Monday, 29 August 2011

Too Paranoid?

With all the notices prominently displayed as we go through Customs back here in SA about not bringing in any foreign flora or fauna,  I spent half an hour scrubbing the underneath of my trainers before I left my brother's house for the airport as I discovered the indentations in their soles had trapped a fair amount of pony pooh when we were out walking the dogs.  I should explain that this would not normally have happened, but I had a very excited black and white collie on a lead next to me who is not used to walks and every now and again she would pull me off the path at a tangent so determined was she to examine a new smell. Similarly, when I was ironing my clothes this morning, I found the tiny, round, hard seed of a particularly nasty weed that I recognised from my mother's garden as having accompanied me on the plane.  I haven't seen that plant in Johannesburg or Cape Town, so I am going to annihilate it on a tiny bonfire in my back yard and then pulverize it in case it survives the fire. I don't want to be responsible for bringing invasive foreign weeds into this country. Should I pat myself on the back or I am being paranoid?

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Going Home, Local Dialects

Sunny day today - although one can't count on that: England is the land of 'showers & sunny periods' say the weather men.  My brother had at least half his holiday wet, but they don't mind, nor does the dog: they all go on long walks regardless. I remember being at a guest house in the Lake District one summer, where Wellington boots were lined up at the front door for use of guests. I am excited to go home: I've missed everyone. My dad will probably forget I was here at all but that's all right, my brother and his family have had a short break. I am making a lunch dish for them with pasta and tuna but can't find a can opener!  Have to borrow from dad again... One of the intriguing things about this part of the world has been the local dialect. Odd that very often verbs and pronouns get mixed up around here.  My great uncle used to say,  "Us'll go to the shops now, "  and "Give it we".  One chap calling for his wife upstairs in their house yelled "Where am ya?" and a local Mancunian (from Manchester) friend of my sister-in-law's asked me "'Av ya gorrit?" when determining whether I had written down a phone number correctly. It must be a fascinating study to find out how local dialects have evolved.  I would love to know if any of you have any favourite or grammatically weird pieces of language in your area?

Thursday, 25 August 2011


It will remain one day when dad has gone, to empty their house. Of course every child has to face this.  I look around at the display cabinet with all my mother's beautiful china tea sets, cut glass trifle bowls and whiskey glasses;  I see her bookcase full to bursting - some lovely books  - and then looking around the house, all her ornaments full of memories, some hers, some mine.  There are all the birthday gifts, the token gifts I brought back for her from school holidays abroad, the cockerel from Portugal, the cuckoo clock from Switzerland. When mom died, I took comfort from her sister, my dear aunt and my cousin - we all took home something to remember her by. My dad's bedroom bears witness to his interests in life, his photography equipment,  hammers and nails and boxes of tools and bits of wood. Perhaps my brother will want a few things but most have been replaced by modern technology. Maybe close family will want a few things, although I know my own children don't. They don't like clutter or ornaments, they drink out of mugs. Why do I want none of these things and yet I can't bear the thought of donating everything to strangers. Would I prefer therefore to burn everything?  Why do I feel this way? I can imagine I would want to take home the framed photographs we've given them over the years of our children but nothing else. What have any of you done with your parents' things?  Does there come a time when they again become inanimate objects and cease to embody the person?  How long does this take?

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Mementoes of Mom

Funny word. I had to look it up to make sure of the spelling. This week I decided to make my dad an apple and blackberry pie, as the garden is full of these fruits  and my mom used to make it a lot.  With custard, dad just loves it.  It will make a change from the frozen dinners he has every day, in order to fit in with my brother's household. They are very good, by the way, much better than Meals on Wheels, especially when your wife has been an exceptionally good cook as my mom was. But there's nothing like home-baked. I am staying in my brother's house (next door to my dad) and my sister-in-law has been making great crumbles every day as the plums have been in season too.  She doesn't do pastry, however, and when it came to rolling it out, I had to go over to dad's house to get my mother's rolling pin and pastry brush - and also the dish that she always used to bake the pie in. It's always an emotional thing to open up her kitchen drawers and find everything just the way she left it.  There is even a carving knife that I remember my dad sharpening every Sunday for our roast.  It's very narrow now. But still there. Fifty years later. I haven't been into her bedroom: I know her dressing table still displays the Mother's Day cards, given the week that she died - and her bottles of Chanel No.5, still in their wrapping.  My sister-in-law has asked if she may now dispose of my mother's clothes. It's two and half years now, so I said yes, grateful that I am not asked to do this myself.  When I go back home to Cape Town, I want to take the pastry brush and the rolling pin. Such small things but they mean so much.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Spelling Joke

