Oh divine pleasures of taste and smell, I salute you! This week’s recipe from Guardian Feast encapsulates the gloriousness of carefully thought-through vegetarian recipes. Every element of Yotam Ottolenghi’s dish delivers flavour, aroma and texture, culminating in a mouth-explosion of deliciousness. And, with a plant-based yoghurt instead of cow’s milk, it would be easy to veganise.
It’s been a bit wild in our household recently. We went hot foot from Covid self-isolation to my niece’s wedding in Suffolk. It was a heart-expanding weekend celebrating love, friendship, family, hope and the future. I am so glad we were there to witness my niece and her partner’s commitment to each other and to partake in the communal breaking of bread and raising of glasses that sealed the deal.
In truth, the journey back to full health post-Covid – even with a double vaccine – is not totally straightforward. Smell and taste are slovenly in returning as are full energy levels – particularly since I’ve now developed pleurisy. But I’m sick of being poorly so am ignoring my scratchy lung and weary body.
Grateful thanks to my friend Barbara for dropping off Issue No.190 of Guardian Feast which I missed out on because of all the wonderful wedding shenanigans.
Bring on roast cauliflower with yoghurt and red pepper sauce which The Husband dubs ‘a microcosm of all things Ottolenghi’.
Yotam has a magic touch when it comes to marrying sharp-sweet-crunch-soft-fragrant-umami. But, dear reader, the magic moment was harvesting and preparing the mint: oh, hallelujah! I could smell its joyous scent! Such sensory delight after weeks of stunted smell brought a tear to my eye.
As ever, Yotam has you frying, toasting, mixing, crushing – but, the brilliant thing is, it’s all easily doable and manageable in the 25 minutes the cauliflower takes to roast. Turkish pepper paste would perhaps have furnished the dish with a hint of sweetness not found in my substitute tomato paste. However, ‘mild Turkish pepper paste’ was not available in the local shops here in Berwick. Next time.
About five days into our Covid-ridden self-isolation, The Husband and I congratulate ourselves that we’re continuing to survive on garden produce, store cupboard items and what’s in the fridge – we haven’t even run out of milk yet. However, none of this really matters as two key elements of life have gone missing in action.
We asked friends to drop by a copy of yesterday’s paper. It’s as if Rachel Roddy is mocking us in her taste and scent-infused column in Guardian Feast Issue No.189 about pizzette fritte – little fried pizzas. She writes:
‘Frying dough – like grating lemons, opening a new packet of coffee or cheese snacks, chopping herbs or grinding spices – is one of the great smells.’
Rachel’s right, of course, the smell of toast, grilled bacon, sweet blackberries, toasted nuts and seeds, all up there too: mmmmmmmm… but the simple truth is, Covid has taken our olfactory sense. We can’t smell anything. De nada. No taste either.
The first time I really noticed the lack, was after a particularly robust fart. I know we all think our own gassy expulsions are either fragrant or odourless, but I’ve lived long enough with mine to know that they are vicious incendiary devices. However, The Husband brushed close by without his customary ‘Oh!’. And so began the listing of all the things we could not smell or taste: that’s everything. A sort of never-ending no-smell I-Spy. When you’ve been banged up together for a week, you get your kicks where you can.
It is all very weird and quite distressing. But also interesting.
We still get taste groups: sweet, sour/bitter, heat (spice), salt, but that’s it. We can taste the bitter back taste of coffee but not the pleasing aromatic beany earthiness; we get the spicy punch of our Thai prawn curry but no hint of the sea or richness of coconut.
What is scary is that you can’t do the sniff test on on-the-brink items in the fridge. You also can’t smell burning (as The Husband discovered when he burnt his potato waffles – he’s working his way through his crime-buys from Iceland). The aroma of your cooking is absent as is the taste-as-you-go option – no matter the deliciousness of the ingredients.
Of course, we are by no means alone in our unhappy state – and it’s a salutary reminder that many are permanently without their sense of smell and/or taste. The eldest stepson suggests it’s a good year to release an unsatolfactory cookbook – and I’m sure there are clever people who are already on the case.
The Husband and I agree we can’t live on crisps and jelly tots. But what to do with our zero powers of taste and smell?
Yotam Ottolenghi’s peanut butter cornflake brittle has several things in its favour: it’s crunchy, sweet, salty and it’s a great use of the desultory pile of cornflakes left by the departing grandchildren last week. The only substitutions are desiccated coconut instead of flakes and salted peanuts instead of unsalted – but that’s probably a positive in the circumstances.
This is a cracking granola-esque snack which would be nice crumbled on your morning fruit and yoghurt. It’s got a great crunch and very satisfying mouthfeel. It certainly brightened up our bitter coffee water. Very easy to make and definitely one for the cupboard in future.
By yesterday (Saturday) evening, all I could think about was Rachel’s little fried pizzas. The very idea of them made my mouth water. They had to be made: we have basil coming out of our ears, four ripe tomatoes, parmesan and plenty of flour. Yes, it would use some of our dwindling milk supply, but needs must! I set to.
