Jean, Melbourne Australia
I was inspired by Catherine in Sussex, the wonderful picture of her grandparents and mention of a Russian connection, and by the arrival of a book ordered quite a few weeks ago.
The book is Evgenii Vodolazkin's latest novel, Брисбен (Brisbane) which isn't yet available in English translation. Hence this project to translate it, which at 400 pages (I'm aiming for a page or two a day) might take a year to finish. Thankfully, there is no rush! And I've really needed a purpose to give more shape to the day.
My interest in Russian language was sparked by family connection. My father's parents were Russian Jews who joined the exodus at the turn of the century and ended up in the Bronx. This is their wedding photo, New York, 1910. I know very little about my Grandmother Sarah who died while still quite a young woman but my brothers and I got to know Grandpa Nathan from his visits to us in Michigan and we just adored him. As for stories, there were very few. For whatever the reasons, the details of the past were locked away. In the few tales we did hear, hunger and food were central.
This seductively foreign and somewhat mysterious (from the scarcity of stories, names, dates and places) family connection - imagine growing up in the Midwest - made the decision to study Russian almost inevitable. I get enormous pleasure from continuing to try and master it, despite being still so reliant on a dictionary. Part of the pleasure is feeling a connection to my extended family, known and unknown.
When I look at the wedding photo though I now think of my grandfather's parents who surely knew they wouldn't see him, or his older and younger sisters again once they left for the New World. This thought is particularly poignant, with both my children living in other countries, the question of when we might be able to see each other is the heavy unknown.
David Horovitch, Twickenham
Well, I am old then. It's a fair cop. It was something I had managed to keep from myself until a couple of months ago when the 'elderly and the vulnerable' were asked - or were we told? - to stay at home for twelve weeks. 'Elderly' was defined as over seventy but I was unclear whether being over seventy also made me 'vulnerable' or whether they were a separate category. I did begin to realise my age actually on my seventieth birthday when no-one said to me 'Seventy is the new 50' or any of the other euphemistic crap with which we ageless baby-boomers consoled each other as the decades rolled by, the reading glasses grew stronger by .5 a year, a joint meant something you replaced rather than rolled and we attended more funerals than weddings.
I had what Yeats calls an old man's frenzy in my local corner shop last weekend. Tiring of hot cross buns I craved a crumpet as a pregnant woman might crave chocolate. Day after day I had looked fruitlessly for them in my little local Tesco's. I had mentioned this to several understanding 'elderly' friends - one said he thought that you could only get them in winter but another said she had got them in her Tesco's in Petersham. It was fast becoming The Great St Margaret's Crumpet Scandal when I hit upon the idea of asking for them in my amazingly well stocked little corner shop. When the uncomprehending assistant brought me a packet of cornflakes I could feel the Yeatsian gorge rising, the Yeatsian bile boiling. I wanted to turn on my heel and leave but in these days of social distancing I had to wait for the people in the narrow aisles to make way for me as I couldn't sashay around them as I could have done in the broad sunlit uplands of Waitrose. A couple of days later I went into Tesco's and there they were - between scones and bagels - smiling up at me - Warburton's Crumpets, clear as day. I had one of them with blackcurrant jam at teatime and realised, with bitter disappointment, that I only really like them in winter by a roaring fire. Age is called second childhood because it so closely resembles the first.
Francis, my son, came round again yesterday and we had coffee and a little cold chicken and salad, pears and ice cream in the courtyard outside my front door. Then we walked down to the river through a haze of shoulder-high cow parsley in the woods round Orleans House. We saw a blackcap (I think). The birdsong was glorious, the horse-chestnut candles browning already, over as soon as they had come, the rhododendrons just coming into their own, the river blue as The Med in the sunshine. We talked about this strange hiatus in our lives, the resplendent early summer backdrop in contradistinction to the pockets of tragedy in the hospitals and care - homes and wondered where we, individually nationally, cosmically are heading. One thing is certain they say - we're facing the worst recession for 300 years. It's suddenly shifted from 12 to 300. After Francis left I made some soda bread and a dear friend came round to the courtyard and we had tea and chatted for an hour or so. It was a good day.
Catherine and Nicky, I'd like to join the 'Unhappy at St Chris Club' please. I hated my first two years there and couldn't understand how my parents could have done such a thing to me but, as I grew older and started to act in the school play and play cricket and go out with girls I loved it. Funnily enough the smell of cow parsley always takes me back there.