There are always a lot of complaints from second language learners that English has the most difficult grammar and spelling. I can't argue: I am just grateful to be born British and to have had a good education. Even so I have had to admit that spelling is in a state of flux and rightly so, otherwise we would be stuck with Mediaeval English and that wouldn't do. And then there is my Spell Check which assures me that alternative American spellings are just as good. Perhaps we can still agree on the following and thus share a joke: the playwright Alan Bennett - this is he - (remember The HIstory Boys?) was heard this week in a recording of a programme from the 1960s, trying to send a telegram over the phone.
"..... And I want it to end with the word NORWICH",  he told the operator.  When she questioned the spelling he explained it was a code word for his wife, each letter standing for the words: "Nickers On Ready When I Come Home."
A pause: then his voice -  "Yes, I know knickers begins with a K!"   (Giggle)

Sunday, 21 August 2011

British Humour

I have had my ear glued to the radio during my brief stay back in the UK - some of my favourite programmes are still broadcast, some of which have been going since the sixties viz  the quick-witted "Just a Minute" in which panel members must speak for 60 seconds on random topics of which they have no prior knowledge. They can be interrupted and lose points for hesitation, repetition etc. and the next person takes over.  There has been much debate on the radio about university entrance as A level results came out recently. There is now so much competition for places that universities do not interview any more, and in addition to good marks, prospective students now have to submit a 500 -word "Personal Statement".  Naturally, many are tempted to cheat with this and stealthily search the net for help - which naturally abounds.  One company offers to "help" construct the document to the tune of £96 although the student must of course 'write the final draft himself'.  Academics are not fools and quickly sift through the submissions to sort the wheat from the chaff and the plagiarisms.  One famous institution "The London Oratory School' encourages its students to spend a whole term refining their efforts, the teachers limiting their help to grammar and sentence construction. Their efforts are not always foolproof: one boy, explaining his love of playing the harp had written, "I have always enjoyed pleasuring myself with the harp.." His teacher somewhat ruefully commented "this portrayed a certain level of dexterity with the instrument that we wouldn't expect him to have."  LOL !

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Performance Anxiety

Not the obvious - I am talking about that sort of paralysing anxiety of the muscles that occurs when you sit down at a piano that is not your own and confront the poker-faced examiners who will assess your performance and pass or fail your efforts.  I remember only too well the uncontrollable shaking of my hands through ten years of piano grade exams and the ensuing shame that I could never perform well under these conditions. I always hated being asked to play by relatives and mostly point-blank refused. What is the point, people say, if you can't play for anyone?  I sometimes enjoyed those few occasions when I almost played something without mistakes (in strict privacy) but I was always aware of how excruciating it is for members of one's family to have to suffer the long hours of practice. I was always assured that the nervousness would abate over the years. It never did.  However, while visiting this musical family of my brother's, I have realised that my sister-in-law, who plays the violin, suffers pretty much to the same degree. She confessed that she used to enjoy when she was young, being accompanied by her father who played the piano and concertina so I found some simple-looking music in her collection for violin and piano so I suggested we have a go together.  I was met with smiles but many delaying tactics over the week, so I have been practising on my own - whistling the violin line. The family goes on their holiday today and will take me to the airport the day they get back, so I suppose I've lost my chance of the less nerve-wracking chance of making music with someone else, whose own mistakes might disguise mine. Never mind: I'm practising my drums (practise kit yet to be designed from kitchen utensils) this week in an empty house, with my deaf dad next door and an acre of garden around me. The whistling works well too: I'll be making music with myself.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Open-Air Theatre

My sister-in-law took me  last night to an open-air theatre production of "Much Ado About Nothing" in the grounds of Birmingham's Botanical Gardens.  Everyone took camp chairs, picnics and umbrellas (British summer time) and we were early enough to get a good position in front of the tiny stage. It was a lovely production with 8 talented actors taking several parts each although we did get rained on for half an hour at the beginning (everyone had raincoats and umbrellas, but the cast looked frozen - the temperature was 12.5 degrees C).  The audience had to be the 'arbor' into which two of the actors had to hide at one stage - really good fun, gave one an idea of how audiences would have participated in the comedies in Shakespeare's time. The direction was so good that we easily understood the language (with one or two naughty comtemporary references thrown in and a few modern ad libs). And it wasn't just pensioners present - quite a few youngsters there too.  It's great to know that Shakespeare is alive and well and living in the British countryside.  The Rain or Shine Theatre company is non-profit-making and aims to educate and entertain for an affordable ticket price.  They tour throughout the summer, one night in each place, and all they ask is for it not to rain. We had the added joy of a rainbow last night.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Health Warning

