In my column for the January 2020 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, which I wrote in the wake of the General Election, I talked about the fun of discovering pleasant surprises as we go about our daily lives.
There’s a comforting flipside to the old adage that “whoever you vote for, the government always gets in”. That is, whatever government gets in, the nation it represents will still be filled with individual human beings who think for themselves and who are capable of daily acts of kindness.
No politicians can stop us being generous and considerate to those around us.
Kindness costs nothing and cannot be taxed. Small gestures such as a smile and a cheery ‘hello’ in passing (we’re very good at that in this parish), or holding a door open for the person behind you, or helping a stranger carry their shopping to the car, can make a real difference to someone who is sad, lonely, or having a bad day. Such things also lift the spirits of the giver.
Towards the end of 2019, I was impressed by a few imaginative schemes for spreading smiles to passers-by:
A young woman who crocheted dozens of flowers and leaves them in public places with a note inviting finders to be keepers (see full news story here)
A knitting group in Caerleon which created “hats” for local pillar boxes, each decorated with a fun scene such as a skiing penguins and a full Christmas dinner (full news story here)
Members of an Essex Baptist church who hid around their local community a thousand pebbles painted to resemble a swaddled baby Jesus (full news story here)
Who could fail to be cheered by encountering any of these?
Of course, such schemes are not new. In our parish, the Hawkesbury Rocks initiative has been encouraging us to hide painted pebbles for a while, and the annual Scarecrow Trail is a delight. But in the uncertain early days of a new government, these examples of the generosity and wit of the general British public provide a heartening start to the new year.
In 2020, I wish you happiest of years, full of kindness, smiles and pleasant surprises.
Little did I know when I ended last month’s column with a throwaway remark about being more tolerant of May (the PM) because I love May (the month) that the next day the former would call my bluff by announcing a snap general election in June.
Always reluctant to engage in politics and still suffering from over-exposure during the local elections, I was tempted to go into immediate estivation – a word I have the chance to use about as infrequently as general elections come around.
Plus Ça Change…
Shortly afterwards, our household was due to receive a French exchange student for a week. Her stay coincided with the day of the French general election. By chance, my daughter’s return visit will include our own polling day.
Our student went home yesterday, and after a very happy and enriching week for us all, I’m now convinced that we’d all gain a much better understanding and tolerance of other nations and religions if we just ignored the politicians and instead embarked on a massive exchange programme. Walking a mile in other nationalities’ shoes would do us all good. Oh, sorry, I mean a kilometre.
We’d never had an exchange student before, but the school prepared us gently and well with reassuring and down-to-earth tips, along the lines of “Don’t worry if they get homesick, it’s not fatal”. Once we’d got the house clean and tidy ready for her arrival, the week turned out to be far less stressful than I had expected.
Our young guest was a gentle, polite and appreciative girl who tried so hard to speak English that her language skills noticeably improved within the week.
Vive la différence!
We spoke openly about the differences that mattered. For example, we like cats, she prefers horses. We have milk in our tea, she doesn’t. The appropriate treatment of chips, we found it harder to agree on: on our day-trip to Weston-super-Mare for a quintessentially English experience, she insisted on mayonnaise rather than vinegar. But I forgave her when she willingly accepted a stick of seaside rock as a souvenir.
Even our cat Dorothy, normally haughty with visitors, made an effort to bond with our French student, spending most of the week asleep on the guest bed.
Only once did politics disrupt our week, when she asked to see the results of the French election as they were announced on television. The look of joyous relief that spread across her face when Macron was declared winner said all we needed to know.
(If you want to read those fateful words I wrote In Praise of May (No, Not That One), you’ll find it here.)
I wrote this column for the May issue of the Tetbury Advertiser before Theresa May announced the snap General Election. If only I’d known, I’d probably have ditched this topic and written about something completely different!
May has always been my favourite month, promising blossom, sunshine and the real beginning of spring.
I trace my fondness for this month back to a special event in my childhood: the May Day ceremony held each year at the infants’ school I attended in suburban London. When I was seven, I was one of a number of May Maidens, decked out in white dresses with floral wreaths in our hair, to process the length of the school field behind the May Queen, to the tune that I will ever associate with that special day, the Elizabethan Serenade.
This lyrical piece of music was composed by a former English cinema organist in 1951 to herald the new Elizabethan age, a time of forward-looking optimism – just right for May, then. The same composer was responsible for another easy-listening piece, Sailing By, still used to introduce the Late Night Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4 – a comforting combination for insomniacs as well as sailors.
