Archive for the ‘family’ Category

Brisbane storm – some emails

December 4, 2014

Dear Ross
Sounds like a disaster movie! I’m just reading about the storm this morning and really hoping that your roof stayed on and that none of you was out in it. Would love a reassuring email if you have a moment.
Love from Jill

Nov 30 (4 days ago)
to me

Hi Jill

Wow, that really was some storm! We are fine, no damage to selves or property, but it was a somewhat harrowing experience. I was stuck in a train, fortunately in the subterranean station at Toowong, where there was no indication of wild weather. The train was stalled due to lack of power (and, as we later discovered, due to a house having blown onto the tracks), so I launched forth in search of a bus. When I climbed to ground-level, I was met by the most ferocious wind and rain I have ever seen, including, I think, the Chennai typhoon of 1987. The rain was such that to venture into it would have been like swimming underwater. There was absolutely no prospect of vehicular traffic, so I returned to the comfort of my train and my Kindle.
Vanee had a tougher time of it, because she decided to make a run for home in the car. She was caught in the thick of it, but luckily the car stood up to the hail, so all she had was a frightening experience without any real incident.
Our former stamping ground of Yeerongpilly, Fairfield etc looks like a battle ground. The ground is strewn with shattered trees (and I mean shattered), and houses have grown canvas carbuncles where there used to be rooves. If you want your window fixed, you have to wait until next year. I hear there was one fatality, but I don’t know any details of that.
Our mother was fine throughout the storm. Delphi Court with its solid masonry is one very a strong structure. And the up-side of that is, she feels vindicated in her claim that she should have jetted off to somewhere (anywhere) to escape all this devastation that the comet is causing. The comet puts pressure on the atmosphere, you see.
Unfortunately the Courier Mail assures us that we can expect a similar weather-event as early as this week. The upside of THIS is that I feel vindicated in my claim that we should all move to Tasmania now in order to beat the rush. (No rush as yet, but wait til news of the comet gets out. I should tell Mum to keep mum.)

Astronomically yours,
Thank you for that marvellous update. I’m so glad you are all ok. (I had an immediate response from mum so I knew you were safe but none of the details.) May I blog your finely-tuned prose? Everyone in the family here will want to know about it.
We are promised a ‘snow event’ later in the week. Or maybe later in the month.  I wasn’t paying attention.
Isn’t it cold in Tassy?
Lots of love
Dec 1 (3 days ago)
to me
Blog away! And yes, Tassie is cold in winter, but not as cold as NZ. And in Tassie, the ground doesn’t shake, housing is cheap and the locals speak English. (Not what the English call English, of course.) But our children and friends live in Brisbane … (I mention NZ because it is the only viable antipodean alternative to Tassie.)

SNOW! Really? It’s barely winter! Brandy is an excellent anti-freeze. (No, I don’t mean for the car.)

Speaking of cars, our venerable Toyota developed a minor but seemingly unfixable fault, so I sold it for $150. Boy, did I see them coming. Panic-struck, I set off to buy a cute little Honda Jazz, but it was just too twee for a bloke. With one toe I could simultaneously apply throttle, brake and clutch, while changing gears with the passenger’s knee. What I took to be clashing gears turned out to be a warning growl from the crusty, brilliantined car-salesman. (They all daub their hair with muck now, as if it were the 1950s.) So I accidentally bought an old Camry instead. Much too big and thirsty, but low Ks and owned by an elderly couple who only drove it to the letter-box. You have to watch the extremities, though, the steering is seemingly effected by bungie cords.

How are the dogs? And the boat? It occurs to me that one expensive survey doesn’t necessarily mean that all surveys will be expensive. Whereas vet bills! Well!

Love to all,

a life in small boxes

August 26, 2014

My little grandson is a very modern toddler of two and a half. He goes to nursery every day now (not weekends, obviously) where I collect him after lunch on a Wednesday.

They have a noticeboard.

I am an inveterate reader of notices. I stop for those planning permission notices that tell you someone is knocking down their extension; I read the small ads in the supermarket but buy nothing; I adore those notices in cafés in towns I’m just visiting.  Waste nothing: not even information. Especially not information. Knowing that a grey cat has gone missing in Oxford? It might be me who finds it.  At the very least I can share a frisson of intensity – child’s pet? missing since Xmas? Oh yes – there’s some self-indulgence in feeling your heart twist for that moment of hopelessness.

At the nursery they had a notice:

2014-03-26 12.57.15

(note the well-placed apostrophe – nurseries try hard these days.)