While looking after my dad, I pursue a daily habit I had when mum was alive: we used to walk up the road to her friend, Heather, for morning coffee.  Heather is a salt of the earth type, who believes that man/woman cannot live without a permanently full tummy.  To this end, she cooks daily, huge meals for her adult children, who understandably have been in a hurry neither to marry nor to leave home, two of them still not having fled the nest, although pushing forty.  The trouble is this family is very largely overweight, I hesitate to say obese, but that is the truth, and it is impossible for any visitor to leave the house without some or other delicious comestible to take home, usually in quantities that could fill one's freezer for months. I made the mistake of casually mentioning that I would be in my brother's house by myself next week which instantly caused Heather to go on the alert and cross-question me deeply as to how I would be able to sustain myself in a house in which she suspects there will be marginal levels of food.  In vain do I assert that I have mountains of stuff in the freezer and shall be far from starving.  This is met with snorts of disbelief and I see I shall have to come up with a plan to avoid being force-fed by Heather in the near future.  Heather herself, lives on a liquid diet and cigarettes, having Crohn's disease and various other nasty digestive ailments.  She is also on morphine for chronic pain in her knees. She is 78 - but soldiers on regardless fortified by her need to care for others.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Precise Use of Words

I am not very good at this. Even as an English teacher I was more interested in the feelings expressed than in a pupil's grammar, although I was a stickler for spelling. My brother however, is fanatical and pedantic, pouncing on his two sons, should they ever utter a word that is not carefully chosen, exact and precise in its meaning. Now teenagers, these boys are actually a bit of a pain to be around as they have taken their parents' lessons to heart (yes, my sister-in-law is the same) and they are highly disdainful of anyone who does not live up to their own high standards. Both boys are highly gifted in Maths, Science and Computer Science and in no little measure I have to admit that their success in these exacting fields is due to a great extent to their early training, plus a pretty big dose of genetic inheritance.  This family is actually so collectively brainy, I find visiting them is something of a nerve-wracking experience as I try (feebly) to keep up my own end. No-one relaxes in this house. It reminds me of a heated discussion we had at Book Club last month when we read: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Harvard Law Professor, Amy Chua. I was simply awed by the level of dedication of Chinese parents and children to their studies. Perhaps they take things to extremes, but in contrast to some parts of the world where our youth seem to have lost their way - e.g. in the UK, having the example now of two generations of parents who see no need to include a work ethic in their lives,  I began to think it wouldn't be a bad thing if the Chinese took over the world.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Are you a Leftie?

I have noted that there are several lefties amongst the more creative members of my family, but the other day my elder son mentioned that only 10% of the Caucasian population is left-handed.  Why should that be so when the skeleton is designed symetrically in most respects that involve two of anything? I brought this up while travelling in the car with my brother, his wife and 17-year old son.  My sister-in-law had just been relating a story of how she had once recognised the left hand of a long-lost school friend on a television programme.  She had duly e-mailed the BBC who had obligingly put her in touch with said friend, who was a left-handed artist. My sister-in-law, who is a classicist and Latin teacher, said that you had to be right-handed in order to be a foot soldier in the Roman army or you couldn't operate in tight formation with your shield and spear and my nephew, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of most things put in that to be left-handed or on the 'sinister' (Latin) side, meant that you would be strongly suspected of witchcraft and therefore highly likely to lose your life in the Middle Ages. Hence the process (almost) of Natural Selection.  So there you are then. Another mystery solved - though does it explain why so many left-handed people are creative?

Friday, 12 August 2011

First Impressions - Rickmansworth, London

No problems for me so far in riot-torn UK.  This quiet corner of north west London is as sleepy and refined as ever.  My brother rents a room in a two-bedroomed flat, four nights a week and then returns to his spacious abode south of Birmingham on Friday afternoons. Typical of most British homes, there is beige-coloured carpet throughout, looking as if it is brand new - this is because anyone entering the house is required to remove their shoes, even the young policeman who once had reason to visit my cousin's pad to take a statement, willingly removed his size 12s at the door. It reminded me of an article in our local paper this week about a young ballet dancer who has just returned to her native Cape Town after 10 years in Japan.  The Japanese remove their shoes as well, even in restaurants, she reported.  In contrast to SA though, where crime and unemployment are astronomical, no-one in Japan would dream of swopping their high-street cheapies for your Jimmy Choos. Two other things: my brother pointed out a stretch of motorway leading to Heathrow Airport which sometimes has a stationary back-up of 8 miles - beyond belief! And I have learned of a new profession - my brother's attractive young landlady is a credit controller by day (which she hates) and by night writes bespoke speeches which she delivers at funerals for those who do not want a religious ceremony and do not wish to speak themselves. She is currently studying to qualify as a person who can conduct civil weddings. Life is full of surprises - and new careers.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Off to the UK

Thought you might like to see my 'practice drum kit', (steel tray on floor to hit with heel tip  = Bass drum. Not sure why pic is blurred)  Had my second lesson now  - awesome!  Got to go to the UK tomorrow to look after my dad (94), while my brother and his wife take a well-earned holiday with their two sons.  So I'll be offline for a bit - have to see if my brother leaves me a usable computer set-up while they are away.  Spoke to dad today on the phone - he is remarkable for his age - his brain is 100% - so tragic for a practical man that he is bent over and almost completely deaf and blind and now restricted to sitting in a chair all day.  I'll perhaps re-publish some blogs while I am away - about him when he was still mobile and all the odd things he used to get up to.  There is still a forlorn row of sticks in the garden, which used faithfully to hold up the runner beans he planted from seed each year for my mother to pick. Now there are just weeds. I don't know what keeps him going (she died two years ago), but I suspect there is still one goalpost achievable for him - a telegram from the Queen when he reaches 100!