Words from Wood Lane
Susan Neave, Beverley
The banners are up for our ‘virtual’ street party. As my contribution to the zoom entertainment I shall be reading something my late uncle wrote in 1985 headed ‘VE Day - Forty years on’. Born in 1920, he joined the 7th Royal Norfolk Regiment after the outbreak of World War 2. In 1940 he was sent to France, and captured at St Valéry-en-Cauz in June when the French surrendered, becoming a Prisoner of War. For him what followed was almost five years of ‘lockdown’, not in social isolation, but in prison camps far from home. Like many other Prisoners of War he called 8 May 1945 ‘Liberation Day’. In his notes he records how the sun shone warmly that morning ‘as we experienced the unforgettable transition from captivity and hardship to freedom and privilege’. By that date they were in a camp in Czechoslovakia, and spent their first few days of liberation in a smart hotel in Pardubice whilst the railway tracks to Prague were being repaired. He finally arrived home in England on 18 May. It puts the restrictions imposed on us over the past few weeks into perspective.
Clean, sort, tidy
Lily, Camberwell, London
I was so bored with it all this week. As much as I like a routine I got fed up with the daily house bound obligations we have at the moment, which meant I took it out on the children, the husband and the cat by being very grumpy and snappy. There are usually little successes and things to look forward to and challenges to make the routine a comfortable cushion to fall back on. I have heard the same from others, chatting to work colleagues who feel they are swimming in stagnation (“I haven’t even been able to read a book since this started”), or have gone through panic, then used the down time for self-reflection and now want to get on with something.
I just lost the enthusiasm to teach the children this week and my patience was too short. I wanted to be elsewhere. It turns out I wanted to be at work. I had a couple of short Zoom meetings in the afternoons, after doing school with the children, but couldn’t get on with what came from the calls. I couldn’t put my energy into the challenges asked of me.
Today was my work day and since I could focus just on work, I feel better. Even though I was in my dark office all day (we’ve started to call it the orifice, it has two doors but no windows) and the weather is beautiful today and the gold finches made a return to the bird feeder this morning and I couldn’t watch for them and everyone else in the street seemed to be out or sitting on their front steps with a newspaper and a cup of something; like they do in New York.
At the start of lockdown I had no idea what would happen to work. My work is training and teaching for charities, businesses and museums, it’s all about communication and human contact. And we do it with people, in rooms, together. All our work for the next 3 months was “postponed” – panic, we then decided to reflect on the business and use this “great pause” to think about how to develop the business, and now we and our clients are looking at how to get on with it. So the Zoom meetings are gathering pace.
Each Zoom meeting I have starts the same way, people adjust their hair, shift to find a good angle (either to get themselves out of shot or to flatter themselves), inevitably there is a technical issue to sort out “Can you hear me?”, then there is small talk “How are you?” or “How are you finding it?” “Oh it’s so good to see you!”. At first I spoke compulsively; I can talk to someone new! But now I have a more measured approach. I am listening, watching more. Facilitating the conversation to move past the awkward silences and pauses that are more forgiving in real life. The talking was stilted at first, the natural rhythm of being able to run over or finish each other’s statements as thoughts and arguments grew, was not possible, so speaking felt held back, delayed. Now the slower more deliberate pace, of giving turns, of asking if someone else has something to add feels kinder, more attentive. There have still been lovely informal moments that we have enjoyed in the past when meeting clients and building relationships with them. A joke, a shared moment, a mutual appreciation. But the subtleties of a raised eye brow, or a knowing look, a sympathetic smile are harder to share or find.
In the Zoom meetings we are finding out how many of our clients, especially in museums, are starting to think about how to still meaningfully connect, engage and interact with their visitors (customers) and each other, either virtually or in whatever distanced environment we will return to eventually. There are plans being initiated to start fresh, to notice what is good about life now and to carry that on in the new normal.
Chris Gates, Norfolk UK
Well, the Press were so well behaved at yesterday’s Briefing (Dom Raab) that no-one had a go over the dodgy Turkish PPE, much to my disappointment - but then they had the heady excitement of the upcoming ‘relaxations’ to worry about. Not that Raab was willing or able to give anything away ahead of the PM’s address scheduled for Sunday evening, but it didn’t stop them asking. The Government, collectively are to blame for leaking lockdown snippets of info, particularly with a sunny Bank Holiday weekend ahead. Now, they’re beside themselves worrying we’ll jump the gun and rush out socialising prematurely. Or maybe they want us to do that, then to say “look, you can’t be trusted, all privileges withdrawn!”
