Sunday, April 27, 2008


Lots of my favourite blog-people live a long way from where they grew up. A different state, a different country – even a different continent.

I live about six miles from where I grew up, in the same city. I’m very attached to my home territory. It's not that I'm particularly a city lover, but if I go away on holiday for two weeks, I’m thinking longingly of home about half-way through the second week. I love it when we’re driving up from England and we see the familiar shape of Arthur’s Seat, the biggest hill in our city, on the skyline. I love getting back to my garden and seeing what’s grown, and being back in my house, which looks to me, like the rest of Edinburgh, familiarly strange, strangely familiar.

I occasionally wonder if I’d feel the same about home if I’d grown up somewhere less pleasant. Edinburgh, as cities go, is a good place to live. It’s not very big – you could walk from the centre to any place on the outskirts in an hour or so – and yet it has most of the things you need in a city: shops, theatres, cinemas, parks, hills (I think you need hills in a city), art galleries, museums. It has its ugly bits like anywhere but also some lovely bits; it’s historic; it has quiet areas; and it’s got the sea on one side. The weather – well, it depends what you like, but I don’t like hot weather and it’s seldom either very hot or very cold. It has short days in winter but this is easily offset, in my opinion, by long days in summer.

Would I feel less attached to home if I lived in an industrial area full of tower blocks? A huge city like London? Or somewhere with an extreme climate? I don’t know.

I’m always amazed when people emigrate. Apart from leaving the place, I wouldn’t want to leave friends and family. I just can’t imagine why anyone would – of course I exclude victims of war and famine for whom home has become intolerable. And I realise that sometimes you have to move for work. But people who just tootle off from somewhere nice to somewhere else nice – clearly they have much more of a sense of adventure than I do. (Not that this would be hard.)

The only reason that we might move far away would be if our children did. They’re more important than anything.

Ah well. We’re all different; and other such original conclusions.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

An Engineer's Guide to Cats

Thank you for your kind comments about my friend M. I still feel so grieved for her. Meanwhile I'm trying to seize the day, gathering rosebuds as I do so. And also blog a bit.

If you haven't seen An Engineer's Guide to Cats, you should watch it. Mr Life and I thought we'd got the wee screen on to this post like other, clever people do, but then it vanished. Still, the link should work. It's rather funny.

Monday, April 21, 2008


When I was at school I had two separate groups of schoolfriends, both comprising three girls plus me. One set comprised my official “best” friends – my very best, my second best and my third best. Sounds ridiculous but that’s kind of the way it was. We went around together most of the time, sat together in class and knew one another’s secrets. But these girls all took packed lunches while I ate in the canteen. So my lunchtime friends were three other girls: M, G and S, with whom I also shared a lot of girlish chat.

I’m still in touch with all of these girls, though with some more than others. I’ve always seen M intermittently – she would come down for a meal with the family maybe once a year. She was unmarried, and when you have small children you sometimes hesitate to inflict yourself on childless friends whose life is more focused on a successful career than on picking up bits of Lego from the floor. But we got on well and she was very empathetic and – a lovely person. I’ve always been rather enchanted by her. In fact, when I was a girl, I really wanted to BE her. She was from an interesting and talented family and always seemed to be confident – not in an arrogant way, but calmly, as if life were simple. In fact, like the rest of us she had her neuroses, as I found out later in life. But she was sweet.

One of the surprising things about her was that she always seemed to fall for unsuitable boys/men. They were older than her, or they were planning on a career that wouldn’t have fitted in with her plans (for example, one was very religious and planned to be a minister, while she wasn’t at all religious) or they had emotional problems … anyway, though she was very attractive, she never seemed to find her life partner. And then, in her late thirties she did, though he came with baggage: he was quite a lot older, had been through a messy divorce and was wary of commitment. Eventually he recovered from this and they got married, but she was in her late forties by then.

