-worth of loans for every £1 of equity, or net assets. Immediately after the takeover, that ratio shot up five-fold. It was as if a house worth only £100,000 suddenly had a giant mortgage of £250,000. Haslam, who is a former corporate financier, believes that balancing such huge debt on comparatively little equity would be judged by an auditor as “high risk”.

But even more worrying for the average Briton using Boots as a surgery-add on, are the results of a poll carried out by the Pharmacists' Defence Association trade union of its members. Chakrabortty says: 'The survey of working conditions, shared exclusively with the Guardian, is the first of its scale and kind the PDA has commissioned – and it says something deeply worrying about the profession Britons rely upon for their medicines. Open to all chemists in the PDA, whatever chain they worked for, the survey attracted 1,988 responses, of which 624 were from Boots employees – more than one in 10 of all its chemists. The survey suggests that morale across the profession is low, but that Boots pharmacists feel more pressured than those employed by Lloyds, Asda and the rest.'

To summarise just some of the subjects covered in this poll:
'Asked how often “commercial incentives or targets have compromised the health, safety or wellbeing of patients and the public, or the professional judgment of staff”, more than 60% of Boots pharmacists said that was the case half the time or more. That compares to 52% of chemists at other chains.

Asked “how often do you believe financial cutbacks imposed by your main employer have directly impacted upon patient safety”, 56% of Boots chemists said that was true “around half” or “most” of the time. A further 20% said it was the case “all the time”.

“All the company cares about is profit, figures, services. They are not interested in patient safety, appropriate staffing levels, training time for staff, appropriate breaks etc. Each day I am worried about making a mistake due to the enormous amount of pressure I am constantly under.”

'Three in every four of responding Boots pharmacists believe that the cuts imposed by their employer, whether the drop in staff numbers or increased workloads, threaten patient safety at least half the time or more. In response, Boots points out that it now employs more than 6,000 pharmacists in the UK, up from about 4,500 before the buyout. However, that rise tracks the increase in its number of stores, up from 1,400 in 2005 to around 2,400 today. I asked Boots what had happened to the number of dedicated pharmacy support staff, the dispensers and assistants that Boots chemists reported they were having to do without. The company did not respond.'

So just one more story of personal and corporate greed. It's everywhere you turn.
In 1919, in the first issue of the company newsletter, the Beacon, Boot wrote to his staff: “Fellowship in recreation, fellowship in ideals, common hope, common sympathies, and common humanity bind us together; and whatever fosters this happy union is valuable.”
Yeah, well - not any more.
I feel gutted. And I think John and Jesse Boot would feel gutted too.
I know it won't make any difference to Perssina, but I'll never shop there again.

You can read the whole of Aditya Chakrabortty's article here: How Boots Went Rogue
It's well worth reading.
You might end up shopping elsewhere too.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Candlemas Snowdrops

 'The Snowdrop, in purest white array, First rears her head on Candlemas day'
Folklore, an Old Rhyme

Snowdrops and Violets by Eva Francis (c) Rochdale Arts and Heritage Service; Supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Today is Candlemas, inextricably tied up with snowdrops in my head - one of my favourite flowers. There were often called Candlemas Lilies or Candlemas Bells in days gone by.

Many is the year that we've had snowdrops before Christmas even - often in colder times than this mild, wet winter has been. I can't say that my snowdrops 'reared their heads' today, but they are only just really starting to come out. I've always loved the way they flower even when snow is on the ground, they look too delicate for such cold. I suppose that's why the French call them Perce-Neige.

Snowdrops by Jennifer Johnson

But there is more to Candlemas than snowdrops, pretty as they are. It is a great marker in the year, significant because it says that Christmas is long gone and we have moved on, the year is already past its infancy. This day has been celebrated for thousands of years, and was also known as the Festival of Lights, the name coming from Roman times when Ceres (or Demeter in Greek) is supposed to have searched for her daughter Proserpine (Persephone) by the light of hundreds of candles. Proserpine had been abducted by Pluto, the god of the underworld, and needless to say, Ceres could not find her anywhere on earth. In rage, she brought life to a standstill: fruit, flowers and crops stopped growing, and a desert appeared wherever Ceres set her foot in the vain search for her daughter. Eventually, divine intervention was called for, and to cut a long story short, Proserpine - after eating 6 pomegranate seeds - was allowed to return to earth for six months of every year, her return symbolising the cycle of death, rebirth and regeneration.

