Thursday, December 20, 2007

Pilgrimage - a challenge to everyday life.

Pilgrim History
The ancient notion of pilgrimage, present in almost all the world's religions, reflects a human desire for fulfilment. Throughout history, the pilgrimage has been a religious phenomenon that set people on a physical journey in order to yield spiritual results. All of the world religions have some sense of pilgrimage. Jews and Christians visit Jerusalem, Muslims travel to Mecca or visit the tombs of Sunni saints, Buddhists journey to Tibet and Hindus go to Benares.
Catholicism has a rich history of pilgrimage, dating back to the medieval period when pilgrims travelled to major churches or visited sites where saints had lived or died - Assisi and Santiago de Compostela being good examples. During the 12th and 13th centuries the religion of the time encouraged people to think that by just visiting a shrine or relic some of the holiness would rub off on them. As a result Europe saw of frenzy of Cathedrals and churches being built around these relics - in fact if all the splinters of the True Cross were gathered together, there would be enough timber to build Noah’s Ark.
Christian pilgrims have travelled across Europe since medieval times and for a variety of reasons. The majority would have been heading for three main sites of devotion, mostly on foot, covering anything up to 20 or 30 kilometres a day and usually carrying one of the three pilgrimage emblems: a cockle shell for Santiago de Compostela in Spain, keys for Saint Peter in Rome and a cross or palm leaf for Jerusalem. For some the motivation would have been entirely religious, but for many others it was far more basic and earthly. The sick hoped St James would cure their bodily ills. Criminals chose the long haul in preference to a prison sentence imposed by a court of law, while a large percentage of the other pilgrims would have been aiming to enhance their credibility and social status back home by displaying the St James cockle shell as proof of their grit and devotion.
The hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, dates back to the Prophet Abraham and is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation bringing together Muslims of all races and tongues between the eighth and the 13th days of Dhu al-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Muslim lunar calendar.
Until the 19th century, travelling to Mecca usually meant being part of a caravan following one of three main routes out of either Egypt, Iraq or Syria. Nowadays hundreds of thousands of believers from over 70 nations arrive in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by road, sea and air every year.
The earliest centres of Buddhist pilgrimages were the places associated with the life and Teachings of the great Master. These four places are Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kusinara. Lumbini, in what is now Nepal. The others are in India: Bodh Gaya was the place, under the pipal or Bo tree, where the Buddha was enlightened after practising meditation for several years. Sarnath was the scene of His first teaching and Kusinara was the place of His death or final Nirvana.
After the death of the Buddha, the relics of His body were collected from the funeral pyre and divided into eight parts. These were distributed to the claimants and stupas and burial mounds, were erected on the relics. The practice of pilgrimage in Buddhism probably started with visits to these places, the purpose of which was to achieve personal advantage such as rebirth in a good location, as well as to honour the great master. Thus the custom of pilgrimage has been widespread among Buddhist for many centuries and is common to both the Mahayana and Theravada traditions.
Darsan means seeing in Hindu religion and when people go to a temple, they say they do not go to worship but to see the image of the deity. The deity is believed to actually be within the image and beholding the deity image is a form of worship where through the eyes one gains blessings. The pinnacle act of Hindu worship is to stand in the presence of the deity and to look upon the image with their eyes, because darsan is believed by Hindus to be far greater and significant than that which can be granted and given by holy men - sadhus.
Pilgrimage Today
Whatever the motive, a pilgrimage is a journey, which meets a deep spiritual and emotional need and is made out of the recognition that there is more to life than just the humdrum daily grind of existing.
Deacon Trevor Jones, Pilgrimage Director

As recent statistics show, the pilgrimage experience is experiencing a renaissance. In 1986, just 2,491 pilgrims collected their Compostela certificate in Santiago, but by 2006 these figures had passed the 100,000 mark - an increase of 6453 from 2005. Of these 250 were over 75 and 40% of the total were women.

I did not set out on a Spiritual or religious journey - but it ended being that way - accident? I don't know... maybe that is just the Camino de Santiago at work.
From a Pilgrim blog.

Today's pilgrims also travel for a variety of reasons other than the strictly devout. Some view it as a trial of manhood, others want to get rid of extra kilos and meet some interesting people in the process, while for many it will be a far more fundamental opportunity to achieve personal goals or pause before making a major life decision. But ultimately, whatever the original motivation, everyone will find themselves changed by the experience, including the people living along the route who will profit from a cross-cultural exchange and of course the pilgrim trade.

We don't know which memories we are to cherish, which ones we are to etch with deeper lines so they will stay fresh when we call them time and time again. Now we pause during a run or a walk and ask, Do you remember...?
From a Pilgrim blog.

Travelling as a Pilgrim can only ever be at the speed your own body and mental attitude will allow, which may initially seem like a restriction, though even the most cynical and reluctant newcomer will quickly realize that this is in fact a first step on the road to freedom. Clearly there will be days when you wonder why the hell you are there, but rest assured, this is only a temporary condition and you will find the answer in the people you meet and the memories you take away.

