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I HAVE enjoyed studying a picture that reached me via social media this week of a man who has been photographed every year for the past 40 years. At first glance it looks almost like a ‘spot the difference’ collage.

Indeed, each of the 40 portraits is identical in its pose but the man’s facial features gradually acquire that unstoppable double whammy of downward and outward stretch that comes with maturity. Put it like this, the springy elasticity of youth becomes less and less apparent.

This chap, a teacher of history, I believe, in the Midlands, started the portraiture habit when he was a fresh-faced newcomer to the classroom, presumably in his early 20s. Now, aged 60-odd, he is grey of hair and droopy of eye and neck, but still recognisable if you look carefully.

However, the remarkable thing about these portraits is that in every single one he is wearing the same outfit: an open-necked shirt and a brown sleeveless V-neck. It’s a classic school-teachery look: neat, tidy, not making a statement (other than ‘do call me Mr Dullsville’) and unchallenging.

He was clean-shaven in Year 1, but by Year 2 was sporting a moustache. It hints at trendy droopiness for two or three years, and even takes on a worrying Hitleresque brevity at one point, but in general it’s just a neat and tidy top-lip overcoat.

In the most recent photo it is hard to make out but I think the moustache has gone. My theory? A fussy grandchild complaining that it prickles when they have a hug, so he’s done the dutiful thing and shaved it off. That way he won’t be remembered as the Grandpa none of them wanted to get too close to. It happens.

The glasses, present in all photos, are monumentally large-framed to start with – on a sort of David Vine scale – but they get smaller in line with speccy-trends and, after a predictably dull rimless phase, are now neat rectangles.

The hairstyle also gives a clue that we are not in the presence of a trailblazer. It’s just dark hair, neatly cut, and by about Year 20 it is showing signs of receding.

A side parting, too close to his left ear for comfort, becomes more evident as the locks become less abundant. Currently, there are some grey waves going on, lending a distinguished bank manager-ish, golf club member-ish, air.

He certainly looks a very dependable sort of chap. Brooks no nonsense, I bet, and sees nothing wrong in favouring the same uniform of respectable blandness every year of his working life.

Am I being critical? Absolutely not. I rather admire him for his single-minded pursuit – and triumphant capture – of the essence of bland. School pupils don’t necessarily want or need ‘bags-of-character’ teachers making ‘look-at-me’ statements about themselves.

Our man’s photos present a sharp contrast with the recollections I have of my English teacher, who I swear was the double of Carmen Miranda.

She had a mass of red curls piled on her head, a smudgy slash of red lipstick, tottering stilettos and swishy, full-skirted dresses whose low-cut fronts gave her easy access to her handkerchief, which she would pull out with a flourish. We admired her, of course, for her pizzazz. She was exciting and different, but we didn’t take her nearly as seriously or learn half as much from her as her successor, who was, now I think about it, a (vaguely) female version of our man of the 40 faces.

There’s a lesson there, I’d say.

THE country has become sharply divided in recent weeks into two distinct camps: the Haves and the Have Nots.

Have you seen the poppies at the Tower of London – or have you not? Of course I am a Have Not – the story of my life, I suppose. Of course my big sister is a Have – and she hasn’t stopped banging on about how amazing, wonderful, sensational, epic, life-affirming, intensely moving the whole thing was. Yes, it was that good and it left that much of an impression on her.

I’d love to have gone and to have had the memory of my visit to illuminate my thoughts each time the word remembrance was mentioned in the future. On the other hand, there was always the possibility that, had I gone, I might have been so moved I’d have turned into a pool of tears. Perhaps it is just as well I had to make do with reading everything I could lay my hands on about the installation that has so stirred the nation.

I love the fact so many, from professional artists and craftspeople to students and retired people, were involved in making and planting those 888,246 ceramic poppies to create the breathtaking blood-red river representing all the military personnel lost from Britain and the Commonwealth in the First World War.

Not all the nation lauded the spectacle. An arts writer from the Guardian disliked it, saying it was a ‘nationalistic memorial’ that ignored the victims from France, Germany and Russia. He decried it as ‘prettified, toothless’ with ‘a fake nobility to it’, and claimed that the huge, slowly shifting crowds of visitors had become a kind of public spectacle themselves. His idea for a memorial was to fill the moat with barbed wire and bones. Well, I for one wouldn’t have been sufficiently moved by that spectacle to go all the way to London and join a queue.

Geoff heard the man expounding his views on the radio while I was out and was still fuming when I returned home some hours later.

We both calmed down well before Sunday dawned when we attended the local service of remembrance. I don’t know how many of these I have been to over the years, from early days of being planted by my parents, a little bewildered and worryingly close to a lot of knees, not completely understanding what the solemnity was all about.