Snowdrops by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Celts knew this same festival as Imbolc, a name that derives from the word for milk, as this was the time that lambs were born and milk returned to the menu. As with the Romans and Greeks, this was also the festival of the Maiden Goddess, who in Ireland was Brighid, the Goddess of fire, poetry and healing. This was a time to bless agricultural implements and livestock and turn towards hopes of fertility in the year to come. For this same reason, in the north of England, Candlemas used to be called The Wives Feast Day because it was regarded as a fertility festival.

The Emperor Justinian wrapped all these traditions up neatly (as was the wont in the Christian church) and from the ancient festival created the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that candles were thereafter lighted to her - hence the name Candlemas(s); and at some stage the Celtic Goddess Brighid became St Bridget, and the old tradition of making corn dollies turned into Bridget's Crosses, which are still made today - Irish school children being shown how to bend and weave the rushes every year.

St Bridget's Cross woven from rushes

And the little white flowers that are so tied up with Candlemas? It is thought that monks brought the first snowdrop bulbs to western Europe from Turkey, and grew them in monastery gardens, placing the delicate flowers on the altar at Candlemas.

But there are other, more ancient myths about these Fair Maids of February, as snowdrops were also called. It is said that after being expelled from the Garden of Eden, Eve wept desperately as endless snow fell, covering the earth, removing all trace of colour and life. But an angel took pity on her, caught a snowflake in his hand and breathed on it. As it fell to earth, it became the first snowdrop. In Germany, there is a different tale. They say that when God made the earth, he told the snow to ask the flowers for some colour, but every flower refused - except for the snowdrop, which is why snow is white.

Snowdrops by Jennifer Mackenzie

Rather more mundanely, in some parts of the world, today is also known as Groundhog Day. Somehow it loses some of its magic at this point, but I have read that this was another Imbolc tradition. It refers to a kind of marmot in the USA, but here perhaps it was a hedgehog. Seemingly, the creature emerged from hibernation on this day, and if it saw its shadow, that meant six more weeks of bad weather. But there was one way to try and get around this eventuality - you could place a candle in your window on Imbolc Eve, representing the Eternal Flame of the Maiden Goddess. Back to candles again.

A friend has recently bought an old farmhouse in Wales. Recently an elderly couple came to the door - he had known the place since childhood, as it belonged to his grandmother. When his own daughter was young, he told my friend, she came running to her parents, whispering that she had found 'little secrets'. They followed her outside and discovered that she was talking about snowdrops, blooming in the nearby copse that is carpeted with them to this day. For such a tiny flower, this jewel of the winter has some lovely names, and 'Little Secrets' is another one.

Snowdrops at Millvale on a Frosty Morning by Cora Harrington

Thou first-born of the year's delight, 
Pride of the dewy glade, 
In vernal green and virgin white, 
Thy vestal robes, array'd 
John Keble's verse about snowdrops from his book: 
The Christian Year, 1827

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Reading Week: Being Mortal, Bees, Meadowland and Gods in Ruins

Lady in the Mirror by Harold Dunbar

The In-Charge tells me that I'm not very good at taking time off.
He has always had the knack of pacing himself. He does a job and when he gets tired, he stops and does something else. Later on, he goes back to job A.
How enviable that is.
How sickening.

The thing is, my To Do List is endless, so I throw myself at things like a headless chicken, and if - for any reason - a gap opens up in my schedule, I gleefully try to squash in an extra, unscheduled job. Even then, I often end up feeling as if I've achieved nothing by nightfall.
'Never a moment to lose,' the In-Charge says. 'That's your problem. One of them,' he adds.
I didn't ask what the others were.

