Saturday, 17 November 2012

Life's Little Pleasures (7)

This is my seventh post on LLPs (Life’s Little Pleasures).  Post (1), Post (2), Post (3), Post (4), Post (5) and Post (6) can be seen by clicking on the links.

Lady Luck and the Good Fortune of Others

“Happiness is six green lights in a row”…
~ from Reader’s Digest

I once found this quote among the jokes and bits of whimsy in small print at the end of an article. It became a quotable quote in the family because we lived in a very large city bisected by countless long and straight avenues, and six green lights in a row would be the cause of unalloyed pleasure and a story worth repeating at every opportunity for the next week at least.

How do you feel when you arrive by car late for an appointment in a very busy part of town with a sinking heart, and there, right in front of your destination building on a teeming street is one beautiful, perfect space, waiting for you.  It might as well have a shaft of light beaming down on it from heaven.  Or a seat on a crowded train?  For a few minutes the angels sing – you say thankyou thankyou thankyou, though you don’t know to whom to direct your gratitude.  That’s one of life’s little pleasures. 

Discovering the wonders of automatic transmission was another.  Against general advice (“only the gears give you proper control”) I took a chance and decided that my next car should be a small automatic.  Now heavy commuter traffic and traffic jams have ceased to be more than the usual annoyance.  The muscles in my left ankle have recovered and instead of having to think aout what gear I should be selecting, I can keep calm with classical music, or by thinking about a story.

I had often noticed people with iPods in their ears and wondered why they would wish to be listening to music when out in the fresh air – surely that’s an indoor pastime?  And now I know – it’s to distract you from discomfort and to fight boredom.  I found this out also by chance, and now the 15 minute walk from my car to my desk is almost half the effort it used to be.  Part of my job is to do mailouts occasionally, and they’re now quite enjoyable because I plug into BBC radio plays and funny shows as my hands automatically slap bits of paper around.

There is a special kind of pleasure to be gained from the pleasure of others, as the Olympic fortnight has shown.  It was wonderful to see the happy and harmonious atmosphere at the games, and I felt no conflict of interest when Team GB came up against Argentina.  The UK had plenty of medals to rejoice over, and I was willing Argentina on to get a few for herself – as she did, ending up with a gold, a silver and two bronze medals.  I understand the achievement this was, because there is very little investment in sport in Argentina (except for football) – in fact there’s very little money around.  Whereas the UK had funding from the National Lottery and other sources.

“Heroism is endurance for one moment more.”
~ George F Kennan

Sometimes I have been drawn powerfully into a news story with a happy ending, and feel some of the pleasure which the victims themselves have experienced. 

The Andes plane crash.  In 1972 towards the end of my final scholastic year we heard that a Uruguayan school rugby team had been lost in the Andes.  In October a chartered flight carrying 45 people including the team, friends and family had been heading for Santiago, Chile to play in a friendly match against another school, and crashed in the Andes.  Some of my school friends knew a few of the boys who had been on that plane.  A quarter of the passengers died in the crash, and others succumbed to cold and injury.  Of those left, another 8 were killed by an avalanche a fortnight later; by the time two of them had trekked for 10 days and been found by a shepherd, there were only 16 of them left and 72 days had elapsed from the day of the crash.  The shepherd alerted the authorities, and two days before Christmas they were rescued.  It was all over the news in Uruguay and Argentina – and no doubt elsewhere.  We had been following the attempts of the authorities and the parents to find the victims for over two months, and when we learned of the story we all felt a rush of delight that some had survived against all odds.  I have followed their lives where possible ever since.

John McCarthy.  I felt the same rush of pleasure when the British journalist John McCarthy was set free in 1991 after more than five years captivity in Beirut, Lebanon, where he had been kidnapped by Islamic Jihad terrorists in 1986.  The efforts by his then girlfriend Jill Morrell to obtain his release were heroic, and it captured everybody’s imagination, making his release even more exciting.  I followed his fortunes later and learned more about the Irish hostage, Brian Keenan, who was freed slightly earlier than John, and of the extraordinary fortitude and spirit showed by McCarthy during all that time.