This year, probably not an awful lot taller and still troubled by neighbouring knees and an inability to stretch enough see the focal point, I could not have been more aware of the significance of why we had all gathered.

The loss of my Great-Uncle Albert in Belgium in 1916 filled my mind. I thought of his bereft family and how they never came to terms with their loss. I fumbled for a tissue and coped, just, with the fearful poignancy of the Exhortation, the Last Post filling the autumn air, and the aching two-minute silence.

You could have heard a pin drop, even a teardrop fall. All of us, from wriggling babes in arms to wheelchair-bound nonagenarian veterans of the Second World War, played our part in this simple, beautiful demonstration of respect. Yes, we will remember them – in whatever way we wish.

 

WE went to a museum of childhood last week: a beautifully displayed collection covering the past 100 years.

To my disappointment, we weren’t allowed to slide down the banisters between the four floors of exhibits, which meant it lacked that anarchic edge so beloved of children of yore.

The whole building, free to enter, was staffed by a team of enthusiasts who were clearly there for the pleasure of helping the curious – by which I mean seekers of knowledge, and not the decidedly odd. (I dare not think into which category I fall, but I suspect it could be both.).

Within a minute of entering, Geoff and I were hurtling off down our respective memory lanes.

In my own sunny lane, bounded by Cornish banks covered in pennywort, mind-your-own-business and foxgloves, I relived the childhood delights of games, toys, dolls, dressing-up clothes and sports items that had featured in the life of mini-me.

Geoff’s lane was somewhat less picturesque as he’d done two-thirds of his growing-up in London, where mind-your-own business was more a passer-by’s curse than a pretty plant clinging mat-like to a wall.

I spent ages looking at the detail of a model farm display. Its plastic hissing goose was identical to the one in mine, called Gilmore’s Farm for some reason. Dad had made the sign for mine and I was so proud of it. I kept an orderly farmyard while other Britains’ animals contentedly grazed the velour fields around, but it was in the stables that serious overcrowding caused me such problems. Pocket-money plastic horses and ponies, each one named and with its breeding history painstakingly entered on a card index, jostled for space. Many’s the time an unsteady one, usually Brown Boy, a dark bay permanently grazing an invisible tuft of grass, would start a domino effect of tumbling bodies, legs in the air and altogether most undignified. It would take me all morning to get them standing up again and looking in the right direction.

Geoff didn’t have a farm, he was quick to tell me. He certainly didn’t have horses in stables made from boxes that had held photographic paper either, and nor did he have roller skates, a Red Indian headdress, a tomahawk, a pack of Woodland Snap cards, a tennis racquet, a Matchbox horsebox with a ramp, a board game called Touring England, a hula hoop or, I’m pleased to be able to tell you, a Girl Guide uniform. That last one was a relief to discover.

What did you have, then, I asked the cool kid who claims he was brought up with nothing but a tea chest to keep his pet garden snails in and a chess set. Boy, you do sound boring, I said, not altogether kindly. And you sound spoilt, he retaliated.

I played what I hoped might be my trump card: we had no telly, remember, not for the whole of my childhood; never even saw one until I was 21 and had long left home. No-one entertained me, so I made my own fun and absorbed myself in other worlds.

We called it a no-score draw and carried on drifting around, spotting one familiar thing after another and being predictably superior about how much more pleasurable and purposeful life was in the days before technology welded children to their seats and lockjawed their faces into an inert screen-stare.

We played outside from dawn to dusk, said Geoff. We were never bored and we were all stick-thin. Yeah, yeah, same with me, and if we’re not careful there’ll be an orchestra of violins starting up. Come on! Last one out of here’s a sissy!

 

HOLIDAYS aren’t meant to be like this. Holidays are for relaxation and enjoyment, an escape from stress, balm for the soul. They aren’t meant to be spent huddled on the back seat of a minibus trying to get warm while rain lashes against the windows and condensation falls in icy drips from the skylight overhead.

Geoff and I are taking an outing during our break in Edinburgh. After city-based sightseeing for three days we thought we’d head further afield, see some of the countryside and let someone else do the driving.

The trip we have chosen is to Loch Lomond and Stirling Castle. We are a disparate bunch of travellers from various countries, but perhaps the most disparate of all is the one who has chosen to share our back seat. 

This is Skippy, or so I have named her. She is a pocket-sized Australian with an unfeasibly loud voice and a number of odd habits which include ceaselessly rootling in a succession of bags, taking off and putting back on almost every item of her clothing, and keeping us all waiting when it’s time to leave our various stopping points. Her day-long snacking consists of shovelfuls of hot sweetcorn and Vegemite, which she spoons straight out of the pot.

Geoff, who is sitting nearest her, is close to the top of his already not very high scale of incandescence. The noisy disruption Skippy causes is one thing, but the way she pitches up late without apology is really getting to him.