All that tomato, olive oil, garlic and basil, you know it’s going to be good. And even if you can’t smell the dough frying or taste the full nuances of flavour with Covid palate (no basil or garlic zing), these are satisfying, fun-to-make bites. Rachel says the dough usually only puffs on one side – not mine – dough balls of delight! After juggling the unctuous sauce onto the first few, The Husband devised a press-and-plop method which worked well.
A bit like making Japanese gyozas (which we’re very fond of doing), these little darlings are a communal effort – particularly the tearing off of plum-size pieces of dough, flattening them and the sauce distribution – oh, and eating them while they’re piping hot with a glass in hand. Student Daughter has already put in her order for them when she’s allowed back home. Bring it on!
It’s 4.30pm on Saturday. Earlier, we waved goodbye to all our children and grandchildren after a truly brilliant week together. The first time we’ve gathered as a full group in two years.
Beds stripped, sheets and towels on the washing conveyor belt, broken Lego binned and forgotten drawings and toys gathered up. However, our true focus is the final prep for our annual Open Garden day – it’s on Sunday: tomorrow.
There are 17 gardens around Berwick opening to raise funds to support the beautifying and upkeep of our local parks here. It’s a great occasion – all the more so because we couldn’t do it last year – full of socialising and gardening knowledge-sharing.
I get a text. Not a Love Island text calling me to the firepit – although, when I read it, it feels a bit like we’re about to go up in smoke. We’ve been exposed to coronavirus. We’re back home from the local walk-through PCR testing station by 5.30pm. I’m beginning to feel a bit coldy and achy. The Husband says he’s fine, but I think that sniff of his is suspicious.
We have cakes defrosting, the makings of 40 bacon rolls, a friend’s jam and more cakes arriving on the Sunday morning. The garden’s not perfect (it’s been a bit neglected by us and rampaged by the grandchildren in the very best of ways!) but it’s still looking good. But what if we have coronavirus?
I take the decision to pull out of Open Gardens.
Our PCR tests come back positive on Sunday morning. We take stock of the mountain of cakes and bacon. We slump in front of the telly all day, catching up on Love Island, watching people stroll past our window in the sunshine clutching Open Gardens trail maps. We’re groggy, fluey and lethargic – and a tad sorry for ourselves. We eat cake and bacon rolls.
By Tuesday I’m not sure I can eat another piece of cake or another bacon roll (The Husband’s not so sure!). I flick listlessly through Guardian Feast Issue No.188, even though I honestly cba to keep up with my ridiculous plan to cook at least one recipe from each issue of Feast during 2021.
However Meera Sodha – angel Meera – catches my eye with her fennel and courgette pistou soup. It looks so green and healing. Just thinking about spooning it into my body makes me feel better. Plus I have courgettes growing in the garden and a total abundance of basil. Okay, so we don’t have fennel. And we can’t nip out and get any. I never quite got round to sorting home delivery from any of our local supermarkets. At the beginning of Lockdown 1 it was impossible to register, let alone place an actual order, so I gave up. I find some sad celery in the bottom of the fridge and fennel seeds in the cupboard which I decide will do.
I use our ‘compost bag’ plus a shrivelled carrot to make veg stock. I’m not going to say that my compromises delivered the perfect solution. Fennel is clearly a signature ingredient in this soup. Hey-ho – as I so often say – sometimes you just have to use what’s on offer.
Whatever I lacked in my store cupboard, Meera’s soup made up for in healing benevolence. The perfect food for feeding the coronavirus-ridden body and soothing the angst-ridden soul. As we slurped it down, The Husband and I gave grateful thanks that we are both double vaxed and that we are not suffering the full and awful impact of the illness that so many around the world have had to endure.
There’s a little stand-off going on between the Husband and me. Except he may not realise it. He has a higher long-grass-on-the-lawn threshold than I do. Which means that I usually end up mowing the green stuff. Last time I hauled the mower out, he popped up with a cup of tea for me as I’d nearly finished. ‘That looks nice,’ he said. ‘You can do it next time,’ I said. Not altogether graciously. After all these years, you’d think we would have resolved the thorny issue of whose turn it is to mow the lawn. But we haven’t. It lurks in the air around us like a mysterious unmentionable secret.
The daughters don’t seem to have any problems with unmentionables. I confess I didn’t know that a ‘shart’ was a shit-fart. I’ll be careful not to let the word accidentally drop into conversation – I assume one doesn’t have much control over the deed. My young women continue to alternate between hugging and biting each other, and seem to find each other endlessly fascinating. With 14 years between them, lockdown is probably the most concentrated period of time they have spent together since one was a toddler and the other was in the thick of GCSEs and A levels. It’s a bit of a gift really.
