Friday, October 14, 2016

Thank you

Thank you to everyone who posted such kind comments in response to my last post. I would have liked to respond to each individual comment, but I'm not firing on all cylinders at the moment.

The cremation took place this morning and went as well as I could have hoped. Everybody seemed to think that my mother would have been pleased with it. We read one of her poems, I read a tribute and during the time of quiet reflection, we listened to Abide With Me. There was also a second poem by a Mr Anon, which was so apposite I wondered if anyone would guess the author's identity.

At the end, I handed out roses to each person and they placed them by the coffin. Afterwards, someone came up to me and asked me where I'd managed to find such beautiful flowers. I didn't tell them that I'd spent £6 in Tesco the previous day.

The next post I write will be to give the name and web address of my new blog.

I will finish with a picture of my mother behind the till at Woolworths in Teddington, for Chris, who wondered if he'd seen her there. She worked there every weekday morning until 1990. My father thought that she should do something better, but the hours fittted around the school holidays and she wasn't too proud to work there.

Next week, I will begin the long, slow process of dismantling a life, forensically going through every item in her flat: the reading glasses, tablets, walking stick, Werther's Originals, romance novels, Damart catalogues, old birthday cards from her family, certificates, framed cross stitch pictures, biscuits and unopened sets of notelets. 

It will feel wrong, as if she is going to come back and ask me what I have done.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Never Say Never

I had thought that The Last Post was the last post; on this blog at least. I'd set up a new blog on Wordpress and planned to make it more 'multimedia', beginning with a podcast featuring my mother and her friends talking about the day war broke out.

I wanted to record their stories before it was too late.

Sadly, it already was too late. My mother had a major heart attack ten days ago, but didn't realise what had happened and simply thought that she was unwell. By the time she was admitted to hospital, four days later, the damage to her heart was irreversible.

She didn't know that she was dying. During my last visit, only ten hours before her death, my mother asked me to bring a comb with me when I returned, as she was concerned that her perm was in a mess. I made a note to buy one the next day.

The hospital phoned several times during the night, but I was sound asleep and heard nothing. When I finally answered, a doctor told me to get there as soon as I could. I raced across the South Downs in the dark, jumping the traffic lights when there were no other cars. I arrived just in time.

My mother was asleep, with an oxygen mask over her face. The doctor didn't beat around the bush: "I'm afraid your mother is dying. I don't think it will be long. We've done everything we can to make her comfortable." The nurse stroked my arm and the doctor asked if we had any religious requirements. I shook my head.

The oxygen mask steamed up every time my mother exhaled. I noticed that her left eyelid was half open, but I had been assured that she wasn't conscious. I wondered how things could have changed so much over a few hours.

I took my phone out and sent a text to my wife to let her know what was happening. After pressing send, I looked up and noticed that the oxygen mask was clear. The nurse took my mother's wrist: "She's gone." A heart that had been beating continuously since 1929 had stopped.

It was a shock, but also a relief. My mother had died a peaceful, dignified death, blissfully unaware of what was happening to her. If she'd lived, she would have had a pretty awful existence, needing help with even the most basic tasks. She had always dreaded ending up in a home or 'going potty' and selfishly, I dreaded it too. 

In spite of decreasing mobility, my mother had led a pretty active life right up until the end. She spent her last two weeks hobbling around the streets of Lewes, determined to get one of the new plastic five pound notes. I don't know why she was so excited by them, but it became something of an obsession.  Sadly, she didn't find one.

I felt that I had to write this post, as I have written about my mother so many times and didn't want to leave out the end of the story.

I have just started to receive cards through the post. Whenever I see the phrase "passed on", I silently cringe, partly because my mother hated it so much: "They haven't passed on; they've died," she would always say. I'm not sure why it made her so angry, but perhaps growing up surrounded by death, during the London Blitz, gave her a contempt for the coyness of the modern age.

People are being very nice to me, saying how shocked I must feel, but my overwhelming emotion is one of gratitude that my mother lived as long and as well as she did. I've witnessed some pretty horrible deaths over the years and it was a huge relief to see my mother die peacefully.

At some point, I hope I'll be able to write something about my mother's life, but for the moment this is as much as I can do.

I will post a link to the new blog when it's ready.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Last Post

This blog is ten years old today and I have decided that this will be my last post, as I feel that the content has become increasingly repetitive. It was relatively easy to write when I had a job that exposed me to a wealth of amusing books, photos and diaries, but my present role as a 'carer' doesn't provide the same inspiration and posts take twice as long to write.

Some people have suggested that I write about my current experiences, but I feel that this would intrude on my sons' privacy. My older son has very strong opinions on the subject and every time I mention him in a blog post, I experience a slight pang of betrayal. It would be better to just stop.

I also feel that I need to focus on what I am going to do when, in a year's time, I'm able to return to work. I have almost a third of my working life ahead of me and have absolutely no idea what to do with it. I could revive my book business, but with so many suppliers going out of business, getting stock has become a real struggle.

