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