– and, ever eager to please, I naturally set off to save small cardboard boxes.  But what counts as ‘small’?  They seem very keen on this dimension: they’ve underlined it, after all.  I’m in a wine plan – a dozen bottles occasionally arrive in a double-layered box.  Too big, for sure.

But is it possible to be too small?

posh nail polish box

expensive nail polish box

I don’t think so.  But what if it all just looks like bragging?  I’m the one with the fancy stuff?

My son gave me a bottle of whisky for my birthday, so posh it came in a box – possibly a bit too big? – but worth holding onto.  More fancy stuff, too.

2014-08-26 21.44.41

They can decide that one for themselves.  I’ll take it in.


You can see the next problem even more quickly than I did – what if I took the wine box and the whisky box in at the same time?  They might think little Raf’s Granny is a toper.  How could they know that it has taken me a year (OK – a few months) to save these up?  To hell with it, I thought, and took in a carrier bag of random cardboard boxes – why should I deny little kiddies the chance to make lovely models?  As I handed it over I made a joke – ‘You could see our whole lives in these collections’.  The nursery nurse, bless her, shone with innocence and a truly pure surprise.  ‘Ooh! ‘she said, ‘I’ve never thought of that before.’  I just smiled, the way I do when I’m thinking something nastier. (‘That’s why I teach creative writing, and you are a nursery nurse’, I didn’t say.)

I didn’t think to photograph that first collection: I wish I had.  It was honest and detailed: I didn’t edit out anything.



I collected them on the kitchen counter.

The second lot was self-consciously innocent: a virtuous Granny drinks camomile tea, cleans her achy teeth, and has the occasional headache which she treats (frugally) with  generic pain killers.

The notice has gone now – I guess they don’t  ‘always’ want the boxes any more.  Too late!  I’ve already saved up another collection.  Alas, it’s no longer naive: once the innocence has gone, it can never be recaptured.  How could I show you anything but an artfully constructed version of my life in small boxes now?  And even if I truly went back to naivete, how could you really trust me?  And why am I saving them up anyway, when their usefulness is gone?

all you need to know about a life

all you need to know about a life

She’s not very young: see the face cream?  And she’s willing to spend a bit on herself: that’s not the cheapest brand.  But she will save money on oatcakes, the favoured biscuit of dieters, and on tissues.  She has a dog – which she worms.  An asthma inhaler.  So commonplace . . .

What will enable me to throw this stuff out?  Do I perhaps have to paint it in bright primary colours and glue it together into toy trains and carts before it will achieve its destiny?   That’s the apotheosis that can raise it to the rubbish bin so that it can forge forward into some new existence, recycling outside narrative.

the raincoat

August 14, 2013

Mentioned in despatches twice now, the raincoat feels that it deserves a moment all to itself.

a downpour in the Berry - raincoat doing well.

a downpour in the Berry – raincoat doing well.  Also note strong sandals.

Dostoyevsky purportedly said that we all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ – he meant the short story, of course, not any literal overcoat.  It turns out that he didn’t mean ‘we all’ in the sense of the whole human race, though one can easily place that kind of interpretation on Gogol’s story.  Taken in context, his comment referred (I am told) to the cutting-edge fiction writers of his time in Russia.  Dostoyevsky’s own ‘new wave’ of writers who explored what it is to be human – and to be human in the darkly cruel social world of contemporary Russia.

There you go – it wasn’t just a post about a raincoat after all.

In fact this is my favourite of all the many raincoats that I have never bought.  Back when we had teenage children, there were lots of visitors to our house.  Sometimes they arrived in wet weather, kindly kitted out with umbrellas and/or raincoats by their fond parents.  Many times the rain had stopped by the time they left, or else they were going somewhere where sensible practical garments were just not cool.

Too cool for a raincoat - no names no pack drill!

Too cool for a raincoat – no names no pack drill!

They left their coats hanging in the hall, and their brollies dripping quietly in the lean-to conservatory out the back.

Darth Vader never wears a raincoat.

Darth Vader never wears a raincoat.

When we packed up that house and moved out we found maybe six or eight ownerless raincoats, and three useful brollies (I didn’t count the broken brollies).

A brolly would only get in the way.

A brolly would only get in the way.

I’ll admit that we had bought some of the raincoats for ourselves in France – caught out by unexpected summer rain (one daughter-in-law would deny the word ‘unexpected’).  One can buy very useful, flimsy rain jackets cheaply in SuperU.  Of all of those, though, the raincoat in question was clearly superior – lined, a perfect fit, strong, and sporting its own hood.  It is even a recognisable brand-name, that chance acquaintances and even my adult kids respect.  Perfect.  Yes – I really did try to find its owner – but it has a happy home with me now.  I am growing ever fonder of it, as it progresses through so many adventures of its own.  Maybe I, at least, have come out of this wonderful raincoat.

