Saturday, 26 September 2009

Trapped!

We visited a local park this morning, with our daughter and grandchildren. Speckly-Woo! fed the ducks while the twins, Icky and Immy (see previous post), reclined in their buggy, taking it all in.

I thought it might be a good opportunity to get some interesting shots with my A640 Powershot, a camera that suits my 'happy snapper' tendencies.

I wandered off to see if anything presented itself in a form worthy of a photograph. The park is almost encircled by running water and that got me thinking about being contained, trapped even. As is often the case, when your thoughts are influenced by a theme, the perspective of your surroundings undergoes serious change.


Floral felons behind bars.


Reflections gripped by shadows.


A crooked house or the one that eventually wriggled away?

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Oh, Aren't They Lovely!

Getting out and about with three little girls under three years of age, is bound to draw the odd comment from passers-by, and obviously the twins get targeted because they're, well...twins, and identical at that.

Speckly-Woo!, already a charming and spirited soul, with a series of 'one-liners' that belies her toddler status, takes her compliments with grace, and will name the twins at lightning speed when the inevitable question comes.

This is usually what happens. Strangers hesitate, catch your eye, stop, ask about the children and go about their business with a smile and, one assumes, hearts that have melted ever so slightly.

Of course, this is to be expected. When the girls are out on the town, they are all cleaned up, dressed in their finery and on their best behaviour. On the domestic front things go on that would, understandably, quicken the pace of the most reluctant passer-by.

Picture the scene. It's countdown to feeding time. Just minutes left on the clock and Mum is frantically combining a masterclass performance in puree with her well practiced bottle warming technique. She's willing the hands of time to speed up when twin number one starts to yell out a cry like Norman Wisdom being strangled. This is the cue for twin number two to out-mimic her sister. They swiftly settle into a pattern of alternating screaming and all else is drowned out as the darling twins become the queens of implacability.

At last the bottles are eagerly taken, other occupants of the room begin tilting their heads and stirring their ears with their fingers, to check that they haven't been struck deaf. Such is the impact of instant silence.

Watching them feed is a truly wonderful sight. But the intermittent grunts, contorted expressions and assorted tunes from nature's music-box all signify action taking place down below. Their Mum offers up a wry 'thank you' to both of them as they continue to fill their nappies in unison.

There are few words of comfort to offer a Mum operating in the front-line. There's no point in citing her good fortune over that of mothers to large families in days gone by. It would not only be irrelevant but it would be about as helpful as tripping over a freshly filled potty!

Frances Lillian, 1886-1967 (with the six eldest of her sixteen children)

However, I can't help but admire women like Frances, the younger sister of my great grandmother, who had sixteen to cope with.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Place of Birth

I'm not exactly sure what started me thinking about my birthplace. Not the village itself, you understand, but the one half of a pair of unremarkable dwellings known as 'Yule Cottage'. Whatever it was that stirred my thoughts, it sparked a chain reaction of flashbacks. Some as clear as crystal and others murky and indistinct.


Chocolate buttons kept by my maternal grandmother in a tin decorated with flowers. On one side of the tin the design was scorched and blackened. I have no idea why or how. My immediate interest would have been concentrated on the contents.

A little cross-bred dog called Bobby. His patchy white chest moving rapidly as he panted during warm weather.


Watching men working in the field adjoining our garden. They must have been hay-making but I wouldn't have known that. All I saw was men labouring under the sun and a cloudless blue sky.

I sensed that our neighbours were elderly, even though I had no concept of what being old meant. Mr Plank, a veteran of the First World War, softly spoken and never without his flat cap, always called me 'Smarty'.

Later, when I was old enough to identify the sound of a cricket match being broadcast on the radio and long after my time at 'Yule Cottage', I recognised that Mr Plank must have been a keen cricket fan. You see, I was alert to the sound and vision but had not yet developed a method of interpretation. I was only aware of Mr Plank's front door being open, the interior of his cottage being exceptionally dark (in fact, no light made its way much beyond the threshold) and the distant staccato tones of a male voice, punctuated occasionally with what might have been applause.

It wasn't unknown for Mrs Plank to cross over into our back garden to pick a leaf of Laurel. She was adamant that it enhanced her custards with the flavour of almonds. For goodness sake don't try this at home. I'm sure Laurel is toxic.

We had no mains water and, like a lot of people in 1950s rural England, our outside privy was emptied regularly by men in blue overalls and long red rubber gloves. We did have a television though, one of only two in the entire community. In fact, the coronation of Elizabeth II was viewed on our set by a substantial audience of villagers in the cosy confines of the parlour.