The Chilean miners.  In August 2010 a mine collapsed in Copiapó, Chile, burying 33 miners 700 metres underground and 5 km from the mine’s entrance.  For 17 days there was no response to the bore holes drilled to try and find them, and the mine’s instability and poor safety record led the authorities to believe that there would be no survivors.  But on day 18 a drill bit returned to the surface with a piece of paper attached that said “We 33 are in the shelter, and all well”.  The country as a whole erupted in a wave of euphoria.  Help was received from other governments and donations, but it still took a further 50 days to put the machinery in place to get them to the surface, during which they were fed and watered by means of a tube.  On 13th October they emerged in relatively good health, to be greeted individually by Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera.  I was pretty euphoric myself, and followed every morsel of news as closely as I could.  I felt enormous pleasure that they and their families had been reunited. 

The miners had been trapped underground for roughly as long as the young Uruguayan rugby team had been isolated at 3,600 m up in the Andes.  John McCarthy had been chained to a radiator by his fellow man for over five years.  None of them lost hope that they would be rescued; all did their best to cope in impossible circumstances.  All were heroes to us the observers.

Selina.  If you read this blog you know about Selina, the younger daughter of my closest friend Michèle, who was involved in a very serious road accident in October 2011 which left her in a coma for several months, then in a minimal conscious state for a few more.  She has come out of it now and is slowly on the way to recovery.  Every little step has been a major triumph; every time I feel tearful with the pleasure of it, of knowing how brave their efforts are; understanding how much it means to her that she can now communicate, and that the Selina everyone knew is still there, waiting patiently to get out.  They are both heroines to me.

The triumph against all odds by a person or persons not connected to you - a selfless pleasure derived from the good fortune of others which inspires you - that's a five star LLP.


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive


Business is business...



Orange groves

Vicky, my father's cat


Sunday, 11 November 2012

Lady in Waiting - A story for Remembrance Sunday

(My picture)

John’s sister Pam is an old lady of 94. She lives quietly in the south east of England looked after by a carer and visited by her 3 children regularly.  She lost her second husband last year when he was 95, and is held in great affection by her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. 

And so it is with the hundreds of thousands of ladies of her age.  We view them with a mixture of indulgence and respect, understanding their slow gait and sometimes confused minds, their forgetfulness.  We smile when they switch our names round by mistake, and wince with sympathy at the discomforts they are forced to suffer because of their frail health. 

When you visit Pam and look beyond the evidence of old age around you, you start to notice the silver-framed faded pictures of times gone by.  They crowd the tables and mantlepieces, their sepia images not quite sharp; happy pictures of people standing together, proud ones of men and women in uniform.  With surprise you find yourself recognising a young smiling face holding a baby - it’s Pam, and the obvious dawns on you:  this is a previous incarnation of the gentle lady you are visiting.  She too was young once, and if you ask her when she is rested and has had her nap, you will learn that it wasn’t all happy child-rearing and sunny days.

There are so many ladies like her around Europe who had their share of suffering during World War II.  They were the waiting women, the ones who played no part in the glory of wartime heroism, except that they kept the home fires burning and welcomed their enlisted men back to love and normality.  They endured many hardships, ensuring their children were properly fed from the meagre rations they were allowed, and tried for their sake to keep everything normal, hiding the inner turmoil of fear and worry about their men serving at the front.

There are millions of stories, and this is Pam’s.

Don had joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) before the war and at the outset of the conflict became a full member of the RAF Bomber Command as a Pilot Officer and captain of one of the Wellington bombers, which were the main ingredient of the bomber force in the early stages of the war.

He and Pam were just married, and it was not long before they had a golden blond and blue-eyed boy, Frank, who looked just like his father.  John was a young teenager when war broke out, and hero-worshipped his older brother-in-law.  The missions were highly dangerous but Don made light of it because he didn’t want to worry his young wife; indeed, on recalling the many nearly fatal mishaps he experienced on these missions he always managed to recount them as if they were hilarious.

In those days aircrew members had to complete thirty sorties before being transferred to training duties by way of relief; when Don completed this first stint there was an impressive celebration in his unit as he was one of the first to survive that far.

But there had been a sad price to pay – he had had three rear-gunners killed by enemy aircraft and on one occasion he was very lucky to have managed to land on his own airfield with one bomb hanging from the under carriage owing to a fault in the release mechanism.

