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This Much I Know

Lynne Barrett-Lee

 

My friend died last week. Her name was Debbie, wife of Nick, mum to Richard, Jack and Olivia, and she died of cancer, too early, as too many still do. She wasn’t even fifty.

This week my principal responsibility, and honour, is to compose something to read at her funeral.

I’ve never written a eulogy before. Despite being fifty seven. Which I take to mean that, in many ways, I’m lucky. I’ve had one profound brush with death – when my nephew Stevie was killed eleven years back – but in the grand scheme of things I have dodged another bullet. That particular cup, once again, isn’t mine to drink from.

You will probably be familiar with that uniquely discombobulating feeling. It wasn’t me. For which, thanks. But it was my friend, who I loved. But why did it have to be anyone, for ****’s sake? Because this is life. Which ends in death. Because it does.

But not her. Not our Debs. It’s not FAIR.

I should tell you about my friend, since you might not be there to say farewell.

Yet it’s proving much harder than I anticipated.  I have a full thousand words of first draft at my disposal – the distillation of lots of half-awake thought-rushes in the wee hours, hastily emailed to self on my iPad.

But they are uncorralled, gambolling wildly across the screen. Here ‘scallops!’ (she loved scallops), there ‘that time at that party!’, over there a paragraph about the night on the campsite where she fell off her bike into a hedge. I can see her, and hear her, and in remembering,  feel her.  But there’s no elegance. No eulogising going on.

By Monday, another looming deadline on my calendar, my hope is that I will have relocated my facility with words. ‘Can you have a look at this, Lynne?’ Deb would say. ‘You’re good with words.’

But what strikes me, as I reach for ways to describe Deb, is that our words around death need an overhaul. Never in my life has the sewing box I normally turn to in order to stitch my thoughts together felt so inadequate, so full of bargain bin, two-for-one, blowsy remnants.  So full of adjectives, and clichés, and truisms, and idioms, and turns of phrase that at such times come flying at you wholesale but, by their very ubiquity, feel so bland.

Which is why I have striven not to use many here, because to do so would take something away from Deb’s essence.  D’you sometimes feel that too?

Deb was beautiful, inside and out, she was kind, she was joyful. She had that way – she really did – of lighting up a room. She was generous in thought and deed. She was one hell of a wife and mother. She put Nick and the kids first and last and everything in between. She was a loyal and loving friend. She had a love of prawn cocktails. She was innocent. She was funny. She was quick witted. She was capable.  She was strong and courageous, and never complained, even when the ravages of the treatment to try and cure her conspired with the cancer which had set out to kill her to make her life pretty bloody unbearable.

All of this is true, and every word of it is heartfelt. But it feels like a suit of clothes bought from a cheap mail order catalogue. Fit for eulogising purpose, but no more.

So, a story about Deb. She loved to go running. And, to pass the time, she would often listen to the audio version of whichever book we were reading at book club that month. Fast forward to book club, and the serious business of analysing what Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Woodlanders’, was all about. Question after question was posed.  Deb was uncharacteristically silent. She didn’t get this. She didn’t get that. She begged to differ on the other. She really didn’t get why X happened to Y. Indeed, she found the whole thing so impenetrable that she hadn’t managed to finish it.

Fast (ahem) forward to the next day and a fiddle with her iPhone. She’d accidentally read – or, rather, listened to – a full three quarters of ‘The Woodlanders’ on shuffle.

She’d persevered though, because that was the essence of our Deb.  Far too modest, too humble, to question Thomas Hardy.

It was also hilarious. To both her and us. But you probably had to be there.

And perhaps that’s the point. That you probably had to be there.

Aww, Deb. We’re going to miss you so much.

 

First published in the Western Mail Saturday Magazine 8th July 17

 

 

 

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Something a little different on my blog this week – a break from my endless wittering, as I’ve given it over to a rather special boy called Guillermo. Guille is just eleven and lives in Santiago Compostela, in Galicia, Spain, and has been a fan of Able Seacat Simon for quite a while now – so much so that his parents brought him my book for Christmas.

Grille’s first language is Spanish, of course, but he’s pretty good at English as well; so much so that his teacher, Dominika, got in touch with me last month to ask is he could share his own Simon story with me, about which I was very touched.

I was also thrilled to learn things about Simon that I hadn’t previously known, and to see pictures of him that, in all my months of research, I hadn’t come across either. (I’ve popped them up now, on my Pinterest page.)

Anyway, whether Guille plans a career as a writer, or, perhaps, as an intrepid cat researcher, I thought I’d share his lovely story with you here. Gracias, Guille!

 

Guille's cover art

SIMON THE CAT

A HERO FOR GREAT BRITAIN

BY GUILLERMO

Able Seacat Simon was an orphan who grew up on the dockyards Simonof Hong Kong before finding work aboard a British ship. There, he protected the crew and raised morale till his ship was attacked.

The injured were evacuated, but Simon stayed onboard even though he was badly hurt. Upon recovering, he returned to his duties for which he received awards and the gratitude of Britain.

Simon’s origin is a very intriguing mystery. Numerous scientific studies have tried to investigate his parentship. From recent genetic studies we are able to deduce that his progenitors were a Turkish Angora male, who had escaped from a house, and a street cat female, a vagabond. It’s believed that Simon was born on Stonecutter’s Island (now part of Kowloon), some time in 1947. That’s where Ordinary Seaman George Hickinbottom noticed him, near a small rice field from a private property, in March of the following year.