At first when they got together, we asked them both to the house but he didn’t want to be regarded as part of a couple so she came by herself. Later, they did both come to dinner but we didn’t feel it was a great success. He was nice enough but I don’t think we had much in common and they never asked us back. He was retired but had been a top civil servant and clearly had lots of money and she was also quite a high earner and I suppose I vaguely thought that we didn’t seem important enough to him. I was sad about it but on the other hand, she seemed to have found happiness, which was good.

M and I continued to stay in touch via Christmas cards and notes and several years passed without much more contact, though we did occasionally mention meeting up and I certainly assumed that we would at some point. But you know what it’s like when you’re busy. Years go by. I was deep in family and teaching and she had a high-profile, engrossing job. I missed her but thought that when we retired and had more time, we would resume our easy relationship. We’d known each other since we were five and always just picked up where we’d left off.

But then we didn’t get a Christmas card for the past two years, which I was slightly hurt about.

Recently another of this group, G, moved back to Edinburgh and I met her yesterday. And she told me that M, beautiful, charming, funny, kind M was diagnosed two years ago with a rare form of dementia. She’s 57. She’s in a wheelchair, requires 24 hour care and is like a completely different person. This form of dementia decreases social inhibition and people become aggressive or say embarrassing things. There’s no treatment and she will just get worse and worse until she becomes vegetative and dies in a few years’ time.

I just can’t stop thinking about her. I’m so sad. How I regret not making more of an effort to spend time with her in recent years. How I ache to think of all the things she wanted to do when she retired and had more time. When I think of adjectives to describe her, they’re all to do with light and warmth: golden, glowing, radiant.

I also think of all my plans for retirement; for the rest of my life, as I fondly hope. Better get on with some of them now.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Yes, I know this is undignified. It was Daughter 2's fault.

Sirius is such a patient boy.

Resigned, I suppose you might call him.

He just sits there.

Cassie, on the other hand...

... is slightly less co-operative.

Still, she's prepared to look at her cake... (See the levitating hat!)

... for a short while. (The hat's still there.)

We sang "Happy Birthday" to them. I'm not sure they appreciated it. Then we were forced to eat their cake for them, because they'd lost interest.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Six word memoirs

There’s a “write a memoir in six words” meme going around and I decided to have a go. You may not be surprised to hear that I found six words a rather inadequate allowance.

(First attempts turned out rather gloomy) -

School, university, work, children, work, why?

Too busy to live life fully.

Tried best but have some regrets

Thinking breeds gloom; just kept going.

Worked; tidied; cuddled; worried, kept breathing.

Mother hen; chickens now spreading wings.

(Then I became a bit cheerier) -

Much love; many small pleasures; overwork.

Kept busy; less time to fret.

Married for love; who needs money?

(Make it more difficult; try alliteration) -

Lucky life; lots love; little leisure.

Fantastic family; fairly frenetic; feeling frazzled.

(A variation: alliteration in a pattern) -

Wonderful offspring; weary often; work overloaded.

(Is there a lesson in this?) –

Don’t teach: no life at all.

(But to sum up my memoir) –

All very interesting but too busy.

Six words? I need six million!

(Anyone else like to try this?)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Some pictures

Some commenters have kindly enquired how our boy is getting on in New Zealand. He’s having a fine time, thanks. He and his young lady arrived the weekend before Easter, so very soon got a long weekend (no one in New Zealand is ill from Good Friday till Easter Tuesday, evidently; or if they are, they don’t want to be treated by students). So the pair of them went off to see glaciers. Then they worked for two weeks and were told to take a week’s holiday. What a splendid country! So they went down to the south and saw lots more beautiful scenery, such as this: Queenstown Hill with Lake Wakatipu in the background. It looks a lot like the Scottish Highlands except that in Scotland the grass would be a lot greener (rain) and you probably wouldn’t be wearing shorts up a mountain because it would be too windy and cold.

Now they’re back in Nelson for a few more weeks before having a final week off, during which they’re going to North Island.