Small Murders

July 21, 2013

I don’t often feel murderous .  Sometimes people annoy me so much I’d like to kick them, but on the whole just saying so defuses the rage.  Bystanders and even my own nearest and dearest don’t get this:  ‘Ooh, she needs a good slap!’  I might say.  And then, miraculously, she doesn’t need one any more, just because I said it.  The trick works better if you say it out loud, but I have found that this doesn’t go down well at all with the public at large, so I just keep it inside my own head.  A very few, trusted companions, are allowed to share these thoughts.

All this is really to explain that I am keen on the non-violent life.  I try to avoid harming our fellow creatures, even ants and spiders; I buy meat and eggs fairly sparsely and only from free-range sources.   It’s not due to any religious conviction about the sacredness of life, or anything like that, just a feeling that we are sharing the earth and should try to do the minimum of harm to our co-habitants.

There are two categories of creature for whom I make an exception, and I go after them with bloodthirsty ruthlessness.  For years it was only one, but this year I added a second, and I have to say that I have been particularly successful with it.  That’s why I am posting this: it’s a brag post, really.

One day (years ago now) I was chatting happily to my mother-in-law, when she suddenly clapped her hands together in mid-air and snapped in satisfaction:  ‘Dratted things’.

Does either of these ladies look even slightly murderous to you?

Does either of these ladies look even slightly murderous to you?

This gentle pious relative had just killed a harmless-looking tiny brown moth, and I was amazed.

clothes moth

It seemed a bit random to  me: why a clothes moth, when she was so kind and generous in other ways?    But I had no idea they could be so destructive – until many years later there was a plague of the things – little holes all over my lovely cardigans and T-shirts.  Drawers full of hand-spun wool and raw wool were completely shredded; those bags of nearly-finished knitting had to go out. My kindly mother-in-law was long dead by then, but the memory of her passionate attack gave me permission to go after clothes moths.

They'll even eat carpets.

They’ll even eat carpets.

Luckily, shopping trends have swung full circle and now you can buy mothballs once again.  I tuck them into my drawers, and into my drawers, and they deter moths.  But I still clap my hands at passing small brown moths, and curse in the time-honoured manner.

This is a tiger moth - do not try to kill it.  It is innocent and on the whole too large for random hand-clapping.

This is a tiger moth – do not try to kill it. It is innocent and on the whole too large for random hand-clapping.


As anyone who watches American cop dramas knows, one murder leads to another.  A couple of years ago my lovely yellow lily failed to flower.  Somebody must have told me about lily beetles, but that was as far as it went.  The following year I saw that the leaves were being badly eaten – bloody lily beetles again!  This time I researched them.  Lily beetles are beautiful creatures, and very hard to spot.  You don’t really want to kill it once you find it.

Lily beetle: shining like a jewel from the Arabian Nights

Lily beetle: shining like a jewel from the Arabian Nights


The advice to gardeners is to crush it.  I found this really difficult- well they were really difficult to find, to begin with and then there’s the emotional difficulty of killing something so gorgeous.  My lilies were destroyed again that year.

2013, and in a new house.  It was now three years since I had seen my lilies, and I could hardly remember what they looked like.  It rose boldly from the pot and made lovely long leaves – then holes started to appear: lily beetle again!  This time, however, I knew to look for the larvae. They hatch from tiny eggs layed underneath the leaves – the beetle itself can hide in the ground and so make itself undetectable.  The larvae are truly disgusting – soft squishy little horrors.  I could only touch them with a tissue, and then squeeze.  You can tell when you’ve squished one properly, all right.

They get bigger and bigger as they pile up their own faeces around themselves.

They get bigger and bigger as they pile up their own faeces around themselves.

And so, every day, I went and checked my plant.  It had become a challenge to keep squishing.  I started to put coffee grounds on the earth as well – maybe that helped somewhat.  But I still hated having to squash the beetles themselves – I had to invoke the death-dealing spirit of my mother-in-law.  She wouldn’t have tolerated them for a moment.  Then there were a few days with nothing to squish.  Then one or two more larvae.  And then nothing at all .  The damage to the leaves had halted close to the buds – which went on to swell and bloom.

They turn out to look like this.

They turn out to look like this.

