Happy new year fellow bloggers and readers! Let us all hope that 2022 sees the world turning the corner on the pandemic although even as I write numbers of infections in the UK, and particularly here in northwest England where I live, are frighteningly high so it is an anxious time for the clinically vulnerable once again, and for parents hoping that children can remain at school for a whole term and for anyone waiting for hospital treatment.
My Christmas was quiet – no visiting relatives for us this year. I was lucky enough to have my three children at home, though, my son returning from university, so we simply hunkered down and spent some wonderful family time together. University and school have now returned, twelfth night has passed, the decorations have been packed away for another year and it is time to get back to some semblance of normal life.
I haven’t posted on here for a few weeks. I took some time out from all my various activities over the holiday period to give myself some time to think about how I wanted to take things forward over the coming year. The autumn was quite a stressful period with one thing and another (some planned, some not) and I am hoping that the next few months will be somewhat quieter, though both my daughters are facing into big exams this year, so there is a persistent background worry about whether or not they will go ahead, about fairness and equity and about staying healthy in the run-up to them.
I have decided that this must be the year that I take my writing to the next level, so I am going to try and do a bit less of my day job to give myself the space to do that. I had a good momentum up until the start of the pandemic and then, as so many people have found, my writing routines, my motivation, my capacity all seemed to vanish and I have found myself in a rut with it ever since.
Blogging is an integral part of my writing. At the very least it exercises all the right muscles, and reading, the main focus of this blog, is the very thing that inspires me to write, so no issues there then. I would like to tell you a bit more about my writing in the coming months, if only as a way of keeping myself accountable and on track. I am going to continue to set myself an annual reading challenge. This year, I have decided that I want to focus on non-fiction. I did not read as much non-fiction last year as I have done in previous years, so I am planning to pick a different theme each month. I haven’t yet decided what January’s theme will be, so look out for that in the next week or so.
I am a ‘completer-finisher’ so I need to tell you about the November AND December books for my 2021 reading challenge; November’s theme was erotic fiction and I chose Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, and December’s challenge was to read A Christmas Carol, the Charles Dickens classic. I’ll be posting about those in the coming days too.
Another important goal for me this year is to pay attention. In this last year or two I have spent more time walking around my local area than ever before, noticing things that I hadn’t previously. It has been a joy and has taught me that sometimes the biggest learnings and the most important discoveries can be pretty close to home. This is a lesson I hope to take into 2022 as well.
What are your hopes and ambitions for the year ahead?
Whatever they are, I would like to wish you every success in realising them.
My husband and I had our second Covid vaccinations last week, so I now feel pretty protected and relieved that we are less likely to pass the virus on to someone who might be less able to withstand it. One of my daughters has had her first dose and my student son should be able to book his vaccination by the end of the week. That only leaves my youngest who at fifteen is unlikely to get it any time soon. This sudden ramping-up of the vaccine roll-out comes in a week when the Delta variant of the virus is seemingly running wild throughout the country and when the G7 seem finally to have woken up to their responsibilities to distribute vaccine to parts of the world less well-endowed than us.
A few weeks ago, when it still seemed possible that most social distancing restrictions would be lifted on the 21st of this month, we booked a trip to Ireland for July to visit my husband’s family. We have not seen them for eighteen months. As I write this, I hear that the Republic of Ireland has extended its quarantine requirements for travellers from the UK. Suddenly, it looks as if our trip may be postponed. There will be many others like me, disappointed at this news. We normally travel to the continent for our summer holiday – we long ago realised THAT wasn’t going to happen, but many people will have been hoping to make such a trip to visit friends and family who, like us, they have not seen for many months.
Most of us in the UK will have to amuse ourselves with a holiday at home this year, if we are lucky enough to be in a position to take one. I have no idea what we will do, but if you are in the same boat I would like to share with you some literary gems that you might find interesting!