Today, just as at the height of its popularity in the 1300's, travelling on the St. James Way can be a commercial affair. Pilgrims bring much needed revenue and the route is sometimes diverted to maximise these opportunities, but the flip-side is that in return they enjoy facilities that make the difference between unacceptable hardship and an enjoyable challenge. The only, all too obvious, disadvantage of this popularity is that some sections of the St James Way are being ruined by pilgrim detritus: plastic bottles, bags, tissues, sanitary towels, toilet paper … an unsightly mess that is also extremely damaging for the environment. How to safeguard the physical integrity of the St. James way, and other pilgrim routes that will become increasingly popular, is an ongoing problem and an issue beneficiaries must be prepared to tackle - but that's another story.

To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life.
Phil Cousineau - the Art of Pilgrimage

Friday, December 14, 2007

Can we come and join you Flower Smellers?

This blog is about to change its identity, a fairly earth shattering event for me, though but probably not for the rest of the world, yet.

Joining the Flower Smellers community means that I have a wider audience and have to widen my personal whinge space to include my (and partner Paul's) main reason for being - travelling and mapping ancient pilgrimage routes - and the daily activities that go along with that. We understand that maybe the subject does not grab everyone straight away, but if you can last a few more paras, perhaps you'll get a sense of what brought us to this bizarre, and on occasion incredibly satisfying, place we find ourselves in now.

Paul and I are drop-outs - must be - because once upon a time we were in and now we're out doing our own thing, as opposed to someone else's. A healthy change, but a change only made possible by years of earning our crusts and, to be honest, enjoying the process - 90% of the time.

Five years ago we opted for early retirement. Freedom! Except that we didn't know what to do with it, so we took time out and rode two horses on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, hoping that something would occur to us on the way.

Result? Well, not exactly. Paul learnt to ride, I learnt to live without a watch and we made some great friends along the way, but by the end of the journey we still did not know what to do next.

So we went on another pilgrimage, this time 2000 horseback kilometres to Rome and for some reason - probably the suffering - suddenly everything became clear. You see, for us it's all in the journey - taking time out from the familiar to test relationships and boundaries, meet people like-minded and not, discuss, think, re-think, evaluate, re-evaluate … and in our case, perhaps enable more people to do the same in the hope that they can gain as much as we have from the experience and maybe even promote, in a very small way, the kind of relationships that can lead to global understanding - peace across borders and religions, protection of the environment above commerce.

And here we are, three years later, heads down and writing our first pilgrim's guide to Rome - hopefully the first of many that will inspire and enable everyone to benefit from the pilgrimage experience, irrespective of age, fitness or belief. Alongside this, we are also devoting a great deal of our time to Pilgrimage Publications, a not-for-profit organisation with 4 clear aims:
1. To enable walkers, cyclists and riders to follow pilgrim routes all over the world.
2. To ensure Pilgrimage Publication guides are as current as possible and to use pilgrim feedback as a major source of information.
3. To use recycled materials for the production of guides, travel books or any other materials.
4. To promote eco-friendly travel.

We are looking forward to exchanging news and views with anyone who is interested and maybe even inspiring some of you to follow in our footsteps. For more about who we are and what we do take a look at our other websites and blogs.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Life is Full of Surprises

Life is full of surprises, some good, some bad, but invariably their occurrence provokes a ripple far larger than the original impact. This week I was surprised by William Blake, a name I had previously consigned to the poets read at school category - which ranks only marginally higher than poems written by boyfriends during puberty - and subsequently forgotten about. Yes, the Tiger, Tiger stimulated a few cerebral whiskers, but never enough to change an innate impatience with poetry, so my conversion to born-again Blake Worshipper is indeed, a great surprise.

And the ripples?

The discovery that Blake's poetry was only half, perhaps not even that much, of the entire man.
Jerusalem, the nationalistic schmaltz anthem that, previously, I could not hear without rising bile, was in fact a fierce criticism of Victorian society, its stifling of ideas and its materialism. So far from being a eulogy, it is a lament, something I can understand a great deal better. Blake rejected all forms of imposed authority; indeed, he was charged with assault and uttering seditious and treasonable expressions against the King in 1803. The charges were brought by a soldier called John Schofield after Blake had bodily removed him from his garden, allegedly exclaiming, "Damn the king. The soldiers are all slaves." According to a report in the Sussex county paper.

To add to all this, he was a musician, artist (see example in photos) and best of all he preferred to live inside his head, rather than with everyone else in the rest of the world. I do not behold the outward creation... it is a hindrance and not action."

His relationship with his wife, Catherine, was unique for the time. For a start, they were truly in love. He taught her to read and one day a friend walked into their garden and found them both sitting naked while reading Paradise Lost to each other. Can you imagine anything more romantic, aesthetic and impossible in Victorian Society?

