Thursday, October 15, 2020

An ancientry, an elderling, a pelt

Now 65, a figure spoken in the news almost daily, I've become one of the old. Not in my mind. Not in my being. Not, I believe, in my state of health. But as a fact and statistic. 

I've often browsed the Historic Thesaurus for synonyms for woman,  wife, mistress, prostitute, girl. Scanning these lists I think about our roles, sexuality, duties, freedoms. They remind me how language limits and liberates, how it compels me - like picking at a wound. 

Last night a friend was helping me cut matted clumps from the fur of my ageing cat. She was describing conversations with a parent, the delicate to and fro of offering support, it being refused, the way it's refused, the push and pull of need, duty, kindness and frustration. 

This morning, a news item warned Covid 19 may be around for five years. The interviewee was saying let the young mix, let them love and travel because they need to. The old (as well as the poor, homeless, unemployed, long-term sick) will be protected if people making decisions are doctors, scientists, public health experts - not politicians. 

And for some reason, this more generous and compassionate approach took me back to lists I made after words for women - words for old, an old person, old people. They move between sweet, hilarious and cruel: wintered, over-old, eldern, ripe, oldly, well-aged, well-stricken, far, declined, grey, antiquated, badgerly, crusted, long in the tooth, mature, veneral, senile, gerontic, post-reproductive. An old person....ancient, elder, pelt, oldster, elderling, relic, wrinkly, crumbly, geriatric, veteran, Methuselah. Many old people: an ancientry, a more.

Jonathan Swift invented the Struldbrug, a category of old person above the age of 80. Since, in his story, octagenarians are immortal their powers are limited,

"As soon as they have completed the term of eighty years, they are looked on as dead in law; their heirs immediately succeed to their estates; only a small pittance is reserved for their support; and the poor ones are maintained at the public charge. After that period, they are held incapable of any employment of trust or profit; they cannot purchase lands, or take leases; neither are they allowed to be witnesses in any cause, either civil or criminal or economic, not even for the decision of meers (metes) and bounds." (Gulliver's Travels, 1726)

I'm proud to be a life member of the National Union of Journalists and in its bulletin on reporting age it reveals, "There are 500 words or phrases defining old, about 10 are complimentary while the rest are derogatory and many - as in 'old maid' - doubly insulting."

One of the striking differences in attitudes I noticed visiting South Africa was respect among Black communities for older people. And so my children learned it and I'm proud of the honour they show their two grandmothers. 

In the ancientry I've joined there is potential for rebellion. I'll fight for my children's generation to have the freedom I enjoyed. But I won't be written off by narcissists clinging to the masthead of youth. The proverb says, old age, though despised, is coveted by all....or, every age has its book. 

Thursday, October 08, 2020

A broken doll and refugee tales


My broken doll, my oldest surviving toy along with a threadbare teddy, has lost her hands and her hair's coming off. I don't know where she came from but I do remember showing her off once to some removals men when I was small. They rescued us when the car broke down. 

My mother bundled us into the lorry and I couldn't sleep. I was too aware of the claustrophobic darkness and noises I couldn't identify. 

When they opened the back of the lorry outside our house in Ascot, when Mum put the lights on in the hall and made cups of tea for the men who helped, I rushed to show off my doll. 

As memory goes, creating links randomly, across time, ignoring conventions, my memory of being in the back of a lorry and arriving home safely, is a prompt to The Lorry Driver's Tale, a story from Refugee Tales, that I read a couple of times to groups. It's one of three volumes published by Comma Press, about the experiences of people trying to reach the UK. 

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Writing and sleeplessness


At 3am today I was writing a list of what's growing on my allotment. It seemed like a solution to sleeplessness. I'm lucky - insomnia's rare for me but there are times when old anxieties stand around the bed and won't stop their chatter. 

And this afternoon I was in the place I was writing about. In the early hours I believed I was generating a brilliant idea for a series of poems. This afternoon I was only interested in fixing the bench, putting away netting, picking tomatoes, the last of the raspberries and blackberries, planting onion sets and transplanting some parsley. 

A good friend, who's a much better known writer, reminded me the other day that we met when we were 30, so we've followed each other's progress for more than three decades. Both of us have reached a point when we are questioning if we can carry on writing poems. It's not that she doesn't want to. Or me. But there's a doubt in both our minds. 

Mine is where my place is. It's good to ask that question. My allotment is a small patch of poor land on the Downs. It delivers flint tools, good conversations and a feeling of making a difference. At the moment it's more satisfying than writing because I belong there. It's easy to belong there - all I have to do is plant, harvest, weed, tend. Perhaps I have just written my manifesto for poems and that was the real point of the early hours list. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The goddesses of sewing

The earliest bone needle, estimated at 61,000 years old, was found in a South African cave, not far from Durban. I know this because I've been trying to find anything about the history of sewing in the country. Why? I came across this photo of young women and girls in Elim, Limpopo, a place we passed through each time we went north from Johannesburg to visit Risenga's family. The sadness of this photo hit me. I had to know more. 

It was 1896 and the days of colonialism, European so-called values and so on. You know the story. I barely know South Africa but I remember being struck by the skill of women there when it comes to making. Crochet, bead work, embroidery, hand-sewing, anything....In fact, one of my proudest moments may be when an elderly woman asked me where I'd bought a small beaded bag I was carrying. I told her I'd made it - out of the leg of a pair of Mrisi's trousers, embellished with beads I'd taken with me in case I was bored. 