One anecdote has never been forgotten by the family because he shared it with John’s eldest brother Anthony, who was in the merchant navy – also a very hazardous occupation in wartime.  Returning across the English Channel from a raid, Don had spotted what was clearly a British Convoy heading for home, but had been shaken to realise that he was being fired on by some of the ships, whereupon he made haste for the cover of the clouds.  As he told Anthony about it some days later when they were both home on leave, the latter interrupted to say “So that was you, was it?” … The crew of his ship had spotted a bomber overhead, which they had assumed was an enemy, and had done their best to shoot it down before it could report their position by radio…  Fortunately they missed.

With Don’s record he was promoted to Squadron Leader and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and bar.  For the next year or so he served as an instructor at a training unit in Scotland before being posted to one of the units constituting what were known as the Pathfinders.  Equiped with the new, faster Mosquito bombers, their task was to fly ahead of the main bomber forces, locating targets with maximum precision and illuminating them by means of incendiary bombs.

By early February 1945 the number of missions required to be completed before aircrews had another rest period had been raised to forty, of which Don had reached thirty-six missions; he had also managed to complete two of these without Pam’s knowledge.  Thus he was happily looking forward to the day when he could give her the happy surprise of being told that he had finished his stint.

He set off on his thirty-seventh mission (or ‘op’ as they called them) in the middle of a vicious blizzard, but in spite of the desperate weather Don made it back to the vicinity of his home airfield, where he signalled that he was ready to land.  They radioed back advising him that they had a damaged aircraft about to land and asked him to return in five minutes.  The blizzard was still raging and when the five minutes were up they had lost radio contact with him.  A short while later his home station was telephoned by another airfield a short distance away, reporting that a Mosquito had crashed near their airfield and asking if it was one of theirs.  Don had died with three ops to go, and unbeknown to him, very near the end of the war.

A few years later widowed Pam met Bill, a quiet and mild-mannered solicitor.  He was her safe haven and became very attached to his little blond stepson who had been too young to understand how he had lost his father.  They married and had over sixty happy years together.  Pam had two further children, and at family get-togethers I have attended, her first husband Don is spoken of in a natural way, with respect.  He is still very much a part of the family, and not least because one of Frank’s sons, Don’s grandchild, is apparently the spitting image of his grandfather. 

His spirit lives on.

Different times, different world.  I wanted to tell this story because it is part of the human experience,  and worthy of record. 

It is long overdue for those we referred to then as ‘the enemy’ to come forward and tell their stories round the same camp fire.


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive

Some creatures,
and a few pictures of Fuerteventura, Canary Islands


Saturday, 3 November 2012

Life’s Little Pleasures (6)

This is my sixth post on LLPs (Life’s Little Pleasures).  Post (1), Post (2), Post (3), Post (4) and Post (5) can be seen by clicking on the links.

I Hear You

“Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
~ Berthold Auerbach

Most people take great pleasure from music, as do I, but there are extra little pleasures which come from hearing a tune that we recognise and haven’t heard for a very long time, or which reminds us of good times.  I learned to play the Spanish guitar at the age of 10, and hearing a piece for guitar on the radio is always a particular pleasure.  I think the sound combines particularly well with the human voice, and having been a teenager during the folk era, I feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck when I hear Joan Baez, Tom Paxton or Julie Collins.   

Joan Baez

Tom Paxton

Judy Collins

I was very taken by the British folk group Steeleye Span when I first came to England in the early seventies, and one of their songs called Sails of Silver has such joyousness in its tune that it invariably lifts my spirits.   The sound of my own voice however doesn’t hold the pleasures it once did; I’m not the chatterbox I used to be and my vocal cords show some signs of ageing and I can no longer sing on the guitar the way I used to.

The spoken word has for me a greater capacity to give you pleasure or pain.  Theatre is one of my favourite arts, and I experience moments of pure pleasure when I go to the theatre and come away feeling that I have seen a well crafted play, superbly acted and which leaves me with many thoughts to share with my companions.  My criterion for excellence is that if I can remember them now, many years later, then they really were good.  Chekov, Strindberg and Miller for the serious; Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn for lighter moments, are some playwrights that come to mind. 