By the time I first encountered the Elizabethan Serenade at school, the Queen’s reign was well into double figures, so for me the piece became forever the emblem of a more literal kind of spring.
May the Force
May’s special status was compounded by the words of one of my favourite hymns in our daily school assemblies at that time of year: “May time, Playtime, God has given us May time, Thank him for his gifts of love, Sing a song of spring.” I’m not sure who I thought had given us the other eleven months, but God obviously endorsed my preference.
Decades later, I very nearly named my daughter May, till I realised that combined with the surname of Young, it would make her sound like an item on a Chinese takeaway menu. I imagined her being nicknamed Eggy in the playground, short for Egg May Young.
More recently, I subconsciously shoehorned an optimistic May into my lighthearted new novel, Best Murder in Show. Elderly travel writer May Sayers, who dies before the book begins, creates a fresh start for the heroine, her great-niece Sophie Sayers, by bequeathing her a Cotswold cottage. In my world, even a posthumous May can usher in new beginnings and the promise of something better to come.
May or May Not
My irrational attachment to all things Mayish even make me more tolerant of the current Prime Minister than if, say, her name was Theresa Might.
But deep down of course I know that names don’t matter. If I’d been raised in Australia, May would have all the promise of an English November, i.e. none at all.
After all, the composer of the magical Elizabethan Serenade and Sailing By rejoiced under the prosaic name of Ronald Binge. Deeds, not words, as the suffragettes used to say. Come what may…
(And in the June issue, I’ll be taking it all back…)
A post inspired by the reading event I attended at Westonbirt School last week
Last Thursday I spent a very pleasant evening at Westonbirt School judging the Inter-House Reading Competition, a pleasant and friendly contest between the pupils of this private boarding and day school for girls, just down the road from where I live. Cosy in the elegant bubble that is the beautiful library of this Grade I listed former stately home, I was glad to escape for a little while from the frightening madness that is our current political scene.
Twenty competitors, representing their houses, had to choose and prepare a text for reading, and there was a pleasing mix of old favourites such as Roald Dahl’s Matilda and JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit nestling among many novels that were entirely new to me.
Just two of them preferred to read a poem, and it was only this afternoon, back in the rainy, real world, that I realised I’d missed a trick. Although I thought to point out to them the value of books and reading as comfort blankets in times of stress, I should have congratulated those two girls for choosing poems that are particularly fortifying and reassuring in our present political climate:
Rudyard Kipling’s If, first published in 1895, always a powerful reminder to stand up for what you believe
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, first published 1818, on the transient nature of power
They are in any case two of my favourite poems in any case, but I think it’s especially pertinent now to reread and digest them.
I would particularly like Donald Trump to read Ozymandias, but:
(a) he has stated that he never reads books, so the likelihood of him plunging into poetry seems unlikely
(b) the title alone has more syllables than he is comfortable with in a single word (a fact not unrelated to point (a) above)
There can’t be many people unfamiliar with If, but you can read it here on the Poetry Foundation site.
I think Ozymandias is probably less well-known, so I make no apology for reproducing it below, as well as sharing the excellent reading of it that I found on YouTube at the top of this post.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley
I only hope that we see the wreck of our modern day Ozymandias without the reduction of the world as we know it to “lone and level sands”.
Although George Orwell is one of my writing heroes, I generally avoid politics in my own stories. I’m not naturally a political campaigner, I don’t enjoy political debate, and I seldom watch the news on television or read a newspaper. However, this morning a strange thing happened: as I sat down for my allocated morning writing hour, intending to write the next chapter of my work-in-progress novel (Murder in the Manger, #3 in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series that will be launched in April), I found a different story taking shape on the page…
All the President’s Clothes
As his wife emerged from the dressing room, a shimmering olive green coatdress over her arm, his commanding voice boomed across the silk sheets on their emperor-size bed. “Blue, you have to wear blue today, dear.”
She held the garment up against her body, gazing at just one of the many mirrors that covered the walls and ceiling. “But, darling, my colourist told me that this shade is my best.” Her long, slender fingers fluttered over her well-sculpted cheekbones, already glimmering with highlighter. “And not a week ago you told me you hate blue. Red is the colour of your party.”