Recently the daughters were discussing the pictures we have. The youngest asked if the Husband and I had allotted them to particular people in our Wills. Turns out she’s got her eye on a couple. We all found this hilariously funny (I think drink may have been involved). When the eldest daughter pointed out that first dibs on the spoils should be hers because the youngest could enjoy them after she was gone (they’re both ignoring the existence of the older brothers – if you’re not here and all that…), the youngest’s laughter began to turn to tears: ‘I’ve just realised,’ she sobbed. ‘I’ll probably be left all alone. You – you can’t die before me…’
Early on in lockdown, when the human tragedy of people not being able to be with their loved ones during the hardest and most emotional of times: serious illness, birth and death (except, possibly, Dominic Cummings), a little game circulated. The idea was to name the five people you’d invite to your funeral (the UK-government-imposed limit). Like ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid’, it’s quite compelling. Clearly, it’s in bad taste. However, it’s in keeping with the kind of dark humour that many of us embrace when events are frightening and uncertain and beyond our control. Let’s face it, a good dose of laughter is a bit of a tonic. Although, the coronavirus pandemic has perhaps emphasised that, as a society, we’re not really geared up to have the conversations around death and dying that might help with later heartache. Often, talking about dying is seen as tantamount to wishing someone gone, or it’s viewed as morbid rather than practical, or as taboo rather than an essential part of life. So we skirt around it and think about easier things: like, say, divvying up the goodies.
The Husband and I walk up the garden pretty much every morning and evening – and several times between. Yet still neither of us says ‘the lawn needs mowing’ because, to do so, would be to claim the doing of it. We both love how the garden looks when the lawn is mown – so how come we can’t agree how to deal with the mowing of it between us? Maybe it’s a conversation that might throw up perceived imbalances in other parts of our relationship? Whatever: the silence on the subject continues. Although, the Husband has just read this and said in a hurt tone: ‘I will do the lawn next time.’
The four of us have recently embarked on a ‘final meal’ game. So much food we love and one meal to craft from it all. I mean, how do you actually choose? The eldest daughter is a mince fan and started off claiming mince would be part of her last supper. However, she seems to have moved on. She’s now having a seafood platter (including oysters, lobster, crab and everything else crustaceous and from the deep), followed by roast goose and all the trimmings, then all the cheeses with truffle honey, rounded off with a chocolate fondant. The Husband is determined to slip a bacon sarnie in somewhere and foie gras – we suggest a starter platter with tidbits of all those things he can’t shoehorn in elsewhere. Me? I might go for calves liver, and either a game pie (suet crust, of course) or seafood linguine – to include crab and lobster and a sauce, created from the shells left from the daughter’s seafood platter, to make a super sea-tasting bisque sauce. Like the eldest, I’d have to have all the cheeses with pickled walnuts, Normandy salted and unsalted butter, a bread basket to include sourdough oh, and some of my homemade rhubarb chutney. And for pud, I’d go for lemon syllabub with fresh-baked shortbread biscuits. The youngest daughter is happy as long as her meal involves sushi, pizza and a hot pud – possibly a chocolate brownie.
All of this we can happily talk about and explore for hours – remembering favourite restaurants and the memorable meals we’ve enjoyed that have informed our palates. And, yes, you’re right: the final meal game is another ruse to distance and diminish the whole death thing.
When my Dad died, I was 26. My eldest daughter was just over a year old. Dad’s death felt brutal and totally unexpected to me – even though there had been warnings. I now realise, I was broken by his loss. I had not contemplated how it might feel not to have him around. Maybe, this was a gap in my emotional education. Maybe it’s just the way I responded to the death of someone I loved at that stage in my life. Probably some of both. Certainly, in those days, it felt like the death of a loved one was something you just had to grin and bear as life hurtled on around you and you fell apart.
Crank forward 26 years and, finally, I began to engage with death in a positive way. I don’t want to harp on about having had cancer (if you’re interested, you’ll find more about the cancer year here), but being diagnosed with bowel cancer led to a more pragmatic engagement with life and death. The Husband and I even wrote our Wills (the children will still have to scrap over the house contents!) which, until then, had felt too complicated to do. A year later, I helped nurse my dear Mum as she died.
Three things I learnt: Firstly, nursing a loved one through dying and into death is exhausting physically and emotionally, but (for me) a privilege and pleasure. The support of a decent end-of-life and palliative care team is invaluable and should be a given (but isn’t). Second, if the loved one has spent time preparing for their death by ‘putting their affairs in order’ and talking about their funeral etc with you, it’s a real gift from them to you. Finally, our own death preoccupies us a lot – we joke about it, worry about it, and push thoughts of it away. But, in reality, our death will impact on others more than it does on us. It’s just the way it is.
Back in the garden, the lawn has had a stay of execution. The Husband (and I) had all last week to mow the darn thing. It was sunny and dry and the perfect weather. This week has begun with a wet and wild northern hoolie. So, when the rain stops, which one of us will get the mower out of the shed and slog up and down, as per? Or will we discuss the elephant in the haystack?