Hickinbottom was a 17-year-old who had joined the Navy the previous year and felt sorry for the homeless orphan, and brought him aboard the ship he served on. Unfortunately, the sailor’s rank didn’t entitle him to private quarters, but to bunk right beside the captain’s cabin.

Stationed aboard the British frigate HMS Amethyst, it was Hickinbottom’s job to make sure the ship was kept clean and that everything was in order. The sailor smuggled Simon aboard by hiding the poor waif in his shirt.

Fortunately, Lieutenant Commander Ian Griffiths liked cats. He also understood the value of keeping the ship’s rat population under control, but the Ordinary Seaman was not off the hook. Griffiths threatened to have the sailor up on charges if he saw any cat pooh onboard.

Thankfully, Simon was very likeable. The ship’s crew saw to it that whenever the new recruit made a mess, it didn’t stay visible for long, greatly easing Hickinbottom’s job and stress levels.

Besides catching rats on a daily basis, Simon developed a deep bond with Griffith. All the captain had to do was whistle, and Simon would come running. Then the two would make their rounds of the ship, making sure everything was in order.
crew plus pie

Simon and his fellow crew members admiring a giant pie

The cat even gave his captain daily gifts – dumping dead and bloody rats at the man’s feet and even on his bed. And whenever the captain wasn’t wearing his cap, Simon would sleep in it.

But he never forgot his debt to George and the other men, spending time with the lower rank whenever possible. He even entertained them by fishing ice cubes from jugs of water with his paws on command.

In December, however, P/O Griffith was given a new command and felt it best to leave Simon behind. As luck would have it the new captain, Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner was also a big fan of cats, even though Simon never responded to his whistles nor followed his new master around the ship.

Everything was idyllic till April 1949 when the Amethyst, that was docked in Shanghai under the protection of Colonel Jonathan Jones and his troops, was ordered to Nanking to relieve the HMS Consort. The Chinese Civil War between the Kuomintang and the Communists had broken out, so the Consort had to protect the British Embassy and residents, bring the necessary supplies and be ready to evacuate the personnel if necessary.

At 8:31 AM on April 20, they were on the Yangtze River when they came under fire. Not sure who was doing the firing (probably one of the communist shore batteries at the north bank of the river), they hoisted the White Ensign and the Union Jack. Fundamental people for the ship’s company were killed during the incident: Doctor Alderton, the boat’s doctor, the First Lieutenant, and even Captain Skinner. Fortunately, the shooting stopped, and they sailed on.

Just after that, Simon disappeared from the main cabin, and was thought to be dead, to have succumbed below the Communist guns. He was found the following month lying totally unconscious in the petty officer’s quarters. His scars were very deep, his palatine bone was broken, along with his tarsus and femur, and he had a bad eye. The ship’s veterinary, sir Edmund Roberts, cured most of his injuries, ending his terrible ordeal.

After his incredible recovery, he was back on duty at the ship. During his tribulation, the ship had been infested by rats again.

The most voracious, monstrous, hideous, filthy, and atrocious rat of all, referred to as Mao-Tse Tung by the frigate’s crew members, was the head of all the rodents. During his abominable reign, he caused the most unimaginable damages in the ship’s few provisions, obtained from nationalist merchant ships, until one day he and his vassals met face to face with the rat’s worst nightmare- Simon the cat. He killed the horrible rodent and all his companions in a single strike, in a question of seconds.

After his memorable deed, he was awarded with the honourable title of sergeant and Able Sea cat, which is the feline equivalent for Able Seaman.

For relief and stabilization, the Amethyst was given a new man in charge: Lieutenant Commander John Kerans, who was considered as one of the biggest and most representative naval heroes of the British Empire. On April 1949, they were detained by Commander Kang’s men, and were anchored on the river, with the complete vigilance of a nearby sea stronghold. The days dragged on, more than two months after the original incident, with fierce heat and humidity, no relief in sight, and dwindling supplies of everything, including fuel. At times the boilers had to be shut down to conserve fuel, so there was no ventilation and no refrigeration. Even Simon started to wilt, although he continued with his duties and his rounds, helping, with the ship’s terrier dog Peggy, to keep up the crew’s flagging spirits. The ship’s telegraphist, Jack French, along with Lieutenant Rein, was trying to send messages to the citadel that had control of the river, residence of Lieutenant General Simon Bell; but there was no response. Then there was a typhoon; Simon was kept shut to avoid the possibility of losing him, and slept through it all in the captain’s cabin. Amethyst survived again, but rations and fuel were becoming desperately scarce. Kerans decided he had to make a dash for it while it was still possible.

So, on the night of 30 July 1949, Amethyst left under cover of darkness and after a further series of adventures and more damage from Communist guns on shore, made it to the open sea, to be met by HMS Concord. The ordeal was over, after 101 days.

Upon arrival at Hong Kong, Simon was out of sight, yet again. Lt Cdr Kerans sent Able Seaman John Persephone and Lt Sgt Richard Herbert Scott to find the precious cat, but with no luck. Subsequently, Simon strolled back on board.

The cat was withered in his left paw and back. A few days later, he had an awfully elevated temperature and severe gastroenteritis. He was stationed in an undersized and scruffy cabin, belonging previously to the old ship’s captain ,P/O Skinner and rested there until their return to England, where he was going to be presented with the Dickn’ medal.