Last autumn, desperate for a change of scene, we spent a weekend in West Yorkshire during half term, just before we were all sent into lockdown for a second time. We visited Haworth, home of the Brontë family of course, just outside of Bradford and only about ninety minutes drive from Manchester. I went there many years ago, staying in the youth hostel in the summer, and I remember it being extremely busy, the vertiginous high street thronged with tourists. At the end of October 2020 the atmosphere could not have been more different.
The weather was awful – the moors were definitely wild and windy! – very wet and cold. But this just made it feel more… Brontëan to me! The other benefit from the weather and the pandemic was that the place was empty, though not so good for the businesses that depend on tourism of course. The Brontë family home is now the Brontë Parsonage Museum, a fairly modest dwelling that has been laid out much as it would have been in the 1800s, at the time the sisters were living there, and which displays many of their belongings. There is a permanent exhibition giving the history of the family and their work. Most striking for me were the tiny books the sisters wrote about the Angria, and a gown of Charlotte’s – she was such a small woman! There was also an exhibition of Anne’s paintings, which was in part an attempt to set the record straight on her literary status.
Social distancing rules mean that entry is by timed ticket, which actually allows you to enjoy the museum in an uncrowded way. The downside of this for the Museum of course is reduced revenue, so a donation is called for. The experience was near spiritual; for me the Brontës represent a literary pinnacle and visiting their home is like visting a shrine. The coolness of the place (doors and windows were open), the damp outside, and the silence and emptiness, just made the experience more authentic.
The moors provide a stunning backdrop to the Museum. They were where the sisters would walk daily and to follow the guided paths, particularly as far as Top Withens, the ruined house said to be the inspiration for Wuthering Heights, it feels as if you are truly walking in their footsteps.
Haworth is magical, but there is more to see in the area, not least the wonderful Worth Valley steam railway which runs from Oxenhope to Keighley. This too has a literary connection, having provided the location for the filming of much of The Railway Children, the classic 1970 film of E Nesbit’s children’s novel.
We had a wonderful weekend and it cheered us up after months at home doing nothing. We stayed in a rental cottage just a few minutes walk from the centre of the village. A restaurant table for dinner proved hard to come by so we took advantage of the delivery services of one of the many local Asian takeaways, having the most amazing Indian feast brought to our door.
So, if you are looking for places to visit this year while you holiday at home, I cannot recommend Haworth highly enough.
It’s Earth Day today and I am relieved at last to see the United States taking a global leadership role once again in pushing urgent climate matters forward, setting new and ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions. Let us hope all nations follow-through (and in fact go further than) the promises that have been outlined today.
The global coronavirus pandemic has, I think, caused many of us to reflect on the way we live our lives and to ask ‘How did we get here?’ What bits of the present world order have led to this desperate situation? I think our cavalier attitude to the environment is right up at the top there among the possible answers. Over this last year of curtailed movements many of us have got to know our local areas much better and I have become well-acquainted with many of the beautiful and interesting trees in my neighbourhood that I see on regular walks. It’s not that I didn’t know they were there before but I definitely paid less attention. Even the most pedestrian trees are quite spectacular when you get close to them. Here are a few in my locale:
I started to see trees and their importance in a different way after I read The Overstory, the 2018 Booker-shortlisted novel by Richard Powers. It is an extraordinary book that I still consider one of the best I have ever read. Another book I read more recently, Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, was a rather more frightening foreshadowing of where we might end up if we, as the nations of the world, continue in the present direction of travel. Both books are sobering reads for World Earth Day.
Another thing that has made me very reflective this week, and, indeed, got me out and about in my neighbourhood, is that our lovely family cat Ziggy went missing seven days ago. We have had him almost eleven years and we think he is about twelve (he came from a cat rescue centre so we are not really sure), but he is the friendliest cat I have ever shared my space with and we all miss him terribly.
