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John Underwood, Norfolk

Proper Norfolk

Our garden is always at its best in early June. The roses are in full first bloom, and the vegetables in the garden are all looking healthy and full of promise. This year we have had the time to make a netted enclosure for brassicas, and have also covered the two small strawberry beds - for the first time ever. We had almost given up on attempting to grow any cabbage or broccoli because of cabbage white butterflies and their voracious caterpillars, but this year, in order to cut down on visits to shops in Autumn, and in expectation of further lockdowns in future, we decided to fight back and stop them laying their eggs. We have also tended to allow birds a share of the strawberries, but for the same reason, have netted the beds. We usually dig and feed the raised beds in February, buying beautiful well rotted manure from a local who would not be out of place in the “Shepheard’s Calender“.


I would describe him as Proper Norfolk. Deep Norfolk. Mariana Trench deep. Baler twine belt, almost toothless, and very slow to speak. His tractors date from the mid 1970’s. He rears the most beautiful pedigree cattle, keeping them in a large shed over winter, and his whole being lights up when he talks about them. It is the litter straw that is the by-product of their husbandry that he piles up and keeps for a season or two before bagging up. Wonderful stuff. We have missed our visit to him this year. I always feel like a stupid “townie” when we go there, although we have lived in rural Norfolk for more than forty years. Not locals yet, although our children, born here, might be considered to be so. Not proper Norfolk though.


From the 1611 Edition of Edmund Spencer’s “ Shepheard’s Calender”

“Twelve Months Of The Year” a tiny chapbook,

printed in London in Paternoster-Row, circa 1830-50


At Home

Nicky, Vermont, US

On Saturday my friend Michele organized that we would walk up the road with neon green plastic bags collecting the rubbish that people throw out of their cars. We were officially part of Green Up Day, being held a month after it is usually scheduled. We live on a small dirt road, very rural, but it gets quite a lot of traffic. Together Michele and I picked up four bags full of coffee cups and other stuff. We found some strange things, like small empty boxes of wine, and beer cans. Obviously people are drinking as they drive then just tossing the evidence. We also found a mac plug which I took home because I can always use another usb port to plug into the wall, but it turned out to be full of gritty mud. Halfway up the hill we looked up and there was a bear looking down the road at us. It wasn’t huge, maybe an adolescent, about four feet tall and quite bulky, but it was thrilling. It looked at us and then turned and ambled off into the woods.   

What I’m not writing about: the murder of a Black man by a white police officer while three other white police officer stood and watched. Trump’s comments inciting violence against people demonstrating about the murder and other police murders of Black people. Demonstrations across the country. We live in a mostly white rural enclave and there are demonstrations and confrontations happening here, including one this afternoon. I hope something good can come of all this. And I hope the situation doesn’t get enflamed into even more of a crisis by the very right wing and by our president. This is what I’m not writing about.


View from a balcony

Constance, Southern France

Too much to write and so little time


I write a lot, mainly in my head. Ideas come, descriptions of daily life, people watching and landscapes. I "have" aphantasia, a rather pompous way of saying that I don't visualise things in my head (one of my many internet lockdown research themes). So if I want to remember a landscape, image or someone I have to comment and describe what i'm seeing to myself. So you can imagine there is a lot of writing and commenting going on in my head.


If you've been following my far between contributions to the Plague 20 journal you may remember (I am not really expecting you to remember, except my parents who read my occasional column) that I craft (I am still excited by those metal rustless snap fasterners). Craft is a nice concise word. However, I find it very hard to translate the concept into French. When people ask me what my hobbies are (just to be clear: in a French-speaking setting), I would like to answer "crafting": one word, many things. French-speaking people don't know what I mean, so I say: "coudre, broder, faire du crochet, des illustrations, des cartes, dessiner..." Translation: "to sew, do embroidery, crochet, illustrations, make cards, draw". Some people will answer: "tu ne tricote pas?" ("Don't you knit?"), others "Wow, c'est bien de jeunes qui savent coudre!" ("It's good to see young people sew!") or "quand est-ce que tu trouves le temps?" ("When do you have the time?").  These answers are mostly well-meaning but can ever so slightly annoy me. The answer to the first comment is "no". I don't have the time at the moment to learn and I don't need another hobby although I would like an excuse to buy beautiful yarn. The second comment is condescending and I am not so young anymore (I do look younger than I am). I will accept the comment if you look over seventy. Refrain from it if you aren't. The last one is that unless you have children or are someone's carer, you do have the time. I work quite a lot and the way to have the time is to spend it wisely. Spend less time on screens! (That is true for myself too.) You will be happy to read that I usualy answer most graciously with a well-meaning smile and vague comment.