But it’s the weather that is our greatest trial. This screaming wind and sideways rain were not on our agenda and they are ruining the day.

’Loch Lomond’s over there,’ our driver points into dark grey nothingness as he pulls up for us to get out and explore. We weatherproof ourselves as best we can and step out into a kind of hell.

Geoff’s new umbrella, making its Scottish debut, instantly whips itself inside out. He spends precious minutes trying to reconstruct it, pointlessly, while being pounded and soaked by Scotland’s idea of Sunday weather.

We sprint across the ankle-depth loch that is the car park and, ignoring the real loch that may be somewhere over there but is invisible, we take refuge in a gifte shoppe, now filled with tourists dripping on to dismal displays of tartan tat. Through the damp mist emanating from all these bodies I notice one shelf stocked with cat litter, incongruous among the boxed fudge and Jimmy hats.

We need coffee. Naturally, because today is one of those days, it is quite the worst coffee either of us has ever tasted.

And so the day goes on. Our lovely outing, so attractive in prospect, becomes increasingly a feat of endurance. We stop in a village for lunch. It takes half an-hour to get served, two minutes to nibble the edges of a strange sandwich.

We wait, again, for Skippy to join the bus and set off for Stirling. The driver gives us the sort of history lesson we never had at school so that by the time we reach the castle we brim with knowledge about brave-hearted Scottish heroes with big forearms and even bigger ambitions.

Our cold, soaked invading force disgorges from the bus and makes a stab at absorbing yet more history from the walls of this important landmark that sits impregnable atop a shrouded hill.

Awful cup of tea, Geoff reports, emerging long-faced from the cafe. I can’t say anything to help him feel better as the wind snatches words away and my lips are frozen.

It could be worse, we agree, as we squelch our way back to our apartment later. We could have come in winter.

GEOFF and I had our usual twice-yearly conversation this week about the clocks being changed. They go back on Saturday night, I said – and then I doubted myself: no, I think they go forward. Well, they change, anyway, and the days will turn darker and gloomier for months and months.

Well, you’re right, it is certainly one or the other, Geoff said, and we’d better find out which it is. Hang on, I interrupted, doesn’t that saying go ‘Spring forward, fall back’, so we must put them back this weekend?

We briefly debated whether it could be the other way round, ‘Spring back, fall forward’, but dismissed that as definitely sounding wrong. Sadly, we will have the exact same conversation next March, and next October, and so on and so on.

Finally, we agreed the clocks would be going back, and that we would be getting an extra hour’s sleep on Sunday morning, which is a joy to anticipate.

As always, I shall spare several thoughts for those whose lives are complicated by the changing of the clocks. No-one tells babies and toddlers, for instance, that they should adjust their inbuilt personal alarms. Their cries for attention at an unearthly hour will go on, whatever time they choose to start their day.

When my now-giant children were still in babygros I would have given anything for that luxury of that extra hour’s sleep everyone else was having. Taking away a precious hour each spring seemed particularly cruel, too, especially when coinciding, in a masterpiece of ironic timing, with Mother’s Day.

Friends of ours were once travelling in Europe over the period of the autumn clock-change, blissfully unaware that they were 60 minutes out of synch. The pleasure of being on holiday and away from the daily grind so governed by the clock divested them of much of their usual hyper-efficiency. They had, of course, changed their watches to Central European Summer time after crossing the Channel, but had overlooked the late-October transition.

That was how they found themselves stranded on a station platform with no sign of the scheduled train they were planning to take to their Sunday afternoon destination and, that evening, finding the restaurant where they were hoping to eat still firmly closed.

Being an hour adrift of the world around you can make a crucial difference – as we have never failed to remind them in a superior but wholly kind way. They tolerate our insistence on bringing up the episode every time we see them, but probably only because we have assured them that their plight could very easily have been ours.

Indeed, it might even be ours this very weekend, as we head to distant parts where the challenge of remembering to turn our watches back an hour will be compounded by everyone around us speaking incomprehensibly.

We’re heading to Scotland, the part of the UK that tried to shake us off last month. We thought we’d show the Scots what they’d have missed if they’d waved England away. They could wish for nothing more than a confused couple from Dorset, pitching up in Edinburgh, smiles fixed despite the cold and the wet and asking what time it is.

 

FOR the past week I have been racing around with a brow so impressively furrowed it would be the envy of a champion ploughman.

If I dared look in the mirror I would see something wild and woolly with staring eyes, clear signs of an urgent need for a year’s sleep and a hairbrush. Mirrors refuse to lie, I regret to say.

It’s not been an easy week – and that’s an understatement. I have been in a parallel world, existing on five hours’ sleep a night, hardly conscious of the turn from one day to another, and certainly not aware of what the day is when it dawns.