I could fill pages on this one theme, but it would only be more on the same and tedious for the unconverted, so I will close and leave you to guess what is on my Christmas list for this year.
Christmas .. now really close. We have sent out cards out promptly, thanks to Lucy who wrote them all because my handwriting is so illegible, particularly when it is involves boring repetition - Love from … have a good one … hope everything works out in 2008 … I am trying to be upbeat about it, but Christmas with a family of three and one of them a teenager is not a great prospect. A theme that could lead me onto wishing we had a wider of circles of friends, wishing I had done this and not that so that I wouldn’t be doing this and not that now, but I won't.
More upbeat, this is the second week of wearing multi focal contact lenses and I can see! The first few days were tough, with long sight being fine while anything close resembled jelly in a fog, but both ends of the frame improve by the day and we have decided that Paul should have a go too, which has to be a good move. Ten new pairs of glasses every 6 months is a big addition to our tight housekeeping budget.
And so to rainbows, without even an attempt at linking subjects. Gorron, our local town, was engulfed in rainbow colours just a few days ago, with the church picked out in indigo, a truly stunning spectacle that should have been recorded for posterity, but of course I did not have a camera. In fact it was so stunning that I drove all the way home to get one. Needless to say, it had gone by the time I got back. Still, not wanting to let the magic moment go, I have come up with the, probably ludicrous, idea of collecting rainbow photos and putting them on a website. In fact I have gone so far as to float the idea on the GoSmelltheFlowers website, so depending on the response, I may have given myself yet more to do.
Meanwhile, the rain hammers on, the horses continue to look miserable and I have got a cold to beat all colds. Paul is coping with my misery, but I sense a trip to anywhere but here is on his mind, which reminds me … we have said that we have accepted Vlad and family's invitation to stay with them in Russia next year - something to really look forward to.
The guide book is growing and we have reached Langre, a milestone in Paul's mind, though not mine because I haven't a clue where it is in relation to all the other places we are writing about. How about this for a closing quote?

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life. Albert Camus

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lies, Fatties and Kittens

So much to do and so little time to do it in, let alone write about it. During the week I note subjects I think are worth expanding on and now have a long list of items, though many of them are so cryptic I can't remember what they refer to. Perhaps a reflection of my life in general.

Having passed the health check (obligatory in France) I have no excuse for not going to the gym and battering the flab, other than laziness and embarrassment, both of which last night's viewing of recent wedding photos have overcome (wish the gym could sort out the wrinkles too). Paul and I have agreed that the midday slot is the preferable option, because no one else will be there to witness the tragedy.

On Saturday we went with Emile and his wife (retired and very typical French farming couple) to a horse fair - an event I would usually avoid like the plague (horse events, of any kind, have lost their allure since I ended my own semi-professional episode as a rider, but I also know that this particular agricultural type of fair will also involve various attitudes I will find hard to ignore), but two days later I am still cursing myself for not taking a camera.

The sense of walking into a dying world was written on the faces of men and women and embodied in the Percheron horses - beautiful, immensely powerful beasts strutting their stuff for the judges, but without purpose in the mechanised farming world. They are the souvenirs of a bygone age that these people are hanging onto for as long as they can afford to - a posture I admire, even though their treatment is rough and all too whip-ready. Less easy to bear, for this sappy southerner at least, was the line of bottom rungers - horses and ponies either too old or too ugly to be of interest to anyone except perhaps for meat. I wish I could have bought all of them, a large rangy ex-race horse in particular, but just the thought of our own 'girls' struggling in the mud back home put pay to that. Still, I wish I had brought a camera to record what must be the last rope maker in France, the farrier trimming a hoof with the circumference of a car tyre and faces only wind, rain and age could produce. I would have put them on this blog for … possibly posterity.

And on animals - we have two more. Kittens to be precise and in direct contravention of my own law - NO MORE CATS. My excuses were Lucy (she will need company when she is on her own) and the cold, both of which are fairly plausible. Our friends, Barbara and John, have gone back to England for the winter, leaving a stray cat and, formerly, six kittens behind. Barbara, who claims that she is "not a softie" and believes in nature taking its course, left buckets of cat biscuits in a green house and deviously ensured I got a glimpse of them before she left. Enough said, after a series of extremely cold days and nights (during which a local footballer collapsed with hypothermia) I went back to check their progress and found only two survivors, now Nell and Orpheus (Lucy's pretension not mine) and currently asleep on the rocking chair (see photo).
Moving down the list and lifting my gaze from its currently, dangerously navel level, I feel the need to comment on the latest furore about labour donations and political funding in general. After so many years of 'ends justifying the means' rhetoric by Blair/Brown, this revelation is hardly surprising. In fact the only surprising part is Cameron's willingness to wade in and criticise, when he must know that the spotlight will inevitably turn back on the Tory party's shenanigans in that department. Perhaps there is a case for restricting election funding and allocating a proportion of our taxpayer's money to the purpose, if only to stop the kind of carpet-bagging we are seeing now, but this in itself raises another raft of issues that I have neither the time, energy nor interest to debate here. Much more fundamental and more disturbing is the general sense of dishonesty in politics and society, though even as I write the nagging thought occurs tome that it has always been thus, just better concealed. Do I have a solution? No, of course not.