One of the French translation for craft on the internet (a synonym for Truth nowadays - only joking) suggests is "art populaire". I don't think it is accurate. The concept isn't translated. What does this translation make me? Technically, "une artiste populaire" which seems rather pompous or "une artiste" which I find even more pompous. And what becomes my crafting room? "Mon atelier d'artiste"? Which is much too professinal for my crafting. So I'll stick with the rather unfortunately long way around it saying: "je fais de la couture, de la broderie, du crochet..." And the answers will be the same. That is until I grow old and grey, learn to knit, which I will then add to my long list, and screens disappear from the surface of planet Earth. The first will come, the second might and the third never, it belongs to a far away distant past.


Vie de château

Marie-Christine, Blois, France

Friendship shaken by Covid


The time we had at home, when we were not gardening, cooking, cleaning, reading... was also a time alone to confront moral issues. Rob and our daughter mock me for spending too much time "looking for the meaning of life". During lockdown, a very dear friend of us used, systematically, to double the time allowed to go out, which were 1 hour/day for physical exercise, so she did 2 hours. And not only she did, but she was boasting about it, and saying she did not do any harm to anybody doing so. 

When she told me, I was rather embarrassed, thinking how to say that I found that immoral. It also made me feel a bit of a fool not breaking the rules. I was astonished she did, because she rather pontificated about people being unlawful or with immoral behaviors: making a lot of money, D. Trump tweeting, tax evasions, badly parked cars, people arriving late at work, people burden for the Sécurité Sociale = NHS (size + persons, alcoholics, smokers... ).

I did like Boris Johnson, I must admit. I like her, we know each other from 40 years, she is a kind of extra aunt for our children. I said diplomatically: "it is between you and your conscience".


Not satisfied with myself, I had been lucky with Dominique C. going to Durham, the newspapers helped me to resolve, a bit, my dilemma. I read about pragmatism like De Gaulle and opportunism more like B Johnson (interview of Julian Jackson, English biographer of Gal de Gaulle), moral responsibility, scruples being out of fashion in politics and business, post-truth society (lies about PPE and Covid tests, as many in France than in UK), what makes a society... So much reading did not simplify my problem. 

Then, I turned to short videos. Dr Jenny Harries did not help me either:  obeying lockdown rules is "matter of personal and professional integrity". My friend does not really lack integrity. I had been rescued by PR Jonathan Van Tam: " In my opinion, the rules are for the benefit of all, in my opinion, they apply to all". Clear and strong. Thank you, Professor. 

Ouf ! ( the expiration noise of a sigh of relief the French make).


Tropical thoughts

Paul Lowden, Malaysia

The Right Stuff


There are certain words the family fear: 

A ‘short cut’ may often entail prolonged

Exposure in inclement conditions

Or worse the mildly stupid verging on 

Dangerous like the Spanish descent down 

A pylon or the nip across the ravine

Using the disused railway’s handy bridge

Only to shudder to a scheduled train’s

Blaring horn. Likewise ’ramble’ which covers

Everything from a South Downs stroll and inn

To a snow darkness descent from Suilven.

I blame my dad who casually revealed 

He’d flown a Catalina to Gib’, then

West Africa, up the Congo, across

To Lake Victoria, dashed across to

Diego Garcia, Addu Atoll,

And thence to the base at Trincomalee.

Navigating by DR, sextant, stars

Made for an ‘interesting’ test of skills

Across thousands of miles of empty sea;

No short cuts allowed, no ocean rambles,

‘belt and braces’, checking everything twice.

Perhaps in response I seek the quick fix,

Hoping that it probably won’t matter 

[Not quite like missing an island pinprick

With a crew of twelve glued to binoculars!]

Like cleaning this tiled floor with window stuff

[A few quick squirts should be enough to shift

The dirt; a swift brush and then we are done.]

A pure skating rink unleashes itself,

A tropical contradiction; perhaps 

‘The right stuff’ after all is common sense,

And reading instructions, as intended!


From a very small Island

Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight

I’m still lying abed as I write this morning. The Today programme is on Radio 4 and I am listening to the usual cheerless narration on the state of the world and humanity. Where I wonder is anything good happening!  Pessimism seems to rule. The trouble is that this mood is catching. It seems to affect some people very severely, resulting in low mood and sometimes depression. Others appear to go the way of denial, perhaps resulting in dangerous and reckless behaviour at the seaside and elsewhere. This latter I have seen a lot in Ryde, and it is sometimes difficult to maintain social distancing when out and about. All of this is taking place when those who rule our land seem at best incompetent and at worst actively self-seeking and corrupt. So where is hope!


