Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Golden Slumbers

In my column for the July-August issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, I arrived at some surprising conclusions about my erratic night-time sleeping habits.

“If 60 is the new 40” – my spirits lift as I read the start of this meme on Facebook, only to fall at its ending: – “then 9pm is the new midnight”.

Sensitive to the approach of a Big Birthday next year, I reluctantly agree. Once an ardent burner of midnight oil and two-ended candles, the older I get, the earlier my bedtime. Not so for the rest of my household: we operate on three different time zones.

Sleepers

My teenage daughter follows the classic morning-sloth-cum-party-animal schedule.

I could learn a lot about sleeping techniques from this koala, encountered at Edinburgh Zoo last month

My husband, long free of nine-to-five commitments, stays up so late and sleeps in so long you’d think he was working nights. One warm, dry night in May, I was surprised by the sound of a lawnmower starting up after nightfall. Yes, he was cutting the grass in the dark. A few nights later, at midnight he leapt up from his seat in the kitchen, rubbed his hands together enthusiastically, and announced, “Right, back to work in the garden”. Gardeners’ lore states that potatoes should be planted by the light of a full moon, but he’s not growing potatoes. Still, who needs daylight when you have a headtorch?

Longing for my bed by 9pm, I’m first up every morning, yet I’m often awake for an hour or two half way through. Does that make me insomniac?

Wakers

Apparently not. It turns out my two-stage sleep has historical precedence. According to Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, this was how everyone slept until artificial lighting skewed our body clocks, encouraging us to pursue a single shift of seamless slumber. Not only did our forbears to go to bed at dusk and wake at dawn, they also got up in the middle of the night and were active for an hour or so. Many cultures and languages, including Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, refer to “first sleep” (dusk till around midnight) and “second sleep” (early hours till dawn) as if they are the norm. While to twenty-first century ears it sounds absurd for monks to celebrate Matins at 2am, to the average medieval it was a constructive use of standard waking hours.

What You Will

Those without holy orders could do what they liked between sleep stages. Activities that didn’t require illumination would be more practical – and no, not only what you’re thinking: 2am was also prime time for theft. Me, I favour a cup of tea and a biscuit, with a few chapters of a good book.

So now when I wake at 3am, I do so happily, knowing I’m simply following a classic habit enjoyed by our ancestors until relatively recently. Until I stumble across a YouTube interview with Roger Ekirch describing two-stage sleepers as “as not insomniac, but pre-industrial”. Doesn’t that make me one removed from antediluvian? Now I really do feel old.

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Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

The Other Man’s Grass

My column for the June 2019 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

My husband spent a large part of last summer turning our lawn emerald green.

He rolled and mowed and fed the grass so much that our lawn started to resemble the top of a billiard table. Although he had yet to implement the stripes pictured on grass seed and feed packets, that gave him something to aim for this summer. The man in B&Q didn’t know whether he was being serious when he asked for a pack of the stuff that makes your grass grow in stripes.

But now I’ve thrown a spanner in his lawnmower’s works by informing him that, according to The Guardian, the single best thing he can do for our garden’s ecology is to mow only once a month to a height of no less than 10cm (4 inches).

“How can you tell it’s 10cm?” asked my daughter, never having operated a lawnmower in her life. She was ready to lend him her ruler.

Apparently if we resist the lure of the lawnmower, without any further action on our part, our grass will naturally transform itself into a wildflower meadow, benefiting birds, bees and other insects.

So while the other man’s grass may be greener, my husband can claim the moral high ground, environmentally speaking. He’ll also have more time to sit in a deckchair enjoying the sights, scents and sounds of flourishing flowers and wildlife.

And at least our deckchairs are green and stripey.


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Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Plus Ca Change

My column for the December 2018/January 2019 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser

Cover of the December issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read the whole magazine online

Crossing to France via the Channel Tunnel the day after Remembrance Day fills me with fin-de-siècle melancholy. This is likely to be the last time I set foot in mainland Europe as an official European. This column is no place for politics, but I mention it because it’s just part of a general end-of-year yearning for time to stand still.

When I was younger, I used to look forward to welcoming each New Year. Now that my parents are in their eighties, I’m conscious of the growing likelihood of less welcome changes as each year goes by. I hanker after reminders of my younger days, when I had less sense of my own mortality, or of anyone else’s.

Plus C’est La Même Chose

Second-hand books in the editions I enjoyed as a child are comfort reads. I enjoy knowing from memory what will appear on the next page before I turn to it.

I rescue from a charity shop a battered bear of comparable vintage to my own childhood teddy. What misfortune befell his owner that this creature should be consigned, appropriately enough, to a branch of Barnardo’s? I don’t want to answer my own question.

photo of two teddy bears
Galloway (left), adopted from the Dumfries Barnado’s shop, with my childhood Teddy

Vintage. You know you’re getting old when artefacts from your childhood are classified thus, as I’m reminded when I scour the internet to replace the Parker Lady pen I had for starting big school. This diminutive black lacquer, gold-trimmed fountain pen (so much classier than a cartridge model, don’t you think?) was just the right size for the hand of an eleven-year-old girl.

My quest isn’t only down to nostalgia. I wish to right a wrong done to me when I changed schools at the age of 14. Another girl stole my pen and claimed it was hers, despite clearly being perplexed as to how a fountain pen worked. As the new arrival, I wasn’t confident enough to contradict her. In a life of few regrets, that’s one of mine. I’m hoping she didn’t just throw it in the bin when it ran out of ink, as we did with the orange plastic Bic biros bought from the school shop. (Plastics recycling had yet to be invented.)

photo of vintage Parker Lady Pen
A design classic – so glad I was able to track one down again

Et Voilà!