It’s ‘VE Day’ here in the UK (possibly where you are too) or rather it’s the 75th anniversary of the day, and special it must have been too - if you were there. Since street parties and gatherings in Trafalgar Square are forbidden, we’re being encouraged to hold 40’s style celebratory teas at home. At the risk of alienating and appearing a killjoy, but speaking from the perspective of the son of a serving survivor and his anxious wife, I find it odd that anyone who wasn’t there can find reason to celebrate anything. My parents were alive at the 50 year mark and resisted celebration then. They hated the War, the loss, the disruption, the betrayals - and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t find much to celebrate about now. They probably formed that view in me...
Colonel Tom now, he’s every right to mark the day in whatever way he pleases. He’s about on the £33,000,000 mark and an unseemly squabble has broken out about the ‘Just Giving’ organisation who’s taking a cut of £330,000 for running the show. Notable among those not criticising them is Tom himself, though no doubt he’s being pressed by the HackPack to do so.
Stanstead Airport has announced that any return to flight normalcy will be accompanied by passengers wearing masks and gloves. I guess that’s only after checking in, passing through Security and the boarding Gate, all points where identification has up to now been thought important and masks discouraged. So, just while shopping and flying then.
Here in my semi-isolated tree and grass bubble nothing much looms today other than the joyous spreading of the last half-ton of gravel, a bonfire and further experimentation with my new ‘Trail Camera’ - the sort of thing you leave to capture shots of visiting wildlife. Last evening/night/early morning something absolutely shredded two dead pheasants left out for today’s bonfire. I found another intact dead one this morning, so that’s going to be moved to the scene of the crime where I can fix the camera. My money’s on a Crow or Buzzard, both common round here, both opportunists, normally after pheasant or guineafowl eggs. Good luck with the guineafowl eggs, I once ran over a stray one with the mower, heard it ‘ching’ in the blades and it never broke. Fascinating to read of Michael’s Isle of Wight ant-eating crow, never seen one do that.
Ahead of BJ’s Sunday announcement, and for a chuckle, here’s what the veteran political cartoonist Matt sees as likely on the relaxations front.
Clarissa Upchurch, Wymondham
VE Day 75th Anniversary
The argument going back and forth (some movement at least in these ‘Stay At Home’ days) is how are the British people going to be kept in lockdown this Bank Holiday weekend especially as the weather is going to be sunny and warm, never mind the fact we are also celebrating VE day, with bunting, flypasts and singing ‘we’ll meet again” to a big internet video screening? Street parties with cups of tea and Victoria sponge cake are discouraged yet no one has banned it.
Boris is going to be speaking to the nation (I hope he wears his churchillian suit) as late as Sunday when the weather is predicted to dive for colder conditions so no one will be partying. He is going to reveal his plans after medical and scientific modelling, and his ‘road map’ for the future easing of restrictions on this long suffering nation (it’s only 6 weeks! The war lasted 6 years!).
I hope he has a map showing us areas where the fight will continue and where the enemy has been eradicated. Norfolk is proudly positioned at the bottom of the virus league table (like our football club in the Premier League) for a very low R number and therefore a low number of deaths.
Norfolk has a higher number of pensioners so this statistic seems odd but there is plenty of space in the county though some would argue that the countryside is being eaten up by new housing developments attached to every town and village. Does having a low number of deaths from Covid 19 make us feel safer when we go out to the shops? The Government has made such an excellent job of frightening people into staying at home, (well, the majority have, I think it was 82%) that it may have distracted us from the awful lack of preparation for the pandemic. The UK is not alone in being unprepared but we do have the highest recorded number of deaths! This pandemic has been forecast for a number of years by scientists and epidemiologists.
When I walk around Wymondham on sunny days I see very few people over the age of 75, I am guessing they think the risk is still too high for them. Unlike the war the virus is invisible so the elderly might feel the threat more acutely. The people who must get back to work soon, before the economy crashes, must be worried about travel. If you have ever been on a crowded bus or train, especially in winter, you will have experienced someone coughing or sneezing. But this virus can be on the handrail, the plastic seat, or clinging to the coat of a passenger. It is enough to make anyone want to stay indoors for the rest of the year, or until a vaccine is developed. But living in fear is not to be recommended, even for 6 weeks.
In the fifties, my childhood was spent living in Malaya. This was during the Emergency, where the unseen threat was of attacks on British personnel (stationed there since end of the WW2 to clear up after the Japanese invasion) by a Chinese, mainly Communist, guerrilla army living in the dense, sometimes impenetrable jungle. Life was certainly dangerous. There was loss of life among the British forces mainly by ambush, and murderous attacks on rubber plantation owners too. We lived in a small village in Johor Bahru province with the jungle edge very close to our village style house. No high fences or guards, not even a fierce Alsatian dog to protect us!