However, I've been tired recently.  The sort of tired that a good night's sleep isn't curing. There seems to have been a lot going on this last while, and on top of everything else I pulled a muscle in my right arm in November and it isn't getting better.
So I've taken a week off and spent it reading.
It's been bliss.

Reading Woman with Dog - Birbee

Perhaps it's my Protestant upbringing, but normally I find it impossible to read during daylight hours. Nagging voices in my head taunt me with laziness, list things I ought to be doing, threaten the devil itching to commandeer idle hands. I'd have to be ill in bed to read a book during the day, but - thank heavens - I'm never ill in bed. The trouble is, I'm so tired when I climb in at bedtime that I generally fall asleep after a few pages, so the pile of books beside my bed gets higher and higher. In fact, the In-Charge once asked me if I could please sort them out, as he couldn't vacuum round my side. I blush to confess there were 73 books in tottering stacks, but I have turned over a new leaf since then, and the heap is a good deal more modest.

Angelica, The Artist's Daughter Reading by Vanessa Bell

I started with Atul Gawande's slim volume, Being Mortal, thanks to Isobel who recommended it.
For such a serious book, it was amazingly easy to read, and I would urge everyone to get it.
Gawande, as a doctor, sees more clearly than most that as science has given us unprecedented quantity of life most of us have stopped considering its quality. He shows how easily, without our even realising it, the goal posts keep shifting. I found the book an eye-opener. It reaffirmed many things that I already think, opened my mind to possibilities I hadn't been aware of - especially in how we care for people, and made me realise how important it is that each of us choose how we spend the final stages of this one, special, unrepeatable life that we are given. 

Fairy Tales by Mary L Gow

Then I moved on to The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
It's an older book, that I'd picked off a swap shelf recently. In fact, I nearly put it back, but I'm glad I didn't. I loved it. I loved every bit of it. It's about a 14 year old girl in South Carolina in the mid '60s,  consumed by half memories of her mother who died when she was four, and the problems of living with an angry and unloving father. How she deals with these, with Rosaleen, her 'nanny' and everything else that happens, is recounted with humour, insight and an incredibly sure touch. It was funny, it was sad, it was a glimpse of life in a different place and era. Wonderful. 
I believe it was made into a movie, but I haven't seen it.

Painting by John Ennis

I have now moved on to the wonderful Kate Atkinson's most recent book, A God in Ruins. I happened to see it in Waterstones when I was in the UK last week. Oh Waterstones, where art thou? I miss you! Easons just isn't the same, I'm afraid. Anyway, I picked it up automatically - I love Kate Atkinson, but have only this week opened the cover. Imagine then my joy and delight to find that it is a sequel to her wonderful, absorbing, strange but seductive Life After Life which I read at the end of last year. Oh, the joy of being reunited with characters you thought you'd said goodbye to! I am still in the depths of the book, but once again I find myself under Ms Atkinson's spell.

Mrs Graafland-Marres by Robert Archibald Graafland

In between all these delights, I have been dipping in and out of Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel. On the face of it, you'd wonder how much one could write about a field, but from the first sentence I was hooked. Ironically, words cannot describe how beautifully this book is written - sometimes Stempel's prose is so aching beautiful that I have to go back and read the page all over again. Aside from that, his one-ness with the field is remarkable, as if it is just an extension of himself. I have been dipping in and out only because I want the book to last for as long as possible. The whole year would be nice - especially as it is written in monthly chapters - but there's no hope of that, I will have gobbled it up all too soon.

 A Favourite Author by Poul Friis Nybo

And, as the icing on the cake, I've been catching up with back issues of The English Garden which is, for my money, the best magazine out there. My mother gave me a subscription for my birthday a year or two ago, and I have enjoyed it so much, I've carried on. I came back from the UK armed with the last two editions and have been reading them - again in small bites - from cover to cover. 