It came to me a few weeks ago that my second blogiversary had come and gone on March 3. This, combined with the slightly depressing fact that my stats have gone considerably down this week (I was clearly rather uninteresting last week) made me decide that when not many people were watching I would take up the self-portrait challenge that’s been going around. I didn’t actually take a new picture – this was done a few months ago for a blog friend who wanted to know what I looked like, but, you know, I don’t look all that different yet. It’s taken in the bathroom mirror, which has a kindly light from the side window. I actually look 140. I do like seeing bloggy people's faces so decided to step out from the shadows. My students aren’t reading this, I’m sure. And nor are all that many other people, judging by my latest stats. So here I am saying a quick hello to a select band of you.

If you’re reading this and haven’t done the self-portrait thing yet, I dare you.

The first one was me trying not to look boring, which I always think I do. Hence the dopey smile. The second time I decided to revert to type.

Friday, April 11, 2008

It's time for another cat post

Look at those catlets cuddled up together.

See! Cassie gives Sirius a lick.

And another.

Then Sirius licks her too.

They fall asleep, nose to nose.


I took Daughter 2 to the airport on Wednesday morning at the crack of dawn and, on my return, came into the dining room to find Cassie with a little brown dead bird clamped between her slavering jaws. Well… in her mouth. Or at least, it was on the carpet and she was looking complacently at it. Sirius hovered guiltily in the background.

But I’m a vegetarian! Now I’m torn between my love for them and my feelings of moral disapproval.

Oh, you think that this is what cats do? Really?

Suddenly they seem less like fluffy toys.

You don’t think that she just found the bird lying in the garden, having passed away after a long and happy life? Well, it’s possible, isn’t it? Isn’t it? Or at any rate it must have been a pretty deaf bird because the terrible twins have bells round their necks and we can hear them coming from several gardens away.

I always think that how people behave in a crisis is a measure of character. Naturally, I dealt with the situation by letting out a yell. On cue, poor old Mr Life leapt from his warm bed and came to my rescue. I don’t do dead things. It was part of our marriage vows that he should.

Bigger bells? Extra bells? Flashing lights? Sirens? Hob-nailed boots? Balls and chains?

They haven’t done it since. Maybe it was a one off... .

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

No time to read

The Sunday when we were in Norfolk and it snowed, we saw this snowman in a neighbour's garden. I love the way the snowman's clutching a daffodil - not a common combination even in this unpredictable climate - and the somewhat gloomy expression on his face. Perhaps he knew that a thaw was imminent.
During that week, I made splendid inroads into my to-read pile: all of the above (the Betjeman only part-read) and lots of magazines and copies of the "Spectator" and also a book my aunt lent me: C S Lewis's "Surprised by Joy". The Kate Atkinson was especially good. She is such a wonderful writer - her novels are so cleverly and intricately plotted.

But then we made our traditional visit to the second-hand bookshop in Burnham Market. Fatal. I read the top one, the Alice B Toklas - very interesting.
Since coming home, I haven't even quite finished the Betjeman.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Spring blossom and silly things

This has been the second (and last) week of my Easter holidays and I've spent a distressing amount of it marking my Advanced Higher students’ dissertations and creative writing.

However, on Monday I walked to collect the car from being mended and saw - above - the Pentland hills with some cherry blossom,

a forsythia bush in full bloom

and this flower shop. All very springlike.
On Wednesday I had coffee with my friend Maggie and she told me about something silly she did with her spectacles.

And today I had lunch in Haddington with some other friends and we did something embarrassing.

Maggie’s silly thing? She likes having candles in her house, and has discovered that a good way to get wax splashes off the glass candle-holders is to put these in the microwave to melt the wax. Works a treat, she tells me.

The other day she’d been tutoring a student and her brain was rather frazzled. She then rushed to pack to go away for a few days with friends, blew out a candle – and wax spattered on to her spectacles. So, still thinking about her tutorial session and her little holiday, she popped them in the microwave.

The lenses, she reports, were fine. The titanium frames melted completely.