The jungle was a dark edge with an even darker interior, full of threat. In between it and our house was a sugar cane field which my two siblings and I raided when it was siesta time so no one was around. Our aim was to plunder the woody canes, breaking through the toughness with our teeth to get to the incredibly sickly sweet juice. It gave us such a thrill (and bad teeth!).
We children never saw the ‘enemy’, we only heard of prisoners been taken to the police station. Once, we were told, there was a dead ‘Commie’. I pictured him in my five year old mind, lying on the floor of the station to be recorded and then searched for any information, later to be buried in an unmarked grave near the jungle edge.
The fear that we might be ambushed was also palpable but never talked about. In the same way there is a fear this pandemic will ambush us again if the lockdown is lifted too soon, that the R number will rise above 1 and an even higher second spike in infections will result in more deaths. I think we should stay at home for now.
Maybe we need armoured vehicles such as the one in which I travelled around at night when the danger of ambush was greater, peering through narrow slits in the iron windscreen, the headlights picking out the edge of the jungle, my heart in my mouth.
House in Labis, Johor Bahru
From the Editor
Twenty five years ago, it was the fiftieth anniversary of V.E day. I remember a small group of us dressed up forties style (I remember the bright red lipstick), had a bonfire in our field, a meal of spam, and camp coffee (there must have been other food) and opened a sixty five year old bottle of claret that Peter’s father had bought, saved, and bequeathed to him. It was undrinkable. So was the Camp coffee. As for the spam...
My father was alive then, but he didn’t celebrate it. In May 1945 he was still in Europe; it was some months before he arrived back in England. He didn’t talk much about it, but did say what a glorious day it was when he was demobbed, and was given a civvy suit and a bar of Kitkat chocolate! He must have kept his army greatcoat because I can remember him wearing it when I was little, and I still have his regimental scarf and cap badge. All he really said about the war was that it was terrifying being in a tank, that they found good camembert cheese in Normandy, and that his very fierce sergeant major sewed patchwork when off duty.
I’m not sure what my father would have made of this lockdown. Enjoyed the garden, I think. He lived for six years after my mother died in 1993, first staying in their house and garden, and somehow managing to cook meals or take his rather attractive divorced neighbour out to dinner. Then selling up, and spending the last two years between our house in Norfolk, and my brother’s in Scotland, travelling happily by train between us. He’d had cancer, and walked with a stick at 84, but no one ever even thought of putting him in a care home. Times change. After the scandal of care homes in the time of corona virus, perhaps families will think twice before seeing care homes as the obvious solution for the elderly.
Perhaps we’ll all end up in a different sort of lockdown.
Then and now
Yes, I remember it, but I shan’t join 103 year-old Vera to sing “We’ll meet again”. There was a bonfire in The Drift; we put up bunting and flags, there was a children’s bunfight in the Village Hall. The war was not over. I made an Exhibition of nonsense in my bedroom labelled “Beat the Jap: Admission 1d”. Photographs of Belsen were fresh in our minds; the atom bomb had not yet fallen. Here is my poem for V.E. day from my collection, The Air Show - remembering my first wife’s uncle, Captain Raymont, a career officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, killed on the retreat to Dunkirk, and Margaret’s father, Leslie Steward, a non-commissioned officer who served in the Royal Armoured Corps, landed in France on D. Day plus 4, fought his way through into Germany, via the Ardennes, and lived - but not to tell the tale - though he always used Parade Ground Gloss on his shoes! No ‘Victory’in 2020, though.
Carpamus dulcia: nostrum est
Quod vivis, cinis, et manes, et fabula fies.
Persius: Satire V
Noticing oddly how flags had been rubbed thin,
Bleaching in shut drawers, now unrolled
In blues, reds, their creases of old skin
Tacked on brown lances, headed with soft gold.
Clothes-lines of bunting,
And light fresh at the front door. May
Switching the sky with stray bits of green,
The road levelling off, the day much like a day
Others could be, and others might have been.
A woman laughing,
Sewing threadbare cotton to windy air,
The house open: hands, curtains leaning out
To the same gravel, the same anywhere, everywhere.
Birds remain birds, cats cats, messing about
In the back garden.
And a table-land of toys to be put away,
To wither and shrivel back to Homeric names.
Scraps gathering myth and rust, the special day
Moving to its special close: columnar flames
Down to a village bonfire
In which things seasoned and unseasoned burn
Through their black storeys, and the mild night
Fuels the same fires with the same unconcern:
Dresden, Ilium, London: the witch-light
Bright on a ring of children.
Night, and the huge bombers lying cold to touch
The bomb-bays empty under the Perspex skull.
The pyres chill, that ate so fiercely, and so much,
The flags out heavily: the stripes charcoal, dull.
Ashes, ghosts, fables.