He never goes very far so we have hunted high and low for him in the neighbourhood. I have put up posters and leafleted all the houses in the vicinity of our house, but so far to no avail. I have had so many calls from different people wishing me luck in the search as well as possible sightings (all false alarms sadly, as a neighbour of ours has a very similar-looking cat). It is heartwarming to think that people take notice and want to help.
We continue to look and to hope.
It is that spirit and human kindness that has got us through a pandemic and will, I hope, get us through the challenges we face in the future.
Haven’t picked up a book at all this week – too distracted.
I was all set last week to post a couple of blogs, including a book review of Kiley Reid’s international bestseller Such A Fun Age, a super book which I devoured in a few days. There was no devouring of anything last week, however, as ‘life got in the way’ somewhat. I expect life will get a bit more ‘in the way’ in the coming weeks as Coronavirus restrictions begin to ease. It doesn’t look as if we’ll be packing for holidays any time soon but I can already feel a return to my pre-pandemic busy-ness.
Yesterday, the first anniversary of the start of lockdown in the UK, felt like a sombre and reflective moment for the whole country and there was much radio and television time devoted to thinking about what we have lost in these last twelve months. Interestingly, there was also a lot of space given to people talking about what we have gained – a new sense of perspective and appreciation of others, a re-calibration of wants and needs, a desire to live our lives in a different way. My daughter said at the dinner table the other day that she “misses” the lockdown from last spring, when, for her, the pressure of school was taken away, when we started doing more together as a family, and there was time to walk and appreciate nature more. Plus the weather was lovely, which helped! I know what she means. For me, the days have not been ‘lazy’ by any means, but I will miss all that white space in my diary.
I had my Covid vaccination last week, for which I feel enormous gratitude to scientific endeavour. The ease and smoothness of the process from booking to queuing, to the actual procedure was very humbling and the one bright spot in what has been an otherwise very bleak Covid picture in the UK. I was also deeply aware of my white, western privilege in getting the vaccination and only wish it was being rolled out in other parts of the world that need it just as much as we do. The vaccination left me feeling completely wiped out for a couple of days and my arm is still very sore but it was a small price to pay.
So, that’s my excuse for not posting for over a week. The good thing about being a blogger is that you don’t HAVE to do it (unless it’s also your main income source, of course). I don’t need another thing is my life that I HAVE to do frankly! But I do miss it when I don’t post. The last year has been patchy for me in terms of frequency of posting and I set out at the beginning of this year to be much more disciplined, particularly around my social media (which is a Disaster!), so I am disappointed to have let a week slip by.
I love writing, and I particularly love writing my book reviews; the very act of it, especially when I’m sharing my passion about something I’ve read, is a cathartic and joyful exercise and a little corner of creativity in the midst of life’s more prosaic activity.
So, hello again fellow bloggers and readers, I missed you last week! Let me ask, how do you keep up with the demands of regular blogging? Some of you write fantastically in-depth and thoroughly researched pieces and I am in awe!
Here in the UK, the government announced last week a so-called ‘roadmap’ out of the Covid restrictions. They are emphasising the need to be guided by ‘data not dates’ so nothing is guaranteed of course. Like most people, I am looking forward to being able to see family and friends again; my own parents are both dead, but I have some elderly aunts and uncles I am anxious to visit, and my in-laws are in Dublin and we have not seen them for fourteen months. I am well aware that there is always someone worse off, and I am so sorry for all those who have lost loved ones in this pandemic, in so many cases, without having had the chance to say goodbye.
Yes, like many, I am looking forward to booking a holiday, but it’s actually the smaller things I miss more: seeing friends, going to the cinema or an art gallery, a concert or a play. I want to eat in a restaurant again, cheek by jowl with other diners, and go shopping without a mask. I want to get in the car and drive to the coast for the day, or walk up a mountain, or visit my son at university. I would even be happy providing a taxi service to my daughters, ferrying them around to meet their friends. I want to get on the tram and go into town, or go for a swim or browse in a bookshop or the library. All those things I took for granted and sometimes sighed at having to do. I want them all back.