On eBay, I find the perfect replacement: a Parker Lady pen so treasured by its owner that he kept it in its original box. I hope it will comfort the seller, the son of the late owner, that this precious pen will have gone to a good home, though I can’t help wondering why a man bought a Parker Lady pen in the first place. A lost love who never received his gift? Perhaps one day I’ll write the story of what might have been.

So as the year turns, don’t forget to cherish the old as you ring in the new.

I wish you a peaceful and contented Christmas, treasuring and treasured by those that you love.

Posted in Family, Personal life, Travel, Writing

The Best Time to Travel

cover of the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read the whole of the September edition of the Tetbury Advertiser online

Due to the fortnight’s lead-time for publication, I filed my column for the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser from the wilds of Glencoe while on holiday in Scotland last month. (Only last month? Seems a lot longer now!)

 

If, like me, you are restricted to taking family holidays outside of term time, here’s a handy tip: you can gain a psychological advantage by spending August in Scotland.  The academic year is different north of the border, with the autumn term starting around the Glorious Twelfth. Local children returning to school add a frisson of guilty pleasure to our Scottish summer holiday. It feels as if we are bunking off.

This year, as ever, when we arrive in Scotland in early August, we make a pit-stop at a supermarket to provision our camper van. Here we find ourselves rubbing elbows in the aisles with brisk Scots mothers and stony-faced children bracing themselves for the imminent start of their new school year.

Gleefully my daughter calculates that even though we’re staying in Scotland for a fortnight, when she gets home, she will still have nearly three weeks of holiday left before the start of her new term. By then, these poor Scottish children will have been stuck into their studies for a month.

Suddenly our holiday feels much longer, as if we’ve stepped through a time-slip, albeit one from which we can return at will.

Travelling in Time

I can’t help wishing that real time travel was available as a holiday option.

My favourite tourist destinations are those that offer a sense of connection with the past. Some of these places are ancient, older than mankind itself, such as the Munro mountains that I can see from my window as I type this column. Others are much more recent. A highlight of this trip so far has been an afternoon at a traditional weaver’s cottage that pre-dates the Industrial Revolution. The cottage has been so sympathetically conserved to suggest that the occupant has just stepped away from his loom for a moment and will be back at any minute. By chance, one of his descendants was visiting that afternoon from Canada, adding to the feeling that this was indeed living history.

I’m sure I’m not the only tourist who hankers after time travel. A few days ago, my brother texted me from his family holiday in Rhodes to tell me about the tourist in front of him at the tourist information office. “Please can you give me directions to the Colossos?” the man asked. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Colossos –  the same size as the Statue of Liberty and a similar symbol of freedom that once graced Rhodes harbour – was destroyed by earthquake over two thousand years ago. But if the tourist information officer had been able to provide effective directions – “Just step through this portal, sir, and stop when you get to 226BC” – I suspect my brother would have gone along for the ride.


Cover of Young by Name
The cover of this essay collection features one of my father’s watercolours

  • Read the whole of the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser here (and you’ll also see the fab picture of the Colossus that the wonderful editor, Richard Smith, used to illustrate it)
  • Read some of my previous columns from the Tetbury Advertiser in paperback or ebook here
Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

New Ages for Old

cover of May issue My column for the May edition of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser

Many years ago, when the New Age was still new, I bought at a festival a t-shirt with the slogan “Whatever age you are now, you are every age you have ever been.”

The notion particularly caught my fancy because the previous week at my office, when someone said something about Little Tikes ride-on plastic cars for toddlers (remember them?), our sixteen-year-old receptionist piped up, “Oh yes, those are great fun, I love those.” It was a sobering reminder to her older colleagues that she was not far removed from toddlerhood herself.

This month that t-shirt slogan has again been front of mind following two recent encounters connected with my own younger years.

Friends Reunited

First came a reunion with my aunt, who had emigrated to Canada in 1970. I hadn’t seen her for twenty-nine years, and last time I saw her, she was younger than I am now. But as with all the best relationships, and with family ties in particular, we picked up where we left off, and it felt as if no time had elapsed at all.

photo of Mandy and Bella
My sister and my aunt – relatives, reunited

Then yesterday I was reunited with the boy next door from my suburban childhood home. When I last saw him forty-nine years ago (yes, I am that old and more), Little Tikes cars hadn’t been invented, but he’d ride shotgun on my much-loved big white tricycle as we careered around our large back gardens. As we reminisced about the fruit trees that we used to play beneath, he described the taste and texture of their russet apples as if it was only yesterday.

photo of Debbie and Robin
My boy next door, half a century on

Old Friends

These vivid illustrations of how much time I’ve spent on this earth – and by implication, my mortality – might alarm me, if I hadn’t been involved lately with a heartening project involving elderly people, inspired by the National Dignity Council’s Dignity in Care campaign. (www.dignityincare.org.uk)

As a volunteer at a local care home, my brief was to set down in the residents’ words what dignity means to them. I anticipated a discussion about respecting senior citizens, but what emerged was a wide-ranging conversation full of wise counsel about childhood, parenting, and society at large.

“We’ve been children, we’ve raised children, we’ve cared for children, and although we’re older now, there’s still a child in all of us,” they assured me.

photo of t-shirt
Been there, got the t-shirt…

I’m planning to add a lot more ages to my collection yet, and if when I’m old, I end up as sage and as generous as these dignified and gentle folk, I shall consider my life very blessed. I just hope my t-shirt will hold up after so many years of laundering.