Friday, 21 September 2012

Life's Little Pleasures (4)

This is my fourth post on LLPs (Life’s Little Pleasures).  Post (1), Post (2) and Post (3) can be seen by clicking on the links.

I Read you

“To read a writer is for me not merely to get an idea of what he says,
but to go off with him and travel in his company.”
~ André Gide

Taken as a subject it’s one of life’s greater pleasures because – if the book is good - it transports you to another world.  I particularly love a book which stays with you after you finish it, and encourages you to research the background, making the glow linger for a while.  Most of all I love a rattling good yarn.
That reading is pleasurable is beyond question, but if in years to come the mere evocation of what was to you a watershed book continues crystal clear yet gives you pleasure anew - then that's special.

For me the list of these books is not very long, and is what this series of posts is all about.

As a child my seminal books were Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows...

...and almost anything by Enid Blyton, but particularly The Famous Five (most girls identify with George, but I felt I had more in common with Anne, not to mention all that wonderful food their Aunt would dish out to them.  It was wall to wall clotted cream and scones and cakes...)

As a young girl growing up in the pre-television era I threw myself into books with such a passion that I purchased a torch specially to enable me to read at night after lights out, under the blanket – and on some occasions saw the sun rise through reddened eyes as I reached the final page.  The latest book would be stuffed into my school bag and sneaky peeks taken during lessons taught by absentminded teachers and at break time. 

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and its sequels affected me like this.   

Here are some other books I’ve loved since teenage years when I was even more of a drippy romantic than I am now – I hope you’ll tell me yours.

I read Desirée by Annemarie Selinko as a teenager -

and was so caught up in the story of the wife of French Marshall Bernadotte who became king of Sweden, and who had once been betrothed to Napoleon.  Naturally once I had finished it I buried myself in history books about the period – which lead me on to Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.... 

...and The Scarlet Pimpernel.  By the end of that phase my family were begging me to stop talking about the French Revolution. 

I was also besotted with book series read by most romantic teenagers – the Canadian Jalna/Whiteoak Chronicles series written by Mazo de la Roche,

… the sexy and exciting French Catherine & Arnaud and Marianne novels by Juliette Benzoni... 

...the novels of Georgette Heyer set during the Regency period (1809-1820)...

Unfortunately I (and a whole generation of English–speaking girls) grew up thinking that this was how all romances were, and that the perfect happy ever after actually existed.  This has made me look back on these stories with nostalgia-filled pleasure, remembering what it was like to be innocent enough to believe them.

I wept for the Anne Frank in her tragic true wartime diary,

...the cat in Paul Gallico’s Jennie,

and for the Italian donkey Violetta in The Small Miracle,

… was enthralled by Rudyard Kipling’s The Man who would be King

(which at that time was also the most exciting film I'd ever seen)... and learned his best-loved poem If… by heart (I still know it, and use it to practice my shorthand speed). 

 (My sister had the "If for Girls" - written in a more demure 1931 - on the wall of her bedroom during her teenage years):

Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a story of a small town lawyer at the beginning of the civil rights movement in America, became my hero (“That’s the sort of man I’m going to marry” I said... and I’m still looking for him).

After Mum introduced me to the animal conservationist Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals,  in which he describes his idyllic childhood in Corfu,

we shared its humour for the rest of her life, particularly enjoying the scene where animal-mad Gerald has a family of little scorpions in a matchbox and they escape, causing hysteria amongst family members.  His brother Larry, always given to overstating the situation, screamed that they were “knee-deep in scorpions”. 
Furthermore, in her youth she had seen the film Gone With the Wind, and read Margaret Mitchell’s book,

which I once found in the study and read cover to cover, without yet having seen the film.  So to get an easy laugh out of my mother down the years if (for example) a few figs had fallen off the tree and were lost to the ants and she was berating my father for not having picked them in time, it was sufficient for me to comment that we were knee-deep in rotten figs and ants, and what a disaster, for her to be amused and change her mood.  Likewise if GWTW was mentioned I would clasp my hands over my chest, toss my head and say in the most dreadful American Southern drawl “Aw Ashley, ah do luuurve you...”  Mum was a very serious person, and making fun of literary characters she knew well invariably took her by surprise.