But there is a prevailing narrative that I feel I must challenge; my daughters will return to school sometime after the 8th of March (when the Department for Education gets around to clarifying how schools should implement rapid Covid testing). Yes, they need to get back, see their friends and be in a classroom again, but they are apprehensive. Working from home has been quite good for them – they do not have to contend with the naughty and disruptive kids. We seem to have forgotten that these things cause anxiety in normal times and that some children get bullied or suffer in a crowded classroom or playground. This is going to be worse when they all return, because so many children will have forgotten how to behave in the classroom and I feel for teachers having to manage discipline once again.
And I am a bit sick of hearing people on television, radio and my neighbourhood telling us how bored we all are and how they have been forced to take up macrame, or whatever. To those people I say, try home-schooling, or working from the kitchen table! I never seem to have the time to be bored! I am rushing around less, that is true, and I will miss this pace of life actually. I know that once restrictions lift life will speed up again.
I will also miss the time that we are sharing as a family – we watch films together, play board games, go out for a walk together every Sunday, and my husband, who used to be away several nights a month for work, has been home all the time. Everyone has time to cook, bake, chat, run, walk, and play. We have grown closer as a family and there is less pressure in life, having to be somewhere by a certain time for a given activity.
I will miss barely using my car. My car is quite old and for a while there I fancied something newer, less scratched, that didn’t scream ‘Mum’. Now I don’t care. It’s been weeks since I put fuel in it and that feels great. I bought a new coat in the sales, but apart from that, I haven’t desired any new clothes. I’m sorry for the fashion industry I suppose, but I’ve learned to be very happy with the wardrobe full that I already have, re-discovered some things I haven’t worn in a very long time and learned to love comfortable.
So, though I will not mourn the end of the pandemic (we have lost too much for that) I hope that we will all reflect a little and think about what we learned was important.
A the beginning of lockdown it seemed there was no end to challenges published on social media as most of us stared into an abyss of being confined in our homes for an indeterminate period. Whether it was fitness, craft, cooking, or reading, there was a challenge for everyone. For others, just staying alive and/or sane was enough of a challenge, and for many, of course, endless unfilled days were a luxury they could only dream of; health and care workers, key workers in supermarkets and delivery drivers all found their work was busier than ever. I got sucked in too, thinking that I was suddenly going to have lots of time on my hands to do all sorts of jobs I had not got around to doing for months, as well as reading more (SO much more!), being really creative, sorting out my garden, etc, etc. The reality was somewhat different. I, and many others, had not factored in the emotional toll of this period we called lockdown; it was not like a staycation AT ALL, it was really stressful! I was relatively lucky: some people were worried about dying and others were painfully lonely, some were locked up with abusive partners, others confined in an apartment with young, bored children who needed home-schooling. I only had a working from home husband and three teenagers to contend with. But still, I found it difficult to settle to very much at all.
I have posted on here before about how valuable I found the streaming of National Theatre Live performances, the Hay Festival channel, and the BBC Glastonbury channel was great (if anyone has ever wondered whether the TV license fee is worth it I hope their question has been answered well and truly in the affirmative these last few months). I have also been watching a lot more television than ever before and it has been such a treat. I finally watched the amazingly incredible His Dark Materials in full – Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua was simply the stand-out performance and she’s only 15! Season two is coming soon – the trailer alone is thrilling. I also enjoyed Normal People, the much-acclaimed adaptation of Sally Rooney’s much-acclaimed novel. I loved the book and was so excited to watch the television series. I thought it was very faithful to the book, and the acting performances (again from two very young actors) were outstanding, but it did not move me as much as the book. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or the book was just too good? I have also watched a couple of the new versions of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. They are brilliant! There are twelve to watch altogether and every one of them will be fantastic I am sure as the casting is extremely high calibre.