The medal presentation was set for 11 December, but regrettably it did not occur.

Simon was immediately sheltered in the PDSA’S veterinary clinic, where he was examined by professional veterinary Bernard Timothy Johnson, who qualified him as sick kitten.

 

Cards, letters and flowers began to arrive at the quarantine shelter by the truckload. In November 1950, he was visited by Admiral Sir Robert Buxton in the Animal Clinic. He was awarded with the Royal Navy’s Medal of Honour, and given a special uniform, with an officer’s cap and frills. The following day he was found by Timothy lying lifeless on his canopy. Soon, his death was announced in all England, and letters from the duke of Wellington, the count of Baltimore, the duke of Clarence and even from His Majesty King George VII were sent to the poor Timothy and captain Kerans.

As his biographer Lord Ronald Duncan wrote:
. . . the spirit of Simon slipped quietly away to sea.

Lt Cdr Kerans and the crew were devastated; and Father Henry Ross, rector of St.Augustine’s church, held a long and elaborate ceremony and procession, after which Simon was buried with naval honours, Following the burial, a marble marker was placed, with the inscription:

 

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‘Even if you are in a minority of one, the truth is the truth.’ Mahatma Gandhi. 

We live in a post-truth society. Did you know? Well, if you didn’t, you should do because so established is the phenomenon that Oxford Dictionaries have chosen it as International Word of the Year for 2016.

For those not intimately acquainted with the term’s precise meaning, here’s how the OD defines it. “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

They go on to add some examples. “In this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire” and “some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age”.

I think you can see where I am going with this. Well, I say ‘am’, but, in truth – as opposed to post-truth, which is an adjective – it’s more a ‘was’ because I have already been derailed from my task. Time is short, the art long, as I believe Hippocrates said, and I’ve been too busy amassing evidence for my initial sweeping assertion to have sufficient time available in which to write about it.

Time flies. Ain’t that the truth? (Even though, actually, it doesn’t. It has no aeronautical qualities whatsoever.) Checking facts in order to construct a reasoned, evidence-based argument is not only time-consuming – it’s also a little bit last century. And, according to one source (Claire Fox, in the Spectator) something about we should all be more wary, because doing everything by numbers (especially politics) risks ‘patronizing’ those who ‘vote with their hearts’, and also of coming ‘dangerously close to advocacy’.

And yet, and yet. Are we to conclude that telling lies for political gain is henceforth acceptable? The other night, my friend Rachel’s son Nathan showed me some images. We were talking about social media, and how much rubbish can be found there, and he showed me a pair of images, one of which had originated from Forbes news site, and one which had originated from NASA.

Both images were identical but the captions were not. One said “Mysterious space debris hits Earth on Friday 13th”, the other “ WT1190F safely reenters Earth’s atmosphere.”

Exactly. By the same token, there isn’t a shred of evidence that David Cameron ever got up close and personal with a pig’s head. Nor an atom of truth in the recently reported story that the Christmas lights in some parts of Sweden were cancelled to avoid angering Muslim refugees. (In reality, an electricity company had taken over responsibility for providing power in some districts, and wouldn’t sanction the lights due to cost implications and because their new lampposts weren’t designed to take the weight.)

In all these cases, there is a common denominator. Before their legitimacy had been questioned to a level sufficient to make them go away, they were shared on social media in eye-watering numbers.

But if you loathe David Cameron, feel vexed about refugees or, indeed, have a strong suspicion that there’s something out there, then being made aware of these falsehoods is unlikely to trouble you, because the addition to your stock of prejudice has already been bolted on. And that’s if the facts even reach you.

I know this to be true because I’ve been duped also. Like many of my friends on facebook, deep in the mire of a situation set to out-Brexit Brexit, I liked and shared an image of one Donald Trump, the caption beneath which purported that he’d once said some pretty scathing things about the intellect and credulity of republican voters, and that, as a consequence, should he ever run for president (cue hollow laughter) that would be the party he would opt for – the dastardly ****!

I knew something else, too. That I wasn’t going to allow a little detail like the truth to get in the way of a nice robust loathing. Heck, he’d certainly said enough other stuff that really annoyed me, hadn’t he? And it was still the sort of thing he COULD have said, wasn’t it? Might even HAVE said at some point, truth be known. He wants to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out, for heaven’s sake!

Sound familiar? This sort of thing rolls off the tongue so easily, doesn’t it? Which is why post-truth is an adjective we should take care can never be applied to ourselves, because it allows people with immense power to lie to us every day.

We swallow it and share it at our peril.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine Nov 26th 2016

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Sepia Simon

 

At the beginning of the year, my book, Able Seacat Simon, was published – a novel based on the life of the eponymous famous feline, who was ship’s cat aboard HMS Amethyst during the 1949 Yangtse Incident. He’s also the only cat to have ever been awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal.

So there’s the background. Now we move on to mid April, when an email arrives from a lady called Ann, writing to tell me that she has finished it, and to pass on some kind comments about it too. She also tells me how much her 83 year old mum loves it, and sends a couple of photos of her own cherished kitty, Patsy, and one of a crocheted cat tissue box holder she’s made. As opposed to crocheted cat-tissue box holder, which is quite different, and would be bonkers – everyone knows cats never blow their noses.