 The Reader by Roberto Ploeg

I'm not quite sure how I'll switch out of this mode. It becomes quite moorish after a day or two. Especially when the wind is howling and rain is battering on the windows, as it's doing now.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Challenge? You've 10 Trillion to Dinner

I'm not much of a scientist. When I was at school (back on Noah's Ark), Science wasn't a collective subject, there was Physics, Chemistry and Biology and they were three separate things.
I loved Physics. Miss Alfred, a young black woman, was an inspirational teacher, and had I stayed in the West Indies, perhaps the whole path of my life would have been different. Perhaps I would have grown up to agree with a boy I later knew, who, complimented on his college First, or Double First or whatever it was, laughed deprecatingly and said: 'Oh, Physics is just a game!'
But we moved to the UK and the inspirational teachers I had at school in England weren't in the Science field.
I didn't get to study Physics at all, Biology faded from my curriculum, and I was asked, very politely, if I would prefer to leave the Chemistry set.

My school, BAHS in Trinidad has changed beyond recognition, but this is much as I remember it. Painting by Angelica Awai Barrow

Arts and the Humanities beckoned - or at least, their teachers did - and because school timetables are built solely around exam schedules, many things in life have remained a bit of a mystery. But in the last year or so, some aspects of science have increasingly fascinated me.
Such as the countless millions who, apparently, are more me than I am.

I am not an individual, I am We. (The Royals have known all along.)
Suddenly, it's not so much 'I think, therefore I am', but more a case of 'I eat, therefore I'm not sure who I am'.
We are, it seems, only the sum or our microbial cells. The heart and soul and mind that makes me an individual, comprise a mere 10 trillion human cells; but I am inhabited by as many as 100 trillion other microbial cells, so 'I' am outnumbered 10 to one. But by and large none of us knows what those inner cells amount to, and, at the moment, we have very little control over what they make us to be.

Just over a year ago someone recommended that I read Gudrun Jonsson's book Gut Reaction. It is a slim book, first published nearly 20 years ago. I imagine it could easily be 'overlooked' nowadays as its tag lines about losing weight and detoxing would rank it in the 'fad section' for many people, including me. But I trusted the person who'd told me about it.
Reading it made me feel as if a light had suddenly been turned on in a dark, dusty and unknown cellar, revealing endless secrets that I wished I'd known sooner. These gems of information made sense of stuff that I'd been grappling with for years - mainly health issues, but other related problems. It wasn't so much that I discovered a set of missing links, reading the book rather gave me a feeling that up until now I'd assumed I knew the building I inhabited - my body - but was suddenly aware that actually all these years I'd only been living on the upper floors, I'd totally missed the basement where the key archives, guidebooks and manuals were stored.

A mind opener

For example, take the immune system. We all know about our immune systems, largely because they seem to spend half their time broken, or working below par. If stopped on the street and asked to point to my heart, my kidneys and my immune system, I'd certainly have had trouble with the third.
A gland somewhere, maybe -
'That's an interesting one,' I'd probably have said. And meant it.
I daresay most people are more clued up than I am, but I was spell-bound to realise that my gut comprises practically all of my immune system.
Or rather, the trillions of microbes that inhabit my gut. The microbes that make me me and you you. The microbes that are different - or differently balanced - in all of us, rather as our fingerprints are different.

Microbes are the flavour of the moment now. Perhaps they have been for years, but they're only just reaching those of us who live on the edge of science, like me.
It fascinates me to know that during birth, we are 'innoculated', if you like, with our mother's microbial cells as we pass through the birth canal. So vital are these to our future well being that huge studies are now taking place where babies born by C-section are being coated with their mother's vaginal microbes as soon as they are born. Microbes, they now know are central to everything we are and everything we will be. If we miss out on getting the right ones at birth, things may never go right. They help us digest our food, process drugs, educate our immune system, resist disease, and - it seems - they even affect how we behave, think and live.

They can tell, with 90% accuracy whether you are obese or lean without looking at you, just by looking in a lab at microbes taken from your stool sample; and they are increasingly linking microbial make-up with diseases/conditions, including IBS, heart disease, colon cancer, autism and depression, as well as obesity.