We’ve been wrapped in a chilly sea haar here in Berwick-upon-Tweed – atmospheric but a tad galling when most of the country has been basking in sunshine. It’s ironic that as lockdown lifts this stifling fret has closed around us, heightening the sense that anything might unexpectedly emerge to surprise us.
Sometimes, it feels as if our ministers and MPs live in a fog all the time. I was startled to hear Dominic Raab explaining on Talk Radio that, although he understands the ‘sense of frustration and restlessness which is driving the Black Lives Matters movement’, he doesn’t think much of taking a knee – other than for the Queen and his ‘Mrs’. Specifically, Foreign Secretary Mr Raab believes that the action of taking a knee derives from ‘Game of Thrones’. What? Wasn’t there a time when ministers took care to be informed about big issues that affect how we live as a society? This video featuring former San Francisco 49ers’ fullback Colin Kaepernick is a great intro into how and why taking a knee became an act of racial solidarity in sport.
Whatever the weather, walking and exercising have united our family of four during lockdown. Rain or shine we’ve been out for ‘family exercise’. However, as lockdown is lifting, we seem to have become less about going out together and more about heading off solo for, say, a coffee at Northern Edge Coffee, or ‘just popping out for a run/walk – see you later.’ It feels as if our Covid cluster is disintegrating. Which is strangely sad but, I guess, inevitable.
Nevertheless, we came together at the weekend for a socially distanced walk in the Cheviots to celebrate my birthday. Our starting point was an hour’s drive from Berwick through pretty Wooler – the gateway to the Cheviots. Once there, we were guided by two super-patient friends who listened to us bickering for most of the mist-shrouded eight miles. The views were condensed but we had abundant chews: a delicious takeaway picnic from Berwick Café Mule On Rouge
Generational blindspots – from technology to slang – have been recurring sources of confusion and amusement in the household. And we’ve all been upskilling the best we can. The youngest has hooked up to Depop – an online marketplace popular with young people buying and selling secondhand clothes etc. She wants cash to support her forthcoming university career (although with no freshers’ week…). When she made a sale, it turned out that the process of packing a pair of jeans in an envelope and writing an address in the right format was slightly opaque to her. Before she headed to the post office queue, she was anxious: ‘What do I ask for? What do you mean: “Get it weighed?!”‘ As she finally left, she said: ‘That’s Generation Z for you, we can throw a punch (an online boxing ref), we can topple a statue, but we can’t post a letter!’ She can now. We all felt a little ownership of her achievement.
Matt Hancock, Health & Social Care Secretary, declared himself ‘proud’ of footballer Marcus Rashford. He then called Mr Rashford ‘Daniel’ just to prove how much he’d mugged up on the guy who’d pressurised the government to make a U-turn on free vouchers for school meals. Perhaps Mr Rashford mistook the footballer for Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe? After all, the fact that Marcus Rashford spotted a clear need for the voucher scheme to continue through the summer holidays, when Mr Hancock hadn’t noticed it, smacks of a wizardly insight, doesn’t it?
The eldest daughter is working from home and is usually locked to her screen for 10 straight hours a day, often in meetings. Even so, there’s not much that passes her by. When she was little, we called her ‘Flappy’ because she picked up on every conversation we ever had – even if she wasn’t present when it happened. So, yesterday, when the youngest and I sneaked out for a walk without her, she was miffed. Yes, despite our new individual excursions, no one likes to feel left out. Later that same day, there was a discussion about preserved lemons as we ate dinner. I apologised to the youngest – she’s not keen and they lurked in the couscous. ‘I love preserved lemons!’ declared the eldest, smirking and smacking her lips. After a pause, the youngest said: ‘I had two walks with Mum today.’ ‘Two?’ whispered the eldest ‘Two walks?’ her bottom lip quivering.
The Husband often asks how I know about things. ‘By looking in the right places,’ is my usual smug reply. And that’s how come we’ve been dining-in royally these past few Saturday nights, courtesy of JW Catering’s international menus. Yes, as well as the Cheviots, we’ve been to Italy, South Africa and Turkey.
This is also how I know about the many local independent retail outlets reopening, working with and round the daunting new normal. It is exciting to see the high street shaking off the lockdown blues. But it’s also anxiety inducing. Sometimes, it feels as if I dreamt the whole Coronavirus pandemic. So many people are bustling about town without a social-distance care in the world. Me? I’m still feeling Covid-induced too-much-too-soon angst.
That’s how I felt about peeing outdoors when I was little. It seemed like an exciting proposition, but the reality was fraught with anxiety: would you be spotted? Would you pee on your feet/knickers/trousers? These days, peeing al fresco doesn’t worry me. And certainly not somewhere isolated like, say, the Cheviots. After all, you can see for miles to check if anyone’s heading your way, and you hardly ever see anyone anyway. Imagine my surprise at the weekend then, when looking around as I was zipping up, I spotted three people through the mist. ‘Oh! Ooops!’ I said. A voice floated back: ‘It’s alright, we didn’t see anything. We turned our backs as soon as we realised what was happening.’ It was a voice I recognised. And, as one, three friends from Berwick turned to face me.