(I’ve been blessed with this particular book, by the way – so much lovely, and often humbling, correspondence. And I wonder – are cat lovers and retired naval officers a particularly warm and communicative group? I’ve never had such a plethora of letters.)ableseacatsi_hardback_1471151832_72

Anyway, cracking on, I reply, admiring both her darling cat and her crocheting skills – not least because my own needle skills are virtually non-existent. I’m still knitting a ‘stylish’ snood I began in 2012, and am still only a ball and a half in.

“Would you like me to make you a ‘Simon’ holder?” Ann asks, in her next email.

“Why, yes, I would,” I respond, because why ever wouldn’t I? I’m not really a tissue person – I generally favour a wodge of kitchen roll – but what’s not to like about being given a present? Particularly when that present is both personal and hand-made.

Fast forward a couple of months, to the arrival another email. Ann hasn’t forgotten me. The holder is finally now in progress. It’s just that she’s been busy – Ann works full time – and since her personalised holders take around four weeks each to make, she has currently got something of a backlog. She makes them, you see, for anyone who wants them, asking only that the recipient make a small donation to her local cat shelter, so they can buy much needed cat food.

We chat further. About her cat and our cats, about my friend Rose’s cat, Stan. The usual random cat stuff, because that’s the way we cat ladies roll.

And then, in October, comes the news that it’s finished. And a week or so later, my gift arrives in the post, along with six knitted catnip balls – she makes those as well – two each for my two, plus two more for my friend Rose’s cat, Stan.

(The catnip balls go down A STORM.)

Touched, I write to thank her, and also mention in my email that my tissue-holding Simon has already been much admired, my other friend Jane having been round when I received it.

Ann writes back immediately. Would Jane like one too? And, if so, what colour would she prefer?

I consult Jane – who is touched and delighted. I tell Ann ‘goldy-slash-beigey-slash-marmalade-catty’, as Jane’s Reggie, who was run over a couple of years back, had been a ginger tom. I also mention that I too have had something of a hectic week – because the children’s version of Able Seacat Simon has just come out, and I’ve been busy penning cat facts and feline fun stuff for my diminutive new readership.

Ann emails back, wishing both me and the book well, commenting that she will definitely look out for it in the shops, because her friend’s 10 year old daughter Grace will doubtless love it.

So I write back – would Grace like me to send her a signed copy?

She would. So I send one, duly dedicated and dated, and this week, Ann’s written to say how chuffed Grace’s mum Carol is, and that Grace herself has had her nose in it ever since.

Which is lovely. As I’m sure will be Jane’s goldy-slash-beigey-slash- marmalade-catty crocheted holder. But why exactly (I hear you ask) have I filled up this page with all this everyday, bland, boring schizzle?

Because Ann’s a happy bunny. Because I’m a happy bunny. because Rose is happy, and, once her holder arrives, Jane will be happy too. (Well, happier, which is what this is all about.) And, in turbulent times, full of mistrust and hate, young Grace has learned something positive about people – that unsolicited acts of kindness, by stranger, are still, in fact, a thing.

So no apologies for sharing. Indeed, please pass it on. This everyday boring swizzle is precisely the sort of thing that will  help heal us.

First Published in Western Mail Weekend magazine, Nov 19th 2016

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I don’t know about you, but, well, look, here’s the thing – shall we skip gaily over the US Presidential election? All this social unrest/ new world order/possibility of Putin rocking up the Bristol Channel atop a nuclear submarine with his shirt off /the general apocalypse-lite the western world seems hell-bent on getting itself embroiled in lately, makes me want to run away and just do something NICE.

As I write, I have no idea what kind of planet we’ll be living on now, only that both ‘different’ and ‘a teeny weeny bit scary’ seem a safe bet. Which is why it ‘being ever so close to Christmas’ is a manifestly good thing, because it means as you can turn your back on global politics , dust off your ‘fiddling about with seasonal glitter and glue’ gene, and cock a snook at all the grim sturm and drang.

In the name of research, I asked Pete about genes, and, once he’d

Let's create!

Let’s create!

given me a fifteen minute Reith lecture about the history of gene nomenclature (which was fascinating, obviously, but possibly best kept for another column), I deduced that there must be a ‘seasonally affective fiddling about with glitter and glue’ gene. And while its acronym needs work (SAFAWGG? Let’s just stick with SAFA) that it’s probably, though not exclusively, nestled somewhere in the crook of an X chromosome.

Not sure if you have one but pretty sure you might do? Here’s my handy cut out and keep guide to SAFA.

 

You probably have SAFA if you head into town bent on general, non-seasonal shopping, but find yourself in Paperchase and momentarily transfixed by the rows of tiny purple reindeer.

You are actively looking out for facebook posts featuring GIFs of Noddy Holder, singing.

You are a conscientious home-worker, with a pile of normally appealing professional work to be done, but keep sliding off-piste and going on Etsy.

You go on a country walk and instead of paying homage to the myriad wonders of Autumn you keep picking up logs with architectural potential.

You start saying ‘ahhhh, when I retire, I can’t wait to…’ and the words ‘scrapbooking, ‘decoupage’, and ‘hand embellished gift box’ feature heavily in your internal discourse.