Despite all this ‘extra time on my hands’ there are a few things I still have not got around to that are on my must-watch list: Noughts and Crosses, the series based on the Malorie Blackman novels, and My Brilliant Friend, the Italian adaptation of the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, which is now available on YouTube! I can’t wait to watch it, as it’s one of the best things I’ve read in the last few years. I also haven’t even started on the epic series The Luminaries yet, which has been screening on Sunday evenings on BBC1 for the last few weeks. It has finished now and its slot has been swiftly taken by A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth’s epic novel from 1993, and still one of my all-time favourite books. Since I read Gone Girl in January I’ve also been wanting to watch the film – that’s another one on the list.
So, lockdown has not been the reading/film-watching/sewing/baking/decorating/ exercising bonanza that I thought it would be. Maybe in six months I’ll be asking myself what on earth I did with all that ‘spare’ time. Maybe I’ll just say to myself that I kept my family safe and well, I helped some people, I walked a lot, I kept my head together (ish) and I did enough.
What are your reflections on your life in lockdown?
It’s been a while since my last post. I’m normally pretty organised when it comes to planning my blog posts, and fairly diligent about posting regularly. School holidays and busy work periods can make things tricky but generally I’m a committed and regular blogger. I imagined that during this period of global lockdown due to Covid-19, I would have much more time to post regularly. That did not quite happen, of course, what with having the whole family at home all the time, and doing much more cooking and cleaning than I do normally (‘help’ sometimes creates more work!). I was getting on okay though, appreciating the facts of our situation: we were all together, we were well, our income was fairly secure, we had a roof over our heads, those basics were in place and so all was good.
After Easter, though, I noticed a real dip in my mood. I cannot really explain it because nothing specific happened. A few things upset or angered me – the ever-increasing death tolls on the nightly news, the increasingly grave news about the economy, the anxiety about how countries with weaker health systems than ours would cope (some of them rather better than the UK it turns out), events I had booked for the coming months were gradually cancelled. I also find myself getting irrationally cross about people who seemed to believe that the measures designed to protect us all didn’t actually apply to them. But, those things didn’t seem to explain the more general malaise I found myself experiencing. I struggled for motivation. Even with at least a million things I could have been doing I felt at a loose end. And when I heard the stories on the television of people who had lost loved ones to the virus, I found the complicated grief I felt about my mother’s death last Autumn, resurfaced in ways I had not expected. Some days I felt relief that she wasn’t here to experience or be worried about getting the disease (she would certainly have died had she got it as she was very unwell), but at the same time I felt, selfishly, like screaming, hey what about the rest of us who lost people recently, NOT due to Covid-19. It was all very complicated.
I even found it difficult to read. I wasn’t able to focus. I bought Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light at the start of the lockdown, thinking that long weeks of no socialising would give me plenty of opportunity to work my way through the hefty tome. Alas not. I have not even picked it up yet.
Thankfully, I can feel my mojo starting to return this last week or so, just as suddenly and as inexplicably as it went away. To what do I credit this change of mood? The following:
Marian Keyes – Grown Ups to be precise. It was my book club’s choice the last time we met in person and although it was probably not a book I would have picked up it was the most perfect tonic, especially as I listened to it on audio, with Marian’s wonderful narration.
Vincent Van Gogh – many years ago my husband bought me a 1000 piece Photomosaic jigsaw puzzle of a Van Gogh self-portrait. If you’ve never seen these, they are very clever, the larger image is made up of hundreds of tiny little photos, fiendishly difficult, but completely addictive. I had never done that jigsaw, but seemed to decide that ‘now’ was the time. Many dinners were burned or delayed as I found it difficult to drag myself away from it. We had to eat round it as it sat at the end of the dining table, a fortnight-long work in progress. There was one near-disaster when the cat, in a last desperate attempt to get my attention to feed him, leapt up on the dining table and almost sent several hundred carefully colour-organised pieces crashing to the ground. Lucky for him, only a few pieces fell and Ziggy the cat lives to fight another day!