Then there are books which were (at the time) perfect for the beach or by the pool, and even now my copies of them have a vague sweetish stale smell of Ambre Solaire. 
Harold Robbins, whose storylines were unputdownable,

Wilbur Smith, whose characters were rough and ready and part of the African continent,

James Clavell who wrote about the Far East,

and the Canary Islands author Alberto Vázquez Figueroa whose stories were about Spain, Spanish Africa and South America.

… - all knew how to tell a story and kept me absorbed, and though I don’t remember the plots in detail, the atmosphere they created is with me still, leaving me with a lasting desire to visit the places they described, an unexpected pleasure.

As my interest in the rest of the world grew, I became increasingly aware of how lucky I was to be able to read in English and Spanish, thus doubling the amount of books I could read (as I’ve said in my mission statement on the right of this screen), and tried to make it a rule to alternate my reading equally between the two languages.  The Chilean writer Isabel Allende combines social awareness with being a most wonderful storyteller with a touch of magic realism, and her works have all been translated into English and within reach of most people.  Through her I have learned what nineteenth century life was like in Chile, and subsequently have particularly identified with Mi País Inventado (My Invented Country, a memoir)

in which she describes what it was like to be young in Santiago in the seventies during the time when her first cousin once removed (thought of as an uncle), Salvador Allende, was president of Chile.  A Marxist, he was deposed and probably murdered in 1973 and replaced by a military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet.  Isabel Allende and her family had to flee to Venezuela and she never returned permanently to Chile.  I knew very little about this beautiful neighbouring country and she made it come alive for me.

Bill Bryson hails from Iowa (he says it’s so flat that if you want a view, you only need to stand on a couple of phonebooks) but has lived part of his adult life in the UK.  He is Commissioner for English Heritage, President of the Campaign to protect Rural England and was Chancellor of Durham University.  He is much loved here, probably because of his book Notes from a Small Island,

narrating his travels around the UK with a very spot-on analysis of the quirks of its inhabitants.  It’s my favourite of his books, and the only one I remember reading which makes me laugh out loud all over again till my tummy aches whenever I dip into it.  He arrived in England for the first time in 1973 barely a few weeks after I did from Argentina, and his first impressions leave me open-mouthed, because it could have been me speaking.  I don’t know him, I’d be too shy to introduce myself to him, but he speaks for me on so many levels.

There are times in your life when you recognise that it has turned in a new direction – good or bad.  My world opened out in 2005 after reading a book, Mollie Robertson’s The Sand, the Wind and the Sierras – Days in Patagonia (1964),

… the memoires of a very young English girl whose father went out to Patagonia just before WWI to seek his fortune as a sheep farmer.  She and her mother joined him in 1916 and lived there till 1922.  They were golden days for her, despite the harshness of the climate, the cruelty towards animals she witnessed around her and the loneliness endured by her mother.  It left me with a very strong impulse to learn more about the family, the conditions and the land. 
I’ve written posts about this (here and here) but suffice to say that with the support of friends I ended up translating the book into Spanish and visiting the part of Patagonia where Mollie had lived, both in 2008 and 2009.  I have not so far been successful in getting the book re-printed in English, published in Spanish or good use made of all the material I discovered about the family.  This is partly my fault, because I know it’s hard work finding a publisher.  My little pleasures with this book have been the little discoveries I made as I went along, the information I was able to string together after hunting on genealogy websites and an unexplained hidden joke in the naming of a horse in the book, which I suddenly realised in a eureka moment one day. 

And now?  The most recent book which has given me a sweeping view of another era and sent me scurrying to Google is The Count of Montecristo

by Alexandre Dumas (père).  A good story well told with an interesting historical backbone.  Lovely.

It's interesting that I've read many wonderful books since my teenage years, but this was my most impressionable age - as of course it is with everybody - and my lack of reading experience gave me a completely fresh and uncritical approach, which for the most part I have now lost and don't regret it.  I get a different type of enjoyment out of my reading now, where the style of the writer is as important as the narrative itself.