On a higher, no scrub that, infinitely lower note, has anyone seen the new reality (though God knows I wish it wasn't) TV programme; Fatties Go To Borneo, or some such title? I'm not sure which aspect I find the most shocking and/or repulsive, the sheer size of the teenage fatties themselves or their behaviour. Perhaps it is all one and the same. Rude, ungrateful, spoilt …. The adjectives, similes and metaphors don't exist to describe them. In fact the only comparison available is another programme of the same ilk - Tortuous Teenagers (correct title escapes me) involving distraught parents and kids who deserve to hung, drawn and quartered (this from a passivist who has have never even resorted to smacking). Lucy and I have our problems, my weight and wrinkles, her growing up (which incidentally she is doing beautifully and of which I am immensely proud - wish I could take the credit), but we have never behaved like that lot. What is the world coming to? I ask myself and the rest of the world.

So who else is in today's metaphorical firing line? No one actually, because yesterday left me feeling warm and much-loved. Everybody should have a bossy friend prepared to turn up unexpectedly and tell it like it is. Denise and Eric have found happiness in Portugal after a fairly miserable 12 months here in northern France and I am more than happy for them, in spite of my own, very current need of someone to dump on when I am feeling pissed off. They were only here for a couple of hours before rushing off to somewhere else, but long enough to remind me of who I am and why I am here … which brings me back to the present and my responsibilities … I have a guide book to write and the Guardian to read … so here endeth the latest diatribe on the trials and tribulations of being an overweight and grumpy retiree in northern France, where it is, of course, raining.

Friday, November 23, 2007

On tragedy, banality and comedy

Time to stop navel gazing and look at how much more sick and inexplicable the rest of the world is. The growing trend of kids planning school massacres via chat rooms makes my own junior school dreams of organising a mass walk out seem rather paltry. What is the world coming to? And why do I sound more like my father everyday when I ask this? Perhaps I am morphing back into a female version of a grumpy army officer past his sell by date.

But there is good news out there too, albeit in the most unexpected guise … prisoners earning credibility and honest lucre through their embroidery work - high class and best quality - according to Libby Purves and her interviewee this morning. "After all, they have the time to become very good because most of them spend at least 19 hours a day in their cells." A comment that makes the happy ending less joyful.

Meanwhile in this Francophile world of ours, Sarkhozy upsets train drivers, civil servants and parents who have to deal with the consequences when teachers decide to get in on the argument. Lucy called from school yesterday (a rare occurrence) to warn me that I would be getting letters about her absence, because she had been on strike too. What can I say? In principle I support her and the fundamental right to freedom of speech, though in reality suspect that the French penchant for walking out or dumping piles of poo on government doorsteps (if you are a farmer with access to tons of it) may not be altogether helpful for its ailing economy. Having said that, a recent cartoon image of Sarkhy wearing a Thatcher style wig sent shivers down my spine. Give me a placard, I'm marching.

And so onto to even more depressing subjects - the BBC World story about two internet lovers in America. A virtual love fest based on false identities - he, supposedly a fit 18 year old and she the female version of the same. Nothing new in that you might say, except that this time an additional member was lured in and ultimately murdered. Tragic enough, but perhaps even more tragic because he was the only one telling the truth.

Yesterday I went to the hair dresser (also a rare occurrence) and found myself sitting next to the mother of an ex-school friend of Lucy's (an even rarer occurrence in this particular case - I may navel gaze, but this woman is so up herself that I suspect the short and curlys currently undergoing a serious renaissance may not be all the seem). Inevitably we ask the inevitable questions about each other's daughter and inevitably I enjoy watching Madame Doctor's wife squirm when I tell her how well Lucy is doing - much better (in numbers at least) than the other one. Hey! I only do this under provocation! The real crunch comes (the best bit of all) when our beloved hairdresser tells us that we share the same hair colour. Eyes flick to mirrors and I catch a smirk in mine, but it's all prunes and sucking lemons in the other. Having to sit next to me in the same salon is mildly irritating. Discovering that my (the mad English woman with terrible dress sense) daughter is in fact out performing hers is uncomfortable, but being told that we are sharing the same hair colour is clearly intolerable. The small talk stops there.

Today Paul is doing his Rotary bit for humanity by standing in the (hopefully heated) doorway of a local supermarket and handing out plastic bags that shoppers will hopefully fill for people less fortunate than themselves. It's a bit banal, especially when ranked alongside the catastrophic effects of the recent floods in Bangladesh, but a positive action and certainly more than this cynical scribe is prepared to do.

