My first blog post of 2023 is the column I wrote for the January issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News – a very important institution in the life of a little Cotswold village like mine!
I’m the kind of optimist who not only sees the glass as half-full, but is jolly grateful to have a glass, and assumes it must be made of the finest crystal.
That’s not to say I’m oblivious to darker times. But when life seems grim, I unleash a handy collection of mantras that make me feel better.
“Better to light a candle than curse the darkness”, I tell myself. (Clichés are clichés for a reason, you know.)
“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” (Thank you for that one, Percy Bysshe Shelley – especially handy as winter is my least favourite season.)
If I’m in a musical frame of mind, I simply channel D:Ream and play “Things can only get better” on a loop in my head.
But as this new year dawns, I’m feeling wary. For the last few years, I’ve started every January thinking, “This has got to be a better year than the last one”. Then along comes something worse.
What a run of disasters we have had lately: Trump, Brexit, Covid, moreCovid, the war in Ukraine, and all the economic and political fall-out those crises induced. Not to mention ever-stranger weather, indicative of frightening climate changes.
With apologies to Samuel Johnson, who described second marriage as “the triumph of hope over experience,” experience is threatening to triumph over hope.
Yet my inner optimist will out, and as I list those disasters, over which I had no control, bar the right to vote and to get vaccinated, I realise it’s still within my power to make 2023 a better year in small ways.
So 2023 will be the year that I will vow never to run out of teabags, or milk for my morning tea…
or the cats’ favourite treats, Dreamies:
And if I’m setting the bar that low, doesn’t that mean things can only get better? Let’s live in hope.
Wishing you a new year full of whatever makes you happy.
In my next post, I’ll be reviewing my writing achievements in 2022 and sharing my writing plans for 2023.
PS My new year’s resolution is to publish a new blog post every Wednesday! Let’s see how that goes…
In October I was invited to take part in some medical tests by the research organisation Biobank, for which I’m a longstanding volunteer. I’ve taken part in various tests for them over the years, most of which have been short and uninvasive, but my latest call-up was for a whole afternoon of full-body and brain scans.
At school I studied twentieth century history to A Level. In those days, the Berlin Wall was an impenetrable barrier between East and West, and I was living in Frankfurt with a postal address in West Germany.
Packing for our city break, I discarded the book I’d been saving to read on the trip: a historical novel set in Berlin during the Second World War. Might it be offensive to be seen reading a story about an era Berliners would prefer to forget?
I need not have worried.
The city turned out to be full of reminders of both World Wars and the Cold War, now serving as incitements to peace.
Even parts of the hated Berlin Wall have been left standing. When the Wall fell in 1989, Berliners resisted their initial impulse to destroy the whole of this brutal divider of East and West. Instead, they kept parts of it intact as a reminder of the importance of the freedom and democracy which the Wall once denied them.
The rest of it was to be painted by local artists, then broken up for sale as souvenirs. The Wall was so huge that there are still plenty of pieces to meet tourists’ demands, and they must be a healthy source of revenue for the city’s coffers.
Berlin is now an upbeat, creative and cosmopolitan place, full of green spaces, wide tree-lined boulevards and light.
Standing outside our hotel on the Kurfürstendamm(Berlin’s answer to London’s Bond Street), we could hear not the roar of traffic, but copious birdsong.
There are very few motorists, because Berlin’s public transport system is so efficient and affordable that you don’t need a car to get around. Their trams, trains, U-bahns and buses are also very easy to use. There are no ticket barriers anywhere, as it’s assumed all travellers will be honest and buy tickets. This trust may not be misplaced, according to Lenin, who joked, “If Germans ever stormed a railway station, they’d first buy a platform ticket.”
As in British towns, electric scooters are rife. The abundance of cycle paths in this flat city allows them to operate relatively safely. I wish I’d been quick enough with my phone camera to capture a sight that seemed to epitomise twenty-first century Berlin: a stream of electric scooters gliding freely past Checkpoint Charlie, still maintained as a landmark, into what used to be East Berlin.