The embarrassing thing? Today, five friends and I were lunching in Haddington, which is a small town in East Lothian, east of Edinburgh. Above you see the river that we walk along. My friend Janet lives near the town and some months ago, on a similar occasion, she took us to look at a show house (ie a new house, fully furnished to show prospective buyers what houses in a development can look like). Various of us have occasional thoughts about retiring to Haddington or somewhere round about. And it's always fun to have a snoop round a show house.

Today, she announced that she had another show house for us to look at on our after-lunch walk. There it was, in a row of new houses – the one with a For Sale notice in the window and another saying Open Viewing.

So we went up the path and opened the door – six of us, talking loudly as only six teachers who’ve known each other since 1973 can talk. We stood in the hall and looked round. I thought to myself that it was odd that on the wall was a school photo.

Someone called from upstairs – the sales lady, clearly. Then she came down, looking a bit surprised. Janet asked if we could see the house; the lady agreed but said, “It’s just that… people don’t usually walk straight in.”

Because it turned out that…no – it wasn’t a show house. It was this lady’s home. Yes, she was selling it but she was also living in it and had been for a year. The houses were newish, but not actually brand new as Janet had thought.
Were we looking for a house? asked the lady (who was clearly hoping to sell it, though equally clearly didn’t think we looked like six women who were necessarily going to buy a house together). No, no, we said, backing out rapidly. We were just… so sorry… goodbye.

And we continued our walk. Giggling. But a bit horrified.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Fifi from Australia guessed that we were in Norfolk. Spooky! I’m ashamed to say that I would have no chance at all of recognising an area of Australia unless it happened to have Sydney Harbour Bridge or Opera House in it. I think my appalling ignorance is because till very recently I was sure that I would never get to Australia or New Zealand – a bit phobic of flying plus having three offspring to educate expensively . But now I’ve read all your blogs and seen how lovely it looks… I’m tempted.

(Norfolk, by the way, is the top part of the big lump above London on the map of England . We were on the north coast of this lump.)

We were staying with my aunt, which is something we do every two years, sometimes at Easter but more often in the summer. She lives in this beautiful old house with a huge and wonderful garden. The story of why she lives there is a long and complicated one, but basically she retired there 26 years ago with friends, sharing the house, in three separate flats on the upper floor. The downstairs is for communal use and for visitors. My aunt, who’s unmarried, lives in one flat and until very recently another unmarried lady lived in the second (she’s now in her nineties and has moved to a care home. This year we stayed in her flat.)

The third flat is occupied by a married couple. The husband is much younger than the wife, which is very useful since he does all the maintenance of the whole house. Meanwhile my aunt, who is 83, does most of the gardening, which I think is extremely impressive considering the enormous size of the garden. (I spent much of yesterday tending my small town garden and was exhausted.)

Disconsolate ducks on the lawn.

The gateway through to the walled garden at the side. These are all views out of our bedroom windows, one of which looks on to the back and one on to the side garden. The snowy picture in the previous post was of their front garden.
Then the sun came out and the snow melted.

They’re all lovely people and I’ve known them since I was a child, and the atmosphere of the house is one of tremendous contentment, faith and generosity. It’s balm to the soul to be there. The village they live in is pretty and quiet and the surrounding countryside isn’t “very flat”, as Noel Coward famously said, but gently hilly.

Because we’ve been going for so many years, we know all the places of interest – stately homes and gardens and pottery workrooms and galleries run by artists and second-hand bookshops and so on – so it’s very restful, since we just keep going back to places we know and like.

It snowed the first day we were there but then it brightened up, apart from Friday, when we went to Sandringham, one of the Queen’s little places. It has a wonderful garden, which on that day we had more or less to ourselves since it was raining fit to drown a duck.

Or Mr Life: here he is with his own personal raincloud. But it was lovely, in a very drenching way.

Every time I go to Sandringham, I remember why it might have been a good idea to carry out my childhood plan of marrying Prince Charles. However, I’m not sure that he would be prepared to get quite as wet as Mr Life just so that I could admire daffodils.