I’m planning to take a break for a while, after which I will either set up a new blog or try and build a website. If that happens, I'll post a link here. Unlike a well-known book blogger, I will not be initiating the auto-destruct sequence and the content here will simply gather dust in the attic of cyberspace and the archives of the British Library.

The blog began as a simple experiment, while I was laid up in bed after eating some bad oysters. I wrote a rather fatuous post and pressed publish, not expecting anyone to read it. However, within a day I received an interesting comment from someone called Ms Baroque and realised that a blog post wasn't a monologue, but the beginning of a conversation.

I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read these posts over the years. I still can't quite understand why anyone would want to follow this blog, but I'm deeply grateful to those who do.

I would also like to thank those who have commented for their kindness, thoughtfulness and wisdom. Thanks to fellow bloggers, I have discovered some wonderful books, learned about subjects I knew nothing about and visited exhibitions that I might otherwise have missed.

In addition to communicating across the ether, I have also met a few bloggers, all of whom were as interesting and likeable as their writing.

I would like to apologise to anyone who has been offended by what I have written in some of my posts. There has never been any intent to cause upset, but my attempts to amuse may have occasionally hit a wrong note, either through naivety or thoughtlessness on my part.

I will continue to post on Twitter and Instagram (as phil._.b), so I hope to maintain contact with some of the people who have been good enough to follow this blog.

Once again, many thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

To the North

By modern day standards I'm not particularly well travelled, but I have seen a little of the world and visited some unusual places. However, I've been pretty useless at exploring my own country. I wasn't fully aware of this until a couple of months ago, when I worked out that I had spent less than two weeks of my adult life on the northern side of the Watford Gap.

It came as a shock to realise that I'd spent more time in Chile, Spain or France than the upper two thirds of Great Britain, so I resolved to do something about it.

I'd wanted to explore the north for quite a few years, but my older son couldn't cope with any car journey over three hours and after a disastrous trip to Spain, we decided to give up on family holidays. 

However, my son has made so much progress during the last year, we felt that it was worth trying again, so I got out a map and worked out how far we could travel over ten days.

I checked distances on Google Maps and came up with the following intinerary: Lewes-Knaresborough-Whitby-Alnwick-Lindisfarne-Edinburgh-Inverness-Fort William-Glasgow-Lake Windemere-Yorkshire Dales-Haworth-Lewes. It would be a whistlestop tour of northern England and Scotland.

After confirming that our trip would include visits to Scottish relatives and a detour to the Lake District, my wife gave her royal ascent and I booked family rooms in a succession of hotels and b&bs. Then, two weeks ago, we got in the car and looked for a road sign that pointed to 'The North'.

For many years, I assumed that the North began somewhere slightly beyond Northampton, where people began to rhyme 'luck' with 'push' and many placenames ended in 'by' or 'thwaite'. There would be drystone walls instead of hedgerows and wild, windswept moorlands. But I was wrong. Before the North there is a place called the Midlands and everything looks quite similar for a long time.

I also noticed that even when I reached Yorkshire, it didn't look particularly northern until I'd driven right up to the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, at which point the landscape dramtically changed and became more interesting.

But rather than bore you with a blow by blow account, here is a brief summary of the highs and lows of the trip:

  • The landscape of the Scottish Highlands.
  • The accents, all of which were music to my ears compared to our local one.
  • Knaresborough - one of the most beautiful towns I've visited, anywhere.
  • North Yorkshire, which fulfilled my dreams of wild and windy moors.
  • Whitby - a beautiful fishing town with the best fish and chips in Britain.
  • The B&Bs we stayed at - a far cry from their grim predecessors.
  • The museums and galleries of Edinburgh - all within walking distance, unlike London.
  • Visiting my wife's Scottish relatives.
  • The awful chain hotels we stayed at - soulless and expensive, with suprisingly bad food.
  • Glasgow - I enoyed exploring the city, but my sons hated it and refused to leave the hotel.
  • 11 days of UHT milk pods - you can't make a decent cup of tea with it.
  • The eternal struggle of finding somewhere to park.
  • Holy Island - It had always looked impressive from a distance. Up close, it has bungalows.
  • The cost of even the most basic evening meal.
  • The drive home, which went on and on and on.
Here are some photos:

Knaresborough was beautiful and civilised. I would like to go back for longer and also explore nearby Harrowgate.

I was also a big fan of Whitby, which is a very picturesque fishing port, but also a traditional working class holiday resort, which saves it from being too twee. I particularly liked the famed Yorkshire 'plain speaking' as displayed by a rather taciturn waiter who simply looked at our plates and said "All done?"

My wife took a while to adjust: "They don't seem to have a wine list. Is that a northern thing?"

I'd wanted to visited Whitby ever since I'd watched a BBC Play for Today called The Fishing Party.


The ruined Whitby Abbey is the town's main attraction and the connection with Dracula draws many people with dyed black hair and unfortunate tattoos. I also noticed a lot of older men with shaved heads and large, slightly menacing dogs.