“To hell with the party, sweetheart. I’m in charge now. And your damn advisor also told me that as blue’s the opposite of orange, it’s the obvious complementary colour for me. Whatever the hell that means. Still, I never met a compliment I didn’t like.” He hauled himself into a sitting position against sumptuous pillows and pointed his index finger in the air. “And it’s my big day today, honey, not yours. It’s a big, big day. There will be more people looking at me than ever before at an inauguration, and, you know, whatever I wear, they’re gonna love what they see. Bigly.”
He swung his naked legs out of the bed. The thickly carpeted floor embraced his bare feet as he strolled to the centre of the room. He stopped at the precise spot where he’d calculated he could get the most views of himself – reflections of reflections of reflections. He struck what he deemed a presidential pose, brow serious, jutting jaw. This was his intended image when they added him to Mount Rushmore.
Satisfied, he ambled to the gold-plated shower room, emerging damp and fluffy-haired just as his wife was slipping something under the bed. He took a seat at her dressing table and, as he did every morning, allowed her to marshall his hair into service with the aid of the supermodel’s best friend, a giant can of Elnett hairspray. To her surprise, the minute she set the can back down, he immediately made for the door to the hall. “Okay, let’s go, let’s go.”
She stepped back, her hand over her mouth. She’d adopted this gesture to to help her consider what to say before speaking, so as not to upset him. If she did it enough, she figured, maybe he’d start to do it too. “Honey, I know you’re keen to go out there and take office, but I think you may have forgotten something.”
He glanced down at his shower-fresh body, then raised his index finger. “Don’t trouble your silly head, honey. Listen, leave the thinking to the big guy. Just smile and wave and look beautiful. It’s what you’re there for, just like Jackie O.” His finger met his thumb to make an O. “A beautiful, beautiful girl, great class, great style. And what a fantastic life she had, didn’t she? Thanks to her great, great husband, a fantastic guy.” His hand was on the door handle now.
“But honey -” she gulped – “you aren’t wearing any clothes. You are naked as the day God made you.”
“Yes, and what a great, great job the guy did, huh?” Then as he realised she might actually be criticising him, his face turned a few shades redder. “But listen to me, dear. I have millions of followers out there waiting to see me pass by – no, billions, more than any other president. And they think I am the best dressed president in history. That I have the best clothes in history. And damn it, I have plenty of clothes. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. They’re just fake news guys, fake news, that’s all they are. Just watch me now.”
He flung open the bedroom door, strode out onto the landing, and leaned over the banister to address his assembled family and staff duly waiting in the rose-tinted marble lobby below.
“So, people, how is your new commander-in-chief looking today? Are we ready to kick ass?” He flung out his arms in the manner of an ancient Roman emperor acknowledging the crowd’s cheers in the Colosseum, just before he settles down to enjoy a day of gladiatorial bloodshed.
“Just beautiful, sir, just beautiful.”
“And my outfit?”
“It’s the best, sir. A truly great, great outfit.”
He turned smiling, to his wife, who still lingered in the bedroom, despite having been ready to leave for hours. “What did I tell ya? You should know by now just to listen to me.” That pointing finger again.
Not waiting for her reply, he strutted down the vast curving staircase, feeling like the leading man in a Busby Berkeley musical. He reckoned he could have taught that Fred Astaire a thing or two.
Back in their bedroom, his wife sighed and sat down on her side of the bed, cautiously so as not to crease her outfit, to avoid repercussions later. Slowly she reached down to retrieve the secret basket that had been keeping her sane the last few turbulent days. From it she retrieved two chunky steel knitting needles and a ball of thick pink yarn. These cute little hats seemed to be all the rage, so she’d thought she’d better make herself one. After all, hadn’t he told her that the First Lady’s prime duty was to be a fashion icon?
Beginning to work the final row to calm her nerves, she wondered for the first time whether the recent rise in demand for knitting needles might revive the national steel industry. He hadn’t yet worked out how else to do it, so she should remember to share the good news with him later. He was sure to be pleased. She just had time to cast off and sew up the sides before the procession of bulletproof cars would arrive to whisk them on their way.
She didn’t dare try the finished hat on just now, for fear of spoiling her coiffure. She just rolled it up and tucked it in her clutchbag to take along on the ride. After all, her husband might be glad of it later. When realising the error of his ways, he might be desperate for something to keep himself warm.
This story is dedicated to Aaren Purcell and Karen Lotter, who first brought the pussyhat project (www.pussyhatproject.com) to my attention, and to everyone who has made one, worn one, marched in one, or admires the women who did so.