Does this strike a cord with you, or do you disagree?  What were your favourite books?


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archives


Friday, 14 September 2012

Life's Little Pleasures (3)

This is my third post on LLPs (Life’s Little Pleasures).  Post (1), Post (2) can be seen by clicking on the links.


“The question that women casually shopping for perfume
ask more than any other is this: 
What scent drives men wild? 
After years of intense research, we know the definitive answer.
 It is bacon.
 Now, on to the far more interesting subject of perfume...”
~ Tania Sanchez, Perfumes:  The Guide

The inherent pleasures of perfume always take me by surprise.  I’m fussy about what perfume I wear; there are not many I like.  I sniff my way round the testers in Duty Free and remain unimpressed until there’s one which brings me up short.  It’s perfect and makes my eyeballs roll over in sheer pleasure.  It’s always the floral scents that get me – not for nothing have I named this blog Lonicera.  Dior’s J’Adore L’eau had this effect on me at an airport once, and John now knows what he can get me for Christmases and birthdays if his imagination runs out. 

When I was little Mum gave me a little cylindrical cardboard container to play with.  It had once contained talcum powder and was covered in light green foil with a picture of an 18th century lady on it, complete with grand ruffled ball gown and periwig.  Madame de Pompadour was scrawled across it. 

There were remnants of the talcum powder at the bottom which emanated a perfume that was both rich and sweet.  I restricted myself to opening it for a wonderful sniff only once a week or so because I was afraid the perfume would dissipate, and I wanted to trap it there forever.  But to my dismay it did eventually begin to fade – so I would stick my nose further inside, trying to reach the bottom...

Years later in England when I was in my twenties I was at a garden centre and buried my nose in a pot of flowering lily-of-the-valley to see what it was like – and abruptly felt the sensation of being pulled out by the scruff of the neck and deposited back in my parents’ bedroom aged 7 with the long-forgotten little light green foil container with the old-fashioned lady drawn on the side.  It had taken all that time to learn that the talcum powder’s perfume was simply a well-known flower.

Happy childhood holidays and a growing awareness of the beauty and wildness of the Argentine countryside are symbolised for me by the sight and pungent aroma of the wildflowers and herbs that grow in the Córdoba countryside, interspersed with rocks and stones glittering with mica.  But if I had just one to keep with me forever on a desert island it would be peperina, the herb which grows wild in mid and northern Argentina, and has more attributed Latin names than you could throw a stick at – clearly botanists are at loggerheads on this issue.  Minthostachys mollis or verticillata, Bystropogon mollis, Mentha piperita, etc. 

I found it, again by chance at a garden centre in Bristol; described as Imperial mint, as soon as I sniffed it I felt a stab of pleasure and nostalgia at the same time.  I purchased it of course, and I kept crushing its leaves to remind myself of the scent.  Some months later a hailstorm destroyed it, to my horror, and the garden centre didn’t know what I was talking about.  Two years went by, and one summer I was potting some plants in my little patio when I saw out of the corner of my eye some familiar little green leaves peeping out from between the flagstones.  My peperina must have dropped its seeds and two years later here they were.  These little shoots kept coming, and I gently removed them and re-potted them, and eventually I got a big container of peperina going.  Crushing those leaves and sniffing the result always had the same pleasurable effect.

Have you ever smelled mimosa?  (Also known as wattle or aromo - Acacia dealbata).  Its bright yellow and sweetly fragrant flowers bloom in winter when the rest of the garden is bare.  It grows well in Argentina and burying my nose in its bright blooms is pure pleasure.  So is looking at jacaranda trees framed against the sky (see the picture in the top left corner of this blog).  I’ve grown the former in my English garden but sadly the latter can’t cope with this climate.

My mimosa, which died a couple of winters ago
 but is still trying to sprout...