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Hostile Paintball - Team-building

It's 'Women's Day' here in South Africa and a Public Holiday.  I've not done anything very feminine to observe this holiday - au contraire - I've been with my husband and 40 of his staff to a morning of Hostile Paintball (i.e. for grown-ups).  I took my knitting though as I was a spectator. What fun!  Nearly all of his mechanics and apprentices and some of the older guys turned up, got kitted out with their 'guns and ammo', were divided into four teams, so that they had two games each and off they went to entertain us with the echoes of guffaws, curses and 'gun shots' as they pelted each other with paint in a wilderness of trees, gullies and bushes.  There was much good-natured teasing and a great deal of cheating by the time they had finished, but the feeling of general well-being, exhaustion and being covered in mud and paint appeared to constitute a very satisfying morning.  (Rather similar to when I used to take my grandson to an hour of Messy Play at Moms & Tots).  Actually, I would have loved to join in -were it not for a dodgy hip, sore knee etc. like most of the over-sixties on the sidelines. The morning ended off with a great sausage braai ( 'Bar B Q') and cool drinks and we still had the afternoon to do other things. Good stuff. Nice when you can shoot your boss/employee in public instead of cursing him at the workplace.  A relief of tensions all round. Not so the small group of afficionados who followed us, complete with fabulous expensive personal gear, serious faces, camouflage outfits and who moved with quiet stealth. It makes me shiver to think that anyone could take this game to such lengths. I guess there are always those that dream of being a soldier, despite the horrors of war.  

Friday, 5 August 2011

Eight is Enough

Who remembers that TV series?  We actually named our eldest son after that cute little boy in a houseful of girls (eldest son now being 31!) Actually, eight is proving to be too much for me.  I have been looking forward for the last twelve months to the visit of my best and oldest school friend and her husband who are coming all the way from New Zealand to visit us for a week before heading further north. I haven't seen her for 30 years, although we've never lost touch: I've never met him. Ta-dah!  Out of the blue, despite all my news broadcasts, I am now expecting a deluge of visitors all at the same time.  My sister-in-law and another couple have chosen almost these dates to visit us in order to go to our dentist. (We have, reputably, the best dentists in the country here in Cape Town).  They are coming while I am in England looking after my dad. Then while we were away last week, small son had to play host to a sudden flying visit from one of his cousins and two of her friends. This wasn't altogether a bad thing from my point of view as small son was galvanized into action, had to clean up the house and his room, find clean sheets, make beds, organise towels, transport and entertainment for four days. In the process, he almost lost his delivery job as he could not make his Saturday shift and couldn't find anyone to take his place. He received a warning. Over that week-end he took the girls to our holiday house (more bedding) and thence at the crack of dawn to the airport on the Monday morning.  Scarcely a week later - the girls have phoned - they want to come again in three weeks time - when they are on study leave - such a good time did they have.  I put my foot down - I can't offer *5 treatment to so many people at once.  I really wanted to roll out the red carpet for my friend and her husband, make sure they have their own bathroom etc, nice food, etc. etc.  So small son has organised for the girls to bunk at my daughter's for the week. She offered.  Am I being unreasonable? My husband won't understand (he grew up with 6 siblings and his mother often had boarders). I come from a small nuclear family where visitors were treated like royalty and visits were scheduled months before.  Is it just different strokes for different folks?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Learning to play the Drums

Mindful of the theory that to short-circuit Altzheimer's, you need to learn NEW skills as you age,  I asked for Drumming lessons for my 61st birthday  (sorry, my blog name stays the same).  I have had a secret yen to let it all hang out all my life and suddenly, a modern music school materialised just up the road from my house.  I had my first lesson yesterday - in a sound-proof room with a teacher young enough to be my grandson, and in front of a magical full set of sparkling drums and cymbals. I had a ball!  I am fascinated by my homework - learning to 'read' the music, which means unlearning my 15 years of sight-reading regular notes and adjusting to the same notes which are now attached to the drums. I've got a book from the library, as I have one lesson a week, and how rigged up a 'practice kit' in my study, consisting of tupperware  boxes, stainless steel flasks and saucepan lids. I have my own sticks and am very excited about this new challenge. I'll keep you posted! Hope it keeps me young. My children think I'm slightly touched but hey, who cares?