I was easily influenced then. After seeing a man, with no shirt, riding his bicycle in the next village, I decided to emulate him, much to the consternation of my family. At every opportunity I would pull my shirt up to my chin and run around the way all good would-be cyclists do. Strangely, I recall pressing my bare torso against the cool interior walls of the cottage, imagining that the sensation was the same as being exposed to a healthy breeze.

I knew when I was on to a good thing too. If I clung to the front gate when Mr Draper walked past,  it was a surefire bet that he would stop, plunge his hand deep into his overcoat pocket and produce a Murray Mint for me. Likewise, a visit to the village shop usually ended with me being given a green foil-wrapped triangular chocolate from the Quality Street jar.

Perhaps being born at home plays some part in bonding us with the actual fabric of the building. As I stated at the top of this post, I'm not exactly sure what started me thinking about my birthplace. What I am certain about is that such memories are valuable and worth giving some time.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Friday, 18 September 2009

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

It probably won't come as too much of a surprise to hear that, since becoming a grandparent, my television viewing habits have changed markedly. For instance, CBeebies was a channel I used to skip past without a second glance. Now I appear to be more familiar with the schedule of offerings there than anywhere else!

We've lingered In the Night Garden and sampled other surreal fare, including Yoko! Jakamoko! Toto! Thankfully, before Mr Tumble succeeds in driving me to distraction, we're moving on to what I call 'proper' kid's programmes'. My current favourite is the comedy drama, Grandpa In My Pocket in which Grandpa is played by the incomparable James Bolam, an actor I can relate to. After all, I was his Terry Collier to my mate Andy's Bob Ferris in the days when we could so easily have been a southern reflection of The Likely Lads, although we would probably have been dubbed The Highly Improbable Lads.



A far cry from the days of Muffin the Mule and Picture Book, originally fronted by Annette Mills and Patricia Driscoll respectively.


For those who don't believe in the power of television to influence young minds, the rather ecstatic youngster pictured aboard Muffin went on to be immortalised........in a portrait of sand!

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Sandparents

I never thought I'd see the day when I had 'followers'. Yet, Square Sunshine currently has five of them! A far cry from Luke's mass of 285, Delwyn's 137 or Jinksy's 115, and a little way off Friko's impressive 49. But in an, 'it's the thought that counts' kind of way, I tell myself the numbers don't matter so much. Each time I go, often bleary-eyed, to my blog there are five friendly faces looking back at me, and they give me a lift.

In turn, I've declared myself a 'follower' on a number of blogs that I find interesting and stimulating, but until today, with one difference. Because I hadn't added a photograph to my profile I appeared to be represented as the front cover of a Raymond Chandler paperback. Admittedly my name comes to view when you run the cursor over my little silhouette but it all looks a bit anonymous and, in a bad light, much like the real thing.....a bit scary.

So I've resolved the issue. I now have not so much an exact portrait but an attempt at reasonable representation, as sketched in the sand by my son-in-law, under the strict artistic guidance of Speckly-Woo! In fact, both Nan and Grandad were drawn on the beach of the Camel estuary in Cornwall whilst the family were on their holidays last year. So at least I wasn't the only victim.....er..I mean, subject.



 


Strange how others see us and even stranger when they're pushed to produce a likeness. Well, in this case I'm prepared to give the artist the benefit of the doubt. Intense pressure from the commissioning patron, a natural flair for the ridiculous or perhaps a blunt drawing instrument. Any of these might explain our distinctly grainy appearance. Or then again, it could just be the chosen medium.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Solarised Panels

Today has been one of those grey, overcast days that was always going to end in tears....in the form of raindrops.

I could feel the moisture in the air long before it came.

Halfway through a game of hide and seek with Speckly-Woo! (for the benefit of new visitors, this is our two year old granddaughter) I excused myself and took to the garden with my camera. I'm not sure what I hoped to find there, and as it turned out, I didn't really capture anything of great interest. Then I started to idly play around with the images this evening and produced the following. I don't usually make a habit of messing with my photographs to this degree but I found these shots quite pleasing in an otherwise colourless day.....weatherwise, that is!



 


 

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Washing Your Hands Of It


This weekend we had our two year old granddaughter (Speckly-Woo!) to stay overnight with us for the very first time. It would be difficult to say whether she or her grandparents were most excited at the prospect. It was a very close-run thing!

We thought we'd get the adventure off to a good start by taking her along to a Country Show. The weather was great, the show was not a million miles from home and we knew that there would be plenty to see for adults and tots alike. Thirty years ago we took our own daughter along for the day.