When we got home, the Husband presented me with a can of Brewdog’s topical new hazy beer brew: Barnard Castle Eye Test. It’s a fair cop.
I’m finding it hard to write this week. In fact, this week has dribbled into next if you see what I mean. There’s so much to think about. So much to feel anxious and uptight about.
There’s a no-deal-Brexit looming with trade deals being shimmied through while we have our eyes elsewhere. Deals which will probably compromise the quality of our food (chlorinated chicken from the US and all that), and the safety and integrity of our crops (neonicotinoids that kill bees and that sort of thing). There’s the economic downturn resulting from Covid and lockdown – with many friends, family and neighbours facing an uncertain future. There’s the relaxation of lockdown – does ‘the science’ show it’s the right thing to do? Or can ‘the science’ be manipulated like ‘the data’? And, of course, there’s racism, Black Lives Matter, and the horror of George Floyd’s killing by US police (even though millions of us watched it, we can’t say ‘murder’ because it’s not been through the courts). All these things make me feel powerless and inadequate. And then I think: who am I to feel powerless?
For many of us, the killing of George Floyd will have made us look again at our own uneasy record on squaring up to racism and to our national record in the UK as a whole. There are certainly uncomfortable truths that lay behind the mask of our equal multicultural society, and the attitudes and structures that prop it up. These uncomfortable truths have occupied much of my household’s thoughts, conversations and readings these last 10 days or so. And, despite the fact that the daughters suggested I should write about it, I’ve struggled to find a way in.
One fear and challenge for me as a white English woman trying to write about racism is that I must own my past which includes racist thoughts, words and actions – and I am embarrassed and ashamed of that. I don’t like looking back at the racist me – but, if I’m to move forward, I must do it. I also need to acknowledge that I am a privileged member of an imbalanced society that has benefited from the spoils of empire and slavery – a society that still hasn’t totally dealt with its tainted inheritance or the legacy it’s left to the nations it pillaged and the peoples it abused.
It’s seriously painful and awful to still be having these conversations about casual and structural racism. But have them we must. Who, in their right mind, believes that hierarchies (or anything) should be decided by something so arbitrary as skin colour? And yet, this premise is something that is still ingrained in the way our systems work and the attitudes we (often unconsciously) carry with us. And, in our entitlement, we are constantly letting ourselves off dealing with the ramifications of a skewed equality. Only yesterday I was looking at an American research study that demonstrates implicit bias in the treatment of black children and adults by physicians (you’ll find the Abstract here).
You see this disparity even now in the reactions to the demonstrations here and in the US: it’s not the time, we say. After Covid would be a better, safer time, we say. As if Covid were not itself contributing to the polarising effect of inequalities based around skin colour and the social injustices that derive from them (take a look at this BBC video – it scratches the surface but it’s a good starting point).
So, how long should black people be patient about inequality? Ten years? One hundred? They’ve already waited some 450 years – surely a few more won’t make a difference? The subtext here is about maintaining a status quo of power: if people could all just pipe down a bit, we can get on with living through these terrible Covid times, and maybe look at the injustices associated with skin colour in calmer times. Maybe.
If you are challenged by the idea that people constantly side-stepped by rules that are purportedly designed to protect them might cease to respect or uphold those rules, I strongly recommend listening to Trevor Noah’s gentle, rational take on the situation in the States. He deftly summarises the idea of structural racism and the impact of a societal contract which only truly respects the rights and freedoms of the original architects of that contract.
I know many are horrified by the lootings during the demonstrations in the US and by the toppling of the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in the UK. And I’m not an advocate of civil disobedience, but I don’t feel that demonstrators’ actions are any more horrifying than a man being openly killed by the police, or a black person dying in police custody after being brutally beaten, or someone being stopped time and again by police because of the colour of their skin. In fact, I’d argue the statue toppling is less horrifying. I’m in my fifties, and during my life I have seen a system designed to protect not just slip up from time to time, but actively abuse its powers countless times. And, each time, it seems we shake our heads and say ‘this shouldn’t happen’. We investigate and have enquiries that take years, and we get on with our lives and hope everyone else will too. But there’s such a thing as a perfect storm. And Covid, lockdown and that ultimate abuse of human rights on 25th May 2020 – the taking of George Floyd’s life – might just be that perfect storm.
I don’t think that we should get lost in a sea of guilt and hand-wringing and being ashamed – although many of us will have reasons to; or that we should get carried away in accusations and recriminations and being angry – although many are justified in that. I believe that, for many of us, the demonstrations rocked the foundations of the societal safety net we trust and believe in. But the challenge for us is to acknowledge that it’s a safety net designed with holes that let black people fall through it. And then to do something about it.