You see Prince Harry’s gorgeous girlfriend (Meghan Markle – keep up) and while you, like, totally applaud her ‘I don’t want to be a lady who lunches, but a woman who works’ quote (and, of course, file it away as a mantra with which to bore your daughter/daughter in law/son’s girlfriend/any random young female who you think NEEDS to know this stuff) there is a part of you, well-hidden, because still you rise, and so on, that thinks, ‘yes, forget the lunch part, because that’s such a misunderstood and maligned trope, isn’t it? But could I not also be a female who smashes through the glass ceiling, but still has space in her diary for regularly fiddling about with glitter and glue?’

You are fifty seven, but you still have a fully operational ‘Children’s Craft Box’.

You have a yen to create any of the following:

A festive twig wreath.

A home-made advent calendar, filled with hand-made peppermint creams.

Rumtopf.

Anything whatsoever out of pine cones.

You develop an unlikely enthusiasm for going to the local garden centre.

You make an extraordinarily passionate case for work-life balance, citing the 76.6% of working women of the Netherlands who work less that 36 hours per week, and going ‘you SEE?’ to anyone who hasn’t run away.

The thought of transforming your kitchen windowsill into a spanglish winter wonderland – involving fairylights, clumps of berries dipped in silver leaf, and a lovingly crafted homage to Sinter Klass – feels like the most important creative idea you’ve had all day.

You wish you were so well-heeled that you could wake up on a frosty morning and think ‘sod work, today I am going to stud oranges with cloves and steep orchard fruits in home-made blackberry wine and just anyone try and stop me, okay?’

You wish you were so authenitically ‘ye olde peasantry’ that studding oranges with cloves and steeping orchard fruits in home made blackberry wine was, like, just what you had to do, to survive. Because you KNOW it would make you soooo happy.

You wish you had someone you could make a costume for.

Or is it just me?

Either way, I have a SAFA gene, and you’ll find me in my craft bunker.

 

First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine Nov 12th 2016

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I’ve been on something of a mission this week.

It was sparked initially a couple of days back after I wrote this week’s column, and realised what an astounding amount of angry capitals it contained.

So I had Pete read it too. And if you feel a sense of déjà vu, you’re right to, because his next words were, “but aren’t you being a bit ranty? You know – like, AGAIN?”

At which point, as one would, I went harrumph a couple of times, before telling him that sometimes a woman needed to rant – how else, pray, were we going to make the world a better place?

“Well, perhaps, at the end there,” he bravely persisted, “you know, where you’ve written ‘this is appalling!’ – you know, AGAIN – you could maybe end on something more positive?’

I told him I’d think about it, knowing I wouldn’t think about it, precisely because he’d suggested it. (Which is the way of writers sometimes, I’m afraid.)

But then, the next day, I re-read it, and had something of a perspective-shift, and then again, when I posted something about Donald Trump on facebook, and was told by a kindly friend to ‘calm down’.

Hence the mission. Which was to get into a Zen kind of mindset. Not that I’m sure what Zen Buddhism is, exactly. I just remember that it’s something about ‘being fully alive’, and that in time of stress, whatever your spiritual persuasion, the very best thing you can do is count your blessings.

So that’s what I did.

The branch of Lidl, for instance, just round the corner from Cardiff Uni.

More than any other supermarket, I find that Lidl branches have their own personalities (See also Caerphilly Lidl, which has the most amazing mountain view) and this one – whose clientele are, for the most part, students – is no exception.

Call me sentimental, but there is something almost viscerally joyful about being in the company of newly-minted 18 year old undergraduates, shuffling round the supermarket in sweet, benign posses, holding packs of mince, considering onions, scratching heads and torsos, asking, ‘didn’t Josh say he knew how to make meatballs?’ Or, ‘loo rolls. I mean, seriously. DO NOT forget the loo rolls.’ Or just standing in the queue, lightly sleep-fogged at two in the afternoon, looking dreamily into the middle distance while their baskets tell their stories. Here a tin of beans, here a packet of 19p pasta, there a bag of doughnuts or croissants from the bakery – which you know will be devoured before they are even home. Is it strange to say I want to hug them all? I hope not.

Then there’s a bright new academic year, bedding in for me too. I have a new crop of students every autumn and every New Year, and by week three, I feel the alchemy – feel the vibe begin to settle. The frisson of seeing talent. The pleasure of being useful. The potential of being someone, who, a little way down the line, might be remembered fondly, as having been an inspiration. Why else does anyone teach, after all? And as someone who works almost always at home, there is great pleasure to be had in the whole ‘dressing, driving, parking, entering my classroom’ dynamic. In the eager faces. The quiet passion. The fervour.

I have Glastonbury tickets. WE have Glastonbury tickets. We feel – no word of a lie, this – beyond, beyond blessed. Let there be mud! Any amount of it.

The mattress currently sitting in the middle of my hall. Georgie has a new bed so it’s heave-ho to the old one, but since our tip-going timetables don’t dovetail till the weekend, there it sits, in sprung stasis, before we take it. And we bounce on it. All of us. Because it is there. (The cats love it too. I have this week been abandoned. There they sit. Tiny lion-guardians of the temporary bedchamber. Unmoving. Stern. Statuesque.)

