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From Rural New York

Sandy Connors, USA

Thank heavens for the garden in these troubling times ~ The blossoms and their fragrance delight me and their reappearance a comfort, like seeing old friends for our annual get-together.


It will be so strange not to have our journal that has seen us all through the uncertainty and worries of the past weeks and months.  How will we know how the people we have all gotten to know and care about, are doing, what their lives look like in a month or two, or even next year? I can’t picture what my own life will be like.  We are all going to be let loose from the mooring that Margaret and Sheila have given us to hold on to, to share our lives in quarantine, our concerns, worries, and our resilience and I will really miss everyone.


I’m hoping Sheila’s back is feeling much better today.



From Twickenham

David Horovitch, Twickenham

Very sorry to hear of Sheila's slipped disc  - that happened to me once and it was torture - and I really missed the journal yesterday.

I've felt washed out today and, after I'd recorded sonnet 29 this morning I sat down and nodded off for about an hour  reading Thank You Jeeves. It's  amazingly politically incorrect with its nigger minstrels on the rich man's yacht and Bertie Wooster blacking up with boot polish and being mistaken for The Devil. It's funny because Wodhouse has such a light touch and writes like an angel but, however innocent, it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Someone said to me that the rioting in the US is not simply against the George Floyd incident in Minnesota but against the callous insanity  of the Trump administration: isn' really  though a protest against hundreds of years of inequality and injustice? The Civil War didn't do it for them , Martin Luther King didn't do it for them - slavery may  have been abolished, segregation in southern schools may have been made illegal, but still black people are discriminated against everywhere and at all times. I find it difficult to think myself into their heads, to imagine what it must be like to conceive of one's life as a perpetual struggle against prejudice.  Benjamin Zephaniah  told a story on TV this afternoon  of walking through a park with a white kid and being stopped by the police who automatically assumed some wrongdoing. I truly can't begin to imagine what it must be like to know that that might happen any moment of  any day and I'm ashamed to say that I don't very often feel prompted to try. Is this  James Baldwin's 'fire next time'? And if so, how many next times do there need to be? 


A friend of mine, a remarkable actor/playwright called Alan Williams is writing a one-man play and, this afternoon, he invited about ninety people to a zoom performance of the first third  to be succeeded by the next two thirds on the next two Wednesdays. It was strange seeing us all.many of them colleagues and friends, some of whom I hadn't seen for years,  assembled in our little windows on my laptop, all alone in our own homes but, at the same time, all together to hear our friend perform his play. I felt shy and tongue tied, but, once Alan launched into it, it was spellbinding and I can't wait till next Wednesday for the next third. He's a brilliant and utterly original voice and an undervalued one. He's written it all during lockdown. 


I'm glad, Catherine on The South Coast that you've got something from my stuff over the last weeks. It's been an important part of my life and I've loved reading all the other contributors too, maybe particularly the kids in Eastbourne.


Thoughts from the Suffolk coast

Harris G, Suffolk

Some nice days of gardening, clearing and reorganising. A couple of good walks too. Oh but the news from America - just awful. And a sense of disappointment - even betrayal from our government - although, to be frank, it’s hardly unexpected.


The garden looks parched in places but still full of bloom. The roses are particularly good. And the peonies and geraniums.


In the recently repainted spare room, chaos is slowly being brought to order. There are books in piles and we have discovered a few more duplicates that can go when the charity shops reopen. We've reorganised some shelves and have space in the cupboards.


Walked along a lovely stretch of beach yesterday and saw a few people - all at great distance and presumably enjoying the sunshine and warmth and peace. I look out for stones and shells when I’m walking the beach - either ones that have good shapes or those that have a white line running through them. They fascinate me.


The news is full of the dreadful situation in the US. Riots and violence and despicable injustice. Here - politicians bicker over what seems like carelessness, risk and a callous disregard for others. Will we see a spike in new cases? A spike in Covid19 deaths? The spotlight has shifted from Dominic Cummings. Will he miss the limelight and public adoration? Huh! I catch only snippets of news but am increasingly unsure about what has been and what is happening. There are no easy answers, no total truths, no unquestionable statements.


Received an unexpected package through the post. A very kind friend has sent us homemade face masks. These, she feels, will be mandatory when the new normal eventually emerges. She says she has tested each one. The test is to put on the mask and see if it’s possible to blow out a match while it’s in place. Hmmm ... that test could actually be quite dangerous - not just from the possible loading of the mask with droplets from her mouth - but also from putting a naked flame near cloth - and so close to the face too.


I am really appreciative of her generosity and feel guilty for these concerns crossing my mind. Why see clouds in every sky? A shadow behind everything? When I was teaching, I had a colleague who could read a page of writing and immediately spot the spelling and grammatical errors. Her eye was drawn to mistakes. She told me once that she simply could not see beyond them. 


Only a few weeks left of this diary. I feel I know some of the contributors now.  A community of wordsmiths. I will miss you. Perhaps we should have a written reunion in a couple of months? Hoping that Sheila is getting better. Sending best wishes to her - indeed, best wishes to you all. Write again soon.



Tropical thoughts

Paul Lowden, Malaysia

Le Banal: The Unremarkable


The unremarkable are the majority

Humdrum, mundane, 

Dull to some expecting constant

Drama tabloid-style life

To erupt daily from the sheets

Of their street; grey, bland,

Inoffensive, the sort of folk 

One remarks “I never knew he was there”

Or “Was she the one wearing that dress?”