I should include Shakespeare, my mother’s favourite, but I have only liked certain plays such as The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet.  The BBC is particularly good on radio, and listening to a play (no advertisements) can make you forget your surroundings.  My iPod is tuned to radio, so I hardly notice the effort involved in the walks around the hospital site on errands or to and from my car with something to listen to.  As a child once said (I don’t remember who told me this) – I prefer radio because the pictures are better.

Then there are accents and recognising a foreign language even if I can’t speak it or understand what is being said.  Rumanian was a surprise – I had completely forgotten that it is one of the romance languages with Latin roots, and when I heard it for the first time I was astonished that using my Spanish I understood about 30% of what was being said, and it felt wonderful. 

Italian, the language of my maternal ancestors bring my mother and grandmother back to me, and it gets better after a glass of wine, when I’m brave enough to launch myself into small talk.  Portuguese remembered from my university days is another pleasure to listen to.  They all leave me feeling I’m Alice in Wonderland who has been given the key to enter another world.

Water in all its sounds give pleasure – streams, drumming rain, waterfalls… and the deafening noise at my local indoor swimming pool is evidence of the joy of splashing sounds to children (though not to me when I’m the swimmer, it has to be said).

The sound of a loved voice is also wonderful, and verbal reassurance that I am loved.  I could listen to that all day...

Up and Away

We see it as a right to have our annual holiday, but this is a pleasure of relatively recent times.  Most of us love going somewhere new, but aside from the enormous enjoyment that comes from the experience, there are also additional mini pleasures, little flashes of joy which make you glad to be alive. 

There’s my first sight of the turquoise pool, the cool water on my skin and on the top of my head, or the buoyancy of the sea; the unaccustomed dryness in the air which makes the heat bearable, the wind whipping at my hair or the evening breeze that cools and soothes me. 

How about sitting comfortably with feet up in the shade on a hot day with a drink beside you so cold that the glass is still completely frosted and you can hear the crackle of the ice cubes – either reading or watching the world go by?  Or the sight and sound of large waves crashing on the shore and expert surfers gliding in smoothly, just behind a perfect barrel (particularly if I have my camera ready)?  Here are a couple which sadly aren't mine - I think I'd retire if they were.

There are gentler pleasures such as listening and watching the tremulous leaves of Lombardy poplars as they rustle in the breeze,

Patagonia, 2008

...or contemplating a field of grass, or wheat when it’s young and green suddenly being swayed hither and thither by wind as if a giant was running his hand caressingly over it. 

Estancia Huanuluán, Patagonia

Not to mention the luscious and refreshing sound of a waterfall cascading down a cliff and hitting the rocks before disappearing into a deep pool – hopefully with a sandy bottom where you can rest your feet without wondering what’s down there...

Bowood Estate, UK 

In Patagonia a few years ago several of us went for a brief walk in the late evening, far enough to get away from the lights of a small village where we were staying and be able to take in the full majesty and awe of the Milky Way, the Southern Cross and other constellations in a crystal clear night sky.  It was also very quiet, and all I could hear was the blood pounding in my ears.  I realised that I had never seen such clarity in the Northern Hemisphere, either because the weather did not permit or you never quite got away from the orange glow of street lighting.  The sense of pleasure, peace and being at one with nature was intense and something I will never forget.

A Sense of Touch

The feel of velvet fabric, the fleshy petals of an exotic flower such as frangipani...

Maldives, 2007

...the silky hair on a child’s head, kissing a baby’s toes, the fur of my cats when I stroke them, cool water, the wind rushing through my fingers when I put my hand out of the window of the car, sand underfoot, splashing through the surf, sinking into warm or cold water, covering up my ears with warm hands on a frosty morning or climbing into bed with the electric blanket on, on a very cold night, the first swallow of a cup of coffee in the morning...  have I left any out?


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive

Twilight on the Río Colorado, Patagonia

St Ives shop:  Picture within a picture
(The rusty sewing machine is also in the window,
bottom right)

Dawlish - this is obviously not the first time the cat
has perched there, since someone has thoughtfully
placed a tea towel on the sill for his comfort..

Sunset:  Severn estuary and Llanwern steelworks in
South Wales, photographed from Portishead, North Somerset

Clevedon Craft Centre:  Another picture within a picture

Norfolk Broads

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