I had an unfortunate encounter with an electric scooter near the Brandenburg Gate, when I tripped over one left lying on the pavement. The scar on my left knee was an unwanted souvenir. But I also brought back a much better souvenir: a piece of the Berlin Wall, which now sits on my desk as a permanent reminder to myself that no obstacle is truly insurmountable. Except that electric scooter by the Brandenburg Gate, obviously.
This post was originally written for the July 2022 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News
If you enjoyed this piece, you might enjoy this short story I wrote a couple of Christmases ago as a guest post for Helen Hollick’s blog, in which a souvenir of the Berlin Wall plays a crucial part: Christmas Ginger. It was later selected for L J Ross’s Everyday Kindnessanthology in aid of Shelter, the charity for those without homes or in poor housing, and in the audiobook edition it was read by the distinguished actress and novelist Celia Imrie.
When I was a child, national and international news featured very little in my world view. My parents took a daily newspaper, but I would have been too preoccupied with my comics to pay much attention to their paper.
Television news didn’t feature much in our family viewing, because it was only on at tea-time and bedtime. If I caught the headlines, it was by chance rather than on purpose, because I was still sitting in front of the telly after watching The Magic Roundabout, or whatever other children’s programme preceded the news in those precious five minutes beforehand.
The gentle humour and underlying moral message delivered by Dougal and friends provided a warm feeling to brace us for whatever bad news the evening bulletin might bring. It was the televisual equivalent of lining your stomach with a glass of milk before a night out imbibing strong drink.
The radio news was even less prominent in my life, and chiefly in the form of The World at One, its opening pips the signal that it was time for me to go back to school after having lunch at my maternal grandma’s.
I’m forever grateful to BBC Radio 4 for scheduling timeless classics such as Desert Island Discs and Just A Minute at 12.25pm each weekday, when Grandma and I would be sitting down to eat.
The theme music of Desert Island Discs still makes me think of cold lamb and bubble and squeak and Grandma’s delicious gooseberry tart with a slightly metallic flavour from being stored overnight in the tin she’d baked it in.
I think Desert Island Discs must have been broadcast on Mondays, when Grandma was serving up leftovers from her Sunday dinner.
That’s not to say that as a child I was completely ignorant of current affairs. I remember Grandma, born in 1900, impressing upon me the significance of Churchill’s funeral as a tribute to a great man and the end of an era. I would have just turned 5. I can even recall JFK’s assassination, more because of the unprecedented appearance in our kitchen of the sobbing next-door neighbour who ran in to break the news to us, rather than because I had any idea of the political significance. Well, I was only 3.
On our weekly visit to my paternal grandparents, my grandfather used to pass me his evening newspapers when he got home from work. Commuting from Sidcup to London, he’d buy both the Evening Standardand its rival the Evening News to read on the train home. I was only interested in the picture crosswords and the cartoons. The hard news passed me by.
How differently will the current generation of children remember national and world news when they’re my age? In our multimedia age, however their parents consume their news, newspaper, radio, TV or online, children seem to have no escape from gruelling and traumatising headlines. I just wish they’d bring back The Magic Roundabout to soften the blow, for adults and children alike.
This article first appeared in the Hawkesbury Parish News, April 2022.
POSTSCRIPT ABOUT HECTOR’S HOUSE
My love of those old pre-news children’s shows is the reason why the village bookshop in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries is called Hector’s House.
I’d already decided the proprietor – and Sophie’s future romantic interest – would be called Hector Munro (more about that choice in another blog post here). As Sophie’s late Great Auntie May had been a benefactor to Hector when setting up his bookshop, and had a sense of fun, I decided she would insist that he call the shop by the name of her choice – which was Hector’s House.
Hector and Sophie are not old enough to have seen the tea-time children’s show featuring the amiable puppet dog – but I think Sophie at least would have appreciated his catchphrase and its variants that always closed the show: “I’m just a great big lovable old Hector.”