Trivia …
We are about to enrol in the local gym, which I am sure I will regret.
Have started to meditate again
Wedding photos arrived but don't have the courage to look at them after counting wrinkles in the hairdresser's mirrors
It's raining again

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Window on the World

I'm having one of those bad days when the window on my world turns two-way. It may be unlucky coincidence that the tragic and haunting Iraq Vet. Story has centre page position on the very day when writing a guide book for pilgrims to Rome seems to be the most futile and self-obsessed activity hell could have devised. Or it may be the work of an omnipotent, all-controlling being who thinks I need a nudge, but in the end the source is irrelevant because the effect is the same either way. I am plunged into yet another mid-life crisis.

What have I done with my life? What about all those dreams? How can I ever make up for all the lost time now? And so on and so on, with only Lucy as my last attempt to do something right and positive for humanity, and my efficiency only evidenced in the consistent mess I have made of that too.

And what's more … the weather is shit. Cold, grey and entirely unacceptable in terms of the ride out on the horses that Paul and I had promised ourselves … which brings me onto our health and fitness, an impossible quest it seems, at least in this part of France, where the gym is always closed and the promised badminton classes never run (this last being particularly frustrating for Lucy who got up this morning to attend class at 8.00) ... which reminds me that my life is funnelled into the single purpose of writing our sodding guide book while Jean Michel Jarre (who was speaking on the radio yesterday) has time to extol the virtues of You Tube (I don't even have the guilt-free time to write my blog, let alone look at other people's efforts) … which only goes to show that navel gazing leads to time wasting and depression, so I shouldn't be doing it.

We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope. - Martin Luther King

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Shit Happens ... to all of us

I'd like to go on believing that somehow I will escape the tragedies - life, illness, death, depression - that happen to other people, but the illusion is becoming increasingly hard to hold on to.

Of course age has something to do with it - I've been around longer to observe the process in action - but as I had already witnessed the death of two close friends and my parents by the age of 30, this doesn't really seem an adequate explanation.

So what is happening?

Catherine's son committing suicide shook the foundations of my world and I am suffering from the after shock still. Why? Because it is so close to home, so real and suddenly so obviously something that could happen to me. His death has amplified the brink that Lucy and by association I, teeter on. Our lives revolve around her state of mind, her happiness, her future and the above all the questions - why her?/why me? /where did I go wrong?/why am I such inadequate parent?/what can I do now?

Now I hear that Libby Purves has also lost a son to suicide. Libby, whose book I read ('How Not to be Pregnant), when I was pregnant and I suspect she wrote when she was pregnant with Nicolas. A harsh irony and perhaps proof that no matter how much you give someone, and I am sure he had advantages that I could never hope to give Lucy, the state of mind will prevail.

But here the dichotomy leaps out even as I write. How can I in one breath propose that my mother's insanity was largely caused by her insane childhood (and use my own 'loser' status as an example of the damage childhood can do) while in the next breath (my most recent) maintain that ultimately who we are will always 'out'.

And on insanity - last night was a good example . A Rotary do, jazz evening in Laval, for which I dress in jeans, while (as I only discover too late) the rest of the Rotary world has donned their finest glitz and glam. I last all of 5 minutes before announcing to Paul that I can't stay and, bless him, he agrees without a word of criticism. We go off to eat a solitary and fairly miserable meal and then return home to watch Alison Moyet, Jo Brand, Trinny and Sue spar on the same sofa - a great spectacle and guess who won?

Today, I am full of resolution (probably just a hormonal shift) - we are going to get fit, I am going to get out and speak French, I have a new idea for the guide (came to me during the night - proof that I am living and dreaming the sodding subject) and I will take a look at Virgin publishing as an option. In doing so the thought has occurred to me that I should have become obsessed by a far more innovative and sexy past time that people might label 'cool', but it is too late to turn back now so I might as well just get on with it. Anyway, since last night's walk round Laval's streets (looking for a pizza place we did not find) I have decided that living in Laval will be good for both our souls (and our French).

Other people might close with something banal like 'watch this space', but I won't.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

On Losing the Power of Speech

... or perhaps I should say, think. If somebody had told me that one day I - probably the most directionally-challenged individual in the world or possibly universe - would be spending days, weeks and months immersed in writing directions for other people to follow, I think I would have gone straight into therapy.

But where needs must I do, or some such useless homily. If our aim is to help people to follow ancient pilgrim routes - an activity we heartily endorse as being good for the soul, world peace and the environment (plus long list of additional items that only occur to me when I am on a roll), without even a sniff of a deity - then I suppose creating detailed maps (Paul's job) and writing detailed instructions (unfortunately mine) must be one of our core activities - however tedious. I am sure the finished product - due out next spring - will make me think that it is has all been worthwhile - sensitive readers will pick up the e-doubt vibes as I write.

Perhaps the worst aspect in all of this is that the rest of my brain is bludgeoned into silence by the clatter of turn rights and bear lefts rattling round the limited space left in my head. I have forgotten how to think. I can't write. The cerebral muscles, such as they are, have gone into paralysis.

So, in the interests of mental fitness, I will launch into one of those rare rants that sometimes, if I am lucky, leave me riding on an Adrenalin high.

First on the list for attack:

People who say this 'is the true story'.
Nothing repeated is ever true because Chinese Whispers will always rule. What you say will not be what I repeat and what I see will not be from your point of view. All pretty obvious stuff really, but last night the documentary and therefore 'true' version of events preceding the mass suicide by Jim Jones and his followers made me think about this all over again. What is truth? Can truth exist? Who do we believe? Certainly not the man who left his 4-year old son to his fate in the jungle, while making sure he was as far away from the scene as possible. And certainly not Jim Jones' son who said he couldn't have done anything to alert people to what was about to happen.

Next, a clap on the back and loud applause for Shami Chakrabati, Director of Liberty, who told David Blunkett that history has repeatedly demonstrated that having a 'pet dictator' (referring to Masharraff) simply wasn't an option anymore.

3rd- I caught the end of a radio programme, always the way when I am immersed in map reading, that discussed the relativity of time. too bloody true. Will someone, perhaps the presenter, explain to me why the hours in the day are never long enough to do what I need to do, but an hour of aerobics is always interminable.

4th - why are some people brimming with amazing, if sometimes useless, ideas (like the woman who has just produced a book of To-do lists sent in by thousands of people - I must love my husband even when he farts on the sofa), while I can't even think of a new and less inflammatory way of telling my daughter that coffee cups encased in mould are bad for MY environment.

5th - why can some people write great groundbreaking novels when I can't even complete a blog.

6th - how can Andy Hamilton be so funny without even trying?

And here ... for the time being ... endeth the rant. But not because I've gone through the burn and reached the ultimate cerebral high. No, far from it. I'm just feeling guilty about taking valuable time out from writing directions. Ah yes, guilt, that's another point I could have added ...

In a free society, some are guilty. But all are responsible. Abraham Joshua Heschel

So there!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

No Simple Answers

Getting old/older has finally taught me that there are no simple answers to anything, even old age itself. Last night a Panorama programme left me thinking the unthinkable - that I could, in another life, possibly, understand a person's motivation for wanting to become a soldier.

Childhood experience of being an army officer's child (for which there is no space to go into here - or anywhere for that matter), left a bitter taste in my mouth with regard to all things military. I have never been able to understand the brutal principles of war - the Geneva Convention being perhaps the most ludicrous - and I have never really been able to stomach the arrogance of those who espoused/delivered them. But since last night I am a born again something or other, with a new view of the world.

No, I still cannot justify the killing of Afghan civilians, either by the British Army (in it's UN guise) or by the Taliban (Afghans themselves). Neither am I able to understand how and why these so-called 'contacts' with the other side have to involve the destruction of unconnected people's homes and livelihoods, but now I can at least claim an appreciation of the complexity of this particular problem and others like it. So well done Panorama.

The, very personal, view of soldiers caught up in the mesh of political arguments which (even at officer level, they do not profess to understand) was the most poignant revelation of army life I have ever seen - concluding in the commanding officer's emotional breakdown when he mentioned his wife (all the more shocking because he had been so stoical and rational up to that point). This, alongside the desperate plea from local people that the British Army stay to protect them from the Taliban, revealed an array of issues my, previously, immovable pacifism had managed to overlook, with the result that I am quite simply confused and depressed, but perhaps this is not such a bad starting point, or at least a more honest one, for beginning the search for solutions.

And then, as if my life weren't complicated enough, this morning I read a George Monbiot article about the reality of biofuels. Far from being the fluffy, green alternative to the filthy, pernicious and fast disappearing petroleum based fuels we now use, biofuels are in fact far worse in terms of the land they are grown on and the air they are blasted into - e-image me now, poor old hag, head in hands, bemoaning the state of the world. But, on this at least, he has supported a personal hobby horse (horses do not produce as much methane as cows) of mine - the solution is not in finding another fuel, but in changing our need for it in the vast quantities we use today.

In all of this despair, and it is a very real despair and fear for the future (more specifically my daughter's future - yes I allow myself this degree of perfectly natural selfishness - human gene and all that) I have another depressing thought ... I am burbling into a vast e-ether where blogs flicker and die like glow worms in the night and no one is listening to me, me, me. An embarassing problem I will find impossible to share (though maybe I just did), but one, thank the Lord, that can be easily solved ... I'll just call go back to calling my blog a diary.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Steven Poliakov, daughters, grieving friends and Saudi princesses

I have to say it, even though I can feel the stinging e-rebukes heading my way before I have even finished the sentence ... Steven Poliakov is the thinking man's/woman's Eastenders. I am obsessed by his plays and if there were one on TV every evening - omnibus on Saturdays - I would be eating my TV dinners in front of it,(just to ensure I did not miss a single word);

Last night we, Paul, Lucy and I, watched 'Shooting the Past', another absolute masterpiece with three of my favourite actors - Lindsay Duncan, Timothy Spall, and Billie Whitelaw. What is it about his writing that scores straight through to the subconscious? The plot? The characters? The situation? The direction and lighting - particularly in 'Shooting the Past' - that lifts the mundane into the memorable? Or is it just all of these in their uniquely Poliakov measures? I would sell my soul to write like him, but no one would buy it and I would always know that he had got there first.

And so to daughters and more specifically teenage daughters who get drunk and vomit (vastly) through the night. Never having been very good with any kind of bodily fluids and definitely not fluids filled with red kidney beans, I surprised myself by calmly telling her to go and have a shower while I scooped up the sheets and their contents. Though I dealt less well with the reason for her being drunk.

My darling Lucy is terminally unhappy while I stand powerlessly by. If pain could be packaged up and handed over to someone else, life would be so much better. A more effective punishment for murderers or rapists who would actually experience their victim's torture and a means of release for sufferers and the people who care about them. But this is just a fantasy while Lucy's depression is all too real. She hates her body, hates her image (as she sees it) and doesn't seem able to look beyond the black. Worse still, having been there myself (still am in some ways), I recognise a large percentage of what she is going through and feel utterly to blame - genetically and parentally.

And so on to Saudi princesses (current because the U.K has just received a royal visitation in the form of King Abdullah) and women whose treatment by their Saudi men - revealed in the book 'Daughters of Arabia' (which I am reading) - is frankly unimaginable. No, incomprehensible.

And so onto grieving friends. In my darker moments, usually prompted by either Lucy herself or a tragic news story, I have a brief glimpse of the desolated landscape left to a grieving parent. How could I go on living if anything happened to Lucy, or worse still as in Catherine's case, my child were to commit suicide? Nothing in my experience has equipped me to deal with this personally and I am accordingly useless when it comes to helping Catherine. What can I do or say to support her through to a presumably less inconsolable future? Why do I always seem to be standing pathetically on the sidelines? As I write I have an image of a wild women, bare legs and staring hair, screaming abuse at the sky.

And so on to the rest of the day (an unimpeded process that makes the last few day's events even more intolerable), the sun is shining, but Paul and I are hunched over our respective computers, we have acquired four more ducks (while their owners are in the UK for the winter)we are about to lose Ollie, the bulimic cat (because he is going back to Karen, the mouse under our kitchen sink has perfected the art of stealing cheese without springing the trap and the chickens are laying again.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Can't see the wood for the trees

I'm having one of those 'is this it?' days. No, to be more accurate I am suffering the aftermath of one of Paul's 'is this it?' days.

As two, overly mature adults, we should know better than to drink more than three glasses of wine on a grey autumn evening after an 8-hour day stuck in front of the computer - a recipe for war if there ever was one.

Our books are not selling, our life is predictable for the foreseeable future, our money is disappearing like mist on a summer morning (a strange analogy but one that seems to work) and we can't see a way out.

But this is not the time - just before the big 50 (me) and the big 60 (Paul) - to be wasting time wondering if what we are doing is what we should be doing, because, quite brutally, we have not got the time. Or, as my father would have said: "We have made our bed and now we have to lie on it."

Perhaps Paul and I are just princesses suffering from the pea under the mattress syndrome, but whatever the cause, last night's booze confessions revealed just how painful it is and that something (something more effective than simply adding another mattress) has to be done. The only question is what?

Today's quote
The purpose of life is a life of purpose. Robert Byrne

Yeh, easy for you to say .....

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


A quote to start the day - this is definitely becoming a habit.

The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Too true, you may say and I agree, though with the uncomfortable suspicion that this is just another of those truisms, which inevitably leave one with an impossible itch to scratch.

First question. Where to start? From here, where I seem to have ended by accident and definitely not design (design/planning always being an afterthought in my life) the way forward seems hard to define. So, to reiterate - where do I start?

In the olden days, when I was in my 20's, a spot of VSO work in a hot and sweaty country, less fortunate than ours, used to do the trick. There's nothing like some selfish altruism to put ourselves and the world to rights, but now we all know (if we read the Guardian) that Aid is not the answer and Bob Geldorf's efforts to guilt us into getting our 'fucking' money out (however well intentioned) did more than harm than good. Worse still, for me at least, working as an NGO project manager finally put an end to my naive belief that £5.00 really could save a child from blindness or an orphan from starvation. No, it paid for the fundraisers who initiated the donation and wrote the thank you letter. Just as it paid for my salary and my trips abroad (for which I am very grateful) to monitor the indigenous staff, but the so-called recipients themselves told another story.

So what questions or answers are left to someone who has already reached the outside lane and has to shout the loudest to be heard? Teaching English in Cambodia, or doing a stretch in Tahiti on one of our Rotarian projects, but isn't that just more of the same? Blasting out a few articles to the already converted and venting my spleen on people who aren't listening. I would like to be Michael Moore, or Polly Toynbee, or even Kofi Annan, but I am realistic and can, finally after all these years, see that not everything is possible (though I am careful not to let Lucy know, in the hope that she will never find out and be truly great). So, to repeat, What questions?