Mother and daughter - 1979

Of course she was too young at three months old to appreciate much and, inevitably, she has since developed a more refined dress sense. A knotted handkerchief as a sun-shield is now so passé.

We may have been alert to the dangers of too much sun three decades ago, but I can say with some certainty that E.coli was not on our minds. That one completely slipped us by, which meant that we had a stress-free, family day out amongst the livestock and anything that they were inclined to leave behind.

The experience was similar this weekend. Speckly-Woo! was fascinated by the pigs in particular and eagerly gripped her way around the outside of the pen. We also got up close to the cattle and horses.

Spare a thought then for the parents and grandparents of those children who have been struck down with E.coli after visiting Godstone Farm. There will no doubt be fingers pointed, blame apportioned and lessons learned. But at the centre of this story are children, and accompanying adults whose worlds have been turned upside down by a potentially fatal infection. Here's wishing for a full and speedy recovery for those concerned.

We all know (or should know) the basic rules of personal hygiene. Washing hands before they find their way to mouths is so important, but it's not always straightforward with little ones. Juggling children in and out of temporary toilet blocks at big events, doing regular head-counts and generally trying to keep at least one step ahead requires concentration on a superhuman scale.

As for the hand-washing, we probably took a sledgehammer to crack a walnut, but a handy-size bottle of alcohol gel (as seen in a dispenser at the door of an NHS facility near you) is good. Easily applied and offering adequate protection and peace of mind.

Incidents like this do make you think though. When I was a youngster I dread to think what I was carrying on my hands. We had a dog, whose kennel I was known to share on occasion. I was always out of doors, touching this and that. There was a large garden, liberally fertilized, where I played and got myself dirty. Yet, I wasn't a sickly child.

 At the pump

Maybe the answer lies in my curiosity for and ability to work the hand-pump in the yard.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Friday, 11 September 2009

A Nightingale Sang

It's been a day of two halves. This morning we were careering along the M27 during the 'rush hour', on our way to and from Sainsbury's. We arrived with a list and when we left, our obligatory wobbly trolley also had a list...to the left if I remember correctly.

Surely an experience like that should carry a health warning for grandfathers? Or is it my natural aversion to the shopping experience? Probably the latter.

Anyway, as an antidote to fast-lane traffic (on the motorway and in supermarket aisles) we decided to visit our favourite country pub for lunch.The Lamb was busy but not packed to overflowing. This meant that we could enjoy a leisurely meal in the garden with the sun shining and only one annoying wasp on a continuous aerial reconnaissance of my side-salad.

Watered and fed, we set off along the lanes for home. Then for some reason, perhaps still needing a little extra consolation after our shopping excursion, we headed for nearby East Wellow and somewhere we hadn't been for over 30 years; the Parish Church of St. Margaret of Antioch, the resting place of Florence Nightingale.



We were greeted  at the gate of the 13th century place of worship with the song of a solitary Robin, and when the music stopped, all was completely silent. A totally peaceful place.



 

 

There is local rumour that the isolated position of the church is in some way connected to plague, a flea-borne infection carried by rats. Nowadays, though, these tranquil surroundings offer a temporary shelter from a different kind of plague. That which is in many ways connected to the 'rat race'.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

A Fine Line

Whenever I'm drafting the next post for this blog I always try to keep it light and humourous where possible. But life isn't always, as you will be only too well aware, a bed of roses.

Shortly after the twins were born, last April, I watched them sleeping. They looked so vulnerable at that early stage of their lives. My thoughts drifted towards wondering what they would grow to be like as people, what sort of occupations they might have, their physical appearance when they eventually get to where I am now. It was this last question that pulled me up with a start. Unless I live way past my centenary I'll never know the answer to that one. For an instant, a pretty depressing thought. Luckily, however, I'm not the sort of person who dwells on issues around mortality and even as I write this, I am somehow disconnected from imagining the end of my days.

Yesterday I visited a cousin who, only two months ago, was leading a normal life. Then he was diagnosed with having a chest infection, which laid him low for a few weeks. He later collapsed at work and underwent further examination before receiving a far more devastating diagnosis,  Acute myeloid leukemia.

Like me, he has a loving family. He's 52 - a little younger than me – but a grandfather, as I am. He's one of those fairly distant relatives that I've known since I was a boy and it's been the kind of relationship that brings about surprise at reunions and gatherings of the clan. You see, I always carry a picture of him in my head but whenever we meet he never matches the mental image. I dare say the same is true for him, and yet there is an undeniable connection.