There are goddesses of sewing the world over, but I want to read the history of sewing from that early needle discovered in the Sidubu settlement (where, incidentally, archaeologists reckon they've found the first beds). Here are some of the people who can truly lay claim to the art of sewing, living in the country where the first garments were stitched together. Let's wonder again, at who writes history and who's left out. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Clearing out and re-arranging

I have a box of leads in the hall and a pile of books. A bag of clothes on a bed and a bag of duvet covers. I have invented a use for scraps of fabric. 

I have re-organised empty jars, my cookery books and spices. 

The mental re-arranging's next. This year's accounts. Deciding what I mean by clearing out. Do I burn all I've started and not finished? 

Have a bonfire of bureaucracy on the allotment? The accounts are always a thing that linger somewhere in my gut until they're done. 

This print is Inside the Clothes Market, by William Connor.

Friday, September 18, 2020



Our first family holiday in years with all of us, apart from Mum, was over bank holiday weekend. We all wanted to spend time together before Giya left for the Netherlands, for good. 

So we drove for hours up the M1 to Cumbria, cursing at signs for Barnard Castle, notorious now as the place where a government advisor tested his eyesight during lockdown. 

We had managed to book a week at Dufton youth hostel. I've been a member of the YHA for years and got an email about exclusive hire. It worked out cheaper for all of us than a cottage in the south of England. Well, a cottage anywhere. I won't go on about lockdown profiteering...

We walked every day, bar one. We chatted. I prepared myself, I thought, for an empty house again. This is the third time. Every morning I wake up I think, oh yes, it's just me. It's the habit of 28 years of motherhood. Listening for the other breath in the house. 

We brought home, I think, an appreciation of silence. We saw red deer, buzzards, a red squirrel (well, Giya did), two hedgehogs and many beautiful sheep and cattle. Oh, and horses outside the pub. No surprise there, we were so close to Appleby. 

When the children were little, we often went to empty, wild places. In the kitchen I have two horseshoes that a farrier gave the children in Wales, at the end of a long walk in the hills. We have porcupine quills from Risenga's land in South Africa. The silence was good. The company was good. We ate well. 

Friday, September 04, 2020

Movement of sheep

It reminded me of transhumance, the centuries-old tradition of moving sheep and cattle from the high pastures of summer to lower, safer ones for winter. We were at the end of a walk back to Dufton in which we missed a footpath, found a hen who'd escaped the battery farm and carried it to a safer, free-range home. 

After the chicken, we passed a shed of cows who should have been in the fields. We passed fields of bullocks who wanted to play. We heard dogs howling in kennels as we ate our lunch in a thick wood. And as we went deeper through the wood, we saw pheasant cages. The dog send them flying upwards. We gathered up feathers. I remembered working on a pheasant farm in Brittany when I was 17. 

We were back on a road we'd walked at the start of the week when a woman, possibly my age, flew out of a farm track on a quad bike, the sheepdog balancing on the back. Behind her was a flock of sheep. She asked us to stay back, not to alarm them. More walkers came down the road. The sheep filled the track turned right and through the gate we'd just left. 

We hung back when the track emptied. The other walkers pushed on, led by a man in red knee high socks. It was hot, we were dawdling in the wake of such excitement, such a mass of creatures in a rush. The farmer had mentioned the green lane we needed to take and we were on it when we saw two men on quad bikes at another gate in the distance. The first sheep straggled through. We pulled ourselves up the bank, holding onto the dog, as this second flock rushed past, skittery, unnerved by us watching. 

The hills were emptying of all the creamy dots that weren't rocks. Some of the second flock were lame, some very young, many had curled horns. This flock seemed endless, one after the other rushing past the stone wall opposite us, the dog whimpering, straining to be free and with them. There was one left that wouldn't be persuaded to follow. Neither the sheepdogs nor the men on quad bikes could shift it. We passed it squeezed up against the wall, its head into the stone. At the end of the fields we were on the road up to High Cup Nick, a box of drinks and crisps on the kerb with an honesty box. We sat and opened the flasks. Then noticed bikes up on one of the hillsides, rounding up more. 

A woman came out of the house and we asked what was going on. They were separating the young rams from the flock. They'd be lamb chops, she joked, adding quickly that she wouldn't be eating them. Then the ewes would go back to the hills. So it wasn't the same as transhumance but it had the same power. The hill farmers had chosen the day of our walk because the weather was fine. They did this once a year. And I remembered helping with the same separating of mothers and sons when I was in Mallorca. That was when the ewes got away, left for the woods and called for two days. For now they were together, although small batches of rams were already being driven down the road in a trailer. 

Who can think of that? The industrial scale of slaughter. The chickens kept in darkness. Pigs transported in lorries on crowded motorways. It used to be different. It doesn't match up, what we are doing. 

We followed this last flock down the road with other walkers as they flowed into one field, carried on into the village, were guided into another. These flocks had given us something, shed an element of the hills as they ran past the walls into lush fields. But I'm still trying to work out what it was. 

Photo from The Scottish Farmer by Wayne Hutchinson