How our microbes make us what we are

It's not just the manner of our birth that affects our interior selves. It's what we eat, how we live and the medicines we take. Rob Knight, a leading scientist in this field, has said that we may come to look on antibiotics with the same horror as nowadays we view the metal implements with which the Egyptians mushed up the human brain in order to drain it from the body before embalming could take place. Quite a thought, but not outlandish considering how antibiotics destroy the balance of microbes in our gut.

Last night I watched Trust me, I'm a Doctor on BBC2, which is a fascinating programme. Two women of the same age were given an identical diet for a week and their blood sugar levels were monitored constantly. (Also their sleep, activity and mood.) It was found that foods that spiked one woman's blood sugars had the opposite effect on the other, and vice versa. So the old adage of 'Chocolate is bad for you, brown rice is good' has gone out of the window. It may not actually be true for everyone. It all depends on your gut flora. And your gut flora depends - to a large degree - on what you eat. Does that sound like a mind-bender to you too? Whichever way you look at it, minding the diet of 10 trillion is tricky.

BBC 2's Trust Me, I'm a Doctor

I am beyond fascinated. 

I had amoebic dysentery as a baby in Africa. Who knows what havoc that may have wreaked? It was my own fault - the dog and I shared a shoe and between the two of us I believe we ate a good bit of it, but now I want to turn the clock back, and get the aftermath of that episode dealt with by a chap like Rob Knight. But also I want Miss Alfred back in my life to see whether, given a different start in secondary school, I might  have become a scientist like my brother, at the cutting edge of such amazing discoveries. 
And speaking of school, how long will it be, do you reckon, before notes home from the teacher cease to read: 'Dear Mrs Bloggs, Tommy is being disruptive again. Please will you attend the Principal's office on Tuesday at 10am', and say instead:
'Dear Mrs Bloggs, Tommy is being disruptive again. Please will you arrange for a stool sample to be delivered to the school's Behavioural Lab by 10am Tuesday, so that dietary adjustment can commence.'
I don't know about you, but I'm certainly going to be watching this space.


Sunday, 10 January 2016

Nollaig na mBan and Other Seasonal Traditions

The Hunt is in the village today.
Sometimes we hear the hollow clopping of hooves on the bridge, or the steady beat of them streaming up the road, excited yelping, the sonorous call of the horn.
They are all very smartly turned out in their dark coats, the odd flash, here and there of a scarlet collar (or should that be pink?), the horses splendid, the hounds seemingly oblivious of anyone but the whipper-in. They certainly pay no attention to me, anyway, calling after them when they occasionally peel off through our gate and check out the orchard or the garden.  I worry for my hens and cats, and always keep the dogs firmly shut in the kitchen. I don't know what might happen if they met and would rather not find out, but there has - mercifully - never been a hound-incident.

The Hunt

I don't know how I feel about the hunt.
I don't condone killing creatures for sport, and by and large consider that everything has as much right to be on this planet as I have.Even when a fox ate all my chickens many years ago, I felt as sorry for the fox as I did for my poor hens. She took them, one by one during daylight hours and there was nothing we could do to protect them, other than keep them locked in all the time, which they hated and didn't understand. She was a mangy creature, and desperately thin, and her need was very great.

Anyway, I'm not really in a position to be judgemental about the hunt, as I have always kept lurchers.
They're not ever used for hunting, my dogs, but lurchers are lurchers, and I wouldn't fancy a hare's chances if SuperModel and the ModelDog caught sight of one whilst walking in the woods. They go like bullets out of guns, an unseen switch triggering my sweet, gentle couch potatoes into deadly predators. They cease to hear anything except the archaic call of the chase and their own blood thrumming in their eardrums.