My mum travelled to the hospital with me yesterday and in the Haematology and Oncology unit we both 'gowned-up' and waited patiently with two other visitors until the Chaplain had finished her call.

When we eventually met him at the threshold of his room there was an emotional exchange of greetings, probably charged by the news that after one course of chemotherapy his blood readings were ever so slightly improved. He had, in his own words, woken that morning as 'Mr Angry' but then came some minute sign of improvement.

Although he has a mountain to climb, he is now looking forward. Forward to being home, forward to having his family and friends around him in a normal environment, forward to living.

The doctor told him that twenty years ago this condition would have meant one month and that would have been his lot. Today it's possible to live with it.

Occasionally, we need timely reminders of how fine the line is that we all tread. I know this is true, I had one yesterday.

Get well soon Derek. We're all rooting for you.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Monday, 7 September 2009

Zoo Time

Number one granddaughter (Speckly-Woo!) was on good form today. Having had the weekend to sharpen up her act she wasted no time at all before giving me my lines and thrusting the hapless Mary (some of you will remember Mary from a previous post) into my hand. From here on in it all gets pretty surreal. I have to bear in mind that (a) this is a two year old child and (b) Mary can only fly after Tinkerbell (yes, the very same) has sprinkled her with 'pixie-dust'. I also have to anticipate that Mary is likely to want some eggs from a shopkeeper who greets her customers with a rather surly 'what do you want?'

To complicate matters, Mary can only access the shop by using the lift at the end of the sofa, and only then when the shopkeeper presses the button.....and actually utters the word 'press'. She may also need to wear a large hat because she's scared of the dark and doesn't like an owl to see her eyes.

I try to firm up my grip on reality by asking the shopkeeper (through Mary, of course) for some custard to go with my cabbage and some gravy to complement my strawberry jelly. However, the shopkeeper does not suffer fools gladly and after rectifying my culinary mistakes for me, she looks disappointed to think that her grandad doesn't know the basics of good food preparation.

Soon, the diminutive Emily, AKA 'Beady Eyes', is being shoved into a small cupboard. I must pretend I haven't seen anything. More importantly I must look suitably puzzled when our shopkeeper turned school-teacher asks where Emily is. “Can Tinkerbell look for Emily?” comes the inevitable request. But before I can get into my role of tracker/hostage negotiator – you have to understand that sometimes Captain Hook is involved – I'm required to make Tinkerbell chase Mary round and round until I feel queasy.

In the distance I hear my daughter ask if I want tea or coffee. Suddenly I'm filled with bitter regret at having given up caffeine.


Just a few minutes into our visit and I'm wearing an expression uncannily similar to the assembled collection from the soft-toy zoo. The unblinking eyes, the fixed smile and just a small indication of loose stitching.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Field-Good Factor

Most weekends we try to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. And if ever we needed an incentive, just ten minutes from our front door lies some of the most beautiful countryside in Hampshire. On Saturday we were passing right through an agricultural work of art.


 








 
 









 

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Don't Forget To Write

Back in the early-mid 1980s my life was so very different. It was a time of high unemployment in the UK (a phenomenon we're sadly witnessing again today) and I was in a 'sink or swim' situation. Eventually a lifeline came to me through writing, after I'd bombarded the editor of a provincial Sunday newspaper with so many articles, he eventually invited me to lunch. I suspect this was his way of telling me thanks, but no thanks. However, in the event, he invited me to write a 13 week series that lasted almost two years.

During this time of personal discovery my confidence was at an all-time high. I wrote a stream of letters to various authors and playwrights I admired, often with the inclusion of the request...'would you take a look at my work please?'

Of course I was pretty 'green' then and would have settled for compliments when I should have been looking for constructive criticism. All these years later I know that to produce writing that's worth its salt you have to accept that the percentages are probably in the region of 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. You have to GET ON WITH IT!

I was so naïve, but then my naivety was probably the key to my confidence. I was running on that 'have-a-go' spirit that we so often see in our grandchildren. I had no fear of failure. From where I was, what did I have to lose?

Yesterday it was announced that one of those authors I admire had passed away. Keith Waterhouse's reply to a letter I sent him around 1984-85 still resides in my copy of his wonderful 'There is a Happy Land'. It reads as follows:

'Many thanks. I hate to say this but no. I don't have the time – my working day, finishing a book, is about 15 hours at present and you can imagine how much I want to read a MS after that!

But writers are the worst people to show work to – the people who publish writing are publishers. You write the book, you send it on its way, and hope that one of them will take it – that's how it's done, and I don't know of any other way. And if they won't take it, you write another. Hard life, isn't it? But that's how books get published. Good luck.'
  Keith Waterhouse.