This picture isn’t of my actual lily – it’s just to give you an idea.  But mine is very similar.  Then in the same pot there came a bonus, for a completely forgotten hosta started to put its little green noses above the earth – very late in the season, but willing to have a go.  It seems that lily beetles like to feast on hostas as well.

the pleasure of the unexpected

a gentle  miracle



Children and memory 2

March 18, 2013

When she was little I used to hold my baby daughter up high in my arms to show her the moon.  ‘Moon, moon,’ I would say, drawing out the vowel.  And sometimes, just for fun, ‘O, more than moon’.  I can almost feel her substance, the solid delightful weight of her, as I lifted her as high as I could.  Quite how that extra foot or so would help her see the moon I don’t know – but it just felt right.

I knew to do this from a family story: I used to point up into the sky when I was little and say ‘Moon up dere’.  I suppose my mother taught me that.  I still do something similar – as this evening, seeing the crescent moon through the leaves of the tall gum tree in my tiny English back garden, and silently saluting her.  I wonder if my grown up daughter does it too?

the moon through the gum tree - March 2013

the moon through the gum tree – March 2013

Children and memory

March 14, 2013

By coincidence lately I am reading about loss and about memory.  First, John O’Farrell’s entertaining homily about a failed marriage – The Man Who Forgot His Wife – and now a review of Wave: A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala.  The review talks about loss and the healing power of writing, and of remembering through writing.  Two reactions: I wonder if I want to read the book?  And: I could use that.  We hear about “finding a space to feel suffering as well as joy, and realising one was an aspect of the other.”  It could be a deconstructive move, but apparently this is Buddhist thought.


It sounds like a wonderful, sane method.  I grieved so long for Josie, but always through a kind of rationalising pain: anger and arguments for the lost present and the lost future, never through remembering what we really had in the short years when I was her mother.  How should I achieve this alternative method?  In chronological order, or in the order of the memories?  Some of those memories are hackneyed, familiar, over-rehearsed.  I wonder whether I will discover more as I work it through?  Typing here isn’t the way, I think.  Handwriting is what is needed.


And then Deraniyagala’s reviewer (Tim Adams) sees again the difficult wisdom that we all know as an intellectual truth, but find so hard to know in our souls: “all childhoods are about transience, every day, and all parenting is about mourning little bits of that passing.”  Thus it truly is.  It doesn’t matter now what might have taken place in Josie’s childhood (or in any of them, I suppose) because now they are adults, and those little children aren’t gone, exactly, but they hover, loved, in memory.  Unless we work differently with memory, we see them schematically, like ghosts, through photos and through re-told stories and we access our knowledge of them erratically.  I look forward to trying the writing method.

A Moral Interlude in Somerset

February 28, 2013

Last week we went to Somerset on holiday – February half-term, the weather cold and bright. Excellent weather for walking, though deep red-clay mud from weeks of rain still glued up the field-paths and the roads. One day two granddaughters – cousins aged 8 and 9 – put on a show. They spent all morning working on it – developing the plot and rehearsing. At an early stage the nearly-four year old wisely opted out: this was going to be big-kid stuff.
The props were extensive: a low table covered with a large cloth; an apron and a broom (to indicate ‘the mother’); some fairy wings; assorted small toys (birthday presents); a folded newspaper (for ‘pass the parcel’); a large blanket; track-suit trousers to indicate ‘Stuart, the selfish boy’; and the magic wand still extant from a Harry Potter phase. They had contingency plans to cope with dogs wandering onto the stage (highly likely). The dialogue was not written down, but they knew what had to be said. There was an interval, for refreshments. Younger children might have found that the main point, but these girls were more focussed on their art.

They even understood doubling – a sophisticated, demanding theatrical device – and devised a plot where they doubled parts without slowing down the action.  Sixteenth century audiences would have understood this moral interlude plot root and branch, and would have found the production techniques utterly familiar. In it, a spoiled child is rude to his mother and to his party guests. He is punished by a mysterious outside agency, and returns to the original scene a wiser and better-behaved person.

What really impressed me was these little girls’ mastery of the theatrical arts of illusion: the very stuff of theatre. In a sense, it was a play about putting on plays. The finale hinged on a transformation scene, in which the rude boy was magically changed into a stuffed rabbit, to teach him politeness and good behaviour. ‘Miss E’ the magician, resplendent in ballerina’s butterfly wings, came to Stuart’s birthday party, and after teaching us all a trick with a piece of rope, persuaded him to get under the table (whose red cloth reached to the floor). I can’t quite remember why – but there was surely a convincing reason. She tapped the table magically twice and chanted about ‘change’, then spread out some huge blankety wings. ‘Stuart’ scooted behind them into the rear room, and when the red cloth was lifted, only a small stuffed rabbit was to be found. We laughed, we applauded, and the nearly-four little person was completely stunned. ‘How did the rabbit get there?’ she asked. I’m not sure we could have explained it to her satisfaction – and I do hope that nobody tried. It was a mystery and a thrill to rival the close of The Winter’s Tale.