Couch Potato One, aka Model Dog

Couch Potato Two - Super Model

In fact it was Top Dog and his brother who brought the poor fox to justice. The In-Charge had taken them for a walk in the fields behind the house, they saw the fox on the far side of the field and were gone before he could even summon a whistle to his lips. Less than a minute later the fox was dead, her neck cleanly snapped and not a drop of blood spilled. I have wondered if she even heard them coming.
It's how we know that our hen-thief was a vixen, and eaten by mange, and bone thin, the poor love. In many ways I felt it was a release for her, as mange in the wild is incurable, and passed on to the cubs. A terrible sentence: itchy, sore, debilitating and eventually overwhelming.
The dogs paid a price too for their un-planned kill. Inevitably, they both caught the mange, even though they had no more contact with her - the In-Charge brought them home and then returned to bury her. The cure for mange is a painful injection.

Top Dog and his brother, Under Dog, rolling on the beach in years gone by

Life in the wild is pretty merciless, as we all know from watching nature programmes.
You can't remove an animal's instincts, and although I have taught my dogs that our cats and hens are family, not food, that's about as far as I can hope to go.
Anyway, where is the border-line between killing for sport and killing for food? My dogs' instinct is to try and catch things in the wild, but would they eat them? Probably not, they are well fed at home, but if they weren't, then they would need to catch their dinner, so the line is blurred. And nowhere more blurred than with felines, as anyone whose cat has caught a bird or stalked a shrew knows.

So I make no comment on the hunt, except to say that I always hope they return home tired and muddy but bloodless and empty handed. And with all their hounds. (I long ago asked for a phone number to call if a hound gets separated and left behind, which does happen.)

The end of Christmas is a time for traditions, and some are more universally popular than others.

Epiphany is one. The 6th of January, means different things in different countries. Here in Ireland it is Nollaig na mBan, the Women's Little Christmas. It is the day when, having done everything for everyone else for the whole 12 day festival, women can finally sit down and enjoy their own little celebration. I don't know if they still - as in olden days - go off and leave the men at home doing the chores and looking after the children, but go off they certainly do.

Celebrating Nollaig na mBan

This year I went with them to a great evening at The Model in Sligo.
There was music, some great singing from Mary McPartlan, resonant poetry from Anne Joyce and Mary Looby, readings of letters from Constance Markievicz to WB Yeats, and a fiery and inspirational talk from Tanya Dean on 'Waking the Feminists'. And it all took place to a backdrop of charcoal portraits by the amazingly talented Emma Stroude who spoke movingly of her own journey in creating them. Her pictures, 'Women of the Rising', feature some of the women who played instrumental roles in the Easter Rising of 1916. Many of them became widows, some were arrested, one sentenced to death (a sentence later commuted) and as the centenary year kicks off, it was a fitting focus for the evening.

Much as I enjoyed all the entertainment on offer, one of the best parts of the evening for me was going along with two good friends and seeing - unexpectedly - so many others who I hadn't known would be there; lots of women I have met through so many different aspects of life.
I don't know if the In-Charge was doing any chores at home, I expect he was watching TV or online, but that part of it aside, Nollaig na mBan was a rich and sisterly way to start the year.
Thank you, ladies!

Two of Emma Stroude's portraits: Women of the Rising

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Christmas and the Mystery of the Missing Spoons

We had some friends over for supper on Boxing Day - or Stephen's Day as I always forget to call it.
It was a lovely, informal evening of food and wine and chat.
#2 Son was home for Christmas, and as he is an excellent cook, I was only too delighted to have him help with all the preparations. He made some lovely baby peppers stuffed with a spicy cous-cous, feta, mushroom and spinach concoction; and butternut squash in a creme fraiche and mustard sauce.
Along with roasted sweet potatoes, Christmas gammon and Jamie Oliver's gorgeous rainbow salad, it all went down a treat.
We probably could have stopped there, but there were several puddings too - two of them based around oranges and bitter marmalade.

Why are rooms only ever tidy once a year?