My dear friend Debbie – the greatest blessing of all, this – texting a picture of her newly decorated dining room. She’s been so ill. So frightened. So subsumed by the long months of chemotherapy, not yet finished. Yet this week, in a pocket of between-cycles energy she has painted her dining room. It’s a deep marine green colour, like the scales on a mermaid. It’s called fish tale, but it could just as easily be called sunshine – because seeing it is exactly like the sun coming out.

And the sun IS out.

Mission accomplished.

 

First published in the Western Mail Weekend Magazine Oct 15th 2016

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Lynne_new

 

 

Funning old business, going running. I’ve always thought that, sometimes in the middle of actually running. Round some lake, up some hill, along a promenade, panting. No purpose, except for the one that’s inherent – you run, it seems to me, for the bit that comes after – being able to say how far you ran.

I jest, of course. Running is the best kind of exercise – unbeaten in the ‘jeez I am cream crackered’ stakes. (Unless, of course, you Iron Man or Tough Mud or Tri-ath. But you don’t count, because YOU ARE INSANE.)

Running’s also weirdly addictive. I know this because I look back and still find myself wondering. Did I really do the Cardiff half-marathon? Yes, I did.

I started running back in early 1985. And then stopped running. About half an hour later. Then tried again, in ’94 (we had just arrived in Wales then), dressing sensibly, putting the doorkey on a bit of string to wear round my neck, prepping a water bottle, stretching out, and so on. Had I been asthmatic, I would have also taken a puff of my inhaler, but since I wasn’t, I simply took a few preparatory deep breaths. You can do it, you can do it, you can DO IT. (Even though I doubted that I could.)

Duly pumped, I set off, on a perfect spring morning. And, apart from the first bit, when I thought I was going to die, I made excellent progress round the village. “There goes Lynne! Doing running!” I could imagine people saying it. Lynne, the runner. Lynne, who runs. Lynne “Forrest” Barrett-Lee. It was the beginning of an exciting new chapter in my life. A world of fresh air and exercise and exciting new apparel. Why, very soon I would go to a high-end running retailer and ask the important question – did I pronate or was I neutral? And at some point in the future, should they invent such a wonder, I might treat myself to some sort of clever doohickey that could not only time me, but plot my progress via satellite! Oh, imagine! Oh, I so hoped they would!

I eventually returned home (loneliness of the long distance and so on), flushed with bloodflow and giddy with success.

I had been gone all of eight minutes.

Seriously, though (because, as runners know, running is a serious business) it really was the start of something life-changing for me. Oh phooey. I hear you say it. But it really does seem like that, because becoming a runner marked an important psychological watershed. It took me from being someone who thought of themselves as vaguely unfit, to someone who thought of themselves as, well, as a runner. Hard to articulate, but enduringly precious. Not least because it’s a mindset that never seems to leave me. I can go months without running and expect, if I attempt to, that I will soon be so breathless and racked with pain that I will have to stop again.

Yet I don’t. Yes, it’s hard, but you soon find a rhythm, and a place in your head where the pain doesn’t matter. Where the miles amassed mean so much more.

And more still, if you run in the company of other runners. Where the term ‘the spirit moves you’ is so apt.

Not that I meant to run a half marathon, exactly. It was my sister’s fault – she’d won a Runner’s World competition, in which the prize was a Marathon Training Weekend. And guess what? None of her friends would go with her.

So muggins here – she of the fancy kit but strict ‘5K’ limit – agreed (not the word, quite) to go. And let me tell you, gentle joggers, it was not for the fainthearted. 5K? That was the pre-breakfast warm up. On BOTH days. Kenyan Hills? I have never been so terrified on two legs. Then the biggie. The far-as-you-like-and-probably-much-too-far training run. Through a forest (very scenic), en masse.

To this day I don’t know how, quite, but I ran for nine and a half miles. Nine and a half MILES. That’s fifteen kilometres. Another three and a half miles and I’d have run half a marathon. Half a marathon! Imagine! I could not have felt better. I was a lioness. A titan. A goddess in lycra.

Six months later, still a she-lion, I ran the Cardiff half marathon. Which – no halves about it – is a very long way. Good luck to everyone who is running it tomorrow. Especially if it’s your first. You can do it too.

First published in the Western Mail Weekend magazine. Oct 1st 2016

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Things I don’t believe in. Superstitions. Old wives’ tales. Destiny. Fate. Water divination. Astrology. (Oh, and that nonsense about how ‘they’ve’ apparently been forced to add an extra sign to the Zodiac, on account of the celestial bodies all having moved so much, and had to move the rest up the charts as a consequence, including me – ME!! – from Leo to Cancer. On. Your. Bike. I am NOT having that.)

But sometimes life does throw up curiousnesses. In this case, very pleasingly (and for you too, if you like your columns less ‘ranty old bag’ and more ‘lighter slice of life’) because, having got down off my high horse the week before last, I found myself first bitten by an arachnid (more of which later), then home, only to be overrun with cat fleas. Brilliant synchronicity building here, don’t you think?

It’s brilliant, period. Because cat fleas absolutely do not like me. Don’t even go near me, let alone scramble in droves up my leg.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Back to Spidergate. And what a political imbroglio it turned out to be, when only hours after the Brown Recluse spider became number one suspect (scientifically arrived at, I hasten to add, on grounds of distribution, habitat, and modus operandi, not to mention a lengthy analysis of the horrors on badspiderbites.com, which website I promise truly exists) when my cousin Shelagh pops up on facebook to tell me that it probably IS a mosquito bite, and that other family members have been known to react similarly.