Withdrawal from social media – I’m not a big social media user, but I dabble.I found I really couldn’t take much Facebook though and Twitter was a total no-go – way too much anger and too many chronically-opinionated people.
And finally, free artsonline – more than anything I am missing the arts (hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious). The audience with Hilary Mantel I had booked for April was cancelled, as was West Side Story at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, the Hay Festival, the Thom Yorke gig in Manchester next month as well as various performances my kids were involved with and a couple of work trips to London with exhibitions to be taken in. Thank goodness for the National Theatre’s weekly NT Live recordings, the virtual tours of museums around the world, and Radiohead classic concerts on YouTube.
It hasn’t been all play, of course, I only dabbled with all of the above. I got a bit sick of hearing lifestyle-y type people saying how bored they were and were looking for things to do. I have felt busier than ever, my work has been emotionally quite demanding, and it’s never good hearing from over-achievers in those circumstances.
So, like most people, I am muddling along, looking forward to some normal things and trying to make the best of the situation. And hopefully getting back to an even keel on the blogging front.
What strange times we live in! When I last posted, about two weeks ago, life was going on as normal, I’d just returned from a short trip to France and I was making plans for the coming weeks, including booking train tickets for work trips to London. Sure, there was talk of the Coronavirus in China, a few cases in Italy, but it didn’t seem like it was going to affect me, it was happening somewhere else. How long ago that now seems!
I didn’t post last week mainly because I was in shock. My elder daughter was due to be taking her GCSEs this summer, indeed, I was also going to invigilate at a local school. When the announcement came that exams had been cancelled, I think it hit me then how serious this was going to be. Suddenly, I feared for elderly relatives and neighbours and spent the week calling them, offering (please!) to help. I was comforting my daughter who seemed to be going through all the stages of a bereavement and, having worked so hard for the last two years, suddenly had no clue what she was meant to be doing with her life now. Plus, I could hardly tear myself away from the rolling news and the numbers dying in Spain and Italy increasing by the hundreds. We had to make rapid plans to get my son home from university (I’d only been to see him the weekend before!) and he was finding his local shops were empty by the time he got there – dinner for him one night was a pack of hot cross buns! I found it difficult to focus on anything.
This week is different – the high anxiety of last week has been replaced by a strange calm. We are all now under one roof, school, activities, hobbies, gym, everything now, has been cancelled, even the occasional Flat White at my coffee shop of choice. Unlike some, I’m not too worried about how I’ll cope with the ‘isolation’ – on the contrary, as an introvert who spends most of her days alone, it may be challenging for me to have everyone else around all the time! I think I will actually enjoy the opportunity to take a guilt-free foot off the gas. I will be giving help and support where I can in my community, but I will also be observing closely the need to keep others outside my household at (double) arms-length.
Whilst I don’t want to start creating lists of jobs for myself, I am better when I’ve got some goals, so here’s what I plan to do with all the found time:
Top of the list is reading, of course. I have been wondering how I was ever going to get to The Mirror and the Light, the third and final part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy….!
Re-read Ulysses – I am not a big re-reader, but I read this when I was much younger so I want to read it again through more mature eyes. This was one of my aims for 2020.
Appreciate my garden, especially if this wonderful spring weather continues.
Breathe – I’ll miss my yoga classes most of all but can practise at home.
Write – I have been finding it very difficult to get back into the re-writing stage of my book since my mother died, but perhaps this is the impetus I need.
Keep in touch with my relatives.
Make some photobooks – we don’t really print photos any more do we? I’ve made a few family photobooks over the years, but there are a few years missing.
Clear out our files – paperwork, paperwork! My husband and I are terrible hoarders and keep everything, but do we really still need all those invoices from 10+ years ago?!
Pay attention – we can still go out, once a day, for the moment at least, so whilst we still can I will enjoy my neighbourhood, with all its wonderful trees, and enjoy the lack of vehicle and aircraft noise!
I would love to hear what your plans are for ‘lockdown’ – above all, follow all the advice and stay well and safe.
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