I know that many - quite rightly - lament the fact that Christmas has become a meaningless financial blow-out.
It isn't in our house. I don't mean to sound priggish or virtuous, but for one thing we've never had enough money to do that, whether we wanted to or not.
But we do tend to eat a lot. Not caviar and champagne, but a lot, nonetheless.
So I guess Christmas is perhaps as much of a blow-out, just not in financial terms.
But after the rain and the drear and the sheer, utter greyness of the year's last quarter, there is something totally wonderful about sitting around a house full of fairy lights, firelight and Christmas decorations, whilst eating, drinking and laughing with friends and family.

I bit the bullet big time this year. For ages, while the boys were away, either working or simply being too far away to travel home for the season, we didn't have a tree. There didn't seem to be much point, and oddly, in this part of the country where so many seem to grow, it can be hard to find a nice one.
When I was visiting my parents in Suffolk in early December, the lovely, old-fashioned greengrocer opposite their village house had masses of them, clustered outside his shop on little wooden stands. Each one was as gorgeous as the last, and I'd quite happily have brought any of them back with me, except it would have caused a bit of a problem at the airport.
Then, when I got home, I decided we'd just not bother, but after a bit of thought, I realised that actually, despite my years of abstinence, the tree is an integral part of what Christmas is. So I bought an artificial one.
I'm slightly wincing, just confessing to that, but you know what? I think it was a good decision. OK, it took ages to put up (but only because I'd never done it before. And there were no instructions), but it looks good, it gave me a reason to unearth all my favourite decorations, and there's something about a tree glowing in the corner of the room that takes me back to all the Christmases that ever were, and kindles warm memories that I can't even place or name.

The friends who came to visit said they liked it too, and it's still there, reminding me that there are a few days of the season still to go.
A tree isn't our only traditional 'event' - there's the Christmas Jigsaw. The In-Charge rather turned his nose up at my choice of puzzle for this year's festivities. I wasn't really surprised - I chose it because I liked it, not with him in mind this time round. It's a sort of collage of Victorian Christmas designs in cigarette card format.
So after our Boxing Day glut was over, #2 Son and I moved on to conquering the puzzle.We transferred it onto the kitchen table (on it's handy pin-board) and spent a couple of evenings and a rainy day putting it together.
It was a tricky one,as they seem to have introduced some very weird shapes that are, quite frankly, not only meaningless,but which don't actually hold the thing together. What is that about?
Anyway, it looks great, and I'm now postponing the day when it has to be broken up and go back in the box.

My lovely Victorian inspired jigsaw

We went for a walk on our favourite beach as well. The ModelDogs raced and chased and sank into deep pools left by the tide, and were generally thrilled with life. They looked splendid in their special Christmas collars.

SuperModel is still afraid of accidentally dissolving

And we started Christmas, as always, with the service of 9 Lessons and Carols from Kings College, Cambridge. It was rather a bitty affair this year, and not the satisfying fix it usually is for me, as our broadband is so appalling these days that it came and went, went being the more operative of the two.
Fortunately I have a CD of another service, from long ago, so after the official one had fizzled away in a haze of buffering silence, I put that on instead, before we set off for a jolly dinner at a friend's house to welcome Christmas in. During the evening the rain even stopped, the clouds parted, and I went outside and stared at the full moon. I didn't catch a glimpse of Father Christmas speeding through the sky, but it was magical all the same.

Model Dog likes to open her own present all by herself

So it was a very good Christmas, despite missing #1 Son like toothache.
But there still remains a mystery, that several days into the New Year remains unsolved.
All the silver spoons that were used at our Boxing Day party have disappeared without trace.
The In-Charge - apparently - washed them up, dried them and put them on the table in the late hours after our guests had departed.
(So I can't even ponder whether they each left with a spoon in their top pocket or reticule.)
It is a puzzle even more brain-defying than the Victorian cigarette cards, and one that my repeated searches of drawers, dressers, rubbish bags, hidden corners and laundry baskets has failed to solve.
My sister, who also lives in a very old house - as does my mother - swears it is the pixies.
Well, I hope when they've finished staring at their reflections, the pixies will feel moved to return them.
To the right house.

The birds had a Christmas present too - a wreath full of goodies