The reason? I have been carer in-chief for my poor, unwell little mother. Knocked for six by an infection, the antibiotics caused a catastrophic reaction which took her to the brink. The brink of what, I dare not think about, but she was, as the saying goes, out of it.

Different antibiotics were soon prescribed and in a few days they’d done the trick. With the infection gone, it was now necessary to get the 92-year old patient back from the terrifying land of zonked-out where she’d taken refuge.

Normal daily life was suspended while Geoff assumed the ill-fitting mantle of capable chap home alone and I ministered to Mum in her home, 25 miles away, from dawn to way beyond dusk.

Being a carer to someone who, all those years ago, used to care for me, seems odd, yet right in some ways. In a reversal of roles I supervise face-washing, tooth-cleaning and hair-brushing, prepare tasty morsels that might, somehow, create an appetite, and then cut the food into bite-sized pieces and encourage her to eat them all up if she wants to be strong and healthy. 

We’ve both acted out all those ruses before and trotted out the same platitudes of encouragement – she to the child me, and me to my children. Nothing really changes. It’s all about love and an overwhelming anxiety to do our best.

My patient, with her own instinct to please and not be a nuisance, is reluctant to eat but steels herself to dispatch small amounts of the dollies’ picnics I produce. Her first proper meal, when she actually sat at the table, featured a few tiny items on a plate that I’d decorated with a big smile made of tomato pieces. She was highly amused and downed the lot. My success could be attributed to the application of toddler psychology, but it surely applies to all of us of any age if something is presented irresistibly.

In my role of Nurse Who Knows Best I felt I should have a crisply starched uniform (huh, those were the days, when you could tell a nurse from a casually dressed visitor) and one of those upside down fob watches, invaluable when taking pulses and checking your time over 1,500 metres.

With no fob watch, I rely on my wristwatch as I tend my frail patient and encourage her to stay sitting up for just another five minutes.

We take slow walks around her flat, increasing from a wobbly shuffle over a few yards to a tour of her entire domain. Our stretching exercises include gentle knee-lifts, becoming more energetic as we trot up and down the hall like spirited hackney ponies.

Happily, Mum is coming back, leaving behind that faded impression of herself that lay motionless for so many days.

She is getting stronger by the day, aided by ham-fisted care lovingly dispensed with plenty of laughter, which, as we know, is the best medicine.

 

I TAKE it as a personal affront when the sun hides away for days at a time. How dare it when it knows how much we love it?

A Monday morning that starts with rain so heavy it looks as though it couldn’t possibly stop until at least next June is a very depressing start to the week.

A day with a few showers is one thing, but a day that from dawn is obviously Wet with a capital W is something that requires some kind of strategy.

The showers of late have been weathered (forgive the pun) with the aid of a £1 umbrella that has shown its class by collapsing on my shoulders three times and now refuses to telescope shut, so it is neither a pocket brolly nor a proper grown-up one. In other words, it’s a politician among brollies – useless and untrustworthy.

Its successor, purchased for the same princely sum, is undoubtedly planning some suicidal act while it awaits its first outing. I do have a tougher but smarter alternative that fits in my bag but it’s only for when I am not walking far. This is because it is so heavy I think it must have been designed by someone with a bad sense of humour. A folding umbrella that fits in a pocket or handbag but weighs a ton? No it just doesn’t compute with me.

This leaves my Camilla umbrella, my proper, grown-up one that lives in the hall stand and accompanies me when I actually need to be protected from the elements and not have something pinging its prongs into my head and flapping cheap nylon in my face.

Camilla is one of those all-enveloping clear plastic jobs favoured by our Duchess of Cornwall when walking in the rain – usually somewhere in Scotland. Being see-through, it means her public can see her and she can spot when a child is approaching to hand over a posy.

My Camilla was a gift from my daughter about 10 years ago (she gave it that name, I should add) and in all that time, and through all our ghastly weather, it hasn’t once shown an inclination to blow inside-out or let me down in any way. In fact I think it is guaranteed not to do anything cartoon-like, which is quite something where umbrellas are concerned. I must find out if I can get the same sort of guarantee for myself.

I could certainly do with it after last week’s unfortunate affair with the kitchen utensils. No, I wasn’t juggling with them, merely sharpening two of my favoured kitchen knives, getting them into a more useful state for cutting as opposed to tearing.

Job done, I then took one up to use and promptly sliced into my little finger. Within an hour I had also cut my index finger and my thumb.

I was like a walking first-aid demonstration, what with the blood and the kitchen paper. Well, maybe not like a proper first-aid demo, more like a how not to do it demo, or one of those ‘beware of dangers in your home’ posters, illustrated with a daft woman with a blood-soaked hand looking sorry for herself.

I fear there is no guarantee against that ever happening again, especially as (whisper this) it has happened before, several times.

 

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