And...aftershave.  A whiff of aftershave makes me think of prospective dates in my youth when they arrived to collect me in a cloud of spicy cologne... my partner now, my sister's suitors or my father long ago, all set to go out for the evening looking dapper in their smart suits... even the aftershaves at the cheaper end of the market are imbued with the promise of a bit of male attention and fun, of men young and old having made an effort to look their best.  The frisson of anticipation - like the spot lit curtain just before it goes up in a darkened auditorium...


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive

Bristol Temple Meads railway station,
on a quiet Sunday afternoon
as the red liveried Royal Mail trucks and carriages
prepare to carry the day's post to London


Saturday, 8 September 2012

'Tis the reason for the season: Annual Appraisals.... plus a few updates

At work we are at that dreaded time of year in the National Health Service – annual appraisals have to be completed by the end of October, with positively no slippage allowed on the date.

What’s the problem? I hear you say; surely it’s just a question of sitting down with your boss and having a chat about the year so far, and the year ahead?  A quarter of an hour tops?  Nope. 

I go to my immediate boss to seek his approval for time off, permission for this and that, and I jump to it when he asks me to do something, which isn’t often.  My next boss is also a lady who is the head of clinical research at the other end of the hospital site and I’ve never spoken to her directly.  However the regulations stipulate that the person who shall conduct my appraisal is to be someone in research who is at least two grades senior.  The lady in question (a third boss) is very nice, but she will be appraising an awful lot of administrators like me. 

Two hours at least are required to be set aside for annual appraisals, and the NHS is keen to be seen as a reasonable employer which gives its employees every chance to say what they think. 

The hospital where I work is building a massive new hospital around us, a huge place which will be state of the art and have mostly single occupancy rooms.  It’s due to be finished in 2014, and the admin process of transferring staff, departments and patients is monumental. 
How they see it in 2014... 
(Note the idyllic Mediterranean roofs!)

How it is at the moment. 
We're all trying to do our work through the noise and the dust
in the buildings the other side of the new hospital,
at the top centre and right of this picture.
The open plan office where I work is just about under
the middle crane.

There is a ‘transformation programme’ called ‘Building our Future’ with short, medium and long term objectives, papers headed ‘The North Bristol Trust Story’ and ‘The Road to 2014’.  I am expected to understand all this and be able to comment on its impact; parallel to knowing my KSF (Knowledge and Skills Framework) within my ‘gateway’ (I think that’s my progression within the organisation in relation to learning and pay.  The latter is part of the government’s policy for the NHS known as ‘Agenda for Change’. 

My appraisal form has a section headed ‘Personal Readiness for Change’ – what will I be doing to prepare myself for these changes (i.e. moving into a bigger hospital at the other end of the site)?  What are my personal objectives in relation to the Trust’s ‘Big 5’ objectives?  What is my performance and development plan?  By which date do I expect to achieve them?

Having studied the 8-page form which I have to complete and submit in advance and read all the brochures, I feel bound, tethered and choked by acronyms, abstract concepts and platitudes.  Worse, it’s as if I’m bobbing about in a swimming pool full of soap bubbles, trying but unable to see over the top of the peaks of foam at the normal world beyond. 

The principles behind all this flim flam are admirable – to say what we think but within a strict framework.  This is the institutionalisation of fairness and kindness, where any form of sexism, racism and bullying are given zero tolerance.  As far as possible everybody is treated the same and all personal remarks are frowned upon. You do not need to justify why you have been out sick for two days as opposed to one, and you will not be asked what was wrong with you.  You don’t openly criticise anyone.  You are innocent until proven guilty.  I much admire this working ethic, and I’m proud to work here.

It is strictly my own opinion, with only the observations during my working life to go by, that the NHS is a matriarchy (I’d love to see the figures) and that the majority of commercial ventures are patriarchies.  This bias shows in a lack or excess of leadership respectively, though not always; there are plenty of exceptions where the reverse is the case.  I suppose it reflects the universal tendency of good leadership to be as rare as hen’s teeth.

If you forced me to choose I’d rather work for a female run organisation, having spent most of my employment being patronised by men and their dismissive attitudes towards women.  But I would far rather it were a combined effort of equals with one regulating the other.  Not in my lifetime I don’t suppose.