History is something we write individually and as a society. That’s why Banksy’s Instagram thoughts on replacing the statue of Colston are so interesting: “Here’s an idea that caters for both those who miss the Colston statue and those who don’t. We drag him out the water, put him back on the plinth, tie cable round his neck and commission some life size bronze statues of protestors in the act of pulling him down. Everyone happy. A famous day commemorated.”
Visually and intellectually, Banksy’s suggestion encapsulates the shift that real change in the colour-bias status quo requires. Resurrecting this tainted statue and incorporating into it the story of its toppling would mark history in the making. And represent an overdue acknowledgment of a wealth and power that is sullied and, actually, should never have existed. It’s this sort of shift that each of us needs to embrace. Because that’s when we’ll collectively continue to topple an injustice that has blighted too many lives for way too long.
I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece The Mirror & the Light. It’s the final book in her extraordinary and breathtaking trilogy about the life and times of Thomas Cromwell. The trilogy follows Cromwell’s rise from battered son of a Putney smithy to chief policy-maker, deal-broker and pieces-picker-upper of Henry VIII. Cromwell is a commoner who stepped from nowhere to become the most powerful man in the country. But the lack of a landed and lauded family, and paucity of dynasty and ancient connections would always see the hand he fed and protected destroying him. And that’s where I’m headed with this superb book: no amount of wit, guile and usefulness will be enough to hold fast against the old boy network of the lords and ladies of court and country, or Cromwell’s greatest fan and biggest threat – the mercurial monarch.
This week has been a tough one. I don’t like being angry – I often feel that being angry is a failure. It’s the petulant child in me being allowed to be unreasonable and stampy-footed. However, straight up anger is what I feel about Dominic Cummings flouting the lockdown rules and refusing to apologise and resign. I can appreciate the social media memes: the ironic ‘should have gone to Specsavers’ Barnard Castle jokes, and the amusing asides that stem from someone behaving stupidly and then reinventing history to support their own idiocy. But, we have been duped and I believe anger is the right response.
In manoeuvres that out-Trump Trump, we’ve seen journalists slapped down, ignored and, in the BBC’s Emily Maitlis’ case rebuked (if you’re not familiar with the story, you’ll find info on it here). What have these journalists done? Probed MPs on a controversial topic and expressed the shock and disappointment many (most of us?) feel. Isn’t that their job?
There’s a reason that Johnson, Gove et al look shifty and uncomfortable when they attempt to justify and gloss over Cummings’ and his wife’s breaking of the lockdown rules: it’s because there genuinely is no justification. The rest of us – the population of the UK – was urged to abide by rules which would safeguard us, other people and the NHS. Even though many would (and have) suffer(ed) great hardship. Meanwhile, in the thick of it all, an elite member of the rule-makers flouted the rules and his colleagues are closing ranks to protect their own: however ludicrous it makes them look. And, quite honestly, they may well get away with it.
If Hilary Mantel were writing the story of this historical carry-on, it would be packed with complex and nuanced characters, with layers of compelling meaning and insight rippling through each sentence. Mantel would uncover basic human motivations as well as the Machiavellian machinations of those driven by power. And the old boy network would come out triumphant in the end.
So, because I don’t know what else to do this week, other than rant and feel let down and angry and sign Change.org petitions, I’m going to share pictures of my peony. I’ve been taking photos almost daily of its progress from tiny bud to full-blown bloom. It’s been a steadying pastime.
And at least I can chop off its head when it’s past its best.
There’s definitely something going on around time during these lockdown days. It’s as if everything is caught in a sort of covid suspended animation moment. As if life itself is held in a very long (about nine weeks long) and ever-extending aspic jelly. What was once free in its unfolding is now glutinous.
I’ve always felt that certain minutes have more impact than others. For example, when I’m due somewhere at, say, 9am, if it’s 8.36am I have plenty of time. But, if it’s 8.37am, my pulse picks up and my mustn’t-be-late anxiety kicks in. When the youngest daughter suggested to the eldest that they do something at 11pm instead of 10.30pm, the eldest responded that there was a massive timeshift between 10.30pm and 11.00: ’10.30’s still reasonably early but 11’s, you know, time to consider bed’.
It seems a lifetime ago that the Husband and I were fortunate enough to be wandering around Shetland, Orkney and Caithness (it was early March). As we travelled, coronavirus breathed down our necks. Hoteliers and restaurateurs repeated heartbreaking stories of cancelled bookings, how-long-can-we survives and when-will-this-ends. We wondered if we should curtail our trip. Trains became emptier, hotels quieter and queues outside chemists for antibac and paracetamol longer (remember that?). We wondered if we could last three more, two more, one more day/s until our set time to return home. It was as if the coronavirus time bubble was sealing itself around us.