“What was his name again?”

“They kept to themselves.” A crime in itself. 

The same people who pull injured

From wrecks, confront terrorists,

Work frontline for the NHS,

Plunge into surf, raging waves,

Pluck kids from burning attics

And then disappear when the lenses

Arrive, happy not to be front page.

No chiselled jawline, revealing décolleté,

Artfully air-brushed locks, immaculate dentistry

Just, well, ordinary; facial spots, sweat stained shirt

Apologetic looks of disbelief above M&S suit.

Like the tree outside in school uniform green,

Branches knobbly, a standard 36”, leaves flat

Unpolished, serviceable, trunk perhaps a 40”

Leaving room for growth, about as dull

As a tree can be…when suddenly

Overnight an epiphany. Hidden pods

Disguised as scabby encrustations

Explode into incandescent vermillion

Bejewelling the limbs with rubies

And with an infinite elegance of design

That only mathematical Nature could devise

It opens into a pentagram, seeds ready to disperse.

Then they’re gone. Today as you pass them by 

Nothing to possibly imply that beneath the surfaces

Of the unremarkable lie those resurrection forces.


Youlgrave lockdown

Dianne, Youlgrave Derbyshire

Youlgrave has had very few serious Covid 19 cases and the few cases happened right at the beginning of the pandemic and before the lock down. The first confirmed case was a woman who lives on the outskirts of the village. She had been in and out of hospital having cancer treatment and possibly picked it up there. Her husband also caught it and they were both very ill for several weeks. Before showing symptoms they had both attended a Well Dressing meeting  and a couple of weeks later more people who were at the meeting became ill. Also at the meeting were a family who had just come back from Morocco whose children were poorly, so that is another possible source of the infection. Apart from another small cluster of four people that seems to have been the peak of it as far as Youlgrave is concerned. I wonder why we haven’t had more cases? I suppose there could have been many more mild or asymptomatic cases. We do have a number of people in the village who are convinced they had the virus in January as they had the symptoms and were extremely unwell but it seems more likely that they had the flu.


Sadly Youlgrave’s famous well dressings, a custom in many Derbyshire villages, will not go ahead this year for the first time in almost 200 years . The only other time it didn’t happen was during the Second World War. The tradition started in 1829 when a local woman, Hannah Bowman, arranged for clean water to be piped into the village, significantly improving the health of the villagers. At the beginning the wells were simply dressed with bunches of wild flowers around midsummer’s day every year. Later, boards were constructed on which wet clay was laid and then flower petals attached. It is a lovely tradition which brings the village together. There are five main wells dressings which each have their own designer and group of dressers.  The school also do their own dressing and there are small boards prepared with clay for any children who want to do their own. Some of the dressers are people from other parts of the country who look forward to spending a week of their holiday well dressing in Youlgrave.  As well as the regular well dressers, other people, villagers and visitors, are encouraged to come and have a go.


The process of well dressing begins with putting the huge solid wooden boards in the river to soak for two weeks  -  this helps keep the clay damp and therefore the petals of the flowers used to make the design stay fresh longer.  Each well dressing uses up to five specially shaped boards, which when assembled stand about 10 feet high.  Getting the boards into and out of the river involves tractors and trailers going down a very narrow road and lots of people to lift the boards. In a normal year the boards would now be soaking in the river as our well dressings are always put up on the nearest Saturday to 24th June. On the Monday evening following their fortnight of soaking the now very much heavier  boards are lifted out of the river and have clay puddled onto them (this is a particularly popular activity which the local children like to help with!) before they are taken to their respective places around the village ready for the petalling to begin.


The designers don’t discuss their design with each other so no-one knows what the finished picture will be, nor even the theme which usually has a clear religious message relating to something topical. Last year all five designs were variations on the theme of climate change and caring for our world.  The dressers arrive on Tuesday keen to see what they will be expected to achieve. There can be any number working at any time but usually between about 6 and 20. Huge sheets of paper with the design drawn on are laid on the clay and the first job is the prick out the design with something sharp and pointy. The middle board is the largest and usually has a picture. The outside boards are mostly patterns. Next, black wool is used to outline the sections of the design. On Tuesday or Wednesday the petalling starts. First to go on are dried flower petals, leaves and seeds which will last well, then less hardy petals are added. Buttercups which shine beautifully but quickly fade aren’t put on until Friday evening. Hydrangeas make stunning skyscapes.  The work is intense. One of the designers worked out that it had taken 250 man hours to complete his dressing one year and that would be similar for all the dressings.  It feels so special to be part of this tradition, creating something beautiful and watching it fade away over the next few days. Some people are surprised at the amount of work that goes into something that lasts such a short time but the satisfaction comes from completing your small part successfully and adding to the overall effect. 


At 6am on the Saturday morning the hard work of getting all of the dressings erected ready for the influx of visitors starts.  Each well has its own team and young fit men are much in demand. Often there are more of the older, less fit men available but it all gets done. Youlgrave’s wells are floodlit in the evenings so that has to be organised as well. This is the first time that the designers and dressers will have seen each other’s wells so there is much interested discussion about the designs, construction and materials used;  but it is not competitive.


So there is sadness about missing this special time but it has been decided to make lots of small boards for anyone who would like to do their own well dressing in isolation for display at “The Fountain”, as the cistern which formed the receiving tank of Hannah Bowman’s original water supply is known . The committee are hoping that some of the school children will take up the challenge and be inspired enough to become future well dressers.

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