80% of staff working in this hospital is female, and it is one of them I have to satisfy at my two hour appraisal in a fortnight’s time.  I’ll stop there because I have an awful lot of appraisal-speak to learn before then...

There’s nothing to report about me personally, I plod on with no particular health plans (other than to control my diabetes) and no targets.  Feelings of quiet content are generated by knowing it’s Friday and I’ll be able to do some serious sleeping for a couple of days; having finished a story for my blog; and either taken some pictures I’m quite proud of or discovered them by scanning old slides.

Luz Milagros Verón: 

This is the tiny girl in Resistencia, Province of Chaco, Argentina, who was born to months prematurely in April this year, given for dead and taken to the morgue in a box, only to be discovered 12 hours later when her grieving parents insisted on seeing her, that she was frozen but still alive.  (See my original post here).  She has been in a hospital in Buenos Aires ever since, and though she has progressed through many physical complications and has put on a little weight, there is still neurological damage and she is showing only a 10% mental capacity.  The doctors are pessimistic on whether she will recover.  A few weeks ago she and her mother were flown back to Resistencia, as she continued to need close medical supervision in the local hospital.  Yesterday her parents finally took her home, where the local government has installed all the equipment she will need.  She is now five months’ old. 

Mechi and the Rail Crash at Once station, Buenos Aires :
(see my original post here)

Mechi has continued with her life after surviving the terrible crash which killed 51 and injured over 700 back in February this year, but has found it difficult at first and now impossible to continue to write her light-hearted blog, at least for now.  Her amusing stories were all about the vicissitudes of commuting, and it has left a bitter taste in her mouth.  She has some way to go yet before she feels able to pick up her pen again, though I’m sure she will.  It comes naturally to her.

The unpleasant sequels of the crash continue at political level, with revelations of the corruption within being commented upon in the press on a weekly basis.  TBA (Trenes de Buenos Aires) has closed certain services on that line (night time and weekends) to effect some remedial repairs, but there are less trains running than ever, so the crush is worse if anything.  A pressure group has formed to seek justice for the families of the dead, but from the government there has been nothing but a deafening silence.

Selina : 

The five siblings all together, Selina on the right.
Taken a few years ago.

My friend Michèle’s younger daughter Selina’s car accident happened in early October last year, 11 months ago (see my original post here).  She is still at the large rehabilitation centre on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, and even the Director who runs it has got personally involved with her case because she is making such steady progress.  He thinks she may be able to leave the centre by the end of the year.

She is now fully awake and interested in the world around her.  She is learning to swallow again and the tracheostomy tube has been changed to a smaller version, the final stage before it is removed altogether.  She will then be able to speak.  Up until yesterday morning she was only moving her right side, but to Michèle's astonishment when the Director of the rehabilitation centre came to visit her he instructed the girl to move her left hand, and she did... 

Selina has a small blackboard on which she writes when she wants to know something, or is giving an answer.  Sometimes her impatience is so great that the writing comes out as a scrawl, and they have to try to slow her down.  She replies correctly to most questions asked, though she's not quite there in understanding the ages of people in her family.  She now knows fully what happened to her, and is sometimes overcome by it, but her determined and loving mother is forcing her to look ahead not back, and to focus on the next thing.  Michèle reminds her frequently of her amazing progress in the past 11 months, and how proud her therapists are of their favourite patient.

I told you last time about the problems caused by having to share a small room with another patient and their carer.  The first was a young girl who with her mother, the carer, watched TV all day and late into the night.  This mother had dirty habits and borrowed Selina's things when she wasn't looking.  The second had kind, supportive carers but was herself lost to dementia, and would shout nonsense words during her waking hours, particularly late into the night, and Michèle knows this had a retrograde effect on her daughter, who wasn’t getting enough sleep and was very distressed by the sounds.  These people have just left, and for the moment they have the room to themselves in glorious peace, although they don't know how long it will last.


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive

My garden in an unusual snowy winter


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