Thanks for the reality-check Keith.

As it was, I denied my natural inclination to continue writing and opted instead for academia, where it dawned upon me, after a decade or so, that I was now, with a few exceptions, surrounded by people who lived in fear of failure.

Since taking early retirement I have been encouraged to write once more, and for the first time in years I feel as though I'm back on track.

What advice would I give my three beautiful granddaughters? Use your talents and be prepared to go wherever they lead you. Don't ever get talked out of that 'have-a-go' spirit.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Thursday, 3 September 2009

A Question Of Where and When

I've been working in our daughter's garden today. There's still a lot of landscaping to do, but ultimately it'll be worth the effort. Before the end of the year we hope to have cleared the jungle and laid a new lawn.




A garden is a valuable space in our lives and I don't know about you but whenever I'm pottering about outside I find it so much easier to think. Generally, we can consider the deeper questions when we're beyond the confines of four walls. Our eldest granddaughter is no exception. Whilst on her swing she caught sight of a gold ring on the necklace her Nanny was wearing. “What's that?” she asked, pointing a small finger. “That's my mummy's wedding ring,” Nanny replied.

There was a period of silence, apart from me clearing some brambles nearby. “But where is your mummy?”

At this point Nanny was struggling for the right words. The loss of her mother only a fortnight before our our little enquirer was born is still quite painful. At only two years old, our granddaughter had asked the profoundest of questions.

As it happened, I remembered a response our son-in-law gave recently before leaving to attend the funeral of a friend. When asked where he was going he replied, quite simply, he and mummy were going to say goodbye to someone. The result, one satisfied little girl who could grasp the idea of saying goodbye.

Although even very small children often surprise us with their apparent capacity for taking on board quite complex explanations, there is a good argument for crossing some bridges as we come to them.


In the garden today, I offered up a variation on his response, telling her that we had to say goodbye to Nanny's mummy. But as the words were leaving my lips I had an image in my head of the twins and their beaming smiles. How often have we remarked about the uncanny resemblance to Nanny's mummy when they're smiling? Something to remember if I ever get asked an awkward question like, 'when will she be coming back?' In part, she's still here.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Good Enough To Eat

We are what we eat, some would say. We certainly are better informed about what we eat. The findings from academic research, the persuasive tones of health conscious TV chefs, the protestations of animal rights campaigners, all tell us what is bad and what is good to consume and why.

Responsibility for keeping to a balanced diet weighs heavily enough for an adult with all the information at his or her fingertips. When you're taking responsibility for what goes into your children – to make them healthy and strong – it's another matter completely. Young children will soon develop a palate for what tastes good and what doesn't (I hated swede throughout my entire childhood – who didn't?) but they aren't in a position to decide what is nutritious or what makes for healthy eating. That's the parent's call, and it can be a hard one in the face of convenience and the 'hard sell'.

For our own grandchildren, 'junk food' is off the menu. Their parents made that decision early on and they have stuck to it. There's always a full fruit bowl on the table and apart from the odd sweet treat, our two year old granddaughter snacks on raisins, fruit flakes or some other healthy option. Her twin sisters have only just started eating solids, but their pureed meals are home-cooked vegetables out of the skins rather than tins.

We aren't health fanatics in our family but we are health conscious, a trend that my own grandmother started in the 60s. Hilda May (my maternal grandmother) was quite a character and a bit of a revolutionary. We all know that the 60s bore witness to a generation bent on changing the status quo, but Hilda was born in 1913 and was about as much a part of hippy culture as she was a part of the NASA space programme.

Hilda May (grandmother extraordinaire) in the 1960s

Hilda's passion was food and nutrition. She weaned us off refined white sugar and saturated cooking fats by introducing us to the wonders of polyunsaturates and vitamin supplements. She also used astonishingly effective tales of how too much of the wrong fat can block up our plumbing!

Hilda May's 75' tomato greenhouse

A keen gardener for the best part of her 91 years, she specialised in growing organic salad crops and tomatoes in particular. Ironically Hilda was dogged by arthritis and in her later years coped with heart problems and Polymyalgia rheumatica. Still she never lost faith in the benefits of good food. She attributed her own ill-health to poor nutrition in her early years and an ignorance of the long-term damaging effects saturated fats can have on the vascular system.

I've listened to many inspirational arguments for improving the standard of our diet. Recently I caught the following video clip of a talk given by Mark Bittman – food writer, journalist and TV personality. I think Hilda would have approved of him.



© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges