Retirement? Really?

The last five minutes of today’s Today programme were devoted to a tribute to the chief political correspondent, Norman Smith, who is retiring today.  It sparked memories for me;  today, 6 years ago, I, too, stopped (paid and employed) work.  Good advice from my sister – leave in the summer; if you retire at Christmas (which so many people do) you’ve got 3 months of dark winter days/evenings and bad weather to face, while you “regroup” and get used to a new way of life.

So it is a good time to reflect: what is retirement like, especially as so many of us over the last few months have had to “retire” from being out and about, or from one’s “normal” life.  Everyone is getting used to a really strange situation, which we’ve never experienced before.  And that’s what happens when you “retire”.   You’ve never experienced that before, either, and you’re going through it yourself, as an individual.

I had had periods out of work but that phase is so different from retirement, because finding the next job is a job in itself; it has its ups and downs, but (perhaps Micawber-like) I sensed something would come up.

But with retirement, it really is a kind of bereavement, suddenly (even if you’ve been building up to it) you’re no longer a cog in a wheel; it continues to roll without you. Other clichés abound – don’t say “yes” to the first thing you’re offered; you’ll soon be so busy you won’t know how you found time to go to work; have a rest and a breather.

I hope Norman Smith is allowed a socially-distanced gathering! I had a fantastic party, and the farewells were lovely. I was leaving my arts charity safe in the knowledge that there was at least another 4 years of secure funding. I took 4 days away in Italy – a joy.  And then what? Gulp!

Well, I decided to take a “gap 3 months” before taking on anything serious, as I’d not had my “gap year”; I’d gone straight from school to university.  The 3 months turned into a year – why not? And during that time, I started writing this occasional blog – because I knew the feelings of retirement would fade as I got into it and I wanted to make some sort of record.  I found things to do, new passions and interests, many new friends, so many gaps in my knowledge to fill – life continues to challenge.  But it is such a change of life.

Just like now is, for so many people; unbelievable changes, which rock you off any kind of stable rock you might have thought you were standing on.  OK, we will get through this pandemic; Europe recovered from the Black Death eventually.  Probably the people in 1665 thought the world was coming to an end – and it did come to an end as they knew it.  What will happen for us, post lockdown? Has this been a bad dream?  Will we wake up to the same or a better world? (Could I go to sleep and wake up after November and find Trump has NOT been elected?) What vision do we have for a kinder future, where we realise how connected we are globally and how we need to look after each other.

Turning inwards for reflection is no bad thing; might it help to propel us into the next phase with – perhaps not foolhardy optimism – but thoughtfulness and wisdom? Well, let’s hope so.

No St George – just a dragon with a sting in its tail

Isn’t it just beyond a joke? Is anyone else getting restless, frustrated, anxious? Where is our St George? Is the future for more maidens (ie young people) going to continue to be sacrificed to the monster? And so many people losing their health and lives, of course. This dragon has a very long tail, and its latest sting is to disappoint so many people desperate to get away.

It’s certainly a tough one, isn’t it? There we all were, thinking – it’ll all be over in the summer when it gets hot – all other viruses wane in season and we’ll be able to fly away.  Yet here’s the summer and even before it turns cold towards autumn, the virus is rearing its ugly head again! Is this the new norm? Head off on holiday, come back to isolation; don’t head off on holiday, remain isolated, jealous and then, smug! Will we ever see people smiling in shops?

Such a range of emotions!

Today, on the Heath, all that blew away.  It’s windy out there today, even blustery.  Cool, few dogs, few people, blackberries in ABUNDANCE, more than the hungriest of birds could consume, ready in a week or so, especially if we get the promised sunshine at the end of the week. The trees a deep, deep green. The grass recovering.  The rubbish removed, except two red JUMP bikes, abandoned at the top of the hill, presumably when the money ran out – someone can’t read the notices “No Cycling” painted alongside the two stick people demonstrating the 2 metres distance. And of course, the odd mask, also abandoned by someone too thoughtless to take it home to bin or wash and reuse it.

I’ve missed the Heath, tending to walk on back streets to avoid crowds; today, just lovely again.  Almost as if it’s there just for me and my sanity – let alone my exercise – to ward off obesity, the virus, the yearning to get away; and to give me the fresh fresh air.





An extraordinary coincidence… I’ve had a pair of cheeky robins darting about my garden door, even coming through it, to pick up the odd fly; and above the door, there are cracks in the bricks where apparently there are ants! The robins are fluttering around, dashing in to grab a fly, and charging off again, mouths (sorry, beaks) full and looking pleased with themselves. What a treat, both for me and them, presumably having grabbed a tasty snack!IMG_2160

And extraordinarily, the picture for July on my RA Calendar 2020 is of two robins on a branch – it’s Drypoint and watercolour by Richard Spare and it’s called The Secret, 2017.IMG_2178

I ward off cats from my garden in an attempt to make it bird-friendly; with help, some garden compost was dug out, full of worms, and spread about, so you’d think that’d be a meal source, and many more birds would have found their way here.  Could it possibly have been a wren just now – absolutely tiny, but too fast for me to photograph? Perhaps they’re ignoring my garden, because some of the lush vegetation has been chopped back, and they are feeling a little exposed? And I am disposing of any slugs or snails I see marching (slinking) purposefully in the direction of my carefully nurtured salvias and geraniums.

However, not these robins; bold as brass and twice as jolly!

Perche` no? (pron. Pair-kay-no)

The Italian phrase means “why not?” What a perfect name for an ice cream shop, a gelateria, though it could equally apply to a café or bar …

For a student visitor to Florence in the late ‘60s, this gelateria was SUCH a discovery, such a delight.  At home in England, we had Walls or Lyons Maid; or stop-me-and-buy-one; we used to cycle a couple of miles to the little village shop to be served by a rather grouchy pair of elderly ladies with a cold white square of ice cream, sandwiched between two pieces of soggy cornflake-type biscuits (not worthy of the name “biscuit”.  Or you could get a Neapolitan ice cream which was multi-coloured, but the colours tasted identical.   Once a week, after church in the local market town, we’d buy a block of Walls, which would just about last, wrapped up in newspaper, till we got home, so it could accompany Sunday lunch’s pudding of apple crumble or baked apples.  A year or so before the Italian jaunt, I had experienced the joy of French ice creams, but only fraise, vanille or framboise.  Gorgeous, but somewhat limited.

What was so special about Perche` no? There seemed to be at least 40 varieties of different fruit, scoops you could try out, till you decided the best and kept going back for the peach, or mint, or apple.  Studying Italian with 3 hour afternoon classes during a hot summer, the shop was a daily destination. It was almost preferred to having a pizza though that too was a mind-changing discovery! Pizze had not arrived in the UK then, or at least, not in rural Hertfordshire. Never will I forget sitting at the counter, watching the skilled pizza makers chopping off a chunk of pizza dough and whirling it round their hands very dramatically to make a thin round base; no question of using a rolling pin.

The things you remember from exciting trips abroad aren’t necessarily the ones you are supposed to; yes, of course, the Uffizi, to which we had access as often as we liked with a student pass – so you could dash in to see one room, or one painting; yes, Michelangelo’s David ditto; yes, the Ponte Vecchio; yes, the buses parked up from 9am outside our pensione (where the shower was ONLY cold water) in the square outside the Pitti Palace.  But that gelateria was the pinnacle!

During the very hot summer of 1976, ice cream shops popped up all over the place – Dayvilles and Baskin Robbins, were two of the chains, with every flavour under the sun; that was some year, when river beds cracked and people shared baths, not just for fun! The following year was wetter and colder than for years, so most of the franchisees went bust although Baskin Robbins survives to this day.  But nothing like real, magical, properly-made Italian ice cream.

To my delight, on my socially-distanced and permitted couple of hours exercise, I have discovered a new Italian ice cream shop I can get to; a perfect excuse for a walk.  It must have been considered essential (!) because the shop is open daily, and there are queues outside.  They are constantly replenishing the trays and making up new flavours – not just fruit, but nut, chocolate, coffee, tiramisu ++.

I have actually got a loyalty card. Why not indeed?

An icy blast

Mid May has brought a reversal of the march to better weather: the weather forecasters are saying the season’s gone back to winter.  But the saints whose feast days were celebrated at  this time were known as the ‘ice saints’ so perhaps it’s not that unusual. They were St Mamertius, St Pancras and St Servatus, for the geeks among us!

Because of it, I’m prompted to write about skiing; but I’m also prompted because a 4 year old greatniece, eager for “hospital stories” on Facetime (and her mother eager to do some housework!) has made me revisit my experiences on the slopes and in an Austrian hospital. People say I’m accident-prone, but my accidents are rarely major; of the ten broken bones I’ve suffered (so far), only one was really serious and that was a skiing accident, breaking a bone in my knee.  Well, you might say, it’s a dangerous sport.  Actually, not so much now.  You are probably more likely to be hit by lightning than to incur a crash skiing.  My accident happened some years back but it was on January 1, the slopes were packed, and I was one of only 8 patients in a 16-bed hospital.

What a fab sport it can be! Ski when the sun’s out and slopes are sparkling – you’ll go again and again; but trying it in bad weather, cold and overcast, is no fun.  One friend came with me for 2 weeks, but left after the first week, as her beginners class was in the afternoon when the sun had gone behind the mountain.  She saw no point in standing around in the cold, going up a hill, in order to come back down again.  Who could blame her?

My first experience should certainly have been enough to put me off for life.  Scotland, Easter 1966; travelling 20 miles each way in a bus, then lugging long skis uphill, very little snow, rocks showing through, ski schools had to search for enough patches to ski more than a few feet;; unable to grasp the concept of balance on a button or T-bar lift.  Sounds fun? Added to all of this, a hotel which was actually a noisy pub, family rows, no other children staying there – and I was told I was heading to a different school the following term.  Not good.

But I persevered; the end of my first term at university saw me boarding a train with fellow undergrads for Zurs in Austria.  I started in the beginners class.  After a week, I was put down a class; the only way I could stop on skis was by falling over. But I did make one friend for life there with whom, a few years later, I had another go.  And it was magic!

Three of us drove through France to Italy in a day, loaded with supplies, for a self-catered couple of weeks in a friends’ chalet.  We had hoped to have more friends coming, but it was lucky we were only 3, as the chalet boiler was on its last legs and one bath took about 30 minutes to draw! Arriving late at the French side, we put the car (a MiniTraveller) on the train to wait for the first shuttle through the mountains in the morning – and tried to sleep.  Morning came, no movement for some hours and no explanation.  When the train finally moved off, and we reached the Italian side, we learnt why: it had snowed phenomenally, several feet, overnight.  Cars with chains could drive off the trailer, we had to be carried off! Longing for a hot bath after our 24 hours of travelling, we were stuck in the village – at least a hotel was open which served us breakfast.  They were unearthing (or un-snowing) cars, buried several feet deep, and getting supplies to people hanging out of upstairs windows, unable to open doors because of the snow piled up against their houses. Eventually, word got round that a snow plough would be leading a convoy out of the village and on to scattered villages along the main road, so we joined it.

Peter and Peter Italy

The next day, the ski instructors were out bashing down the slopes “by foot” (no machinery could cope) and skiing began again on Day 2.  And such skiing! It was SO soft, deep and glorious, if you fell, you just couldn’t get hurt; the sun shone and the slopes were empty because the snow made it difficult to get there.

Skiing in italy

Hooked by that experience I went 4 more times, before ending up in hospital with the broken knee (I hesitated, was going too slowly and when I fell, the ski didn’t snap off).. Coming down the mountain by blood wagon was an interesting experience; at least my goggles hid my tears, more of frustration than pain, as I saw fellow skiers looking with great concern at me as I had done with others before.

I didn’t “get back on the horse” soon enough, my job had a peak in the winter, so holidays were impossible during that time and although I tried skiing one more time, wearing a knee brace, I was so scared that I froze solid; as proper sports people know, to do sport well, you have to be relaxed – no way for me.

What was great about skiing? The main things for me were the astonishing feeling of controlled gliding across pristine white – and the diamond quality, the cold brisk freshness of the air in the winter mountains.

The last few years with climate change has meant that snow fall for skiing both in Europe and Scotland has diminished; it has even had to be manufactured and sprayed on mountains to maintain the economy of skiing regions. Could it be that coronavirus brings awareness of how we are distorting nature, how we “use” it (or even “abuse” it?), and skiing ceases to be a sport for everyone and reverts to being an essential skill for those living there?  And we find other means of enjoying and appreciating the natural beauty of mountains.


May is the month of….

Maying, Mary, commemoration, celebration – really anything you want it to be; without a doubt it is a month when most people’s spirits rise, spring is definitely here, days are getting longer, birds are thoroughly enjoying themselves and a young man’s fancy….

Two special celebrations this month – 75 years since VE Day on 8th, but also, the bicentenary of the birth of Florence Nightingale on 12th May.  Interestingly if you Google her, it comes up immediately as “statistician”! Not nurse, not founder of modern nursing, not The Lady of the Lamp!  Yes, she was all those things, and we owe so much to her, we should be clapping loudly for her on Tuesday week.  But how many of us know that she was the first woman member of the Royal Statistics Society? While we are so dependent on statistics to help us get through this and other pandemics, we should appreciate her even more for lobbying for cleanliness, for compulsory sanitation in housing, for using data ( in a way ordinary people could understand – she invented the pie chart!) to demonstrate how to improve the health of the nation.

By coincidence, May is also the month for Red Cross and Red Crescent week; no fundraising events inevitably outside for this week (4th – 10th), but you can shake your own bucket at home.  An organisation which is even now on the front line with the NHS, caring for all those in need in these difficult times. (

In the late ‘60s, my mother was a Vice President of the local British Red Cross branch – most elegant in her uniform; the job entailed attending meetings around the county, giving talks about the organisation but also making presentations of awards to young people who could become junior members, learning and  gaining skills to equip them for emergency response.

Another of Mum’s tasks was to organise local collections during this week, which were done house to house by key individuals in villages. After the week, she would collect, count and give in the area’s donations.  One May, perfect spring weather, I was at home, deep in the countryside, revising for GCEs: no lockdown, of course, but after a day of pouring over my books, I was desperate to head out for a break.  “Rather than driving round, why don’t we walk there and back?” What a perfect purpose – to help Mum carry the loot (not so much folding money then, no, lots of coins and therefore quite heavy, even though it might only have been a few pounds) – a great excuse for a walk as the evening closed in and the birds were beginning to go to bed.  It’s such a lovely time of day, when you want to stay outside for ever.  It was about 2 miles to Wallington, along footpaths, through the woods, wading knee deep through swathes of bluebells, with the dogs casting about for rabbits to chase and interesting sniffs.

Chatting and strolling, it became something of a regular summer evening sortie for us. My father was already very deaf, sadly he didn’t enjoy evenings made for listening to the birds, or words spoken over the shoulder, so he rarely came with us.  But at least he knew where we were going and could – might – come in search if we got lost. No mobile phones, of course.  One evening, we had probably set off rather later than intended, so on the way home, it was getting increasingly dark; instead of going through the wood, we walked along its edge, making the most of the fading light.   We eventually realised it was turning away from the direction we expected, so quite worried, had to “regroup”; it was a much longer walk than planned, but at least we made it back, well after the birds’ bedtime, under the stars.  Much treasured times.






May Morning Memories


Oxford, MayDay morning celebrations, sadly not happening this year – but oh how traditional and what fun they were! They WILL take place next year, fingers crossed, but for the moment, memories of past events, and anticipation for the future, have to make do!

My course was four-years long, so I did have the chance to attend 4 times;  I made it twice – onto Magdalen Bridge for about 5.30am. The Bridge is crowded – so much for the popular image of late-sleeping students! It’s way already light but usually cold, and you haven’t a hope of meeting friends from other colleges, but it’s a very jolly crowd.   I even think College provided us with a first breakfast before we set off! Certainly, a second breakfast at the normal time was available (you just didn’t tell ‘em you were coming round twice!).

Magdalen Choir sings on the Magdalen College Tower at 6am– barely audible, despite the “shush”es among the listeners; when I was there, nearly 50 years ago, there was no amplification. Then off you set, down the High Street, passing various extraordinary sights.  I remember a piper on a window ledge of University College; how he didn’t hyperventilate, I do not know!


You find Morris Dancers near the Sheldonian, Jack o’ The Green in The Broad, people dressed up as The Green Man, strange headgear on many,

Such headgear

coffee/beer all over available in many bars and caffs, open to make the most of the crowds.

Going back to College for excellent scrambled egg and then the day begins as normal.  Roads are cleared by 9, but some festivities continue in various colleges.  There was a tortoise race in Corpus which was covered by Blue Peter– my foot featured, as I’d secured a place in the front; fortunately not nibbled by winners or losers. Gambling was strictly forbidden! One year, one friend held a wine and cheese party – wine and cheese!!! at 7am!! Oh dear, not good.  I could not make the 9am lecture. The following year, I determined instead to have croissants and coffee for the celebration; 9 of us (including men) in my tiny room, guests in college before 8am, usually strictly forbidden. The gardener and observing squirrels were taken by surprise! IMG_2098 In my 3rd year, I had decided not to go, as I had a difficult essay to write for a tutorial at 9 that morning;  I worked through the night (till about 3) and, blow me, if my ex-boyfriend and a chum called on me, very hearty, at 6.30!  I was not best pleased.

The celebrations will be cancelled this year – you can’t socially distance thousands of people on Magdalen Bridge – but another year, perhaps even more people will think of getting up at crack of dawn (around 5), to get to experience an extraordinary Oxford tradition.


Spending a penny?

Overheard on the Heath – “Did you have a wee before we left the house?” asked a parent of a three-year old?

I didn’t hear the answer but it made me ponder the euphemisms we use for such a natural act…. And when and why they go in/out of fashion.

How long ago did we stop saying “I need to spend a penny”? I’m sure it was long after a. the penny was in use; b. the loo doors were secured by penny slots.  Who collected those pennies anyway? Were they enough to pay for the cleaning and maintenance of public loos? When did they get wise to the scam that if there were two of you, you could get away with using just one penny, as you’d hold the door for your partner in crime to enter…

and why should chaps get away without paying?  For them, “spending a penny” ie going into a closed loo space would have been for other reasons… perhaps to be left unexplored!

Other euphemisms I have heard – on a group walk “I’m just going to tie my shoe-laces”; “I’m just heading round the corner”; “I’m going out now and may be some time” – well perhaps not that last one.  Or could that have been why Captain Oates left the tent?

Oh, the kinds of things you meditate on when going out for the daily permitted exercise!!



Lockdown – in the cold

How many of us currently “in lockdown” remember the extraordinary winter of 1962/3? It had snowed in November – my father coined the phrase “Snow in November, a January to remember!”.  And boy, was he right.  It got colder and colder, and at the end of December there were blizzards in Wales and the SouthWest, arriving in the rest of the country in January. It was indeed a month and more to remember.  For a ten-year old, it was VERY exciting, really romantic. We were snowed in!

Frozen garden

So much happened then.  Thank goodness, we had central heating, then a new thing! When we moved to the country 18 months before (quarter of a mile up a farm track, a helluva walk for small legs down to the school bus), the house barely had running water; it wasn’t on main drains, so that much had to be  done to it before we moved in, including, thank goodness, oil-fired central heating.  It was only turned on during the day, though it might come on in extremis with a low set thermostatic control.  Many days we’d wake up to find ice on the inside of the windows. It was hard to open the door, but lovely to crunch outside in boots on crusted virgin snow.

We had a big larder and my mother had proved an ace at bottling fruit and veg, so we had Kilner jars full of them.  We had free-range chickens, quite a lot of them, so had eggs and meat; the only problem was keeping their water from freezing.  I remember struggling to their field with kettles of hot water to ensure the poor things had something to drink.

After a few days, the local village storekeeper crossed the fields on a tractor, bringing us bread and milk.  My mother begged his packet of cigarettes off him; that was one of the spurs to her to give up, she was so ashamed of the craving!

My sister’s beautiful sleek black cat, known as Miserable Starkey, disappeared; a few days later, she decided to come in from one of the barns (where we assumed she’d been holed up).  She was calling us, miaowing pitifully, and we saw her jumping up several feet and disappearing again, as she negotiated 3 feet deep soft snow to get back to the house.  Once indoors, she barely stirred from the fat (and warm) central heating pipe by the boiler.

Our cocker spaniel, Tina, walking with my father when paths had been beaten down through the snow, eventually could walk no more; why? He carried her home, to find that snow had balled under her “arms” and she was stuck!

The farmer’s pond froze; we dared to scrape snow off a circle of about 13feet in diameter and some old leather boots and skates were found from lofts, and we had a go. Toboggans proved incredibly useful as well as fun.IMG_2081(1)

Did we get to school? Well, yes, after a few weeks.  In fact, at first, I stayed with my best friend’s family in the town near school (we’d moved away quite a distance, but I was coming up to the 11+ so it was felt important I should stay put in that school for that year). I was there a week.  The journalist husband was in Australia, covering the England cricket tour, definitely in clover! We were suffering with blocked pipes (particularly, I remember, the LOO!) and finally, no hot water, which sent me back home.  So my mother made a big effort to drive me the 17 miles across the country.  I remember one lane might be open and sometimes drivers (the selfish ones) would try to push through and one of us would end up with the bonnet deep in snow.  In some places the army controlled the traffic (this is in the country!) and we’d drive with snow ten feet high on either side.

The football season was cancelled and a pools panel met every week so people could continue to bet; many seasonal businesses and farmers suffered hugely – it was one of the factors that finally put paid to any commercial traffic on the canals.  We had bits of snow right up to April, but much of it was gone during March, and life returned to a frozen country.

We had the occasional power cut – we all had torches and candles – food was a bit dull, we were living miles from our friends, but I don’t remember really hating it – it was cold, your fingers and toes froze, we didn’t have the kind of great kit that people have now for winter conditions, but as a child, it did not seem perilous, just exciting.

So let’s hope that kids in this period of lockdown will look back on it as an extraordinary time, exceptional, exciting – and won’t remember it with horror.  We must make sure life returns but NOT necessarily to the norms we’ve been so used to in the last few years, but valuing lives and life and those who make it meaningful, in a new and more appreciative way.






Unintended consequences

With this lockdown, people are finding imaginative ways, especially technology, to reach across the world to friends and relatives. I was most touched by this story;

Next week is Pesach, when Jews around the world, religious or not, come together to commemorate the Flight from Egypt; it’s a tender and exotic story to non-Jews and a stirring tradition. They eat what is known as the Seder meal, which includes roast lamb (perhaps the origin of our Paschal lamb for Easter) and bitter herbs, sing songs and tell the story of the Exodus.

One culturally Jewish friend tells me her family is part of a long tradition stretching back before the Second World War.  Pre-war, two families in Berlin used to come together every Pesach for the Seder meal.  Both became refugees to this country, ending up in parts of North London.  Discovering each other after the War, they resumed the tradition, celebrating Pesach year on year, despite the inevitable departure of the original family members.  My friend’s sister-in-law and her family is now in Israel and they keep promising themselves that one year, they would head there to celebrate with her.

This year, having discovered all the virtual meeting opportunities, the North London families will not only be together in London virtually, but also with the sister in Tel Aviv, joining for a Seder meal, an “e-seder”.  How joyous.