Something that’s sat in a cupboard since my lovely mum died three and half years ago, is a sack of photos. My daughters didn’t want me just to throw them away, and I couldn’t bring myself to go through them. Where do you even start with a binliner full of undated memories, many of them involving unremembered or unrecognised faces? And all of which will lead to you wanting to ask your mum about them. You’ve not looked at them for years, so what’s the point now? If there are some worth keeping, how do you file them? Where do you put them? And, anyway, will you ever look at them again once the job’s done?
Last week I was reminded of the power of photography to both preserve and engage. Local photographer, Sarah Jamieson of Pictorial Photography, embarked on a project to celebrate and record lockdown workers here in Berwick. Sarah says: ‘I just wanted to highlight the independent businesses who have continued to work through lockdown, to give them a bit of recognition like the supermarket staff and the NHS have been getting. There’s a lot of hidden stuff going on. I was also missing using my camera and speaking to people, so it was quite therapeutic to get out there and do something fun. I might do some more. I’ve had a few requests from people I’ve missed like farmers, plumbers, opticians…’ You’ll find her wonderful 32 portraits in one day here – make sure to read the quotes too.
Apparently, it’s a week since I moved Mum’s sack of photos from the cupboard to the middle of the sitting room floor. I have thought of several ways to address filing and culling the curled and creased heaps of fading pictures. But, hey, there’s no rush is there? Just as time ebbs and flows in mysterious ways, so objects magically stop being visible if they’re left somewhere long enough, right?
A friend just emailed me: ‘Lockdown is suiting you’. I don’t think it’s because I’m under house arrest. Although, maybe it is. Most likely it was because I’d emailed him a list of projects I’ve been filling my time with during these distanced weeks, and made them sound more exciting and extensive than they are.
None of my projects is making face masks or anything useful to the corona-effort. Maybe that’s one reason why I’ve felt rather empty this last week or so. Could I be ‘making a difference’? Should I be? The youngest daughter has also been out of sorts, what she calls ‘low morale’. There’s a curve often experienced in challenging times: a surge of energy and activity, a dampening of spirits as the crisis continues, and a sinking into lethargy and inactivity as a sense of pointlessness pervades.
On the upside, the eldest daughter shared a Teams (online meetings app) story. On these apps, you can share documents or your whole computer screen with others. The daughter’s colleague (presumably inadvertently) shared their online lingerie shopping with a meeting of ten people. Literally pants for the colleague, but light relief for everyone else.
As if to echo my dip in spirits and the exhausting uncertainty of ‘staying alert’, my skin has literally gone into meltdown. My hands have thrown out a weird form of intense eczema and a lesion has appeared in the centre of my forehead. The sort of thing that my mother would have enjoyed telling me: ‘It’s your badness coming out, Jacqueline’. Obviously, it will make it easier for me to be a zombie at the family’s forthcoming fright night this weekend. So that’s all good.
Sending photos of my crusty forehead to the doctor was quite gratifying. He was most intrigued – maybe even a bit delighted by something ‘so very odd’. He was incredibly gracious and didn’t let on if I was distracting him from more weighty cases. We had three telephone conversations before I was given a prescription for a cream that ‘has a bit of everything in it’ which the pharmacist described as ‘like an ancient remedy’. I’m glad ancient remedies still exist in mainstream life. I’m sure we’ve lost some grand skills and insights in terms of therapeutics and healing. Although, chopping up meat and burying it in the garden to get rid of warts (something I vaguely remember my mum doing when my brother’s hands were covered in the blighters) is maybe a good loss.
The valuable make-do-and-mend efforts around making scrubs to prop up the NHS are not, of course, entirely altruistic. Another symptom of a national crisis is the need for individuals to feel they have an active part to play. A contribution to make to the frontline effort. And to fill the time that would usually be filled with ‘normal’ activities with something that feels significant. It all helps keep that tricksy morale on an even keel. As long as we’re doing something, we’re dealing with it. Whatever the ‘it’ is. Which sounds a little like a speech our Prime Minister might make.
I felt quite bewildered about the VE Day celebrations. I guess my feelings were all mixed up with Brexit angst, Covid19, a general sense of being played by government and media, and the fact that VE Day came just after the UK announced the highest coronavirus death rates in Europe. Don’t get me wrong, remembering and acknowledging the privations and sacrifices of generations past (and generations present) – and why they made those sacrifices – is important and appropriate. The freedoms won in Europe through the Second World War are fundamental to human rights and equality. I guess today’s parallel paradox is that, even as some are declaring lockdown as an infringement of their freedom, others are putting themselves at risk because they either have little choice or are being encouraged to do so for the greater good.