It was also a play about life in the real world, because the role of Stuart was played with the vocabulary (‘boring’), grim body language, and facial expressions (a jutting lower jaw) that remarkably mimicked the actor’s older brother. We adults – all seven of us – sat in a row and hooted with laughter at the situation: ‘Stuart’ couldn’t bear to lose and shrugged off birthday gifts as useless and tedious. On reflection, perhaps the play enacted some longing for a magic solution to behaviour problems, poignant because impossible, but therapeutic because hilarious.

Questions – truth or dare?

December 27, 2012

I am keen on telling the truth to children – for lots of reasons, but the two main ones are: because I want to set a good example; and because I want them to find me reliable.

My grandchildren asked me two truly difficult questions this morning.

Their Dad had gone to work early, and they were staying on with me till their Mum came to collect them after breakfast.  Anyway, they came and sat on the bed while I drank my cup of tea.  We chatted of this and that in a friendly way.

They asked ‘Why do you love dogs so much?’  That was where I stumbled – maybe there are too many reasons, and I felt under pressure to answer quickly and truthfully, but also to get the really best answers out first, as I know they will stop listening after one or two reasons, and move on to the next ‘why?’  So I said that I grew up with dogs (scepticism here – they have dogs, but don’t interact with them very much), that dogs always tell the truth (even though sometimes they steal stuff) and so you always know where you are with them.  (That led to a pause.)  I think I might have slipped in some banalities about dogs as loyal, and as company.  Then they said ‘But it’s boring having to walk them’ and I answered that I liked to get out into the fresh air.  After they had gone, I was still wondering whether I had really given the truthful answers.  More and more responses came to me – how good it is to have something to look after; how snuggly they are (even when ‘a wet dog is the lovingest’); how they look me in the eye and I feel that we know each other across the gulf of species; how it might be about power and obedience when I enjoy training them; how proud I am of them when they are praised by strangers.  How they might be child substitutes – I don’t think so.  Maybe children are dog-substitutes – has anyone suggested that?  How they teach us to live in the moment; to bear adversity and old age; to be joyful for small cause as well as for large.

Of course, that answer took moments to say, and even fewer moments for the rest to flash through my mind.  The conversation was moving onwards briskly.  The next question was  fairly easy: ‘Why do you have pillows on the other side of the bed?’  (A. For when Grandad comes to stay.)  And: ‘Why does he sleep on that side of the bed?’  (A.  He likes the right-hand side).  OK – I know there are lots of answers to that second one – the feminist answer; the noble, or ‘sword hand’, answer; the ‘Adam’s Rib’ answer.  But I felt fine with the mild evasion as offered – it, too, was true, even though superficial.  It triggered a ritual sequence: one of these kiddies is right-handed, the other left-handed, and they often tell me this.   Bored, I suggested writing with the wrong hand, and reached for a notebook and pen beside the bed.  (‘Is that your diary?’ – ‘No, just a notebook I write things in.’)  We had fun with that, but time was knocking on and their mother was due at ten.  I jumped up, followed by the dogs (who generally come with me to the shower), to hear a real stumper: ‘Why do you love books so much?’

The best response might be something like ‘How much time have you got?’  But what, dear reader, would you have said?  Take a moment now before you read on – bear in mind that you have at most one minute in which to think and speak before their thoughts will have flown off elsewhere.  After all, they don’t know when they have hit on a big question.

So I said: ‘You’re right.  I love books.  I think nearly everything useful that I know has come from books.  And [oddly faithful to my theme of the day] books tell me true things.’  Now – I know that I needed to modify that last one – but there is something in it, too.  Think of Bruno Bettelheim and The Uses of Enchantment if you believe fiction to be untruthful.  I didn’t mention their rôle as comforter, companion, escape-route, inspirer.  What would you have said?

Next, I said briskly, ‘I’m off to the shower’.

‘Why do you like showers?’  (Easy one – no thought needed.)

‘I like to start the day feeling fresh’

‘I don’t have showers.’ (He runs interference a lot – another no-brainer.)

‘You’re fine – you had a bath last night.  See you in five.’


Later, tap tap, their mother came for them.  The nine-year-old said (among other things, of course): ‘And I got a DVD of The Witches.’

‘You got what?’ her mother said

‘The Witches’

‘The what?’

‘The Witches, Roald Dahl, you know.’

‘Oh – yeah – .’

I’m not convinced that the name was familiar to her, but maybe she was just thinking of other things.

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