I don't normally long for bad weather, but I felt that the Abbey had lost some of its mystery in the bright sunshine, so in the evening I climbed the famous 199 steps and took some more atmopsheric shots, like this one:

This is the Falling Foss - one of the many beautiful rivers and falls in North Yorkshire. My sons loved clambering over the rocks.

Edinburgh was a big hit with everyone. We booked an apartment just off the Royal Mile, which I can warmly recommend if you like non-stop bagpipe playing. Sometimes two pipers were playing different pieces at the same time, like a Charles Ives composition.

An octogenrian relative offered to drive us around the city and out of politeness we assented, but it turned out to be one of the most terrifying experiences I've ever had, like a very slow but deadly James Bond car chase.

This photo above is of a very attractive Edinburgh cafe that serves haggis sausages.

What better way to start a visit to the Highlands than a cruise on Loch Ness? Sadly, we were acommpanied by several dozen Chinese tourists, all armed with selfie sticks, who seemed rather over-excited and kept shouting over the commentary on the boat. At first I thought it was a one-off, but we witnessed the same behaviour on several occasions and our b&b owner confirmed that this was a common phenomenon.

I remember a time when, along with the Japanese and the Scandinavians, the Chinese were the most well-behaved and self-effacing of travellers. What has happened?

I'd always assumed that Inverness was a small, charming Highland town and part of it still is, but it is also now one of Europe's fastest-growing cities, with Sim City-like industrial zones and suburbs. It also has a very large secondhand bookshop called Leakey's, which is well worth a visit.

After what my wife's great-uncle described as a 'dreich' day, we were rewarded with some glorious weather when we drove to the west coast. I noticed that nearly half of the cars on the road were from the Netherlands. I've no idea why, but perhaps they were seeking relief from the relentless flatness of their own country.

Plockton is one of the most beautiful places on the west coast - a small fishing village that, due to some geographical quirk, faces east. Its location in a protected bay and the Gulf Stream give it a surprisingly mild climate. Palm trees can be found by the harbour.

I had been to Plockton once before and met an interesting woman who was a very keen member of the SNP. She very kindly drove me around the Isle of Skye and gave me a map showing a route that took me on a path up into hills above Plockton. When I reached the top, the view was breathtaking. I vowed I would return as soon as I could.

That was 13 years ago.

Glencoe - a stunning place with a tragic history. I intended to go for a long walk, but when my sons found a stream and started building a dam, I didn't have the heart to stop them:

Parents can spend so much money on keeping their children entertained, but the greatest pleasures in life usually cost nothing (fuel, food and accommodation excepted). If we go back, I think I'll look for somewhere where my sons can just mess around in the water, preferably without drowning,

Later we stopped by a loch and my sons ruined two pairs of shoes, but had one of the happiest afternoons of their lives.

After the grandeur of the Scottish Highlands, Glasgow was an huge disappointment, as far as my sons were concerned. I thought it was it little like London - not beautiful, but full of interesting buildings and hidden gems, so I took a train to Partick and began exploring. I'd like to see more of Glasgow, but I suspect it will be a solo trip.

Glasgow's reputation as a tough city is neatly encapsulated in the 'No Spitting' signs in their old subway carriages, which can be seen in the excellent Riverside Museum. The sign wasn't simply an attempt to improve the manners of Glasgow's more uncouth inhabitants, but also a vital measure in the fight against TB, which claimed blighted the lives of many Glaswegians.

Although TB no longer ravages the tenements of Glasgow, the city still has many public health problems and I noticed many people who were not only morbidly obese, but also keen smokers. Glasgow is officially the sickest city in the United Kingdom and one in four men don't reach their 65th birthday.

After Glasgow, we drove down to the Lake District and hired a boat on Lake Windemere. Like Loch Ness, it was full of Chinese tourists with selfie sticks, but I managed to find a self-drive boat and we escaped from the madding crowd. Apart from a near collision with a paddle steamer, we had a very pleasant time.

On the final day, we visited the Bronte Museum in Haworth, which was well worth the additional two hours journey time. On the dining table, where the sisters wrote their novels, there is a small E carved by Emily, who died on the couch in the background. The other rooms are full of interest, containing childhood ephemera, Bramwell's paintings and Charlotte's wedding dress.

I was particularly struck by a display of locks of hair - Emily was very blonde - and wondered if it would be possible to recreate the Bronte family using Jurassic Park-style technology.

I said I wouldn't bore you with a blow by blow account, but I seem to have done exactly that. To conclude, the holiday was a success and my older son, who once refused to leave the house, seems energised by the experience. Like so many children with his issues, he loved the most remote parts of the Highlands and hated anywhere that was full of tourists.

As for me, in the same way that some middle aged men realise that they're gay after years of denial, I have discovered that I am a closet Northerner. I suppose all the signs were there - a fondness for mushy peas, an aversion to direct sunlight and a preference for plain speaking.

Perhaps I've been living in the wrong part of England all this time.