Hmm. On the one hand, I’m pretty solid on the sciency-researchy-search stuff. And a quick spin round positivelymonstrousmosquitobites.com confirms it. That’s a lie, actually. There is no such website. Don’t be silly. But neither can I find pictures anywhere of mozzie bites that look anything like mine do.

Still, Shelagh helpfully posts her own impressively grisly image, of two impressive red weals up her leg. Which I study at length, because I don’t wish to appear to be milking a common or garden mozzie nip, just for the instagram kudos. (hashtag ‘I’m hard me’, hashtag ‘trump this, suckers!’, hashtag ‘that’ll beat your photo of a cupcake’.)

But two things strike me. One being that her weals are much more weal-ish. Oozy, even. Wet-looking. Which mine’s definitely not. No, mine’s still definitely in the spider-venom ball-park – the neat circle, the subcutaneous bleeding action, the total absence of weal, weep or pus.

So I stick to my guns, and get busy spooking myself (badspiderbites.com again) about the venom tracking inexorably to my heart. Till more research reveals that the Brown Recluse, bad-ass eight-legger that it is, won’t actually kill me. And as flucloxocillin is a drug of great wonder, cellulitis won’t see my lower leg off either.

So on goes the holiday, and though I keep a weather eye on it, my bite all too soon stops doing two things a bite should – 1, hurting. And 2, garnering sympathy.

So that’s that. And by the time we get home in the wee hours, all things small and bitey are forgotten. Till Georgie’s boyfriend Llyr makes a deep but anxious noise from the family bathroom, that is.

I initially decide this must be a heartfelt Welsh profanity, but it turns out to be a strangulated ‘arrrrrgh!’. And this on account of a new family having moved into the family bathroom – one of seven and a half million cat fleas.

They were contained at least. We keep almost all the internal doors shut when absent, mostly to spare us other cat-related horrors, such as wall to wall mud, drying slugs and bits of rodent. But it seems our space-related stinginess has saved us even greater horrors. Because, despite the cats being de-loused just a scant four weeks previously, that ‘up to four week’s protection’ on the flea liquid packet is clearly not one to play fast and loose with.

For they have sat on the bath mat, having clearly been riddled. And with the heat and humidity of our shut-up upstairs, the fleas have been having a field day. There was certainly a field of them up Llyr’s legs. A field big enough to man several flea Olympics.(I hear they’ve run away from the circus.)

And the upshot, of course, is that we’ve a mammoth task ahead. Four days in and the little sods are still pinging everywhere, despite a full four bottles of spray being deployed.

So once again, it’s a case of watch this space. Only this time, in trousers, from a distance.

First published in the Western Mail Weekend magazine Sept 24th 2016

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I am with bite. Yes, I know. Hardly an earth-shattering news item. But, trust me, this has so far been the story of our holiday. And not least because of the furore surrounding the identity of its perpetrator, who, naturally enough, has long since left the building. Or, indeed, hire car footwell, or terrace, or table at Mr Noodles, or last table on the left, just adjacent to the Epping Massive, in Slainte Irish Bar on Avenida Gladioli. (Such is the way of things when your flight lands at midnight. You have no choice but to cut your cloth accordingly.)

There was, naturally, little fuss on my part. Not originally. I woke up the following morning with a slightly tender heel and, echoing the clarion call of holidaymakers everywhere, said  “**** I’ve been bitten!”. Followed by, “why do I always forget about the bloody mozzie cream till it’s too late?” Honestly, it’s so reliable that you could set your watch by it.

The day commenced as per. Got some food in. Hired some bikes. Applied sun cream. Headed to the beach. And I didn’t fuss, even though it hurt. I never fuss. I’m not a fusser. But by early afternoon the tender heel was fast becoming a serious annoyance. So I took a proper look at it, and then I did fuss, because it looked like it had increasingly begun to feel. Like a series of small incendiary devices had been secreted just beneath my epidermis, operated remotely, and over-enthusiastically, by a leprechaun of little intellect, on minimum wage.

“Don’t keep fussing,” said Pete. (I was doing a lot of it by this time.) “It’s just a mozzie bite. Welcome to my world.” (Pete is to mosquitos as black truffles are to epicurean Gallic pigs. I have sympathized a LOT over the years.)

“Do I fuss?” I spluttered crossly. “Do I ever fuss? Have I ever been a fusser? If I fuss, let me tell you, it’s because there is something to fuss about! Look at my foot! It is being eaten from within!”

So we all cycled home – up a challenging hill or five (in my case, painfully) – where some proper professional looking then ensued. Then the ‘poke’ test – he poked it, and I screamed  the place down – followed by some consternation that the state of my foot (which was now getting irksome even to walk on) was quickly changing.

It was now hot to touch, swollen, livid and locally haemorrhaging – the harbinger, in fact, of that most ennervating of holiday hell-fests; the possibility of having to attend the local emergency walk in clinic, there to while away many a merry hour being misunderstood.

‘Now we’re talking!’ I couldn’t help but think, despite the agony. I was finally at the epicentre of the bitten-to-buggery universe, and I was milking it for all it was worth. After years of being saddled with the knowledge that bitey things didn’t like me (a curiously FOMO kind of thing with me) I had a bite like no bite that had ever troubled the family. And with the spectre of it perhaps even getting worse.