With VE Day, there was a dissonance between being encouraged to stay home to save lives or whatever it is now; and being encouraged to hold street parties (albeit socially distanced ones). The long-cherished personal stories of uncles and aunts, parents, and grandparents remembered and shared on all media were, as always, moving and inspiring. Hearing the account on BBC Radio 4 of the two princesses joining the cheering throng outside Buckingham Palace back in 1945 made me think of my mum. I think she loved the slightly romantic idea of those two young women breaking with convention to be ‘with the people’. At 11am, our household members toddled onto the doorstep to observe the two-minute silence – as suggested in the VE Day official schedule. Berwick streamed by in full spate. My VE Day malaise, I think, was more about what we were actually being asked to celebrate in our Union Jack swathed streets. Was this all a bit of a call to some Trumpian-style nationalism, rather than a straightforward celebration of historic lives and deeds on a day that is, after all, celebrating a European union as well as a national triumph?
Ultimately, many lockdown activities are a distraction from the uncertainties of the moment. And many of them provide hope in what’s to come beyond the immediacy of living with coronavirus and its unfolding impact on our lives around the world. A friend and I recently joked that we’re focusing on the three Ws during lockdown: Working, Walking and Wine-ing (whining?). ‘Cheers!’.
Sitting at my laptop in these Covid days is a bit like being in a panoramic Zoom meeting but with birds rather than people. The eldest daughter, up north when the lockdown switch was thrown, is happily shipwrecked in Berwick and inhabiting my usual workstation. So, I’m perched at a table that looks out on our garden and, most importantly, the birdbath the Husband gave me for Christmas – which is teeming with avian drinking and splashing.
Zoom has delivered undreamed of virtual freedoms and connectivity in these lockdown days. We had drinks with London friends recently. We’ve not seen or socialised with them for years. Why didn’t we hook up like this before coronavirus, after all, the technology existed? Perhaps social isolation heightens resourcefulness. Perhaps it makes us determined to show the world and each other we’re still here and still being ourselves. Morning coffee with Aussie relatives began for us as their wine-soaked evening took off. We parted ways just as I began to worry that my cousin might actually demonstrate his ten-minute-intensive daily exercise regime (it involved star jumps and burpees and other things I don’t even want to think about, let alone see someone do). And that’s another great thing about Zoom meet-ups. An hour’s enough. And everyone understands that.
Oh, no, that’s right. Everyone understands that except the Husband and his mates who have created a weekly evening in the pub (our local micropub, The Curfew, to be precise) complete with a barrel of beer which they purchase in advance and distribute between them in some convoluted, day-long, anti-bac drenched way. Finally, in the evening, they all drink the brew from the safety of their own homes. One chap even changes his Zoom background to outside the pub when he steps out for a smoke.
Many of us are upskilling in this new home-working and learning environment. Over in the Husband’s bread factory, there was a little awkwardness after last week’s post poking fun at his sourdough creations. However, he’s raised his game (he received much advice from many quarters!) and delivered a loaf with lift, without the help of a Dutch oven – the chosen weapon of many sourdoughers. Turns out Dutch oven has another meaning which the eldest daughter explained to us (pop ‘Dutch oven slang’ into your search engine if you’re that interested). Mind you, neither of the daughters knew what a Dutch cap was. We’re all learning this week.
When I spotted a blackcap in my birdbath, I shrieked: ‘Guess what’s in the birdbath, quick, quick!’ No one came but yells of ‘an albatross’, ‘a puffin’ and ‘a golden eagle’ drifted through the house. And, when I showed them a picture of this delightful visitor? ‘Oh, it’s just a little brown bird.’ Just? Just!
For those interested, there is much to learn and take part in virtually. Local artist friends Katie Chappell, Helen Stephens and Tania Willis have launched a fabulous initiative: The Good Ship Illustration. As well as a fee-based course for creatives, there’s a free Sketchbookers Friend package which includes a weekly speed sketching session with the trio. I’m a total novice and found the idea a bit daunting but I joined a session and it was amazingly liberating and fun.
My favourite Zoom session each week is a church service. It’s a wonder to see all the faces popping up on your screen in their little boxes. People’s faces tend to be screwed up in concentration and fingers loom at you as technology is wrestled into submission (with varying degrees of success). Easter Sunday tapped into the painful reality of abrupt separation from those you love – particularly at birth, death, and times of hardship – just when you need each other most. Poignant and fabulous. Each week some of us struggle to find our mute buttons on the app. Those of you familiar with Zoom will understand that this means that whoever makes the loudest noise will dominate the screen of all those in the meeting. So, for example, you can quite unexpectedly get a view up someone’s nostrils just as the vicar is breaking the communion bread.
Birds are constantly stepping in and out of my window on the garden and battling for birdbath domination. A blue tit will arrive, to be chased off by a great tit or goldfinch, who’s usurped by a blackbird or thrush, who gets the push from a pigeon (or the dove of the title!) or crow. Sadly, I’ve failed to capture any of these visitors on camera, despite lurking in the bushes with the hen who patrols the base of the birdbath as if trying to get in on the action. Perhaps I should join my illustrator friends again and sketch what I see. Until then, I’m leaving you with a seagull on the ping-pong table… Except, at the last minute, I did capture a great tit on my birdbath!