I believe there is hope to be found. During this time of strange rules and journal writing, the human quality that has come strongly my way is that of kindness. Along with all the awful events and experiences has come a rise in caring and empathy between people, especially within the local community. My neighbours speak and ask after one another far more often than was the case pre-plague. There is sharing. There is warmth in greeting between people who may not really have known one another in the recent past.


It comes as a stark realisation that this journal will shortly be complete. For me Margaret & Sheila's wonderful gift has created a feeling of new friendship and intimacy with a very creative and sharing group of people. Part of that comes from recall of shared childhood experience with some of my fellow contributors. Anyway, enough of endings as my mind moves towards beginnings...


From the black shed

David E, East Norfolk

Well that was a day to remember!

Having spent a week preparing the boat to be lifted back into the water I was getting excited. The hull was repainted, the topside cleaned and polished, the woodwork oiled and the new electric engine fitted. 

I waited patiently for the tractor and lifting gear to arrive. Alan warned me that he was having a busy time as everyone wanted their boat back in on the same day. He had eight to do at my mooring alone. Alan duly arrived at midday and within half an hour I was back on the water. From the launch point I motored gently to my allocated mooring, checked the mooring lines and decided to have my lunch in the sunshine. Happiness. 

For some unidentifiable reason I thought I would just check the bilges. My boat is always bone dry so imagine my shock when I found an inch of water! How could that happen? Further investigation revealed the cause. One of the huge bolts which attach the keels to the hull was leaking, I presume because the boat had stood out of the water too long and the seals had dried out. What to do?

Can I fix it temporarily in some way?

Shall I call Alan back to lift me out?

Who else might be able to help?

Saturday afternoon so I called the boatyard I have used before, not hopeful of a response. A helpful voice replies, thank goodness to be able to chat to an expert.

"Get your boat round here and we'll work something out. Dad (my old friend Rod) will be here and will look out for you." 


How long will it take to get there? An hour I estimate.

How fast is the leak? At least I can stop to bale out if needed.

I set off using my new electric motor, cruising gently along the river Bure. How long does this battery last?

Safe arrival at the boatyard and Rod with complete confidence says "we'll soon have you sorted."

I had imagined en route that the keel would have to be removed completely and resealed. Not a bit of it. Slings under the boat, lift half out of the water to be above the leak, then sealing compound around the loosened bolt on the inside.


Now to get back to base. I set off gently along the river, aware that both wind and tide were against me. I was about half way back when the motor began to slow. Would I get home? It soon became clear that I didn't have enough battery power so I had to hail a passing motor boat to ask for a tow. Thank goodness he was amenable, otherwise I might have spent a lonely night in my cabin with nothing but a cup of tea and an apple.

Was I pleased to get back to my mooring? Let's hope now that I have an uncomplicated season on the water. "Some hope" says anyone who has has ever owned a boat!



Words from Wood Lane

Susan Neave, Beverley

June is going to be a very strange month. During the early part of lockdown we were reasonably clear about what we could and couldn’t do. One outing per day for exercise, in the local area, plus the occasional essential trip to buy food or collect a prescription. We were comfortable with that. Then came the message that you could go out to exercise as often as you liked, and travel as far as you chose provided you could get home by evening. People started driving ridiculous distances to visit places where they weren’t welcome, and with no facilities. This can only get worse. You only have to look at images of people on the south coast beaches at the weekend to know that social distancing rules will soon be forgotten. Now the rules about meeting other people have been relaxed further, but we have yet to speak to anyone who feels confident that Covid-19 is under control. Is it really safe to begin to mix with larger groups of people? Is anyone clear exactly what we can and can’t do? Certainly around here people are being cautious. 


Everywhere seemed surprisingly quiet this morning. In a departure from our usual walk on Westwood, we took a more urban route. The first thing we noticed was that there wasn’t much traffic, and there were fewer people than usual out walking or running. We walked past the local primary school, but no sign of life there yet. I think the only change for us will be to welcome occasional visitors into the garden. One of the pleasures (and very occasionally disadvantages!) of living close to the town centre is that our house is a convenient stopping point for a cup of coffee. Several people have mentioned calling in soon, which is fine, but apart from that we’ll carry on as before. I think we have got so used to our lockdown routine that it’s going to be quite sometime before we venture far from home.

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