“It looks infected, too,” said Pete.” We’ll have to keep a close eye on it. Could get nasty.” My emergency stash of antibiotics were duly administered, right away. But it still didn’t look like anything any of us had seen before.

“I reckon that’s a spider bite,” said our resident globe-trotting nature girl, Georgie. “A girl I was travelling with in Thailand got bitten by a spider and it looked exactly like that.”

And needless to say (we’re on holiday, in a hot place, the imagination tends to wander) – the idea of attack by unknown arachnid took root. It looked nothing like a mosquito bite after all. And isn’t that the miracle of the internet? I typed in ‘bruised swollen painful ankle red bite?’ and did an image search.

And as quick as you could say ‘help! There’s a Tarantula!’, up came the results. And forget mozzie. I had fetched up at eepy-eepy central. And it looked EVERYthing like a bite from the jaws of a spider. Which I hadn’t felt, much less seen, so which one?

Another search, then. Of the spiders of Spain. And it turns out that there are two possible species in the frame. The Brown Recluse (so Brown and reclusive they named it, um, Brown Recluse) and, oh, lordy lord, the Black Widow. Could it be true? Had I been touched by the kiss of the spider woman? Rubbish film, yes, but, oh my, watch this space…

(*which we didn’t. Lots of them in Spain too. Just a nod to my fellow Alice Cooper fans, who will get this :))

First published in The Western Mail Weekend magazine, 17th Sept 2016

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I have been instructed this week to get off my high horse. By Pete, this is, obviously. Though not in a stroppy way. Simply because he’s noticed, these past weeks (past months, truth be known) that my recent modus operandi on waking every morning, has been to whistle a happy tune, yes, as is my personal genetic gift (the birds sing to greet the day, I simply sing to thank them), then to connect with the wider world and get in a complete huff-and-puff.

Doesn’t matter how – it could be television, radio, or the post-modern joy of social media – but there is always something going on that gets my goat.

(Apologies for over-extending the four-legged metaphor, by the way. If I wasn’t so fully in the get-off-my-high horse zone, I’d be inclined to bring sheep in as well.)

He’s right, of course. So much annoying stuff is going on in the world currently. Where do I start? And should I even try? Typing certain words these days almost guarantees annoying someone. So I won’t. If you read me regularly, you’ll already know them.

So to horses, and the getting off of them, particularly if they are high ones. Of which, luckily, I do have some experience.

I got on a very high horse once. In a bleak corner of Suffolk. (Nothing against Suffolk, mind, toward which county I bear absolutely no ill will.)

“Horse trekking!” someone trilled. And why ever not? What’s not to like about horses?

Well, nothing. Gentle animals. Black Beauty was a childhood favourite. And since we were on holiday – at Center Parcs, where such simple joys are relentlessly encouraged – there seemed no earthly reason why I should cast any aspersions on my (yup, name and shame) sister Sherrill’s notion.

They don’t actually keep the horses at Center Parcs. That would be foolish, not least because of the risk of them being mown down by bicycles, or being coerced into attending a ‘Lavender Relax’ class. So off we went, in the ‘transport ‘, to some stable in the middle of nowhere. (Where ‘middle of’ means ‘pretty much anywhere you might fetch up in Suffolk’ and ‘nowhere’, by and large, just means ‘everywhere’.) And the horses, by and large (where ‘large’ translates as ‘all of them’) were huddled disconsolately in the patch of dirt between their noisome stables.

I can gloss over the next part as it consisted of just the following – being hoicked onto a grey one, being briefly instructed in some ‘reins’ stuff, heading out in a clip-cloppy crocodile to a path round a field, walking excruciating slowly round another six or seven fields, spending several moments thinking ‘remind me again why we are doing this?’, having my hand spot-welded to some ‘reins’, by the bitter, bitter cold, putting on a brave face (where brave obviously means effecting an expression that said “no, not at all! I’m not bored!”), then returning, now as disconsolate as our steeds, back into the stable block. Slowly.

Upon which, to paraphrase no quality novelist who ever lived, all hell broke loose. This when my horse – the grey one of no discernable personality – decided, for whatever reason, to fight back. From its meaningless existence? From the pathetic, apologetic, guiltsome kicks I was administering? (Who ever wanted to kick a horse anyway? Not me.) From the existential angst that had plagued it since foaldom? From the tyranny of the Center Parcs-endorsed horse woman who had enslaved him? Who knows?

All I know – and will remember for the rest of my life– is that it broke into a trot. An actual trot. A trot that very soon coaxed itself into a full –on, rebellious canter, off out of the stable block, off out onto the lane, off out almost into the main road.

(Off out – had he been given the chance – onto the frigging M11.)

Which was, of course, thrumming with traffic. Which was where we’d still be now, for all I know, squished under a Transit, had the horse woman not intervened, with some swift, arcane command, which translates from the Equinianese as ‘oiiiiiiiiii!’.

Upon which he stopped. And, with the whip-smart intelligence for which I’m rightly famed, I pulled my feet out of my stirrups and promptly got (where got means ‘fell’) off my high horse.

Probably sensible, in hindsight, that I don’t get on another. What with Politics. State of the nation. State of the Hunt. State of the pound. State of the union. State of the States of bloody America.

Henceforth, I shall be getting high only on kittens.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend magazine,

10th August 2016 

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