I suppose this is where I should close with a long, happy ending, list of my skills and talents, every one of them laden with potential, but that only happens in books called How To Be A Millionaire and websites that tell you to First Learn to Love Yourself (if someone has created an emoticon for a digital finger stuck down a digital throat, please pass it on so that I can do the same to those perpetual promoters of psychobabble), which brings me back to my original question. So what next? What can a grumpy, middle-aged, determinedly pessimistic (if I can't find a reason to be miserable I'll read watch the news and find one) and frighteningly like my mother, woman do to change the world?

All suggestions gratefully, but probably not gracefully, received.

And one more quote to close:
Life's a pile of shit, when you look at it .... Life of Brian (of course)

Monday, October 29, 2007

On Ex-PE Teachers and Age

Last night I woke up with an-ex PE teacher in mind. No idea why, though I assume she must have been involved in a dream that evaporated before I reached full consciousness. Miss Gammy, tyrannical, sarcastic, vindictive and much, much more of the same ilk that I can't find the words for. No doubt she had her reasons for picking on no-hopers like me and enjoying the spectacle - maybe a miserable childhood, definitely a complex about her elephantine (riddled with cellulite too) thighs, perhaps her all too obvious resentment of her role as second class citizen in the academic entourage of teachers in our school - but still nothing sufficient to justify her behaviour.

It is her voice that has woken me, screeching across the hockey pitch, but as an older version. She must be well into her sixties by now, well past her school bullying career, living alone or perhaps with an equally caustic cat. I briefly enjoy the image and sense of delayed revenge, until suddenly it does an about turn and throws the reflection back. I am nearly 50, and not so far from the end of the plank either, working on my legacy rather than my future. The future when the inconceivable happens - life goes on without me.

I like life, probably more so now than ever before, pity contentment had to come so late, but at least it did, which brings me back to Miss Gammy. What if we were to meet now? How would I feel and would she remember or even understand the fear and loathing she inspired? How will other people feel about me?

And this morning … I am taking Lucy to the doctor so that she can go on the pill, though at the age of 18 she only needs me for the lift I can give her in the car. All good, all sensible, all right, but for both of us another step forward to ...? Well, I suppose that depends on your perspective.

Yesterday she went through her options for university, so exciting, so open, so possible for her because she has worked so hard, but I feel envious and wish that I had my time again, something I remember my father saying.

But the good news is … I have not had time to either read or hear the news yet, the sun is shining, I am not Miss Gammy and in spite of everything she said to the contrary, I am actually quite sporty.

Thought For The Day (perhaps I'll make a habit of this):
"I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead--and not then until we have been dead years and years. People ought to start dead, and they would be honest so much earlier."
Mark Twain (of course)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Maiden Blog

Perhaps this is some kind of diary, the sort I kept when I was younger and before self-analysis and paranoid partners put an end to the past time. Who knows? Least of all me, but I have the feeling that the clutter of thoughts rattling round my head are about to outgrow their space and I need to do something fast. Time to brain dump and hopefully receive some balanced and thought provoking replies from anyone else interested.

Here's an example, slightly old, but still rubbing me raw.

Was I the only one who missed the irony of two news items breaking on the same day, or did I miss some off stage incredulity that I should be tapping into? I'm talking about Paul McCartney's financial battle with Haggling Heather, to the tune of something like a £7 million pay off, while a UK soldier is offered £250,000 (only after fighting for a revised settlement) to pay for the 24-hour care and specially adapted house he will need (for the rest of his life) after being blown apart in Iraq. If there are any journalists with a conscience, they must have been on a tea break when this got through.

And what about today's Missed Point? The 10-year old Indian children sweat-shopping round the clock, just to ensure that our own 10-year olds have their GAP Christmas outfits in time. No, to be absolutely fair, the journalists have highlighted this part (or how else would I know about it?), but they seem to have overlooked the real horror tucked away in GAP's response. See if you can spot it?

In 2004, when it launched its social audit, it (GAP) admitted that forced labour, child labour, wages below the minimum wage, physical punishment and coercion were among abuses it had found at some factories producing garments for it. It added that it had terminated contracts with 136 suppliers as a consequence. The Observer, 28.10.07

So, 136 suppliers have lost their business. Good, but where will the business go next. China? Who knows? But certainly not back to the more expensive place they came from, where wages and social support (are supposed to) exist.

Got it?? If not, try watching Michael Moore's 'The Big One'.

And in the rest of my, very small world, life goes on, relentlessly. Daughter, Lucy, is planning her future far from home and I am encouraging her all the way, though every cell in my body wishes it could be otherwise. As I write, she is filling out her forms to become a French citizen.

New husband, still wearing well after one week of married life and much loved for most of the 5 years we have known each other. This morning we took our horses out for an autumn ride (cold, damp and too close to winter) and remembered how much we missed being with them. We are planning a trip to Utah beach within the next few days for a last gallop before hibernation (ours and theirs). Roll on summer …. in Italy.